Unleashing the power of positive psychology at Fleishman Hillard with Sian Walters

I am delighted to have a guest with me today who has been on the journey to creating a strengths-based organisation for many years now – Sian Walters, Associate Director of Talent Development at award-winning Communications agency, Fleishman Hillard.

For the past six years, Sian and her colleagues at Fleishman have been hard at work creating a strengths based culture that will provide them with the resilience to get through the tough times, as well as those times where it’s easier for people to flourish. Which seems like a while ago now, right?

So in today’s podversation, I want to discuss with Sian what challenges she’s facing as a people professional at Fleishman Hillard right now, and how the business is responding. Then get more into the meat of how Sian and the people team have set about deploying the strengths approach at Fleishman, how that’s helped in generally and how it’s helping right now, plus discussing more about the challenges in landing a positive psychology-based approach in a fast-paced business like Fleishman.  Wrapping around that of course and as always, I’m going to ask some questions of Sian about her own journey, learnings and reflections on her career.

Welcome to the strengths guy podcast Sian.

Let’s start by talking about your journey from the beginning to Associate Director at Fleishman Hillard – I’d love to hear about your career to date, what you’ve loved, what’s been hard, what about now and the future?

I’ve been at FH since I graduated 11.5 years ago. It’s quite unusual for someone to still be with the same company after so long but I’m quite proud to talk about the journey that I’ve had and what has kept me here – it’s the great people that I work with every day and the constant change within the agency which makes no day, week, or year ever the same.

Looking back at the time that we moved to a strengths-based approach, it was certainly a key milestone that helped to evolve our agency and take us to the next level. We moved away from some traditional HR processes, to really putting individuality at the heart of everything we do – encouraging people to think about how to bring their best selves to work every day and strengths was the perfect tool to enable us to do that.

Personally, my self-improvement strength is a key one for me. It’s a strength I pull on probably everyday as I like to keep learning and growing and there has been no end to that happening over the years. As a strengths coach myself, I coach a lot of people within the agency about how they can use and be aware of their strengths to support their careers and this means that I have had to get in tune with my own.

I think the biggest learning for me is not just about having good awareness of what energises me; efficiency, initiative, compassion and emotional control but also the tipping points of when my strengths go into overdrive – detail orientation and compassion being key ones and where I can use my critical thinking strength more as I take on greater responsibility.
The hardest part is being vulnerable, being open about the energy drain areas (creativity & decisiveness) and calling on others for support – the more we talk about it as a team, the better we work together. It’s just making sure we all have reminders to set aside the time we need for our own development, so it doesn’t fall to the bottom of the to-do list, which I think is too easy a thing to do.

What are the people challenges that your organisation is facing now? Retention? Engagement? Change fatigue?

All the above. Sustainable growth and the long-term reduction in face-to-face time are the two people challenges that I’d pick out as priority for us.
We are returning to typical pre-pandemic turnover rates but during a year of growth, the need for us to replace and invest in new talent simultaneously is causing a strain on capacity and pressure on recruitment across the agency. This impacts retention, engagement and wellbeing.

It’s a good challenge to have on one hand – we want to capitalise on opportunities for our clients but in a sustainable way for our people. We want to empower leaders to partner clients in the right way that will support our people. We have introduced a client charter to help but internally, we need to reignite our culture, particularly as a third of our headcount are new joiners that have joined us over the last 12 months.

With wellbeing and strengths at the heart of our approach, there is the impact of everyone feeling as though they are ‘always on’ and work being relentless.

How are you responding to these challenges? What have been your learnings?

In addition to strengths, over the last three years we have brought DE&I to the core of our business strategy. Through the combined lens of DE&I and strengths, we are focusing in on recognising our individuality – getting to know who each of our team members are as well as their strengths and ambitions.

Leaders and managers drive our culture and a key focus is on leadership and management development to empower and equip them with the skills they need to help their teams succeed. We do this by ‘Leading well’, a term we have adopted from our learning partner MindGym.

An individual approach to support and development is what we do.

How has the strengths approach worked for you in your organisation? What have been the positives? The outcomes?

Starting in 2017, strengths has underpinned our approach to talent management and career development.

We have 10 accredited strengths practitioners.

Everyone completes an individual Strengthscope and we use strengths as a common tool/language to support line management/career conversations

We hold regular internal workshops and more recently, we partner with StrengthScope to deliver high-impact one hour masterclasses to help us continue to drive engagement and embed strengths throughout the agency.

What about the difficulties and learnings you’ve had in bringing strengths to FH?

Strengths helps to empower managers to have more meaningful conversations. However, inconsistencies can exist – where some line managers need greater support to adopt and use the tools on an ongoing basis.

We have to constantly reinforce that strengths is an ongoing tool and be used to support many differing situations, both from a positive and constructive feedback perspective. Keep doing vs. do differently have become our feedback frameworks and real-time feedback is the most crucial part of any good career conversation – we need to empower our managers and leaders to give more feedback and be comfortable in having more challenging conversations – which can lead to positive outcomes.

And what about with the challenges that you’re currently facing – how is the strengths approach helping you respond?

We are using strengths to support our transition to hybrid working. We are taking learnings from the past 18 months to support our wellbeing as we move forward into 2022 and beyond.
We have a people centric hybrid approach.

We’re exploring how strengths can help bring people together – we facilitate team sessions so that individuals share their strengths with those that they work closest with. It’s a tool to help us get to know one another better, both personally and professionally.

We are re-focusing on career development. Encouraging everyone to use their strengths to identify how they can achieve their goals and aspirations. Making sure there are clear expectations and clarity on next steps so that everyone feels truly energised.

Final question from me – if you as you today but meeting you as young you early in your career, or even before, what advice would you give yourself?

Soak up every opportunity, don’t be afraid to push yourself but be aware of your boundaries – call on others for support and that’s the best way to learn and grow.
For organisations, wellbeing is just as important now as it was during the lockdown periods.

Managers and leaders need to feel supported and empowered to bring career development back up the priority list and believe that this will help us all to perform and deliver even better work for our clients – and to feel energised within ourselves. Ongoing upskilling and coaching is essential.

Time is precious so take small steps – keep coming back to strengths so it becomes a core part of everyone conversations and it will become a key pillar of culture.

Thank you so much Sian for taking the time today. If people want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way for them to contact you?