In this capitalist society, it is so easy to view work and entrepreneurship as gateways to financial success. This leads to the grind and hustle culture that often makes our professional lives tedious. What if you can look at work and success from a different perspective? In this episode, we have the perfect guest who can speak on the subject of work and our relationship with it: award-winning registered occupational psychologist, Dr. Hayley Lewis of Halo Psychology. In the first of a two-part conversation, Dr. Lewis shares from an organisational psychology perspective about navigating work today. She talks particularly about her academic research on female entrepreneurship and their idea of success, tying as well her own experiences as a business owner. Dr. Lewis then tells us her view of the profession and what occupational psychologists can do more for small business ownership. Tune in to this conversation and learn more about the world of work through the lens of organisational psychology.
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Redefining Entrepreneurial Success From An Organisational Psychology Perspective With Dr. Hayley Lewis Part 1
We are speaking to Dr. Hayley Lewis of HALO Psychology. I’m excited to have her here with us. I’ve been waiting patiently for this. It’d be lovely if you could introduce yourself to our audience and maybe say a little bit about yourself, your background, and the work you do.
Thank you for asking me. I’ve been waiting a long time going, “Why have they not asked me?” Now they have. I am a qualified psychologist. I’m an occupational psychologist. What does that mean not a lot to your average person? I specialize in organizational culture and how leadership and management behavior, in particular, impact that. A lot of my work as a consultant is with everyone from middle manager up to a board level doing all sorts of things, whether it is one-to-one coaching, executive coaching, running leadership development workshops, doing research, and all that good stuff.
My doctoral research, which I know we’re going to talk about later on in the episode, was on something a little bit different. That was very deliberate because I sometimes feel that there’s a lot to research into leadership and management. I thought, “What am I going to add to that? I wanted to do something a little bit different.” That’s me in a nutshell.
That’s helpful. Before we get onto some of the more detailed topics, like the research or things like that, I’d be interested because you’ve been an occupational psychologist for quite a little while and have high expertise. I’m interested because I came to it quite late in my career. I wondered, do you think organizations and even the general public are more aware of the field of occupational organizational psychology and the associated business psychology and work? Is it just that there are more people in the academic field? Are you seeing more out there and more awareness of it in the workplace?
I’m not seeing any more awareness. I diverted from the world of Ox Iike for a bit and went into frontline operational management and strategic leadership roles, covering everything from customer services h to IT, and then came back in the payload. Wherever I’ve been on my journey, whether it’s at the start back in the ‘90s, when I went into local government, or even now when I talk about occupational organizational business psychology, more often than not with the lay public. By lay public, I mean my client base I met with blank stares. There are a number of reasons for that. We haven’t got a-has. I’m going to be straight out the bat where I don’t think we’ve got a-has in order in terms of being clear about who we are, what we stand for, and what we call ourselves.
In the UK, it’s still not that well known. However, that’s juxtaposed. We’ve got more people coming through the Master’s programs than ever before. I’ve written a chapter for a new book that will be out for Master’s students. You contributed to that book. My chapter was about working in the field of occupational psychology. One of the stats I share is in the UK alone, there are around 600 people graduating from their Master’s each year. You’ve got this inundation of people coming into a field that not a lot of clients and organizations know about. What do we do about that? That’s one of the things that I’m passionate about educating both client organizations and students about in terms of the roles that they can go into. There’s a whole mishmash of stuff going on there, particularly in the UK.
It’s interesting because I go through little cycles of one minute, I’m like, “Definitely, more people seem to know,” then I’ll walk into an organization that is big enough that I’m absolutely confident I won’t have to spend twenty minutes explaining what I do and don’t do. I’m very much in the periphery of the field, but it’s very interesting watching what is quite a young field in the grander scheme of things, trying to find its way to make its presence better known so that people could do it. I’m consistently concerned that people are adopting interventions working with consultants, and they don’t know the rich, much better, evidence-based material clients, consultants, etc., that are out there.
I’m always interested in that question. We’ll get a little bit on now to one of the many reasons we’ve asked you to join us. That’s your research. You mentioned it already. Before we go into the topic itself, I’d love to share a little bit with the audience about what the topic is and, how you went about choosing it and indeed, what made you go and study it.
My area of research from my Doctorate was on female entrepreneurship, women business owners, particularly micro businesses. I did two studies. I was particularly interested in, first, How women define success in relation to being a business owner and secondly, the psychological factors that denote success. The reasons behind my study were varied, partly because it was born out of my own frustration, but also increasing interest in capitalism, anti-capitalism, misogyny, and the narrative that we see out there in the world about what constitutes a successful business owner. That’s perpetuated on programs like The Apprentice, Dragons’ Den, and all that stuff.
My instinct for many years now has been very masculine. It’s on the basis of the narrative. It’s very capitalist. This assumption that to be successful is about 5, 6, 7 figures and you must want to grow, get employees, and all that stuff. That leads to my second reason, which is I wanted to make sense of my own journey because it never resonated with me. I have a very successful business. I get booked out months in advance, but I’ve never had the aspiration to grow or be a millionaire. Does that make me any less successful? I was curious about that.
Finally, my increasing annoyance, my husband says, “I live in a constant state of annoyance.” I think that’s because I’m perimenopausal. I’m nearly 50. I feel I get annoyed at stuff and injustices. I’ve become increasingly annoyed over the years that some of the crap that I get see pedaled on places like Instagram and LinkedIn that are aimed at women setting up their businesses often, who don’t necessarily have lots of money but are wasting money on things that have a lack of an evidence base, but cost a lot of money like coaching programs if I see the word mastermind one more time. Being run by people who I question their morals. There was a whole mishmash of stuff. There’s a very long, convoluted answer. That’s what powered me to do the thing.
There are about 40 questions that I’ve now got in my head. I’m trying to make sense of them because all I can think about is what you’ve mentioned and what regular readers of ours will know is a tinderbox. If you talk about capitalism and anti-capitalism, which we are not as a show, we’re about work, yet somehow, we end up on that topic quite a lot. I’m going to leave that for a second, but I’m probably going to come, I’m warning you. I feel like it shapes much of how we think about the world and we’re unaware of it.
One of the things we try and do on the show is to get people to think about that a bit more. We’ll probably come back to that. The first thing that pops to mind is your own journey. You talked about your own journey and not trying to make sense of that. The very obvious question is, did it help you make sense of that? More broadly, what did you either learn about yourself or what was it around your journey? Did you find that continued or once you started the research, was it, “It’s much more about these other people now?”
There were two things it did. It reinforced how naïve I was in the beginning and when I started my business. During the first six months of HALO, I didn’t have any work at all. There is nothing more terrifying than seeing your savings slowly ever weigh, and you’ve got a mortgage to pay and all that stuff. There’s no other income coming in.
It helped me understand the lessons from that naïvety and, subsequently, how I can help other women wanting to leave corporate life, whether they’ve worked in HR or learning and development or they want to set up on their own. Secondly, it made me blooming proud. I don’t know if you found this on your own journey, but it can be very easy as a one-person business, micro business, or even a larger business of never stopping, pausing, taking a breath, and taking a moment to acknowledge and reflect on how far you’ve come and how well you’ve done. I realize I hadn’t done that. The Doctorate and the utter privilege of listening to other women’s stories forced me to do that. I ended up feeling proud of where I’ve got to and what I’ve achieved with HALO.
It can be very easy as a one-person business to never stop, pause, and take a breath to acknowledge and reflect on how far you’ve come and how well you’ve done.
That idea of either research, academic learning, or something offering that space to learn and stretch, but also to go, “I didn’t even know I could do this. I didn’t think about my own personal reflection.” One of the things we talk about a lot, probably too much or maybe not on this show, is about reflection and the role of reflection in people’s careers but also in organizations. What’s the right balance and how do you do it?
It’s always lovely to hear someone who has taken that and has been through that experience. It’s nice to know. Thank you for sharing that. On a very practical basis, how did you find the process? Were there are people who wanted to talk about it? How did you balance your own life? It feels like an enormous thing to do because most people do academic PhDs full-time and over four years. I know this is a different thing, but what was that experience like for you?
I’m not going to lie. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. During a pandemic whilst looking after my terminally ill mum, who died as I was beginning to get ready for my second study and my thesis. There was a whole load of stuff. I’m trying to keep my own business going during a pandemic. Lots of your readers will know Dr. Rachel Lewis and Dr. Jo Yaker, who obviously run the Doctorate program at Birkbeck. Rachel and Joe are always taking that out of me and this is something that’s been my whole life, particularly my working life.
I am known as somebody who is super organized. People always ask, and I used to get asked in an interview, “How are you? what do you do?” I said, “When something is natural to you, you don’t know how you do it.” When people ask, “How are you organized?” “I don’t know.” One of the things that came out of my second study is most of the women I interviewed are high in conscientiousness. The stories they shared were evidence to me that were high in conscientiousness in terms of the big five personality factors.
We know that people who are high in conscientiousness manage their time well and have systems and structures in place. It was managing my diary ruthlessly, having very clear boundaries, and having some systems and structures in place that enabled me to successfully navigate the Doctorate whilst running a business, looking after my dying mum, and all sorts of other things and underpinning it all. I have quite a few OC psychs, for example, who drop me a line and say, “I’m thinking of doing the Doctorate. What would your advice be?”
I think my advice, more than being organized, is you’ve got to want to do the topic. You’ve got to be motivated and love it because you’ll have that inevitable. Shakespeare called it the Long Dark Night of the Soul in Henry IV. We all have those moments during the Doctorate and reminding ourselves of why this research and why this topic matters to us. Why it’s important for the world is what will keep you going in those inevitable down-dark moments that we experience.
You’ve alluded a little bit to some of the things that you were looking at, that you were finding and you were discussing. I want to come back to something you said a little bit earlier about what you were looking at about this idea of success because we’ve talked quite a lot about a couple of things. We’ve talked about the concerns that we have around things like employee engagement and this idea of purpose in work being something that everyone should want because we worry that it extracts value out of people or if the intention is to extract value out of people that they’re not getting paid for.
It’s like, “You love this so much and you find purpose.” I see it a lot in the charity sector not necessarily deliberately. People are like, “I love my job so much. I ended up doing X, Y, and Z.” I’ll never forget the first paper I read at Birkbeck when I did my MSC, which was about The Call Of The Zookeepers. It was about zookeepers who done a study on how much additional labor they were doing beyond their contract.
We often talk on the show about not finding purpose in your work but instead talking about the purpose of work in your life. What are you looking for in your work to give to your life, whether it’s financial stability, etc? We talk about it a lot. We’re interested in that. It begs the question, “What things were you finding around this idea of success? What were you looking at? What did you find and reflections on how that differs for different for this cohort you were looking at?”
My first study was a review of what research from highly economically developed countries had said over the last many years. None of those studies had sought to define success. They had foisted upon the participants a predetermined definition of success, which was all about financial measures, sales, profit, and turnover. That was the starting basis. My study is the first known study to specifically define success in the words of female business owners themselves. There were five things that came out consistently time and time again in my second study across every single woman that I spoke to. Only one of those self-defined factors was about money.
Let’s not be naïve. We live in a capitalist world. You can’t do much without money. One of the factors that every woman said was, “I want to earn enough to have a good life. I’m not interested in earning 6, 7, or 8 figures. I want to earn enough to be able to pay my mortgage, go on holiday, have enough money for a rainy day, and have a good life.” That was profound and very marked across all the conversations. The four other stronger factors within the definition that came out were non-financial. In particular, there was this thing around success being about making a tangible difference to clients. It was about having a fantastic reputation where it’s word of mouth. People come to you because of word of mouth, because of the quality of the work that you do.
There were these other two factors around, which probably will be no surprise to you, freedom and autonomy. It’s being able to manage your diary and your life as you are able to and see fit. There were some wonderful stories from quite a few of the women about, “If I want to go off for a bike ride one afternoon, I can and I don’t need to worry.”
It was interesting for me because it’s a theory that I’ve always been interested in, but not very well known even across our profession. The Theory Of Thriving by Gretchen Spreitzer was evidenced. Thriving was a very clear success factor in terms of how women defined success. The theory of thriving suggests that when we’re thriving, there are two things we see. We are learning all the time, but we get a sense of energy and vitality from our work.
One of the women I spoke to encapsulated it beautifully because she said, “I am in love with my business. I would be in love with it.” For me, that encapsulated, “Here is somebody who is thriving by being their own boss.” It’s scary. You don’t always know where the next bit of work is coming from them, but they’re loving it. They’re in love with their business. That’s infectious and then almost creates a virtuous circle. People want to work with you because you give off good energy and on and so forth. That’s the story that I’ve been able to tell from my own research that challenges the typical research that takes place around business ownership and entrepreneurship.
It’s almost overwhelming talking to you because it occurs to me. Bear in mind I spend large portions of my day talking about the experience of work, business ownership, trusteeship, and all of these things, and yet the narrative of a specific type of entrepreneurship is predominant. That’s why I would never have even associated it with a group of women that you are talking about because I would probably sit somewhere in that category and would a number of the others. It is far away from my understanding of some of my peers and friends who own businesses. I would never even consider calling them that because of that understanding of what that word means in this society.
I can’t speak for other developed economic societies, but I can certainly speak here in the UK. You mentioned Dragon’s Den. It’s unfathomable to me almost that that’s the same group. That’s interesting. This is not in terms of your research, but as a person who’s interested in this field from one to another.
If this group that you looked at’s experience is different from how we talk about it in generic senses, what could that mean about all of the other groups that you might not have researched yet, or other groups that might have? What might it be like for the eighteen-year-old who accidentally has done some good digital tools and now is running his own business or the 55-year-old woman who started knitting after retirement? It’s doing something small. I’m guessing we know very little about all of these different groups of people.
It’s one of the things I talked about in the chapter, my research, where you talk about future implications, practitioner recommendations, and policy recommendations. There are many groups that are under-researched, particularly from a psychological perspective. My own criticism of our profession of occupational psychology played a part in that through our silence. When I was doing my first study, the research papers were dominated by the fields of business studies, economics, social psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Not one paper came from the field of occupational, organizational, industrial, or whatever you want to call it. That’s fundamentally wrong.
It was a great opportunity because it’s not right and the stage is left. What surprises me a few years since I started when I talk to those who are coming into the field, or maybe you’ve been in the field for a while and who are interested in doing the Doctorate. I ask them about, “What’s your topic of interest?” Nearly everyone keeps saying resilience, leadership and management, or teams. I always ask the question of those people, “Small business owners, why aren’t you thinking of entrepreneurship? We’ve got a role to play in this.” The fact that we don’t talk about entrepreneurship and small business ownership, SMEs, and all that stuff in Master’s programs is perpetuating the problem. I would like to see more of us as psychologists engaging in research in this particular field.
I didn’t know we were going to go there. Ninety-nine percent of businesses in the UK are SMEs. For those who don’t know, an SME is a Small Medium Sized Enterprise. In the UK, it’s under 250. I think the US is 500. I’m not sure. It’s in the three figures below. It’s 99% of our businesses. It doesn’t look like that when you go into the academic work and practitioner world. I’ll share a story merely to achieve a satisfactory confirmation bias for both of us. I was chatting to some HR people quite experienced and very good HR people. It’s a large group. It’s on an electronic platform, probably about 40 of them.
Some consultants and some in-house. I do nearly all of my work with SMEs. I asked a question about how an HR function would work if they didn’t have an HR function. It’s a very specific policy that they do. I said, “If they don’t have an in-house HR because it’s a small org, how have you seen that done?” Literally, it was like, wind through the bull rushes. Everyone was like, “What do you mean they don’t have an HR function?” I was like, “Generally, organizations under 50 people might have an administrator. They will outsource some of their senior occasionally.” They’ve got an HR. They certainly won’t have a learning and development individual and things like that.
I was like, “Why am I talking to these people?” They’re educated and brilliant. I’m sure they could have helped me fashion an answer, but it’s not relevant for any of my clients. It’s hard to check the relevance of anyone working in that client environment. It’s baffling when you think about it. Coming back to money, it occurred to me that for the very same reason, we set up the world of work.
If you are under 250 people, you do not have the number of people that you can get the cost per head down enough to be able to do organizational development interventions. It’s because when you’ve got 10,000 people, you might be spending 1 pound per head, whereas if you’re 10 people, there are so many ways you can cut that. Throwing it back to you, what should we be doing in the field to ensure inequality, which is what we’re talking about? We’re talking about of our society doesn’t earn us enough money so we don’t research it. Is that what we’re saying?
I’m going to give the stock psychology answer to it. It depends there. There are a couple of things that spring to mind on the back of your very justifiable run because I feel the same. What’s been interesting to me is this hasn’t been deliberate either, but I’ve had a few SMEs come through to me to do work with me. They don’t have an HR function. Word of mouth has spread. There has been an issue, whether it’s a growing management cohort in a growing SME or whether it’s wellbeing issues on the back of the pandemic. They’ve reached out. Just because you’re an SME, it doesn’t mean you aren’t going to engage with somebody in the field of HR or rock cycle or whatever.
In terms of research, this is me going back to my corporate leadership role which is, “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” There’s something around what are the issues, what are the people issues or the culture issues? What are the personal issues that business owners and founders are grappling with? Therefore, that should spur inspiration of questions to research, whether it’s through an MSE dissertation, Doctoral research, or a community of practitioners coming together and doing some freelance research.
This is one of the reasons why I share so much freely. I get very well-meaning people coming through my LinkedIn direct messages saying, “You should monetize your eBooks and this.” I give the same response. I’m an idiot and I’m a very naïve female business owner. I always say it’s deliberate. I deliberately keep my eBooks and other resources for free because, for as many people who can afford to work with me at HALO, primarily corporate clients, there are as many who will never, ever be able to afford to work with someone like us, but they need help. It’s one of my core values. I feel passionate about what we do. I see it. I want to help.
The best way I can help is by sharing some stuff for free. I’d like to see more of us do it. Everything needs to be monetized. Mine is the only study that’s looked at values in relation to business ownership. Those business owners who have a very clear sense of their personal values help you navigate and make good business decisions potentially. That’s one of my give stuff free. Not because you want something off the back of it, but because you never know, you might get stuff off the back of it. I get business off the back of my free stuff.
We’re a community interest company. We made that decision early doors for exactly the same reasons, which were like, “If we were measuring success by that normative approach, we might still give things away for free because we might be doing it as loss leaders or whatever.” We’d go and do something else probably because we’ve both got less experience in this than we would do in some of our other fields.
When you know why you want to do it, what values are guiding that, and why you’ve come to that conclusion, it’s a lot easier to be able to go, “I want to reach as many people as possible.” It’s funny you said that that happened to you because when lockdown first happened in 2020, James and I literally sat down and went, “Let’s rewrite all of our remote working stuff, make it contextual, and we’re going to run every day two free sessions. We’re going to turn off the numbers and anyone who wants to come get them on there.”
We had 300 or 400 people come through in the first week. About three people and they weren’t strangers on LinkedIn, were friends of mine messaging me going, “Rod for your own back and all of this.” I was like, “No, I’m good. Thanks.” It kept us sane because it felt relevant and like we were connected to something. I want to go back to something else you mentioned. You talked about money not being the major issue. You talked about values and things. I know he is not an occupational psychologist so I’ll get in trouble for this, but I always remember Dan Pink talking about what he refers to as drive, which would either overlap or root in self-determination theory.
In his phrasing, I always love when he talks about I and does animation, which is, “You pay them enough to take money off the table as an issue.” I love that because it challenges the idea that money’s a motivator, which I think for some people in certain personalities and certain ways, the equate money with things like status, standards, expectations, and respect, I understand. Coming back to women, I’m interested, “Does that resonate?” I know they’re not getting paid, they’re earning, turn over or they’re trying to grow. Is it about enough to meet this limit that it’s no longer an issue for them and they can put it aside and focus on their business? Is that something that could be similar?
It’d be very easy for your readers, without knowing the characteristics of my participants, to go, “I imagine,” because I was looking at coaching in consultancy businesses. The assumption could be, “There’s an element of privilege there.” A surprising phenomenon was more than half of the women that I spoke to were sole wage earners. There was a huge amount of pressure on them. They weren’t supported by anyone else. It wasn’t like a nice little side hustle or something like that. This was serious business. Their family and loved ones and their own survival depended on their businesses working. There is an element of the money that needs to come in, but it doesn’t need to be a huge amount.
If it is huge amounts of money, happy days, but that’s not the drive. It’s enough to have a good life and look after whatever my family looks like. I always use the metaphor of the Rubik’s cube. They’re connected because if you build a great reputation through the quality of the work, through who you are, through a clear value set, and through your integrity, that’s going to attract clients to you because we know particularly for one person and micro businesses, it’s about you.
You are the brand. People want to work with people. How you show up and who you are can either attract or repel. Those factors are all intertwined. My research has garnered some interest, particularly with the emphasis on personal values. I looked at the holy trinity of personality, competencies, and values. There’s been quite a lot of interest in the values aspect.
How you show up and who you are can either attract or repel clients.
Finishing off on your research, although I dangerously could talk about this all day, what do you think it means for those women like your participants who have either set up or are setting up or are thinking about setting up businesses? What is either more difficult for them or what is different for them that they should, maybe if they were reading, be aware of based on what you found?
We’ve not talked about the psychological factors that help, but there were two potential hurdles that came up loud and clear. I wanted to look at the factors that enable success because nobody looks at that. They look at what goes wrong. Unsurprisingly, a couple of things did come up. That could be a potential hurdle. They were financial competence and feeling confident and competent around your finances.
There was nervousness among most of the women I spoke to. In fact, the literature suggests that women business owners tend to be very nervous around finances and accounting. What the women in my second study had done is they’d put in place things that help systems and processes and other help, whether it’s getting an accountant or whatever to mitigate that potential lack of confidence.
The second hurdle for your readers who are thinking of setting up a business is a fear of selling, but the hard sell and not wanting to do that. What came out of the stories, and it goes back to that success criteria, is not one of the women I spoke to had to do that. What I think is a very icky, fake hard sell. You’ve connected it with someone. Immediately, within a nanosecond, you slide into their DMs and start trying to sell them stuff.
Not one of the women had to do that and they didn’t want to do that. They talked about not wanting to do the hard sell, not feeling able to do the hard sell, but through talking to me in the interviews, they came to the realization that it need not be a hurdle because they haven’t had to do that, because of how they show up, because of the quality of their work they do, and the amazing networks that they have. They haven’t had to do that.
It is a potential thing to pay attention to. It’s one of my own frustrations when I’m meeting with groups of Master’s students or people who are thinking of setting up a business. The first question I ask is, “What’s your digital presence?” We’re in 2022. Whether you like it or not, it’s a hyper-connected and always-on world. If you don’t have a strong digital presence or you are not putting out good content, you’re going to struggle. It’s a differentiator. It can help you not have to do the hard sell.
Whether you like it or not, we are in a hyper-connected, always-on world. If you don’t have a strong digital presence, if you’re not putting out good content, you’re going to struggle.
We’re coming to the end of our time, which is frustrating because I’ve got another 5 or 6 questions. I might have to ask you to come back, is the honest answer because I think there’s a lot more to talk about.
I’ve done two-parters for quite a few shows.
We might have to be another one of those.
That’s fine. I’m happy to do that.
In the meantime, before we do, people are interested. They are reading. Anyone who is familiar with us will know because we share with you quite regularly that you’ve got a big presence online. We’re not going to go into that right now. Everyone can go and have a quick look because you do huge amounts of free sharing on LinkedIn and other platforms. How can people learn more about you, HALO Psychology, and get in touch?
The easiest way is to go on LinkedIn. Find me and connect with me. I’m always happy to connect, just don’t do the icky hard sell. You can go to my website at HaloPsychology.com. There are all sorts of information about how you can work with me and free stuff that you can pillage away on the website as well.
Thank you very much for joining us. Hopefully, we’ll have you back soon. We’ll talk a little bit about the psychological factors and your sketch notes as well, which I know a number of our readers are massive fans of. We look forward to speaking to you again soon.
Thank you for having me.
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About Dr. Hayley Lewis
Hayley is an award winning registered occupational psychologist, with 25 years’ experience in the field. She specialises in leadership and management behaviour and how this impacts the culture and performance of teams and organisations. Her doctoral research focused on the psychological factors that enable female entrepreneurs to succeed in the start-up phase of establishing a first business.