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5 steps to build a people-first, high performance culture

5 steps to build a people-first, high performance culture

Remember when you used to have a one-to-one human conversation with a colleague in the office? Ahh…the good old days…

Over the past year our working relationships have been forced to change. 

There was no capacity to manage everything and know what our teams were up to 24/7. (Unless you forced your staff to have their zoom on all day – Big Brother style!)  We had no choice but to delegate, trust our teams and hand over responsibility.

The feedback I’m receiving is that companies actually found an increase in productivity, not the decrease they expected. 

I am actually not surprised to hear this. 


Because when we give people responsibility and our belief, they experience ownership and feel a greater commitment to deliver. Allowing people to work more on their own terms makes them feel valued and more likely to work harder and smarter to achieve personal, departmental and organisational goals.

We are becoming more aware that we are all individuals and we work and behave in individual ways. This recognition makes employees feel understood, and that their contribution counts, so they work with a stronger motivation and a greater level of engagement. They will go the extra mile because they want to contribute to an organisation that cares about them. Wouldn’t you? 

This is known as a ‘people-first’ culture where you believe in and back your people, as they are what make your company successful. 

So the big question is HOW can you achieve this?

How do you know when you are operating as a people-centric company? 

It’s about taking action and creating clear leadership expectations and objectives so you can measure your progress. 

Here are 5 steps to building a people-first, high performance culture: 
  1. Leadership alignment 

Are you all aligned on your values and what a ‘people-first’ culture looks like for your organisation? And I mean from board level to senior leaders. Are your values operationalised so they can be lived every day? Ask questions to your team at the end of the day. How did you live the value of X today? 

  1. Align employees to company success 

Clarity and context is key. Employees must know exactly what is expected of them. Be clear on your goals and benchmarks for company success – both externally and internally – as this will help individuals realise how they contribute and what it looks like when they have achieved it.  The more clarity they have on their performance and how their goals align with the greater organisation’s goals, the more engaged they will be. If you’re clear then they can be – it’s not rocket science.

  1. Increased effective communication

Do not assume the company is aware of what is happening. Too often, leaders spend a lot of time talking about changes and think that everyone else knows what is happening and the communication doesn’t filter to the right people.  Or worse still, the communication is inconsistent and confuses teams.  Ensure you have effective communication strategies and flow so you create an inclusive informed environment. If you don’t communicate properly then how can you expect others to understand?

As Brené Brown says ‘Unclear is unkind, clear is kind’.

  1. People-focused development

How do you feel when someone invests time or an interest in you? It’s good isn’t it?! When people feel like you are investing in them, they will invest in the company. So offer training and development opportunities that go beyond the role. Offer development in confidence, mindset and leadership. Your team may possess the skills but lack the confidence and self trust to fulfil them. I offer ways to work with both individuals and teams and you can check out my programmes here. 

  1. Be the example and have a feedback culture

As a leader you need to embody this culture and walk the talk. To be comfortable giving and receiving feedback that is aligned to the company’s values. Become aware when you are making it about ‘you’ and not your people. As leaders, we need to trust, value and care for our team,  which then drives loyalty, increased effort and retention. 

There are some great companies already exhibiting this culture – you can find the best in the UK on the Best Companies List here, which recognises company commitment to employees and demonstrates that they see workplace engagement as a vital part of their organisation’s success.

If we all start to adopt these beliefs, we will create productive and HAPPY places to work – whether we are back in the office together or out of it.  Sound good?

I’m already excited for the future of business. And hope you can be too!

Joanna is an award winning international coach who is passionate about helping people achieve personal and business success. Combining 20 years of operational experience with her behavioural expertise and leadership coaching, Joanna has worked with leading companies like Getty Images and the BBC to increase performance and results. If you’re interested to learn how Joanna can help you and your team, book your free discovery session with Joanna here


I don’t know how much longer I can take this

This is a call to arms from a place of high worry and concern.

“I’m on the brink.”

“I feel like I’m failing at everything – as a parent, a boss, an employee and a wife/husband.”

“I’m not sleeping.”

“I’m not sure how much longer I can do this for.”

“I don’t stop working till midnight.”

These are just some of the daily conversations I’m having with people right now.

Lockdown 3.0 is hitting people a lot harder.

The workloads within the businesses I speak to are at an all-time high because the resources that were once there to do the work are there no longer. Other reasons include businesses saying ‘yes’ to everything from a place of fear.

This is not sustainable

If we do not find a way to help people navigate this lockdown – balancing home-schooling and high workload (let alone mental health) – then we are on a steady road to a pandemic of burnout.

Just imagine, we have the joy of the vaccinations being completed and offices re-opening again – yet your team are nowhere to be seen…


This is at an all-time high.

People are questioning if the work they do is really what they want to be doing. The ever-increasing stress, overwhelm and anxiety is bringing ‘the meaning of life’ into question for a lot of people.

Is working all hours, continually trying to please your boss and dealing with difficult clients, actually worth it when you can see your kids are suffering from seeing their parents stressed? 

Children’s education is already being affected by the current environment, but what about the secondary damage that is happening to children seeing their parents grumpy, snappy and stressed?  What example is this setting them? 

The Answer

Unfortunately, I don’t have one magic answer to solve all of this. But I am going to share some thought-starters about how you can take a moment to step back and look at your business, leaders and teams and put actions in place for the next 3 months to protect the wellbeing of both themselves AND their families.

1. Values – What is your company valuing the most? As this will be impacting your people.  If you value profit first (you may not say you do, but your actions speak louder) then take a moment to re-organise your values to put compassion, joy and peace at the top.  Notice how this influences your decisions and actions, then notice how quickly you see a difference in your people.

A friend shared with me how they feel so lucky to work where they do as their company’s top value is ‘FUN’, then fame, followed by fortune.  This has kept the wellbeing of the team high and in this state the money naturally follows.  

2. Resources – I know money is tight for a lot of companies, however with the reduced hours parents can give right now (without expecting them to work into the night or them feeling like they have to), please bring in short-term resources to get through Q1. 

If you truly value your people, put help in place now – or risk losing them and their wellbeing because of the impact this is having on their family.

3. Protection – Have boundaries to protect your team.  Do not let clients take advantage or treat them badly.  Be there to back them up and have standards of what is and isn’t acceptable.  

I was devastated to hear that an employee feels that they have to put everything in writing because a client is being so unreasonable, and there is no one from senior management to support them. This is a clear demonstration of profit over people and this treatment is not sustainable. 

Companies have a responsibility to put their people first.  Your people must feel like they matter and they have your support. Without people, companies are nothing.   

Psychological safety is a must

More than ever right now, you need psychological safety in the workplace so people feel comfortable enough to say ‘they are not okay’ and can ask for help without fear of judgement and losing their jobs.

I don’t normally write a call to arms, but this is an ever increasing problem that hasn’t even reached the climax yet. We need to take control now. 

I ask you to please look again at your team. 

If you are feeling it, then they definitely are. What else could you be doing to help?  

If you are lost for an answer, ask your team what they need and do what you can – within your control – to provide it, without damaging your business. 

Be aware that the decisions you make today are going to have a big impact on whether your team chooses to stay with you in the future.

For the companies reading this that have found a way to look after their teams resourcefully in this period, I would like to ask you to share what you are doing to help others. 

Just as the whole country has had to do during these testing times: The more we stand together, the stronger we are.

Joanna is an award winning international coach who is passionate about helping people achieve success. Combining 10 years of operational experience with her behaviour expertise and leadership coaching, Joanna has worked with leading companies like Getty Images and the BBC to increase performance and results. Joanna’s approach is always people-led so if you’re interested to learn how Joanna can help you and your team, book your free discovery session with Joanna here

Business Teams

The moment I realised I’d lost my spontaneity and how it’s time to bring it back to business

The moment I realised I’d lost my spontaneity and how it’s time to bring it back to business 

I’m currently reading for the 8th time ‘You2’ by Price Pritchett (incredible book) and one of the key learnings is how our tendency is to default to our familiar behaviours and ‘what we do best’ vs. taking a quantum leap and breaking our patterns to create the extraordinary.  

We are creatures of habit and routine, so when we are presented with a world of uncertainty and lack of clarity, it forces us even more to fall into those habits, which can be both productive and unproductive. The problem is even the productive one’s may not be the right thing to be doing.

“It really doesn’t matter how well you do something, if it’s the wrong thing to do”

So, why am I sharing this with you?

Breaking the familiar

It got me thinking, what are my familiar patterns that if I continue doing them will prevent me from reaching new heights of success.

A very simple one came up.

Email vs Picking up the phone.

I have defaulted to email vs. picking up the phone for years, and a very wise person asked me the question why?  

Great question. 

Here’s my answer:

“I worry that I will interrupt someone’s schedule as I can’t remember the last time I phoned someone or someone phoned me and we hadn’t pre-planned a time, It almost feels impolite these days to just pick up the phone”

As I said this out loud it made me think how sad it was that communication and building relationships has become so scheduled and formal.  

On a side note: I was also shocked (and then I wasn’t) to find out that: 81% of millennials feel they need to summon up the courage to make a call.  

This is frightening as I think of all the skills that are being lost and ‘what if’ email suddenly didn’t exist (anything is possible), we would have a huge group of people who do not know how to communicate confidently with each other and businesses would plummet. 

Bring back spontaneity

Okay, back to the story: the lightbulb moment struck and I realised that not only have we lost our spontaneity in lockdown, we lost our spontaneity years ago with email.  

Ask yourself “when was the last time within a business context, did you just pick up the phone and check in with someone”?

We think we are maybe helping by emailing but all this is doing is clogging up an already overwhelmed inbox and potentially causing more stress as you have now added a ‘reply’ on their ‘to do’ list.

Also, do we really get to know someone over email?  I know I’ve got at least 10 people I’m in contact with that I’ve never met or spoken to and yet we converse over email regularly and start with the wonderfully polite greeting of ‘nice to e-meet you’.

Now I’m not saying stop emailing and start calling.  It’s finding the right balance, I just feel we have gone too far one way and I believe it’s time to bring some spontaneity back to life and business.

The benefits of picking up the phone:

  1. You make decisions faster
  2. You can pick up tone on a call and gain clarity of meaning
  3. You can actually solve things faster as it’s achieved in the call not back and forth on email
  4. Reduced anxiety as you’re in the space with the person. You’re not repeatedly clicking ‘refresh’ on your emails second guessing what is going on
  5. You build stronger relationships
  6. You can build on ideas 
  7. You receive an answer in the moment 

I do understand efficiencies and tracking conversations, especially coming from an operations background, however business was once achieved without email and I wonder for all we have gained, what have we lost that would right now be so wonderful and productive to bring back.

We are all searching for connection and community in these strange times, so how about you join me in my quest this week to phone at least 5 people and see how they are and how you could help.

I’d love to know how you get on.

Joanna Howes is an international award winning coach, behavioural expert, and No 1 best selling international author, who specialises in leadership and business operations. If any of these have resonated with you and you would like to explore how a coach can guide you to achieve your success, please book your free discovery session with Joanna here. Joanna also shares free resources on her website which you can access here.

Business Leadership Self Development Teams Wellness

The business crisis just got personal

The business crisis just got personal 

The conversations I am having with leaders and witnessing online have dramatically changed in the last few weeks.  For me, it has been most marked by the shift in language I am seeing people using. No longer are we talking about ‘pivoting’ or ‘survive and thrive’ instead, ‘fatigue’, ‘overwhelm’, ‘stress’ and ‘burnout’ are the new words. (In fact these conversations have driven me to create a 30 minute masterclass for leaders who are worried about their teams to get some practical solutions to help them – if you’re interested you can find out more here). 

What I find most interesting though is that this shift in conversation marks a move from putting the professional impact front and centre, to discussing the personal toll this period of time has taken on the individual – an, quite rightly may I add. It is short-sighted to not recognise how undeniably interlinked the personal and professional effects are. Here I am going to explore why businesses need to shift their focus to solving this, the top reasons underpinning burnout, and why most of the new initiatives leaders are trying are falling short.

Mental Health is a conversation in business that can no longer be ignored 

Covid aside, stress is the number one cause of disease and has unfortunately been the currency for a lot of high-performing teams well before the events of 2020 unfolded. So, in the last few months, it has been heartening to see discussions around mental health become woven into the narratives of leadership and company policy. I have seen this byproduct of the pandemic as being an overall positive move in business. Clients have told me about a new wave of honesty in the conversions they’re having in 1:1s, of wellbeing articles landing in their inbox, and, virtual mindfulness sessions organised for lunchtimes and after work. 

However, for those who are already up against it managing childcare alongside full-time hours, increased workload due to a depleted team or increased levels of anxiety (which is a normal response by the brain to extended periods of uncertainty), they are simply not able to take advantage of added initiatives. And for those that do take part, these offers are good painkillers and most definitely a step in the right direction, but they are not going to heal the root cause of the problem. 

We’re stuck in a loop

Not only that, the big worry that I have is that the leaders I am speaking to are so stressed and overwhelmed themselves that they can’t be there for their team in the way they want to be. They recognise they are falling short, but they simply don’t have the time, nor the headspace to do anything differently right now. In trying to keep their heads above the water and keep their team in a functioning state, the consequence is that everybody feels like they’re at best, treading water, and at worst, sinking.

When the impact is affecting leadership level, we see a dangerous loop emerging. Teams are struggling to adapt to changes, they turn to their leadership team for guidance and they see their experiences being reflected right back at them. Certainly there is a levelling that happens when different ranks in business are united behind a shared experience, not ideal though when the experience is a negative one that impacts personal and professional success.

Businesses truly have a responsibility to help. Not only will a team who are struggling with overwhelm or motivation be more likely to be affected by anxiety and low mood, they will also struggle to make decisions, stay focused and perform well. Burnout is the word of the moment and suggests that teams and their leaders are not simply under-performing or struggling, they’re at a point of crisis.

So how did we get here?

There are, of course, many reasons that have led to the current landscape. Below are the top take-aways from our findings over the last few weeks.

1.People are being expected to do two people’s roles due to the depletion of teams

2. People are taking on tasks they are not skilled in or do not have enough experience of

3. Leaders are in a survival, short-term reactive mode and therefore are causing panic amongst their teams

4. Investment in training and development has gone – or budgets have been frozen 

5. Leaders are not skilled in coaching or human behaviour patterns, so do not know how to help themselves their teams, with stress and anxiety 

6. With the increased pressure of childcare, employees are having to now do both with the expectation that their work outputs should remain the same

7. Team members who thrive off connection and interaction are struggling to stay motivated and find fulfilment in a virtual working set-up

The key is shifting your thinking 

Another interesting thing to note is that burnout is also caused by the ‘fear of not being good enough’. This fear is undoubtedly amplified right now due to people seeing loss of jobs happening all around them and wondering if they will be next. Most leaders I am speaking to are experiencing a level of uncertainty in their future. This is leading to confidence and worthiness issues in personalities who have never previously experienced this before. Let alone those who were prone to this before the pandemic.

Now more than ever we need leaders who can be there for their team and give them the level of support they deserve. Teams need leaders who can understand how to best manage their own levels of burnout so they are able to help others do the same. This process can only begin when leaders start to shift their thinking.

Here are some quick tips on what you can do to be there for your team:

1. Become a leader who is comfortable with mindfulness practices – it is proven that taking 60 seconds out every hour to do a slow stretch, yawn or perform a conscious breath improves focus and motivation – In your meetings, start or end with a stretch or a yawn. Have fun with it and don’t be embarrassed, you and your team will see the benefits if you make this part of your daily workings.

2. Know your team on an individual level – We are all different and need different things to help us be okay. Find out what each of your team members needs are and let them be heard. For some of them it will be a simple feedback call once a week, others will want to have fun to release stress and some people will just want to be left alone to be able to focus on their work. It is not a one size fits all model.  Know your team and then you can manage your time better to be where they need you to be.

3. Be mindful of your language – If you as the leader are using pressure language like ‘it’s a nightmare’, it will increase your stress and your team’s stress as it releases cortisol, which will affect their ability to come up with a solution. Instead, choose a phrase like, ‘it’s an inconvenience’ – this will not only make you smile (as it’s a bit daft), but it defuses the intensity. This allows you and your team to think of how you are all going to support each other to find a solution forward.

These are 3 simple tips to get you started. If you’re interested in learning some further proven exercises you can do with your teams to discover how to keep their energy levels charged up and increase motivation, then download my free guide from my website here.

Or discover more more about my programmes and team coaching here.