‘The writing process took about four years and the actual material gathering for the book probably took more like 15 years…’
Sarah Rozenthuler, psychologist, leadership consultant and pioneer of purpose-led leadership, has been working for many years now with individuals, teams, and organizations. In this week’s conversation we discuss how purpose plays out at those three levels, and also how writing Powered by Purpose drew not only on her own experience but involved the input of a team of supporters and challengers.
We also discuss how her practice as a reflective practitioner enabled her to capture insights and questions that would otherwise be lost over those years.
Sarah’s site: https://www.bridgeworkconsulting.com/
Sarah on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sarah-rozenthuler-a952824/
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Roger Alton’s Best Sports Books of 2020 for the Daily Mail: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-9065025/You-winner-lose-Roger-Alton-selects-best-books-sport-2020.html
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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Sarah Rozenthuler, who is a chartered psychologist, leadership consultant, and pioneer of purpose led leadership. She has over 15 years international experience consulting with many different organizations, including BP, Spencer Stuart, Standard Charter Bank, IUCN, and the World Bank, as well as numerous SMEs and not-for-profit organizations, including Choice Support and, beautifully, Booktrust. She founded Bridgework Consulting Ltd in 2007 to enable leaders to engage and energize their people around great work with the intention of transforming organizations to become a force for good in the world. She is the author of How to have Meaningful Conversations: Seven strategies for talking about what matters most, and most recently Powered by Purpose: Energize your people to do great work.
So welcome to the show, Sarah.
Sarah Rozenthuler: Thank you, Alison. Delighted to be here.
Alison Jones: It’s so good to have you, and we’ll probably touch on the fact that we’re actually, we, we do know each other from years and years ago in the genesis of this book, don’t we which is great. But tell me a little bit first about purpose because it’s such an overused word, but it’s such a resonant word.
How do you define it and why do you think it matters?
Sarah Rozenthuler: I think it matters increasingly more than ever. And I think we’ve seen that this year, it is overused. Not everybody uses the word in the same way. And maybe we’ll come onto this, in the book I talk about three bridges of purpose at an individual team and organizational level. Maybe I just start with the more individual level where I think our purpose is what gets us out of bed in the morning. It’s what puts a spring in our step or it’s what makes us feel that we’re standing in our own unique magic.
Alison Jones: And you tell a lovely story in the book about the light going on in people as, as sort of what you do with them, which I thought was a really lovely way of describing purpose actually.
Sarah Rozenthuler: Yes. Well, you might know in your listeners might well be familiar with the statistics that says around 80% of people are actually disengaged at work. And I feel so sad when I come across that. I’ve experienced that myself in my own work journey. And I just think it’s such a waste of human potential, potential and talented at a time when the world really needs that.
And so when I see people’s work become more meaningful for them, I do, I see a sense of a liveliness and it is like the lights being switched back on inside someone.
Alison Jones: Yes, which is obviously a hugely rewarding role to be in, the person who’s bringing that back in. Tell me a little bit more about those other two levels that you spoke about for purpose. That’s individual purpose…
Sarah Rozenthuler: Yes. So if I jump to the organizational purpose, and again, we’re seeing more of this happen. So I’m thinking for example, of Brompton cycles, like great British engineering company who have defined their purpose as changing the way people live in cities and I in the book I draw on the work of professor Victoria Hrth and her colleagues at the University of Cambridge.
And they talk about organizational purpose as being the meaningful and enduring reason that an organization exists. And it’s not only aspirational inspirational. It’s also practical. So a truly compelling organizational purpose would. drive day-to-day decision-making, it would provide a context for that, and it would also unify and motivate a whole range of stakeholders.
Alison Jones: It’s sort if starting with why, isn’t it?
Sarah Rozenthuler: It is starting with why as Simon Sinek said in his book, whenever that was, that was a decade or so ago. And in a way I think that was one real milestone along the way of the move to become more purpose driven. And if I may just cover that second bridge of purpose as well at the team level, I noticed in the literature, in the business book literature, there were a number of books looking at the organizational level, plenty of books at the individual level, fine, and your North star, for example, but very little that really looked at that second level of team purpose. And a lot of my work on the corporate pitch is coaching leadership teams. And what I’ve really seen firsthand in my work is that right purpose creates alignment in a team. So instead of people pulling in different directions or working in silos or competing rather ruthlessly with one another, if there is a shared and compelling purpose, it really does help people to pull in the same direction.
Alison Jones: Interesting observation that, because you’re right, I’ve read a lot on individual purpose. I’ve read a lot on organizational purpose and mission and all that kind of good stuff, but actually the team is the unit that gets stuff done in corporates, isn’t it? And there’s relatively little on how purpose plays out there.
Sarah Rozenthuler: Absolutely. And I think that the team is the most potent unit of change in an organization. It’s that sort of small group. I mean, Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, pointed towards this when she said, you know, never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. And I think that really applies in an organizational setting and that’s often overlooked.
Alison Jones: Yes, that’s really interesting. And how do those three levels interact? I mean, I guess in an ideal world, your individual purpose aligns with that of your team, which aligns with that of your organization. I’m guessing it doesn’t always play out like that.
Sarah Rozenthuler: It doesn’t always play out like that. And actually some of the exercises that I’ve been developing, around the book have been to help people explore the juncture between that individual purpose and the organizational purpose, for example, because I think where you do have a resonance between those two, then you start to get really extraordinary results because people’s energy is all lined up. You know, they’re not laying bricks, they’re building a cathedral to use that metaphor. and if there’s a lack of alignment, I think that’s draining for people. I think in our world of the pandemic, it’s increasingly hard for people to mobilize that energy. I think that causes stress and disengagement.
So I think if there’s a lack of alignment, It really helps people just to get honest with themselves about that and then see what changes are possible.
Alison Jones: And in terms of how you put all this into the book. So you and I met in the very early stages when you knew there was a book in here and you were just grappling with how to pull that out. Because a lot of what you do, and a lot of the magic that you create with individuals, with teams in organizations, you do in the room with them, don’t you? It’s a kind of co-creation in the moment. So just talk us through how you went through that journey from knowing that you had something to say, and then trying to sort of abstract it so that you could lay the principles down in a book that would work when you weren’t in the room with people.
Sarah Rozenthuler: Yes, what a good question. And it makes me think that yes, the writing process took about four years and the actual material gathering for the book probably took more like 15 years because there’s many stories in the book. Most of them from recent times of working on the corporate pitch.
I’ve over the years developed the discipline of being a reflective practitioner to use that term. So I often, when I come away from, let’s say working with a team for a couple of days, just take a single sheet of full paper, and I just write my own reflections and learnings, you know, the things that went well, the things that didn’t go so well, the things that I’m chewing on, the things that I am still not clear about, that I maybe could have landed better.
And I think that process of ongoing reflection really, really helped when it then came round to the writing process. And just you’ve acknowledged that you and I did do some very helpful work together in the early days, I took a number of your tips and really worked with them. And if I had to pick one of them, it would be developing that working table of contents. And I did that and it shifted around, but I had a document and I had a place where… a sort of central place where I could refine my ideas and go back to and change chapter headings and so on. So that document really was evolving as the writing process got underway.
Alison Jones: Oh, that’s so good to hear. Yes. It’s a living document, isn’t it? But I think the working table of contents is such a valuable tool. I’m fascinated by your reflective practice writing, and I want to just come back to that because it’s just so interesting. I think this is such a great, I mean, I’m a big fan as you know of writing at all stages, so not just writing what you know in a very polished way in a book, but writing what you don’t know, and exploring, and using exploratory writing and so on. So it’s really fascinating when I hear somebody doing this. It’s got to be fresh, hasn’t it? It’s got to come straight out of your lived experience of that moment, it’s just capturing it as it’s fresh.
What kind of framework do you put around that and what do you do with that writing? Well, I guess actually the question before that is, what does the writing do for you? Then the next question is what do you do with the insights from that writing once you’ve got them?
Sarah Rozenthuler: Well, what it does for me, if I go to that question first, is I think the reflection, the structured reflection and the disciplined reflection , anchors the learning inside of me because I’m often, you know, I finished one client’s assignment, I might be moving onto the next one quite quickly.
So it’s a way of capturing the learning and capturing the questions. And certainly in the book I share, I can think of at least one story where it was quite painful on the corporate pitch. And it was the learning by what was absent, it was learning by what went wrong and the mistakes along the way.
And I must admit, I don’t always then go back. It’s not that I actually have a file of all those pieces of paper in a single place, that I then reviewed in a systematic way. It’s more that I think the key insights are anchored in me and they’re easier to access because I’ve written them down at some point. Yes.
Alison Jones: Yes, yes. That is fascinating. There is a double thing going on there. The fact that you are giving yourself the space and time to write and asking yourself those questions draws out the insights in the first place, and then the act of writing them down anchors them in your mind. And then they become part of your mental furniture, don’t they?
Sarah Rozenthuler: Yes. Yes, they do.
Alison Jones: That’s really fascinating. And then as you went through that process, as your table of contents solidified, and as you got further into actually writing the book and you were happy with the structure, just talk us through how that shifted. And then you move to a very different problem then which is just getting the damn thing written and then revising it and then the whole publishing journey.
So yes, just talk us through that. What surprised you? What, what pleased you? What did you discover?
Sarah Rozenthuler: Yes, well, there was a part of it that was very organic and very emergent. And so looking back what happened was around the manuscript, I was going to call them a support team, but I might just say support and challenge team effortlessly emerged. So there were probably five or six people and we never got together in the room as a group of five or six, I worked with them on a one-to-one basis.
So I would draft a chapter. I’d ping it across to them. and they were engaged and they were, I mean, I super-acknowledged these people and I have written it, all their names and the acknowledgements to the book because they provided so much positive energy, encouragement, and also critical comments and reflections.
And I went through that loop with each chapter with a number of different individuals who over time were also catching the threads of the book and looking back, that was absolutely vital in terms of honing the ideas, shaping the structure of the book. And also if I’m honest, keeping my own energy going for what is sometimes a bit of a long haul.
Alison Jones: It is a slog, there’s no two ways about it, isn’t it, writing a book? However much you love it there are times when it’s just a slog and you don’t want to do it. And everything else gets in the way.
People are going to be thinking, okay, that sounds wonderful. I want a group of five or six people that will do that for me. How did you do it? How did you get those people around you?
Sarah Rozenthuler: Oh, gosh, they came out of… well, mostly existing relationships. So I notice when I had an energizing conversation with somebody, when they felt lit up to just go back to that metaphor around the topic, and actually in some cases around the writing process. So there are a couple of people who I think just really wanted out of their own curiosity to see the process of a manuscript of a book being birthed.
And I think, you know, in some ways it was a win-win, I think it was mutually beneficial. and it just, as I said, it happened really organically. I didn’t twist anybody’s arm. Maybe there were a couple of people on board to begin with, and then over that four years, more people came on board and I’d also acknowledge it was helpful to have a diversity of backgrounds.
So, yes. One of the people, for example, Victoria Herth, who I’ve already mentioned, who also very kindly wrote the epilogue to the book too, it was great to have a really sharp academic thinker and a very generous spirit on board. Yes. There was somebody with more of a marketing background, somebody with a financial background who’d worked in the city for many years, you know. I don’t think there was another psychologist, for example, maybe I’d got that angle covered to a large degree myself, but that diversity in the team was really valuable.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s so brilliant to hear, because I think this is such an important part of writing a book, as you say, on the practical level of just, when you’ve run out of energy, they help and you’re accountable and all that kind of good stuff. But just pulling in the hive brain… and I think people often hesitate to do that because they think it’s an imposition. They think, as you say, you’re twisting people’s arm, but actually as you say, most people, if they’re interested in the topic, if they’ve got a good relationship with you, feel quite privileged, feel a sense of being in on something creative and worthwhile and beneficial to them.
Sarah Rozenthuler: Yes, that’s it. And people also get to play to their strengths. So one of the members on the team, he’s called Peter Owen, you know, he’s got a military background. He was at one time a Sandhurst man, and he was brilliant at holding my feet to the fire, and setting me deadlines and saying, okay, you know, I want the draft of chapter five by X date, that might be two weeks ahead. And writing as I was for the majority of the time without a publishing contract, without a deadline, without an editor, having somebody who was actually very comfortable to bring very rigorous discipline and hold me accountable: absolutely brilliant. So valuable.
Alison Jones: Yes, we all, we all need a Peter….
Sarah Rozenthuler: Yes. Yes.
Alison Jones: So, talk me through the actual publishing, and now the marketing piece. What stood out for you there?
Sarah Rozenthuler: Oh, gosh. Well, it really, and this won’t be any surprise to you or probably your listeners that it really required perseverance. And even though I had published my first book about eight years ago, that’s How to have Meaningful Conversations, different genre, because that was a self-help book. And so I knew this one was going to be a leadership book, a business book, and that meant finding a different publisher.
And so I had to jump through all the hoops that any other author, or maybe a first-time author might have to jump through in terms of writing the proposal, pitching my ideas. I got a number of rejections along the way. So it required some real grit to just keep going, and self-belief, and I really did believe in the book and the ideas because again, plenty of books out there on purpose, but not really a book that nailed the leadership required to bring purpose to life in an organizational setting.
So I identified that gap and that gave me good self-belief and then it was a case of keeping going until a door opened as it did with Pearson, with Financial Times, Pearson. Before they gave me the contract, and this was a surprise, but there was quite, there was quite a bit of engagement between the editor there, the commissioning editor and myself around the title of the book.
And she was very clear with me that she wouldn’t take the book proposal to the editorial team there to discuss until we landed on a title that she was happy with. So that was a very creative process and it took us a number of weeks. And then eventually we landed on a title that she was happy with.
And actually after that things fell into place quite quickly. but there was real perseverance required before then.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. And Powered by Purpose is a great title, so good job, Eloise. That’s…
Sarah Rozenthuler: Ah, thank you very much. Eloise Cook. Yes. She’s been brilliant to work with.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. And for people who are obviously on the other side of this, Sarah, who are still thrashing around with a working table of contents that isn’t quite there yet, what’s the one big tip that you would give them?
Sarah Rozenthuler: Oh, well, what would I say? In addition to having that support and challenge team around you, it would be to really carve out the time to write. And I know on my really busy days that might have just been 30 minutes. Ideally it would have been 45 minutes. I grew to love my kitchen timer. And I actually, to this day, when I write and I really need to focus and time is limited I set a timer, and it’s such a simple thing. And yet, for some reason, it provides for me, at least, a sense of containment, sharpens my awareness. I’ve only got 30 minutes or 45 minutes. And somehow that helps me marshall my attention more effectively. So a very simple tip, but that would, that would certainly be one
Alison Jones: It’s an absolutely brilliant tip. Yes, I use timers as well. You say only 30 minutes. I dream of 30 minutes. So six minutes is all I can manage a day.
Sarah Rozenthuler: Oh God. Well, let’s respect the six minutes too. Absolutely.
Alison Jones: Six minutes a day adds up, you know, so whatever you can do, but setting a timer, it’s a kind of signal to your brain, isn’t it? It’s that we are focusing on this, we’re doing nothing else. And you know, for goodness sake, it’s only X minutes and you can do this and it, it clears out the distractions.
It works on so many levels. So yes, the Pomodoro is another great technique as well isn’t it where you’ve got 25 minutes and then a five minute break. The Pomodoro timer is really good.
Sarah Rozenthuler: Very good. Yes. It’s kind of like using the time and energy you’ve got, which for many of us is in limited supply and making the most of that.
Alison Jones: Yes. And concentrating it, which I think a timer does beautifully, as you say. That’s a terrific tip, thank you. And is there, I mean, apart from Powered by Purpose, obviously, is there a book that you would recommend for listeners to read? What’s really shaped your thinking?
Sarah Rozenthuler: Well, many books, one book that I found myself going back to recently, is Dan Cable’s book Alive at Work.
Alison Jones: Oh, I don’t know that.
Sarah Rozenthuler: So Dan Cable, he’s a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School. And the book has got this bright yellow cover with pink writing on it, Alive at Work, all lit up. And what I really like about it is that it’s very readable and it draws a lot on psychology and neuroscience.
It’s about how people can, yes, enjoy their work more. And then organizations can benefit as well from people’s creativity and innovation. And he writes about how leaders can activate what the neuroscientists sometimes call the seeking system part of the brain. so that’s the part of the brain that gets lit up when people feel they’re really expressing their unique selves, when they’re being playful and experimenting, and indeed when work feels purposeful to them because they’re experiencing the impact they’re
Alison Jones: Yes. lovely connection back there. I love that. I’m going to seek that out. Thank you. What a great recommendation. I love it when people recommend books I’ve never heard of, another one for the to-read list, which is, yeah, which is actually quite big at the moment, but never mind. Sarah, if people want to find out more about you, more about powered by purpose, more about the work that you do, where should they go?
Sarah Rozenthuler: Thank you. Well, my website is at bridgeworkconsulting.com. So that’s altogether, bridgeworkconsulting. And people are welcome to connect with me on LinkedIn. I’m active on Twitter as well. I ran the last few weeks my first programme based on the book all online and I’m intending to run more programmes next year, and I’ll be posting all the details on the Bridgework Consulting website.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Thank you. And it’s such a joy when I talk to somebody at this stage in the journey when the book’s out and, and they’re building programmes off the back of it, and it’s become, you know, this, this thing that’s working for them so brilliantly. And I had a little insight at the beginning of the journey as well, so for me, it’s, it’s just a lovely, feels like a lovely celebration of something that began several years ago, we were in a very strange room, weren’t we, in Kings Cross…
Sarah Rozenthuler: Yes, we were, and it really got me started and it’s great to reconnect with you at this stage. Thank you.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Thank you so much for your time today. It’s been absolutely fascinating.
Sarah Rozenthuler: You’re very welcome. Thank you.