February 7, 2022

Inspiration and Psychological Safety: Ruth Penfold Explains Why Founders Need to Grow Themselves Too

Melissa Malec

Founders typically have laser focus on scaling their companies. But they need to take some of that vision and discipline and dedicate it to improving themselves, as founders, leaders, and human beings, if they’re to reach their goals.

Company culture is the environment in which success and innovation grow and flourish. Many companies put it on the back burner, focusing on revenue and growth, then struggle to build cohesive teams, onboard new staff effectively, or handle questions around diversity and equality.

The foundation of company culture has to come from leadership. Leaders need to model reflective, authentic personal growth and seek to inspire and facilitate it in others; they can’t mandate it.

Key Takeaways:

  • Scale yourself to scale your business. Founders should be investing as much time and focus in self-development as they are in growing their businesses. Long-term, it’s the same thing.
  • Supportive networks facilitate growth. You need a network that truly supports you and your goals, and you have to recognise that no one person will have everything you need.
  • Find means of connecting with yourself and your own experience, to access self-reflection, change and joy.
  • Speak with your staff and others in your space. Prepare, so when you do have a more diverse group around your table, you’ve already got the know how to make sure that everyone feels they can bring their whole self to the conversation.

How did you get into a career in HR? 

If you ask any recruiter, every recruiter will tell you that they fell into recruitment.

I was midway through university and I went into a recruitment agency for some temp work. And somebody in that agency went, ‘my goodness, you should work here instead.’ 

Before I knew it, it was 13 years later, and I had led teams, run recruitment businesses, all kinds of things.

Then I went in-house with Shazam, and since then I've been working in technology businesses within the people and talent space — including in my current role at bp Launchpad.

Can you tell us about your role at bp Launchpad? 

bp Launchpad is a new business accelerator created by bp to speed up the transformation of the energy industry by helping innovative businesses scale. 

It’s a team of people who've worked across the startup and technology ecosystem, helping businesses grow fast, think in new ways, challenge the current status quo and develop. 

Our role within Launchpad is to translate the phenomenal value of being connected to bp, into an advantage for our portfolio companies. 

I wanted exposure to a large organisation, and to apply my resilience and my problem-solving ability. I would say that it still feels like I'm still working in a startup, and I'm calling upon the same skillset. I just have different stakeholders. 

What do you find are some of the core challenges for founders, and common pitfalls, that you work on with Launchpad portfolio companies? 

I’m seeing many of the same challenges other founders face, even if they don't normally do it with a big company name above the door. 

Founders, in general, are very focused on scaling their businesses, and my wish is that they had the same energy around scaling themselves.

That means really getting to understand who you are, what makes you tick, what your triggers are, what you're great at and, most important of all, what you're terrible at. There's such a broad skill set that you need as a founder. But you don't have to be great at all of it. You can hire a phenomenal team around you who can meet whatever gaps you might have.

I love that whole concept of scaling yourself. Are there any other tips or tricks that you have for founders to develop those kinds of skills? 

There's no silver bullet, and one size doesn't fit all (or any). But I can speak to the growth in my own world and I've built myself into the woman that I am today through a number of different sources and resources; books, humans, experiences, talks and so on. 

You need to recruit a solid personal executive team as much as you need your professional executive team to advise, inspire and support you. Make sure that both of those teams contain a cheerleader and a challenger; someone who believes in you no matter what and someone who is great at calling you on your BS (we all have it). 

Your network will be critical: make time to connect with people who inspire you as often as possible and always keep adding new ones. 

I don’t know about you, but I remember being in my twenties and thinking I had everything worked out. That gradually got stripped away in my 30’s and now at 40 I know every day is a school day, and I’m always looking for an opportunity to learn.

You talk a lot about the art of joyful living on your podcast, Pancakes and Peacocks. Tell me, what does joyful living really mean for you? 

Joy, for me, isn't about giddily jumping up and down in a disconnected effervescent way. Instead, it’s the feeling of stillness, of total calmness that you get deep within yourself when you live in alignment with your truth and make decisions that truly serve you. It’s the wisdom you’ve had since birth, a lot of just forget that and disconnect. 

We all have this internal barometer, but we forget how to access it and look outside of ourselves for guidance, instead asking others who to be and what to do.

We do this over and over, when actually the one source of truth that you ever really need to go to is deep within yourself. If you can find the means to connect, whatever works for you, then you're able to create a truly joyful experience. 

What has helped you reconnect with yourself and find your sense of purpose? 

My journey has been one of slowing down gradually over years; I've learned to get comfortable with stillness and to be able to access it through a very simple meditation practice.

We spend a lot of time trying to escape from ourselves, and when you finally need to sit still with just you, it's scary. I remember the first time I tried to do it. My coach at the time said, ‘I just want you to sit with yourself and see what comes up.’

And my goodness, it was hard! It was like taming a wild animal. It's been the most delicious experience, but equal parts torture and deliciousness.

When you stop running and get still, you realise that the person you have been running away from isn’t so bad after all. For me that is a huge part of what it took for me to learn how to myself. When people talk about self-love, they often don’t talk about the really deep journey that requires. Real self love is the conversation you have with yourself when no one else is around; how you show up for yourself each day and how you forgive yourself.

How can employers support employees to embrace this mindset? 

I very firmly believe that it's not for a company to fix a human being because a human being isn't broken, they just perhaps haven't developed the right toolkit yet that they need to be able to thrive. That means employers need to be asking, not 'how do I mandate this change,' but 'how do I inspire and support it?'

With any kind of self-development — and it’s the same for founders — you're never going to be able to enforce anything on anyone. People are only going to do this stuff when they're ready.

In the meantime, giving opportunities for that kind of inspiration is critical. Consider everything that's happening — in particular, the Black Lives Matter movement. How do we support a different kind of awakening, and create learning opportunities so people can start to become aware of the monumental challenge that we face, and then start to move us all forward? 

With a more remote workforce, how do we create a work environment where people truly feel included? 

Going by Google's Aristotle project, the number one key to building a high-performing team is psychological safety. 

If you want people to feel like they can truly bring their whole selves to work, you need to create an environment where they feel safe to do so. Until then, they're always going to be holding something back.

So, how do we support inclusion in a workplace? That's this awakening that I'm talking about,  because the only way that a team can exhibit inclusive behaviours is when they've individually done the work within themselves. 

It's not something an organisation can dictate, but an organisation can inspire and give the toolkit and help people go on the journey of this awakening and awareness. 

At Launchpad, we're a new business, and like many, we’re forced to build our culture from afar. We started working on it from the moment we went remote,  and we do things like fireside chats, training sessions, and talks on wellness; rest, relationship with food, dealing with tension and so on. 

At Learnerbly, we've onboarded eight or nine colleagues recently who we've never met before. The whole process has been remote. Does this mean leaders have to try harder to understand their staff? 

Yes. A good leader should always be willing to go the extra mile to create the right dynamic with their people. When you’re a leader and you have catch-ups with people, one on one, try to start the meeting from somewhere personal. Share a bit of what's going on for you and let them share a bit of trivia, nothing work-related because that's the stuff that's getting lost at the moment.

And also do be aware of things like screen fatigue and the fact that people are starting to go slightly bonkers with the amount of calls that we have. When you show up, show up fully, be explicit on expectations and be firm, fair and consistent. 

What's one key learning you'd like to share that's been pivotal in your career? 

I always answer this question the same way: be yourself.

I arrived at the beginning of my thirties completely lost. I didn't know who I was because I'd been living in a disconnected way and I had to start rebuilding myself from the inside out.

A friend advised me to start figuring out who I was by making choices that served me. I didn’t get this at first, so he explained that it doesn't have to be a big thing, instead every day, ask, ‘what do I really want to do here? Do I want to do this or do I want to do that?’  And gradually, as you increasingly make tiny decisions that are in alignment with yourself,  suddenly you wake up one day and you know exactly who you are and what you like. 

For me, this all came together at the time that I joined Shazam. I was in a place where I felt like I could bring the whole of Penfold to work for the first time ever. And now you can't get rid of her.

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