Geoff enjoyed a successful career as an HR VP at Unilever, famously helping to manage the transition to a purpose led company. However, Geoff left Unilever in 2014 to dedicate his life to breaking the stigma of mental health in the corporate world.
As someone who thrives on progress and get’s a kick out of reaching a target, I’d like to personally thank Geoff McDonald for this fantastic interview, his courage and dedication and most of all, quite simply, for helping me.
Geoff, thanks for taking the time to share your experience and wisdom. In the book “How Google Works” young people are advised to have clear career aspirations and a plan. I however feel, my career could have progressed smoother if I had planned less and been more open to the opportunities around me. How was it for you as you climbed the career ladder?
GEOFF: I am with you. I had a goal and aspiration to become the Headmaster of a school in South Africa. Well guess what? I ended up being a Global VP for HR at Unilever, responsible for Marketing, Communications and Sustainability.
I do think young people coming into organisations should know why they wanted to join a certain department. The differentiation there is why they want to be in marketing, not necessarily what they wanted to do there.
I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with aspiring towards certain positions in organisations, but that shouldn’t lead to the wrong behaviours like back-stabbing or being political. There is a danger of being too power driven.
You know Mark Twain said: he told us the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. For me, at the end of the day, the goal is to just give it your best, be passionate and energised in what and why you do what you do.
So I’m with you on that one. Opportunities do crop up and then you must make the most of those, but I’d rather have a sense of purpose, than a goal.
I love my own job and my ultimate objective as a Progress Coach is to help others rekindle the passion for what they do at work. I do however find it incredibly hard to switch off. Do you see a danger in being too passionate about your purpose?
GEOFF: Yes – I do.
I think that if that passion is leading you to neglect looking after your wellbeing on all the four levels. For instance, if you neglect your physical health by not sleeping enough or not doing sport. Similarly, if you are not taking the time aside to look after your mental health, the time to do a bit of yoga, the time for mindfulness, your wellbeing will suffer and if that passion leads you to want to get more rather than give more, then it can be dangerous.
If that passion leads to you being driven by self-esteem instead of self compassionate. Kristin Neff is a Professor at the University of Texas and has written a book about her research. click here on this link» Her work has proven that being able to forgive ourselves and accept ourselves in all circumstances will lead to more confidence and ultimately more success than the traditional stiff upper lip approach we have been working to in the past.
So we need to ask ourselves how do we ensure we keep that passion and at the same time be self-compassionate?
In one of your excellent online films, you refer to Warwick-Edinburgh University’s theory regarding the four factors of wellbeing? What is the difference between emotional and mental wellbeing?
GEOFF: Emotional wellbeing is all around how you feel. I often use the word “happy” to describe this. How are you maintaining a sense of contentment in your life? What are the things you are doing to contribute to those feelings?
Mental wellbeing on the other hand is all about your ability to remain focussed, to be able to process thoughts. When I was ill with depression, I experienced lots of sad emotions, which led to me not having a clear mind, not being able to stay focussed and to not make decisions.
You then need to combine these two factors with traditional physical wellbeing and then ask yourself whether you have a sense of purpose in your life?
You left a successful career at Unilever in 2014 to follow your own sense and purpose. What is it exactly you have set out to achieve?
GEOFF: My purpose right now is very simple: I want that everyone in the workplace genuinely feels they have the choice to put their hands up and ask for help if they are suffering from depression or anxiety.
When I saw some of the successes of the framework we implemented at Unilever within our own organisation, I realised what my purpose in life is – to help to create workplaces where there is no stigma to mental ill health.
You know Richard Barrett has done a lot of research into psychology of wellbeing. He states that most of us spend most of our lives in the egotistical state. That means being driven by our ego, which has needs and must be fed. Some of us however reach an “aha” moment; the so-called soul centred state. The soul has desires, not needs – so it wants to give all the time and when you start being soul-centred, the universe falls into place and you want to keep giving.
So I helped set up Minds@Work, which is really just an enabler, a network. It started off with 15 members and has meanwhile grown to around 1000. We have 4 events a year where everyone shares what he or she is doing to combat the stigma related with mental health in the workplace. It’s a movement really, which is still forming and growing.
The other side of me is the side which needs to put some food on the table by doing some consultancy work to put these kinds of frameworks in place in other organisations, again focussed on mental wellbeing.
Would you mind sharing with us how your personal experience led you to make that choice?
GEOFF: Well, I don’t know if you remember, but back in Oct 2012 there was a spate of suicides in the City, and one day in October 2012, my wife called me to inform me that a friend of mine had taken his life. You can imagine the shock and I have meanwhile been told that suicide is the leading cause of death in the UK amongst 28-45 year old men.
I was certain that his death could have been avoided and the reason I was so certain is because I had suffered from my own anxiety/depression issues four years earlier.
On the 25.1. 2008, I woke up at midnight with a panic attack, so severe I thought I was having a heart attack and was going to die. I went to the doctor the next day and he asked me lots of questions and I will never forget him asking me whether I had had suicidal thoughts. He asked me whether I had planned my own suicide. I thought for a moment and I made the first perhaps life-saving choice in this story. I told him the truth, that I had not yet planned my suicide, but I had thought about how.
He told me I was ill and I asked him “with what”? I mean I was running two marathons a year at the time, what could possibly be wrong with me and he told me I had anxiety-fuelled depression.
When I left that doctor’s surgery, I made a second choice, which I am certain today saved my life. I decided I was not going to be burdened by the stigma that is linked to having depression and anxiety. So I told my wife, I told my two daughters, I told my friends and I told my employer what was wrong. And, guess what? In return, I got all the love and support I needed to get better – and I got better.
My friend was the last guy I would have expected to suffer from depression and anxiety. He lit up the room when he entered, but he was ill and I am certain that if he had had a forum to talk about that illness instead of hiding it, he would still be with us today. And that is the reason I decided to leave Unilever and go live a life on purpose.
You mentioned you thought you were having a heart attack. Were there any signs leading up to your first anxiety attack, which might in hindsight, have helped you to avoid it, or did it come with no warning at all?
GEOFF: Absolutely. The sign one needs to look out for is a deviation from our normal behaviour. We all know what our normal behaviour is and it’s perfectly normal to act differently for a time, but if it goes on for three to four weeks, then we need to be concerned.
There are behavioural and physical systems like loosing weight, bags under eyes, sweating, for instance on the palms of your hands, sweating at 2-3 am, having tingly fingers and toes. These are all possible examples of physical things that aren’t normal and could continue to linger.
On the behavioural level, it could be a sense of loss of confidence, not being able to read a newspaper because anything negative makes you get emotional, previously loving going for run and finding that’s too difficult to do, becoming a recluse. Instead of being the life and soul of the party, you might find you don’t want to go to the party at all. Waking up in the middle of the night and not dropping off again, ruminating over the same issue all night long.
Those were some of the behavioural signs to look out for. Only now when I reflect, do I recognise that those signs were there with me, but I did not watch out for them.
We all feel those kinds of things from time to time, but when they become constant and with you for more that three or four weeks, it is time to act.
What responsibility do managers play in the wellbeing of their teams and do you have any advice they could follow to pro-actively avoid anxiety issues with their staff?
GEOFF: This is huge. It is both (self-help and managerial) You are absolutely right. There simply are not enough emotionally intelligent line managers. You know, the kind of manager who says, come over and let’s have a coffee together. There is a lot of work, which needs to be done in this area to make the specific demands related to depression and anxiety more transparent.
Often, the line managers just act out of ignorance. They simply don’t know what depression, anxiety and stress are or what’s the difference between these three entities.
So what’s the solution?
GEOFF: I believe we need to hold people more accountable for the wellbeing of their teams. People are frazzled, burnt out. They have no energy left. When you are energised, you can move mountains, so I believe we need to build wellbeing into all development conversations.
We should have annual energy assessments and have conversations around “what am I going to do to improve my energy levels?” It needs to address both what you are going to do at an individual level and also what the company is going to do as an organisation.
We are not using these opportunities today because there are no real consequences. With everything else at work, we hold people responsible to have the right skills. If we establish an area that needs addressing in a yearly review, we put actions in place. We offer people training courses, and ultimately, people get sacked themselves if they don’t go.
Imagine we do the same with energy levels. Imagine we identify issues early on and tell our teams we will help them to go on a course, but then also set the expectation that they find time to go, and if they do not, tell them there will be consequences.
So how does one go about attacking the stigma related to anxiety and mental health?
GEOFF: I’m trying to shift the narrative around mental health. If I sent you to Nike store, you would only see pictures of beautiful products on the wall and they would all be worn by beautiful, what I call “chiselled whippet” models.
When it comes to mental health today, all the images shown are negative. Nothing inspires you and there is nothing aspirational about these images. Why when we hear the term “mental health” do we always jump to images of anxiety issues instead of positive images like other health topics?
So we need to change the narrative to make people want to aspire to look after their mental health.
You have mentioned in the past, that a family run SME will generally have a clearer view of its purpose and advise larger corporations to adopt a similar approach. What benefit do you expect this advice to bring?
GEOFF: You know it is such a difficult one at the moment. We are living in a society of “right now” in the business world, where there is such a focus on quarterly results and short-term thinking. I think its is like a “cancer”, driving efficiency and putting great demands on people to do more with less, quicker, to higher standards at lower cost that is impacting peoples mental wellbeing. And so long as organisations are being quarterly measured and purely profit driven we will not see a change in that trend. In fact things are likely to get worse.
There needs to be more and more business leaders to buck that system. When Paul Polman joined Unilever (as CEO), he went to the market and said no more short-term guidance. I am not going to report on a Quarterly basis. I think you need very courageous leaders to challenge the status quo and to say “I need more time to deliver a more purposeful goal.”
Purpose requires that you think more long-term and to be sustainable for generations and generations. It’s taken considerable time and effort for Unilever to embed purpose as a driver of improved business performance. This is about a real transformation and it required a new structure, a different approach to leadership, new systems, and processes in the company.
And that’s what is so nice about a family business. I was in one recently and the owner asked “so what is a reasonable amount of profit for us to make this year so we can invest in more things that support our purpose?”
Do you think every company can make that transition?
GEOFF: Its really about maturation to become a truly purpose driven company. So you might start by applying the Sullivan codes by focussing on good health and safety to introduce CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and then the next level of maturity is recognising that that’s not really helping us to change the world.
There we are with all these CSR activities funded by shareholders’ money that are not creating growth or making the company more profitable. Being truly purpose led doesn’t need CSR to enable doing good to the world, because you are doing it every day in all that you do. We must ask ourselves what it really is that the world needs from us, and then use that to grow and become profitable.
At the time, Paul Polman encouraged us to be ambitious, to put purpose at the centre of our business and to do well by doing good. There is still an allergic reaction to doing good because that’s what charities do whilst companies do well. So we need more companies that do well through doing good.
The Pocket Progress Coach is about making the boardroom accessible to people at the start of their career and I would be a fool not to take the opportunity to ask someone with your experience for practical advice when applying for your first job, for instance after graduating?
GEOFF: Young grads today have to do stuff and show interviewers that they have done stuff, which has truly built their character in a positive way. That’s the differentiator in the end.
In one of my earlier jobs in my career at Unilever, I was responsible for graduate recruitment. If I think back, the competition was immense. We had around 8000 applicants at Unilever and only 40 kids would get a job.
I would have parents asking me for advice like “what do my children need to do today to get a job?” Especially today, that’s no easy question to answer. I heard an upsetting statistic recently that only around 15% of grads are doing the jobs they were qualified to do.
I started asking myself at the time “what is it that differentiates those grads – the people who made it so to say through all those rounds at Wimbledon and got through to the final and held up that trophy. What did they have that the other 7960 people didn’t have?” (This interview took place during the 2017 Wimbledon Tennis Tournament)
I realised it has something to do with the vocational work that makes me sit up in an interview, that makes me go “wow”. We have all done vocational work, but if I compare the applicant who worked all summer and saved some money with the one who worked part of the summer, saved up some money and then went to China to teach English for a few weeks, I think you can guess which one would get the job.
Should we not be helping young kids at University these days to learn how to really differentiate themselves, so they can lift the Wimbledon trophy? Things like academic results, vocational work, leadership positions – these are all just hygiene factors these days. Everyones got 1st, 2nd or 3rd class degree. Everyone has worked hard in the summer. What differentiates is attitude, passion, energy and character.
Thanks a lot for this interview!
Advocate and Campaigner
Some words about Geoff McDonald:
Researching this interview has been delightful. You only have to enter Geoff McDonald’s name into a search engine to be inundated with great articles and videos about Geoff’s career and campaigns.
Surprisingly, having previously been one of Unilever’s Vice Presidents for HR and having helped to manage that company’s transition to a purpose led approach is not the only reason Geoff is on the web.
Geoff left Unilever in 2014 to dedicate his life to addressing the issues and breaking the stigma of depression and anxiety in the corporate/working world.
I started these Purely Inspirational interviews, as a way to give something back and help the next generation, but this interview is special.
As someone who thrives on progress and get’s a kick out of reaching a target, I’d like to personally thank Geoff for this fantastic interview, his courage and dedication and most of all, quite simply, for helping me.