Self-development books are big business – but is it just navel-gazing on the hand or esoteric theory on the other?
‘At the end of the day people want something that’s pragmatic, and they can actually do something with.’
Fiona Murden has been working with the world’s most senior leaders for years: in Defining You she makes the profiling tools and techniques usually reserved for the extremes of society – top leaders and Olympians or criminals – available to anyone who wants to understand themselves better so they can make better decisions.
Along the way we talk about winning awards, writing as a woman, the role of running in writing, and the power of partnerships. Unmissable listening.
Fiona’s site: https://fionamurden.com/
Fiona on Twitter: https://twitter.com/FionaMurden
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. It’s a pleasure to be here today with Fiona Murden who is a psychologist, performance coach, advisor, keynote speaker, and the author of Defining You: How to profile yourself and unlock your full potential, which was the winner of the self development category in this year’s Business Book Awards. That’s a big deal, we’ll talk about this, that was a big category.
She’s spent the last 18 years advising leaders all over the world on how best to fulfil their own and others’ potential. So welcome to the show Fiona.
Fiona Murden: Thank you, Alison, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Alison Jones: It’s great to have you. Let’s start with a little bit about Defining You. So just tell us a little bit about that book, about what you wanted to achieve with it and why you wrote it.
Fiona Murden: I’ve been conscious that for the last 18 or so years I have been working with the most senior leaders. Which is fantastic, it has a huge impact on lots of people’s lives.
But I feel it’s unfair that the extremes of society get the use of psychological tools, so whether that be leaders, performance athletes, criminals, clinically ill…. It tends to be the borders of society that benefit most from psychology.
Alison Jones: Which is exactly like a classroom, isn’t it? It’s always the brightest kids and the naughtiest kids that get all the attention, yes.
Fiona Murden: My thinking is, what about everyone else? We tend to think that psychology is common sense. But as, I think it was Voltaire, said, common sense is really not that common.
There are things that we think we know or we think we should know that we may have learnt wrong, or there may be other ways of doing it that are far better for us and enable us to be happier, healthier, and more successful.
I’m certainly not a shining example of all of those, but I do know a lot about all of those from being really privileged and meeting a lot of those successful people. And also being privileged in having that strong background in psychology and having insight into a lot of the research that’s out there.
I just wanted to share that more broadly. The book isn’t just my thinking. It brings in tools from psychologists around the world, too. I asked permission if I could use their tools, and everyone was very gracious in wanting to share for the same reason.
Alison Jones: It’s such an interesting point, isn’t it? Because self dev … I mean, I guess most of us paddle along on the surface of life most of the time and don’t really think about the big questions.
That was one thing that really struck me about this book. It’s not afraid to grapple with the biggest questions. You know, why are we here? What is your purpose?
But it does so in a really accessible, implementable … That’s not a word, but you know what I mean. It’s about, so what? What can you do to make that happen. But it’s also really profound stuff, as well. I was quite intrigued by the way you mixed those two in: the existential and the mundane, if you like.
Fiona Murden: Thank you. I mean, the thing is, doing what I do, so I profile senior leaders. Which means when it comes down to, say, the last two candidates for a CEO role or a director role, I’ll go through their history, a three, four hour interview, work out the risks of hiring them, the pros, the cons.
That’s not just for the hiring company, that’s for the individual themselves. And by doing things like that, you do hear about the extreme or the more impactful things of life. Whether that’s life and death, whether that’s sick relatives, whether that’s …
You know, I’ve had all sorts of things. People being accused of rape, far more positive things, as well. But I think when you’re dealing with senior leadership you see the whole person.
They might not always show the whole person to the world, but to actually understand how to help them optimise their performance as a leader, you need to know everything. And that’s up to them whether they share it or not.
But it’s very unusual, actually, that they don’t, because they realise that that’s so important. And what I was trying to do with the book is to touch all of those things without taking the reader off piste too much.
Because I think if we navel-gaze too much it’s not good for us. And equally, you can’t answer all those questions in one chapter in one book. You’d need many, many books to answer the reasons we’re here and what life is about.
So it’s trying to touch on them without being glib.
Alison Jones: Yes. You used the word navel-gazing there, and I think that is really interesting, isn’t it? So many books do end up being really, almost self-indulgent and interior. One thing that did impress me, and I think it’s going …
Let’s talk about self development more generally, actually, because I think it’s an important point. It’s that sort of dance between that introspection for the purposes of how you then are in the world.
Fiona Murden: Totally. I think it can become, as you said, self-absorbed, and it can be very negative because …
I’ve been there myself when I was a teenager before I knew as much about psychology. I used to try and analyse everything, and analyse myself. Why was I like this? Why did I think that?
And it’s not helpful. It’s not actually the way our brain operates. It’s more effective at analysing the outside world, and then we think that will solve problems on the inside world, as well. But it doesn’t, it actually just ties us in knots.
So it’s trying to understand that balance. I also think the other thing is, through my work I can come up with all sorts of academic theories. But really, at the end of the day people want something that’s pragmatic, and they can actually do something with.
Alison Jones: That’s the thing, isn’t it? People are really interested in this because they know, because the evidence shows them. And actually because their common sense tells them that when you get it right you improve performance, and retention, and engagement, and all those real bottom line things for businesses.
Do you think that’s why self development has become such a hot category?
Fiona Murden: I think so, but I also think it’s raised awareness and acceptance of looking at mental health and mental wellbeing and made it more accessible. It’s on the same continuum, but very different from mental health. But I think …
I don’t know whether I would say globally, but definitely in the Western world, as we focus more on mental health it’s also made it acceptable to look at who I am, whether I have weaknesses and strengths.
You have people like Brené Brown, the social psychologist from Houston University, talking about vulnerability. All of those chapters, I think, become additive in changing the way we view it as a scientist.
Alison Jones: I guess at the same time as we’re doing this as individuals, and particularly leaders, organisations… Organisations can’t do it because they are inanimate, they are just made of people. But you know what I mean, it’s that same sense of why is this company here? What are we about? What is our bigger purpose in the world.
Fiona Murden: Yes. And I agree, I think that’s something that we’re looking at, just more people are moving beyond the quick and the fast and trying to look for a bit of meaning behind things.
Alison Jones: Yes, which can only be a good thing. But it did mean, for you …
The downside of that, obviously, was when you went to the Business Book Awards you were in a massive, massive category with a very long short list. Just tell us a little bit about how that’s …
Obviously, I’m head judge at the Business Book Awards. I know it inside out from my end, but it’s always really interesting to hear how it is from the other end. So just tell us a little bit about that process of application and being short-listed, and then eventually, obviously, winning the award.
Fiona Murden: My publisher said we’re entering you into an award, and I thought, oh that’s nice. Thank you. Didn’t really think more of it because I thought, well, that’s nice.
Then they said, you’re a finalist. Oh, I think, actually, Business Book Awards contacted me and told me. I thought, oh, oh okay, that’s interesting. I didn’t expect that.
Then what was lovely is the other finalists in my category, we all started connecting on social media, mainly on Twitter, and talking to one another.
Alison Jones: Oh, that’s really nice. I didn’t realise that.
Fiona Murden: Yes, it was really, really nice. It felt like a really constructive, supportive conversation with everyone. And a few of us sent books to each other.
Also that meant I got to know was in the final. I started seeing their social media strings, and I thought, well, there’s no way I’m going to win. There are just some amazing books in there.
So I literally, in my mind, just did not think I would win. To the extent that I hadn’t even mentally rehearsed what I would say if I did win. So it came as a little bit of a shock.
Alison Jones: I have to say, your face on the night was a picture.
Fiona Murden: Yes. Honestly, I just did not expect it. I felt very, very honoured, and it took quite awhile to sink in, actually.
Alison Jones: Now it has sunk in, what does it mean? Have you processed that into the narrative of your life?
Fiona Murden: What I love is, I love the whole reasoning behind the Business Book Awards. I love the fact that it’s offering an opportunity for people to be recognised and celebrated.
It’s raised my awareness of women in publishing. It made me quite cross, actually, about how male dominated the publishing world is. Which I naively didn’t realise until that night when Lucy read out some facts and I then went and researched them and thought, oh my goodness, this is wrong.
So I think it’s fantastic for female publishers, sorry, female authors, as well. It also felt like a great celebration of everyone’s work, not just the people that won, but everyone that was involved.
I felt privileged, it sounds corny, and quite honoured. I feel proud, to be honest, it’s nice. It’s just a nice thing to have. Which is the one word your English teacher says, never use, isn’t it?
Alison Jones: But sometimes it’s the only word that will do. Yes, just picking up on that point, one of the … If anybody who isn’t aware that the background to this …
The very first Business Book Awards, the previous year, we turned around and all of the category winners were male. How did that happen?
Lucy McCarraher has some fantastic work digging into this, understanding it better. And one of the things that she does, particularly, is really champion women writers.
It’s not women writers, per se, it’s not books per se that are male dominated, it’s business books, particularly. And of course, business, as well, there’s interesting stats she did about how much more likely you are to get funded with the same proposition as a bloke than as a woman.
Fiona Murden: Mm-hmm.
Alison Jones: It’s quite incredible, the sort of hidden bias there. It’s all along the line. It’s women stepping up to write books, it’s publishers publishing books by women, and to be honest with you, it’s also about people … What you choose to read because most men tend to read books by men. That’s got to change, too, because that’s feeding into what people decide to publish.
And then it’s about visibility, and promotion, and about people picking them up for review. Right the way along that chain there’s got to be a real conscious decision to avoid unconscious bias.
Fiona Murden: Yes, yes, truthfully. It’s really interesting, because I asked a friend who’s just finished her occupational psychology MSC, it’s sort of her second career.
I mentioned this male/female author to her. For example, male books are more likely to be read and picked up even if it’s the same book with a different name on it.
She said, well do you know what? To be honest, I would pick up a book by a man ahead of a book by a woman.
Alison Jones: Yes. And it takes a brave person to admit that.
Fiona Murden: Yes. I mean, she was saying that to me, and I won’t name and shame her, but … It was just very interesting. And then I had a meeting with a publisher about my next book and was talking about the fact that my book is not published in the Asian market.
My agent commented that that might be because of my name. I thought, my goodness, I hadn’t even thought of that.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Fiona Murden: So it is interesting.
Alison Jones: It is, and you might have to take the J.K. Rowling route. Of course, she used her initials because a publisher somewhere along the way said, do you know what? If you out as Joanne, boys won’t read it.
Fiona Murden: I know, and I did say this to my agents. I think I might go for F.J. Murden, but they said, no, you have to pave the way for other women, so, watch this space.
Alison Jones: You put your finger on a really interesting point there, because yes, you have to pave the way for other women. But if that means that your book suffers, it’s a really difficult call, isn’t it?
Fiona Murden: It is.
Alison Jones: So we just … We need more women out there to spread the responsibility. I think that’s everything. If you’re listening, if you’re a woman, if you should be writing a business book.
If you’re not because you’re too busy or you’re not sure you’ve got something interesting to say, or you feel guilty about taking time away… There’s all those things that go into why we don’t write books. Then just do it for the other women, if not yourself.
Fiona Murden: Absolutely.
Alison Jones: Let’s talk about the writing. And actually, let’s talk about that issue. Did you face particular … I mean I found it very, very difficult to carve out time on my own project, it felt selfish.
And I don’t know whether blokes suffer from that, but I suspect they probably don’t as much. How was it for you when you were writing your book?
Fiona Murden: I stupidly set myself a ridiculous deadline. I’d actually written a book before this one, which wasn’t published but led to this one being published.
I won’t publish the first one, I feel like it was my learning mechanism, almost.
We started speaking to the publisher, that we’ve got a date for when it needs to be delivered by. Well, they offered two dates, and I went for the first one. They said, that’s quite tight. And I said, that’s fine, I’m fed up waiting, I just want to get on with it.
And then I wouldn’t start writing until I had the contract from them. You’ll know that publishers can be very slow, and so the contract wasn’t coming, it wasn’t coming, it wasn’t coming. And I ended up having nine weeks.
I’ve got my own business, I’ve got two children, I don’t have childcare help. I have a very helpful husband who was also going for partner at McKinsey at the time, so not ideal timing. And he got it.
I had to do it. I didn’t have a choice. I had nine weeks.
Alison Jones: How did you do it? What did you put in place to enable you to achieve that?
Fiona Murden: I ran every morning. I dropped the kids at school, ran every morning. I moved out a lot of my work and gave it to associates. I have a network of associates I use.
Except for my key coaching clients who were aware of what I was doing, so I tried to spread out my coaching sessions as much as I could. But when profiling or work like that came through, that went to other people.
I just would sit and just write. And at weekends my husband would take the kids somewhere and I would just write.
I actually snapped a ligament in my ankle from this relentless running I was doing every day to try and clear my head. But I didn’t realise, and so a year and a half later I had it fixed. They had to reconstruct the muscle and tendon because I’d done so much damage.
So the lesson there is, give yourself a little bit of breathing space, and listen to your body.
Alison Jones: That’s so funny because I was going to pick up on the running. I run every day, and I just … I’m too busy not to run. Because it’s so important…
Fiona Murden: Yes. Exactly. You know it hurt, but I kept strapping it because, oh, I have to run.
Alison Jones: Yes. Oh, that’s so awful. And I can imagine that when you to went in and said, you know, I’ve damaged my ligament with writing a book, they’d be like, really? How do those two things go together?
Fiona Murden: They also … I left it for a long time and then had an MRI. And then the surgeon said, oh, it’s going to be a long, slow recovery. And I said, I don’t have time for a long slow recovery, my book is about to be published.
So I put off surgery for another, almost, year.
Alison Jones: Wow. It’s going to mend, right?
Fiona Murden: Yes. I actually ran yesterday, very, very gently. The operation was in August, so it has been a long, slow recovery.
Alison Jones: They mean it when they say that, don’t they? Listen, if you’re not a runner you’re probably listening to this going, well, for goodeness sake, why don’t you just stop running.
But ctually, if you do run, the thought of not being able to run is actually quite fear making.
Fiona Murden: It is.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s really, really … Tell me what running does for you, then. Why did you prioritise that at the start of each day?
Fiona Murden: It clears my head. It actually helps me think. I think, well, from the psychological and physiological perspective I know what’s happening in the brain.
But it’s literally sort of refreshing your body, getting rid of stress chemicals, and noradrenaline and adrenaline. But I also find that the way I process thoughts, it’s quite meditative. And I process my thinking.
So I might be in a muddle with something. And like some people will say, I sleep on it. I don’t sleep particularly well, but when I run it almost provides a clarity without me even having to think about it.
I come back and I think, oh, yes. That’s how that needs to be written, or that’s what that bit needs to look like.
Alison Jones: Yes. I am nodding furiously here. I completely agree. That’s terrific. And what else in terms of the writing? You ran, which obviously gives you that kind of energy and physical stuff early on in the day.
Did you find that you lost energy as you sat and write. How did you maintain your energy through the rest of the day?
Fiona Murden: I’m kind of a relentless worker, anyway. So I’m probably not a good example of … I approached writing in the way I approach everything. I just do it.
And it’s not the way I would coach or advise other people to approach things. But, you have to do it, so you do it.
As I said, probably not a great example of what to do.
Alison Jones: One thing, as well, I meant to pick up when you mentioned it earlier. Sorry, there was a bit of a… There’s no segue here, I just remembered it, I wanted to ask you about it.
You said something about partnering with other people, as well. That was something that really interested me. You’ve got that link with, is it the Credo test at the end of the book?
Fiona Murden: Oh, yes. Yes.
Alison Jones: Just tell us a little bit about that, because I thought it was fascinating how they link up for a year after publication. How did that come about? What was your thinking behind it? How did it help?
Fiona Murden: Well, the publisher said, we want a psychometric in the book. And I sort of look at them open-mouthed. You can’t just put a psychometric in a book. There’s a whole load of restrictions around psychometric use and blah, blah, blah.
So one of the things I had to do in that nine weeks, as well as writing a book, was to chase around globally for a psychometric that I believed in, and who would be prepared to partner with me for this book.
And wonderful Tests Direct who do Credo, they’ve just been brilliant all the way along. I’m quite gobsmacked at how brilliant they’ve been, and they continue to be brilliant because I use their psychometric now in some of my assessments that I do.
They’re always so willing to help, and they’ve helped colleagues of mine set things up. I just think I was very lucky to find them.
Alison Jones: I love that, though, because it’s also about acknowledging where your zone of genius ends, but where there are other useful things you can pull in. And I think one of the great things about writing a book is the opportunity to build connections, to make partnerships, to kind of extend out.
And it’s all in the service of the book, it’s all for the service of the reader. But actually that’s a really great thing for your professional network, as well, isn’t it?
Fiona Murden: Yes, it is. And also I’ve reached out to psychologists in the States because of putting measures in the book that were theirs, and formed relationships there, as well. Which is great.
I’ve got a lot of respect for the way psychology is approached in the States compared to in the UK where it can be, not from the way the public uses it, but from the way we use it as psychologists. We can hold it a little bit too close to our chest. They’re much better at sharing it and making it mainstream in the States.
Alison Jones: Oh, that’s interesting. You mean researchers, particularly, or professional psychologists?
Fiona Murden: I think both. I just think that there’s this … I think it’s. I don’t know, it’s complex and I shouldn’t go into the psyche of psychologists …
Alison Jones: Dangerous territory.
Fiona Murden: Dangerous territory. But I just think there’s sort of … I am still waiting for critique of my book from some academic psychologists because they won’t agree with the way I’ve made it accessible.
They wouldn’t put it like that. They would put it other ways, but I know that people have been heavily critiqued when they’ve made psychology more accessible, because in their view it’s dumbing it down.
Alison Jones: How interesting. And I’m guessing if you had written with a sense that some academic psychologist somewhere would be tutting at you, that would have really hampered how you wrote, would it?
Fiona Murden: I had it in my mind and I was just kind of ready for the criticism, which I haven’t had yet, but I’m still waiting for.
Alison Jones: That’s fascinating. But the point is, it’s working for the people that you wrote it for.
Fiona Murden: Exactly. As long as things are … I think as long as they maintain their scientific rigour, it doesn’t really matter how you communicate it. Well, it does, it matters that people can understand it.
Alison Jones: Yes. That’s the age old dance, isn’t it, between the academic tendency to obfuscate and use long words and make it deeper and deeper and narrower and narrower, and the professional’s impulse to get it out there and get it making a difference in the world.
Fiona Murden: Yes, absolutely. And I think you can over-complicate things in a way that’s not helpful.
Alison Jones: Yes. And of course, that’s a massive oversimplification. I’m so sorry to all my academic listeners, you don’t all do that. But you do see …
Fiona Murden: Oh, no. And I agree, I’ve been talking to the Vice Chancellor of a university and a professor this morning. I have huge respect for academic institutions, huge respect. This is just one comment about one thing.
Alison Jones: Yes. And it has a disproportionate on you as an author, doesn’t it, because that’s where you want the recognition, as well. That’s so interesting.
So tell us … If somebody’s listening and they haven’t yet … Perhaps they have more than nine weeks even, to write their book. They’ve not fully got traction, they don’t feel it’s going as well as they’d like. What one tip would you give them?
Fiona Murden: I think ask the nook for help. Don’t try and do it on your own because we’re not designed as humans to do everything on our own. Our brain doesn’t work most effectively when we’re on our own.
For me, my agents were that help and guidance. And also my editorial director, Holly Benyon, because she was there giving me the little nudges to say, yep, this is right, or this is the wrong direction, or how do we do that?
And my agents were there championing me, and they still do. So look for who your cheerleaders are. Look for the people that you need to help get behind you and support you. It’s like if you were going on a diet or if you were training for a marathon, or if you’re doing any of those things, just having people that you’re accountable to on the one hand, but also will sort of chivvy you along when you’re stuck on the other hand.
Alison Jones: Yes. And the marathon analogy is not lost on me. There’s a lot of sense in that.
Fiona Murden: That’s one thing I’m not going to do.
Alison Jones: You say that… No, well certainly not until your ankle is healed, that’s for sure. We always ask guests, as well, to recommend a book that they think everybody should read.
Let’s take it as read that everybody needs to read Defining You. What other business book do you think is underrated or that you can’t stop talking about?
Fiona Murden: So this one I don’t think is underrated, it’s a front of mind one for me at the moment because I really like his comments on things like Twitter. And I’m not a fan of social media, though it might sound like I am after today.
It’s Adam Grant who’s a professor at Wharton. His first … I think it’s his first book, but his book he wrote called Give and Take. He looks at thing from the perspective of his own experience as an occupational psychologist.
His research also looks at some anecdotal stories from Hollywood and from history to show how if you’re a person who gives you can still succeed.
Alison Jones: How interesting. Somebody else has recommended this to me, actually. So it’s on my radar, but I hadn’t … It’s quite far off the radar because I hadn’t thought of it, really, in terms of a business book, I just thought of it in terms of something interesting.
How do you think it particularly applies to people in business.
Fiona Murden: It’s funny because I’ve actually … It’s one of my friend of mine like I said at the moment that’s recommended it to two people in coaching recently.
Some younger generations are so focused on themselves, for example. This is not for everyone, there are all types of people. But before you’ve necessarily had the knocks in life, it’s sort of like, I’m going to get on for myself, and I’m going to be driven.’
In that sense, it’s the understanding that actually to be the best leader you can, you need to be looking beyond yourself. And there are, of course, bad role models where people are just takers. And you can say, well, this person or that person, they’re just takers.
But if you look at some of the best leaders of all time, they do give more than they take. But he also explains how to not be a doormat.
Alison Jones: Yes. So how to take as well as give.
Fiona Murden: Yes. It’s how to give without being walked over. Don’t let people take the mickey. It’s just a very positive, optimistic look at how the work environment can operate.
And I think it’s something that, you know, if we could instil that in cultures in our organisations, that would be fantastic. It’s that knowledge and belief that actually, you can give and succeed. And again, I’ll come back to, as humans, because I’m very much a believer evolutionary psychology.
As humans we are actually altruistic and we need to give to others to enable the group to succeed and for us to survive. But within the modern environment, I think that lends itself very well to organisational settings.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Well I should bump it up my list. And I love the way you brought it right back around, full circle, to purpose and what we’re here for in the first place, which is great.
Fiona, if people want to find out more about you, more about Defining You, where should they go?
Fiona Murden: Well my website is www.fionamurden.com, and then Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn is just my name, as well.
But probably my website is the best place to look, even though I haven’t actually put a book award on there yet, which just made me think that now.
Alison Jones: I’m sure by the time, people, that you go and see the website it will say all over it, ‘Winner of…’
Fiona Murden: It will be.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Because, why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you shout about that kind of stuff?
Fiona Murden: Well, because I’m a woman and we don’t, do we?
Alison Jones: ‘I want people to like me much more than I want them to realise how great I am.’
Fiona Murden: Exactly.
Alison Jones: Oh, that’s a whole new podcast episode right there. Let’s not go there.
Really, really good to talk to you today. Thank you so much for your time.
Fiona Murden: It’s great to talk to you. Thanks, Alison.