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'Gut Throat Leadership': Behind the coaching method that counteracts overthinking

July 26, 2019 | Daisy Bernard

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We spoke to Eibhlin Johnston, founder of consultancy Odd Socks and author of Gut Throat Leadership, about her ideas and methods to disrupt the way we think, coach and work.

In May 2019 Eibhlin Johnston quit her Vice President role at JP Morgan to launch her own company. During her 30 years in the financial services industry she noticed increased stress levels among staff, particularly in women and leaders. To get to the root of the problem, she founded Odd Socks, a consultancy business that disrupts the way we think, coach and work. It provides a range of services; working with companies on strategic projects, business development as well as Leadership Coaching and Training.

Odd Socks stems from something Eibhlin learned from her career — that leadership and true authenticity happens in the split second before thought. The consultancy offers a range of tactics designed to prolong this split second, challenging the way we think and work and disrupting the normal. Her first book on the subject, Gut Throat Leadership is due to be published in Autumn 2019.

We spoke to Odd Socks founder, Eibhlin Johnston about launching her own business, a busy mind and the link between authenticity and leadership. As a Gold Sponsor of Women in Finance Dublin, she'll be at the conference discussing "Gut Throat Leadership", and leading from the inside out.

Eibhlin Johnston, Founder of Odd Socks


What led you to start Odd Socks?

Last September, after 30 years in the financial services industry, I decided I wanted to pursue my real interest people and transformation. Looking back on my career, I can see that I was extremely lucky with the companies and people I worked with, but I was noticing more and more stress in the workplace, particularly for women and people in senior roles. Since September, I have sought out the leaders in training and coaching from all over the world. I started to see that there was an easier and better way to live and work. I explored leadership and coaching styles with international trainers and coaches to understand the way we think and behave. My “transformation” practice, Odd Socks, has been built on the premise that true leadership happens in the split second before thought and thinking takes over. Odd Socks was started in May 2019 to disrupt the way we think, coach and work; to provide a range of solutions designed to prolong the split second. 

The Odd Socks concept for this business is entirely random.  Odd Socks remind us of odd thoughts, the endless pursuit of thoughts; with very little logic or outcome.  Everyone relates to Odd Socks and yet no-one understands it. Odd Socks don’t conform and yet we spend lifetimes trying to conform.  We have all experienced the phenomenon of Odd Socks. How can something as simple as matching socks cause so much angst and difficulty.  Billions of socks have been lost only one, never a pair. No reason, no logic… It’s just a journey of thoughts.

What is Gut Throat Leadership?

My book, Gut Throat Leadership, is an exploration of thought and overthinking and its impact on our wellbeing, stress levels, ability to listen and lead.  It also explores the latest findings on authenticity and its impact on leadership. Authenticity can be fragile one thought and it slips and we take on a fraction of someone else’s persona, leaving behind a slither of our true authentic self and slowly losing sight of our true identity.   Many coaching programmes, trainings and self-help books, point us to what is wrong and show us how to “fix” the wrongs, how to get out of the dips in life, with tools and techniques, habitual changes, steps for happiness and great leadership etc. Gut Throat Leadership is based on the methods used by leading transformational coaches.  Transformational coaching shows you how to live without the dips by quietening the mind. It’s a new shift, a shift towards what is right and not what is wrong. Part of the insights in the book also point to the modern need to be “busy” and delve into the concept of busy versus productivity.

What effects can overthinking have on our wellbeing, and how can we prevent this?

I have spent the last 10 months exploring the effects of overthinking on wellbeing.   When what we are making up with our thinking is out of line with reality, we struggle. When what we are making up is aligned with reality, we thrive. I have spoken to and coached hundreds of people in the last 10 months to collect and understand the concept of being “human being” and “wellbeing”. I have spoken to survivors of abuse, breakdowns, cancer, burn out, trauma to name a few.

Without fail, each person has had a breakthrough; through the understanding that they do not need to live from that painful place by going back over it again and again through their thinking.   It then becomes possible to embrace life, not the thinking of life. There is a subtle difference. Everyone has that capacity to live life without the need to overthink. Odd Socks transformational programmes show you the way.

Overworking and overthinking come hand-in-hand, what are your tips for maintaining a work/life balance?

Once of the coaches that I have spent time with this summer wrapped up his talk with the following:

"I once interviewed a fish that lived in a bowl. When we were wrapping up - I asked him the simple question 'what is it like living in water' and he said 'what water?'” 

 

I love this analogy. When we are living in the only life, we know we just keep swimming around.  When we are living in an overstressed and overworked chaotic life, it becomes the norm.  Opportunities present themselves and we keep swimming around. It takes a leap of faith to take the first step towards change, balance and awareness. The first step is to take note of what is really going on. 

I have always had a curiosity around behaviour and thinking and had the sense that there is an easier way to live, to life.  I was a mother of two sons by the time I graduated from college at the age of 21 and spent the next 30 years dedicated to proving I could do it all until one day I couldn’t.  My life started to unfold. My relationships in work and in my personal life were fragile. I had started to lose control; the control that kept me together, or so I thought.  My life was based on conditions, made up by my thinking. I now know that we have no idea what we will be thinking in five minutes time because it is all made up and yet it is that thinking that we arm ourselves with in advance of every conversation and every action.  

One of the coaches that I have worked with explains thinking in terms of commas and full stops. There is a significant difference between “I am angry with my partner or colleague because they did x, y, or z wrong” and, I am angry – full stop. I am angry – full stop is less likely to lead to excessive thinking.

How does authenticity contribute to successful leadership?

Authenticity exists outside our thinking. We behave in a certain way because of the plan we formulate through our thinking.  Our inner knowing and intuition knows what to do and yet we fog it with our thinking. I have watched many senior executives (in coaching them) who say, “my gut is telling me” or “I know intuitively that” and yet they override the gut in a split second with their thinking. We also have that inner intuition when it comes to reading people and situations and yet we can talk ourselves in or out of a decision. Odd Socks is focussed on re-training the mind to remove the commas (described above) and live in our innate authentic wisdom.

We can all remember a situation that we had no time to prepare for and yet we operated from our gut - immediately.  Most of us can relate to a situation where we felt danger and knew instinctively how to react. We live in this wisdom all of the time at an unconscious level. We all brush our teeth, put one step in front of the other; open our mouths to talk and look left and right when we cross the road without the need to think. This is part of our innate wisdom and authenticity. Yet when it comes to the bigger decisions - meeting new people, team meetings, leading an organisation through change, we lose the ability to rely on this innate wisdom and start making “stuff” up through our thinking.   

How far does this authenticity go? For example, is there such a thing of oversharing at work when it comes to personal emotions?

This question makes me laugh. I was the queen of oversharing! I still wear my heart on my sleeve. I don’t think there is such a thing as oversharing – full stop. However, this does not work for everyone. The question that I ask many clients is - are you true to your authentic self or are you true to the “made up” version of yourself? Do you find yourself changing your mind about who you really are, or you find yourself getting your internal narrator/thinking to tell a story that matches the facts of a specific situation better? If having an internal narrative is so important to having an “authentic self”, what is left when the narrative crumbles? I believe that when we intuitively tap into the other person, we know authenticity. We pick up on something that’s not authentic but don’t know or understand why it bothers us. Our brain usually computes it as something they have done wrong, their voice, something they said, but I strongly believe that our inner knowing sees through the inauthenticity and reacts.

How can we ensure more women hold more senior roles in the finance sector?

This is a great question. Another word for ensure is – safeguard or guarantee.  If we are looking for a guarantee, we need to look at the numbers as a simple maths formula.  If the number of senior roles in the finance sector is static, the number of men in senior roles needs to reduce; allowing for more women and vice versa.  Many women I have coached describe the challenge of parenting and working full time as “torture” or “impossible”. There is often a sense of shame around not being able to “do it all”.

Personally, I struggled to be a working mother. My heart was at home with my children. My head was at my desk. I could never reconcile the head and the heart thinking. My gut was to be with my children. My natural response was to overthink, overwork and over parent. The world I had created in my head was so tortured that I had to find another world. At times I found this world at the bottom of a glass of wine. I lashed out at those closest to me, my husband. I needed to numb the world I had created.

The finance sector has always supported senior roles. There is, however, a natural divergence for some women when family comes along. Women who choose to pursue a career should be open to asking for support – through coaching or otherwise.  Many of my clients find themselves in positions that they do not like, with colleagues they may not work well with, but they continue to “battle on” in pursuit of their career. The simple fact is – it is harder to thrive doing something we do not like and that does not feel right. When it feels right, we thrive, and senior roles become less of an effort.

What can our readers, as individuals, do to push for gender diversity and help their organisations fight for the right teams of people?

The words “push” and “fight” are words that are usually used in challenging situations.  Many financial services organisations have established women’s networks and gender diversity policies in place. I believe that each individual has responsibility and choice around promotion and positioning in their own place of work.  It is important to take opportunities to network and be seen. It is equally important that you take time to ensure you are in the role that suits your work style and allows for promotion, if that is what you want.

Instead of getting stuck in your thoughts, work with a mentor or coach who can support you within your organisation.  Most successful people – male or female will point to a mentor or coach who guided them or provided the appropriate nudge at the right time. When you are comfortable with your own role, position and support, work with others in your organisation to show them the way. 

Eibhlin Johnston will be speaking at Women in Finance Dublin on 12-13th September 2019. Register here