Learning & Leading – Impact & Innovation with Jan Owen AM, CEO of FYA, Foundation for Young Australians
Coffee Pod #11 |November 28, 2017
Jan Owen AM is a highly regarded, dynamic social entrepreneur, innovator, influencer and author who has spent the past 25 years growing Australia’s youth, social enterprise and innovation sectors. In 2012 she was named Australia’s inaugural AFR and Westpac Woman of Influence; in 2014 she received the Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) from Sydney University; and Jan was awarded membership to the Order of Australia in 2000. Prior to FYA, Jan was Executive Director of Social Ventures Australia & founded the CREATE Foundation, the national consumer body for children and young people out of home care. In this coffee pod we talk about education, leading progress and how to achieve change that matters.
Those of you who know me well, or who’ve seen me present, will know I’m obsessed with habits. It fascinates me that (depending on what habit study you read) between 30-40% of our daily activity is estimated to be habitual, and yet we have a tendency to overlook the marginal gains that are available to us by merely tweaking our repeated behaviour. Ultimately, success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations, so if we can work out how to make small changes and set them on autopilot, we can dramatically improve our results.
Every year, I like to try and get off the grid after Christmas to take stock of the year that was and plan for the year ahead. I review not just how I went relative to my goals but also reflect on how good a job I did at sticking to my ‘cornerstone habits’- the core couple of behaviours I was focused on maintaining a consistency with throughout the year. Then, as I turn my mind to my goals and aspirations for the year ahead, I ask myself the question ‘do my habits still serve my objectives?’
This year, my annual reflection was aided by a brilliant Christmas gift from my fellow personal development junkie, Layne Beachley (Thanks, Layne!), in the form of New York Times bestselling book Atomic Habits by James Clear. Clear breaks down the four components of habits (Cues-> Cravings -> Responses -> Rewards) and offers up a formula for how we can tweak each stage to cement new positive habits and banish bad ones. Clear defines an ‘atomic habit’ as a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do but is also the source of incredible power; a component of the system of compound growth. At a high level, he talks about how we need to make the cues for positive habits simple, the cravings attractive, the responses easy and the rewards satisfying.
I devoured this book in a single sitting and highly recommend it to anyone who has a self-improvement focus or is stretching themselves in new ways in 2019. There were a couple of standout points that have given me a fresh perspective and/or a new approach to take into 2019 that I thought I’d share with you:
1. Build identity-based habits, not outcome-based habits
Clear suggests that when seeking to form effective habits we need to begin with an understanding of the type of person we want to be and then prove or reinforce that identity to ourselves with small wins. He argues that habits are not about ‘having’ they are about ‘becoming,’ so instead of setting a goal of running a marathon, you’d set out to become a runner. In essence, he contends that in order to change our habits we’ve got to change our identity and for as long as we don’t, no matter how much rational sense a habit change makes if it’s not identity-consistent we will fail to put them into action.
As a starting point, Clear suggests we ask yourself, “Who is the type of person that could get the outcome I want?” and then consider all your actions as a vote for the type of person you wish to become.
How I’m applying this idea:
I started my 2019 planning from a really different place- instead of focusing (like I normally would) on what I wanted to achieve, I asked myself ‘who do I want to become? How do I want to show up?’ It led to a divergent line of self-inquiry to my usual outcome-focused goal-setting approach, and the introspection prompted me to reset my values and develop a new self-talk mantra for 2019.
2. “ You do not rise to the level of your goals- you fall to the level of your systems”
Ouch. This one hit me right between the eyes! On reflection, I think my systems had a lot of room for improvement in 2018!
Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results. I particularly loved this comment from Clear:
“The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement.”
How I’m applying this idea:
I’m building in better systems! Including:
using visual cues more effectively in my surrounding environment (I’ve got my intention word for the year on my phone screensaver and my newly-minted values above my desk);
having an accountability buddy (my best friend) who I’ve built a weekly check-in questionnaire with, to help us hold one another accountable;
Using a habit tracking app (Streaks) to do my best to ‘never break the chain’- a phrase coined by Jerry Seinfeld when he was honing his comedy career to talk about the importance of doing what you’re trying to improve/build a habit in every single day.
Importantly, I’m being kinder to myself in 2019… I’m so self-competitive that the idea of doing something unbroken for 365 days runs the risk of becoming all-consuming! So instead, I’m holding the concept of ‘never break the chain’ in tension with the idea of ‘never miss twice’- it’s inevitable that life will get in the way of some of these habits (and sometimes in order to be open to possibilities that’s precisely what should happen!) so my focus is not on never missing but never missing twice.
3. Get your reps in!
Habit formation is the process by which a behaviour becomes progressively more automatic through repetition, so the amount of time you have been performing a habit is not as significant as the number of times you have completed it. Therefore, our focus needs to be on repeating our habits for as long as it takes to make them automatic.
Part of where we undo ourselves here (or at least I certainly do!) is by being too ambitious in how I chunk down my goals into habits, meaning I end up asking too much of myself from the outset to give myself much of a shot at building repetition to a point where I’ve got the habit on autopilot. For example, if I had a goal of becoming an author in 2019 and was trying to build a habit of writing consistently, previously I’d likely kick off January 1 by attempting to establish a pattern of writing 5000 words every day. Power to the people who can pull that off but for most of us that’s like trying to drink from a fire hydrant- it’s overwhelming, exhausting and unlikely to leave you excited at the prospect of doing it all over again tomorrow. Instead, I would be better to start by writing a single sentence a day for a week, and when that became easy, we could progress to a paragraph or a page and so on.
Clear makes the point that every habit can be boiled down to a two-minute version, and that’s where we should start (i.e., writing the sentence, not the 5000 words!). The sooner that becomes easy for us to repeat the sooner we can take it to the next level, but we give ourselves the highest likelihood of success if we build reps first vs. loading up the weight.
How I’m applying this idea:
I’ve started my habit tracker on micro-habits this year- i.e., the 2-minute version of what I’m seeking to make an automatic routine. At the end of every month I’m going to reflect on whether I’ve got enough reps in to be able to increase the habit demand or whether I need to work at it a little longer.
Part of what I love about habits and systems is they’re not a ‘destination’ they’re a continual process, and ones which have an innumerate number of approaches and ideas. While I really resonated with some of James Clear’s ideas and perspectives, I’d love to hear about the approach you take to entrenching good habits and any tips you might have.
I also hope you might be able to keep me accountable for one of my 2019 goals: regularly sharing my thoughts and ideas online (via LinkedIn and other mediums). I’m committing to a habit of writing a LinkedIn blog monthly, and I’d love to know what sort of content would be of most significant interest to you.
Wishing you a Happy New Year and all the best with whoever you’re seeking to become in 2019.
When I was nineteen years old, my mentor Virgil shared a line that proved to be a lightbulb moment for me: “How long does it take to learn from someone’s lifetime of experience?”
In a flash, learning and development became clear for me- I didn’t have to wait for a special invitation to join an esteemed leadership development program or to be recognised for a structured mentoring initiative… Learning was entirely within my grasp and was utterly my own responsibility.
I promised myself there and then I would actively cultivate coffee conversations with people who I admired, respected and aspired to learn from – weekly. Nearly 10 years on, I don’t think I’ve missed a single coffee exchange, and it’s probably been the single greatest habit I’ve built when it comes to my own personal growth (there are worse vices than caffeine and learning!).
Emboldened by the impact these conversations had on my own life, I decided to start a podcast to share the incredible lessons, insights and stories offered by people I’m fortunate to meet, know and call my mentors and friends. Now 65 episodes in, we’ve featured everyone from an 8-time world champion surfer to a 7th generation kung-fu master, a navy commander, ASX 100 and Fortune 500 CEOs, adventurers, Olympic gold-medallists, and a symphony orchestra conductor. We had close to an equal gender split (60/40 female:male), and guests in their late 70s to early 20s. I intentionally did my best to curate an eclectic mix of cultural backgrounds, industries, religions and sexual orientations.
My objectives for the podcast seemed simple enough at the time:
1) To paint the archetype of the ‘changemaker’ as someone more tangible, closer to you and to me. My hope was listeners would be inspired to take on the idea of ‘being the change’ they want to see in the world.
2) To crack open the “formula” for change, making it less Colonel’s ’11 secret herbs and spices’ and more ‘open source’ intelligence. My guests had to be pragmatists- deeply reflective, honest and candid in sharing their experience to empower listeners to shift from inspiration to implementation.
3) To question answers rather than answer questions. We talk a lot about cognitive diversity in the world right now but recording this podcast made me realise how rarely we’re truly exposed to divergent thinking unless we intentionally facilitate it.
I’ve been humbled by the reactions to the podcast from all around the world, many of which have come from the phenomenal Linkedin network- thank you. You’ve told me how my podcast with Alisa Camplin got you through your first half marathon and how Ros Savage inspired you to go climb a mountain. How you’re a different father to your daughter after listening to my podcast with Liz Broderick (this conversation in Calgary moved me to tears). Or how Mandy Rennehan got you ‘woke’ on diversity and inclusion, how Holly Kramer and Ron Gauci made the communication and engagement side of organisational change ‘understandable and doable’ for the first time. And how Rob Jones’ insights helped you get through a tunnel you were struggling to see a light at the end of.
You told me over and over again how valuable you found guests’ insights for your personal and professional goals. Thanks to all who listened, shared and particularly those who took the time to provide feedback- I had no idea how to produce a podcast when I started but I believed vehemently in the quality of the conversations. Every time I have heard about the effect these have had on someone it lights me up. A big thanks to Sydney Morning Herald for giving the podcast a shout-out in the ‘top business podcasts’ list too!
To wrap up season one, and before I launch the new season, I’d love to share with you a few titbits from our top-rating podcasts:
Dom is the guru on all things collaboration, team-work, innovation and future-of-work (his official title is Head of R&D and Work Futurist at Atlassian) and listeners loved him for both his incredibly practical advice and his no-BS, entertaining communication style. If you’re dealing with establishing an internal culture of innovation, thinking through what ‘lived’ workplace diversity feels like (as opposed to what ‘talked’ d&I looks like) and how to achieve effective collaboration- Dom’s podcast is for you. One of my favourite quotes comes from Dom’s reflection around intentional learning:
“I have this mental model I do every quarter. It’s my three by three. My three across are time horizon one, time horizon two, and time horizon three, and my three along the side are me, my team, and Atlassian as an organization, and I map out my quarter. What are the activities I’m going to do and where am I investing? So, I’ve always got some things top right. They are for my team, or for Atlassian, and they’re time horizon three, they’re going to pay off in a year. They’re the long term outcome bets. Then there’s the bottom left hand corner. They’re the things for me for today. They’re very transactional. What I do is, notionally, when I’m shifting boxes, I change the way I act. So, for the transactional stuff, it’s scrappy, it’s quick, do it, move on. My main goal with the transactional stuff is how can I prevent it occurring again? How can I automate it and make it go away? Because it’s not massively valuable. The problem with the top right box is it’s highly speculative, but it also means a completely different mindset. When I go to events or function where I’m top right, what I do is say to myself, “I need to give myself equal parts consumption and equal parts reflection.” Now, way too many leaders, in my experience, see that as a waste, because there’s no work being produced, but, if I don’t give my brain and my heart and my intuition time to consume that, then it’s just surface level. It’s not made it inside, and so, if I’m going to invest 24 hours in the event, there’s no harm investing 24 hours in consuming from that event. Makes complete sense.”
Sam is a truly exceptional systems-thinker and has pioneered change across business, civil society and the public sector throughout her career. A name synonymous with diversity and inclusion in Australia, Sams’ comments around the role of cultural institutions and, particularly, sport in driving social progress really hit a chord with listeners. Sam was the first female AFL Commissioner and shared candidly her experiences and lessons influencing change in the ‘boys club’. I spent a lot of time reflecting on the ideas Sam shared, particularly her comments around how being angry, in her experience, limits the effectiveness of your advocacy. I loved her observation that sport is the ‘silent social worker’ and an incredibly powerful lever for change. I cannot recommend this conversation highly enough for leaders of organisation and social change. One of my favourite remarks Sam made was (reflecting on the challenges of driving change):
“I think the one I still struggle with is ensuring that I understand all the multiple stakeholders affected by the change that I want to be part of, really understanding where their perspectives are and how to engage and show respect whilst pushing hard for that change. And it takes an enormous amount of … I think you’ve got to be really quite patient and have good self control and engage respectfully. So for me, that remains … And also, I think the thing I’ve learned on the way, Holly, and I’m learning to this very day, is you make a big mistake if you think you’ve suddenly got the whole thing sorted and you understand it be moving part… active listening as part of change is probably the thing that I come back … And it’s hard for any of us because when you want things to get better, whatever your particular field is, there is a desire to get it done now and speed and maybe not understand the damage you cause on the way through.”
I wasn’t at all surprised by the popularity of this episode. Sifu’s voice is like hot chocolate and his insights around mindfulness – how to actually achieve being present in the moment and what it takes to unlock that next level of your performance potential – are truly masterful. Sifu is a high-performance coach of military special forces, secret service, SWAT teams, and over 100 law enforcement agencies across the globe. He’s a 23rd generation Tai Chi master! This podcast got me ‘mind boxing’, catalysed a new morning routine (which has definitely improved my start to the day!) and given me a whole different frame to understand training to perform under pressure. One of my favourite quotes comes from Sifu’s discussion of stress and peak performance:
“There’s a saying that says that when stress hits you, you resort to a diminished state…, you only have 10% of your capabilities actually available. So you fall to that percentage. So instead of training, training bigger, stronger, faster, that idea, and just increasing your ability and only accessing 10%, my question is, how do we access more? And train the less of that idea? When we can start to do that we get a balance. Now I’m not saying don’t train and work out, be strong and healthy, that’s important because the body’s the vehicle. But the mind, the mind is the engine. The mind is the general. We say the mind is the general, and the body and emotions are the battle. The breath is the strategy, and the chi in your energy are your soldiers.”
This podcast received some of the most powerful and emotional responses of the whole season. Rob was a combat engineer in the US Army when an IED blew up underneath him, taking both his legs. Unwaveringly optimistic and determined to make a difference to the lives of others, Rob has cycled across America, run 31 marathons in 31 days and won an Olympic bronze medal all the while raising funds for veterans’ charities. If you want a conversation you won’t ever forget listening to, you’ve got to listen to Rob. I’ve probably reflected on this podcast 50 times since listening because of the way Rob challenged me to think differently about the way we treat/help/support people who are going through struggle in order to ensure we enable them to be stronger out the other side. Rob frames stress as being akin to a heavy weight on the barbell at the gym and talks about how we have choice as to whether we let that weight come down or we use it to build strength. Acknowledging that sometimes the weight feels overwhelming, Rob talks about support should look like a “spotter”:
“Sometimes, you do need help. Sometimes the weight’s a little bit too much at first, so you need somebody to come in and spot you. You don’t want them to lift the whole weight themselves for you. Let’s say you’re doing a lift and you have a spotter and you’re not quite being able to lift it. What do they do? They don’t just rip it up. They do the finger, right? They do the one finger and they say, “It’s all you. It’s all you. It’s all you.” Maybe sometimes that’s what you need. You might need somebody to point you in the right direction or give you that leg up, but it really is just trying to view your situation from a bird’s eye view and maybe even imagine somebody else is in the situation trying to figure out what you would advise somebody to do in that situation.”