Newstalk Radio interview with Transformation Specialist – Dr. Yolande Coombes

Muireann Ryan Executive Voice Coach & Co-Founder

The Core Story’s Yolande Coombes joins Newstalk’s Alive & Kicking presenter Clare McKenna, to discuss her interest in people’s behaviour, how environments affect physical and mental health and the impact this has on work and society today.

Yolande specialises in issues that inhibit performance and negatively impact wellness in the workplace. This includes individual problems such as depression, stress and anxiety and collective challenges such as poorly functioning teams and counter-productive organisational culture. Yolande is the author of several books and peer-reviewed publications and has been invited to speak on wellness to international audiences, including CIGNA and the American Chamber of Commerce.

Jan 8 – 20mins


Click here to view Dr. Yolandae Coombes Bio

Issues discussed:

  • Is there such a thing as work life balance?
  • Are meaning and purpose idealistic?
  • The issues disconnection creates
  • Importance of celebrating success
  • Failure and the "messy middle"


Interview Transcript: 

My next guest, Dr. Yolande Coombes, has many roles, one of which is as a transformation specialist.  Her interest in people’s behaviour started with studying how environments affect physical and mental health. And the impact this has on work and society. She now helps leaders and teams to better understand their own and others behaviour.  Over the past 35 years, she has worked for international organisations such as the World Bank and the World Health Organisation as well as coaching senior leaders in businesses and governments in Europe and Africa. She has a masters and PhD and is the author of several books and peer reviewed publications.

Clare: I hope there is very little on your New Year’s resolution list this year.  You’ve achieved a lot. I hope rest is up there at the top somewhere.

Yolande: That’s very kind of you to say, I think I’m one of these people who’s a lifelong learner and like yourself am very interested in wellness in all its forms.  I was listening to your show last week and I took on board the idea of setting an intention. And so maybe one of the intentions for me is to have a little bit more fun and a little bit more playtime this year.

Clare: Yeah, that’s a really good one because I think sometimes we forget that particularly when you’re asked, What do you want for a new year? We tend to go to work first and professional goals that we want to set for ourselves. And I know that on the one hand, you spend quite a lot of time, if you are in the working world in your job, but there are so many other facets to our life and to our wellness.

Yolande: Absolutely.  I think one of the issues that we see is that there is such an integration between work and home life and before we used to be able to compartmentalise a lot more.    So if work wasn’t going well, we could focus on home or family or other relationships, but now everything is so intertwined.   Particularly since the pandemic with hybrid working, it is very difficult to separate these things out in that way.   And I think that makes it much harder for people.

Clare: Do you think there’s such a thing as a work life balance?

Yolande:  It’s a really interesting question. I would have said probably 20 years ago when my children were small, that’s what I was striving for and it got to a point in my career at the time and I finally left because I couldn’t achieve a work life balance.  I remember having an exit interview and at the time, I’m not sure I’d heard this term, but I remember saying, You know, the problem is not for me to try and find balance, the issue is I need to be able to integrate them more.  I want to be able to go and watch my son play soccer in the middle of the afternoon and then perhaps work in the evening. And at the time where I was working, it was all about time in the office – you were being paid for the hours and you were supposed to show up.  I don’t think that works, particularly for women.

Clare: And do you think we have a more open society now where we can still say those things, particularly, as a parent?   Do you think it’s okay in the workplace to say, I’m going to head to a soccer match and I’m going to work through the night.  You hope that the new hybrid way of working has brought that in, but I kind of fear post pandemic that we’ve gone pretty much back to the way we were before.

Yolande: Well, I do think that’s the case in some businesses and organisations, I do think they have gone back and I think that one of the difficulties that we see is that people often pay lip service to hybrid work. So they say, Yeah, we have a hybrid policy, but you need to be in the office on Mondays and Fridays or, you know, you need to be here at these times.  That really isn’t hybrid really hybrid because it just says you are working from home at set times.  And I think you know, it is one of those things that that there is a little bit of, I don’t know whether it’s competition, but you know that thing where you can tell somebody – “Can I call you back? I’m just taking my lunch break” and their response is: “Oh, lunch break – lucky for you that you’ve got time for lunch break”, like what you’re doing is something wrong.  When actually, what you’re doing is recharging and getting yourself ready to work more productively later on in the day.

Clare: Yeah. And it’s a big mindset shift. And look, I say that we’ve gone back to a lot of the same ways, but I know there are organisations and businesses up and down the country investing in wellness and a lot more open to talking about diversity, inclusion, hybrid working and what it means to fully invest in their employees. So, you know, I say that rather glibly.  I kind of did a sweeping generalisation but it’s about people’s attitudes to honesty and what we are  willing to ask for for our life, in the workplace and outside of it and I think that’s really important. What’s your advice to somebody at the start of the New Year who maybe feels they are not happy in their workplace?

Yolande: Well, I think there’s a word you use there, which I think is really important, and that’s honesty. And, you know, we talk a lot about honesty, being really authentic, you know, showing up as who we are. And I think one of the reasons why we become unhappy at work is if we are being suppressed or made to behave in a way that isn’t true to ourselves.  Depression comes from suppression and so it’s really important to make sure that you work within a business where you can show up as your true self and I think that’s what we’re seeing as one of the things that underpinned the great resignation or quiet quitting.  There are more and more people who have realised, maybe through pressing the pause button during the pandemic, that there is so much more to work than just showing up and being told what to do.

One of the things we found from work we completed for a white paper is that people really want meaning now, they want meaning in their jobs, they want the values that are important to them in their personal life and their home life and the relationships they have, they want to see those values reflected in their work life.  And it doesn’t have to be that those values are great big lofty goals – making the world a better place – but you need to be engaged with your heart as well as your mind.

Clare: So I think for a lot of people to hear that concept that they can find work, I mean, you say, If you can get paid for a job that you would do for free, you’re in the right area. That people might struggle a little with that. They think you work to live, you get the money you need to pay your bills and to have this this meaning and purpose is a little idealistic. What would you say to people that might feel that way?

Yolande: It’s a bit like how we say to the kids, when they’re doing something, when you’re doing a job, do your best, put your best efforts into it.   There’s a great story, and I’m not sure how true it is, but it’s a great story so I’ll tell it anyway.  During the 1960s, when President Kennedy went round NASA.  At the time there was a big rush to put a man on the moon and to to be the first.   President Kennedy was shown around NASA, and he met the astronauts, engineers and scientists and and then at one point, he was taken into a room and there was a lady who was serving the tea and he turned to her and he said, “What is it you do around here”?  And she said, “Well, my job is to put a man on the moon”.  And that’s because even though her job was to serve the tea and empty the waste paper basket, she was still part of that bigger purpose which was to put a man on the moon.   Now, I know that’s a lofty goal, but, you know, if you work in a company where you feel part of it, where you feel connected, where you’re able to express yourself, where you’re able to turn up to work as yourself.  Then it is going to help you particularly on the bad days and not just on payday.

Clare: That gave me chills, that story and it’s, it’s about having that self belief and that purpose within you really, isn’t it?  You are part of something bigger. I absolutely love that. And never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.   I really hope it is true because you would think that the answer was, “Oh, I just bring the tea and coffee. That, that word “just”, which is still such an integral part of the flow of that organisation.  And that’s what I thought the lesson was going to be.   And I think there’s so many of us apologise for ourselves. I love Marion Williamson’s poem, where she says, “People aren’t afraid of what they can’t do,” and I’m butchering her beautiful words – “They are afraid that they are more powerful than they ever thought possible”. And I think we really disconnect from that at times.

Yolande: Yeah, absolutely. And I think part of the reason we disconnect from it is because the culture of the organisation or business that we’re working in can sometimes go against that.  And it doesn’t allow us to have the meaning and I think that’s why people become disengaged.  There’s been some work done by Gallup over the last few years looking at engagement.  Currently in Europe, they found that only 14% of the workforce are engaged. So in other words, 86% are not. And a lack of engagement at work causes so many issues.  The global cost is estimated that it’s something between seven and eight trillion dollars from lack of engagement because when you are engaged, when you have got purpose, when you have got meaning, you are so much more productive and you get stuff done.  When you are disengaged, at the very low levels of disengagement, where you’re kind of like actively disengaged, you are maybe creating or perpetuating a toxic work culture, you’re much more likely to be unethical, you are much more likely to commit fraud or to cut corners.   Having that purpose is an incredibly important thing that I think a lot of businesses overlook.   They may have it in the C-Suite, but they don’t cascade it down and get everybody behind it and that’s what’s really important.   At The Core Story we work to help businesses develop a sense of human centred leaders, of being able to bring more human experiences, bring heart back into the workplace, because not only is it good for people, it is also good for profit.

Clare: How important is it as individuals that we find out what our meaning and purpose is? We spoke at the start of the interview about finding an intention for the New Year and how you want to feel throughout the year – is that along a similar vein, is that how we should be looking to live our life?

Yolande: I think it is.  When we lose sight of what is important to us, that is when we begin to feel lost and disconnected.   And if you’ve ever read any of the books about happiness, or how to get a more fulfilled life, nearly all of them agree is that it comes down to the quality of your relationship and it comes down to how you want to live your life and what the match is between what you hoped for and what you get.   I think over the last 20 years or so, we’ve become very kind of obsessed with houses and cars and things and stuff. And actually that’s not what really makes you happy.  And that’s not what really gives you purpose and meaning.  It’s about relationships, and it’s about those personal relationships, but it’s also about work relationships and a sense of what I have achieved?  What have I done?  What have I contributed?.   There is some interesting research which has been done with people who are terminally ill and one of the things that they want to know is that they had some kind of legacy.

It might be legacy through children, but it might be a legacy through something that they contributed too, it doesn’t necessarily need to be work, but it might be, you know, coaching the local camogie team.   Everybody needs to feel that their life has some meaning and given the amount of time we spend at work, it’s why having meaning and purpose at work, really does help to spill into other aspects of our life.

Clare: And I’m conscious then of people listening that maybe work in the home or could be studying at present, you don’t necessarily have to have a job to have meaning and purpose in your life.  And I think what you’re saying there about having a disengaged employee, you don’t want to be disengaged in your life full stop.  Because as you say, you miss out on all the opportunities to celebrate achievement, or to learn from things that don’t go as well as you might have expected.

Yolande: I can’t remember where I heard this saying, but I love it, “we cannot build on the success we do not celebrate.”   That means celebrating all the small things and all the small achievements.  If you think about a small child learning to walk and taking those first few steps across the living room. If they took three or four steps when they fell, you wouldn’t say to them, “Well that was useless. You know, three or four steps. I’m expecting more.”  We’d be celebrating, we would be cheering and saying, “Wow, look at you. You’re taking your first steps. That is wonderful”.

And I think what happens as we get older is we begin to say, “Well, it was only three or four steps, it was nothing”.  We forget to take the time to celebrate what we have done, what we’ve achieved.  And I think it’s also because we spend too much time comparing upwards.   And when you compare upwards, you never win, because there’s always somebody taking more steps than you.

But when you compare downwards and you see, well, there are some people who never get to take a single step. Then you can celebrate, only having taken one.

Clare: It’s such an important mindset shift. I was posting on social media recently of the walks I took over Christmas, many that I didn’t want to go on, that I ended up loving once I got out there.  And, and somebody messaged me, she was a previous guest on this show, actually.  She started saying, instead of saying, “I have to go on a walk”, she says, “I get to go on a walk”, and that just blew my mind, that shift in your mindset.

I think we all need to talk more about failure being part of the process because we think and expect everything to be linear, that there is a before and after, and you get to a certain place and it’s just all success all the way along.  But like the analogy you gave of the toddler, falling is very much part of it and I think we should talk about the “messy middle” part a little bit more rather than just the people who get to the top.  And we ignore that they fell many times along the way.

Yolande: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s really important for people who are at the top, particularly those business leaders, or people in positions that we all look to, to share the moments that they have fallen. I know I’ve worked with groups before where I’ve done some coaching and we start by talking about all the times that we’ve made mistakes, not just in business life or work life, but also within our personal life.

We do this at the opening weekend of a retreat that we do and you can see that all these people have come on this leadership course thinking that they were going to be told what amazing lives they have had.  And when we tell them, that between us, we’ve had so many breakdowns, divorces, spells in hospitals, being fired, being sued etc – they are amazed. But then, what it does is it helps them to understand that when we do talk about the successes, that we’re speaking from a real place, an authentic place and that’s what is missing so much in our lives now.

We have the the social media culture where we all post the best sides about ourselves, but we don’t post the mistakes and the failures.  And I think if you’re growing up in that environment, it must be incredibly difficult.

Clare: Yeah, it’s the “fake realness” that we are surrounded by at the minute.   Dr. Yolande, you are in Kenya at the moment, but you will be returning to Ireland.  Will you come into studio as you’ve many gems and insights to share.  I’ve absolutely loved talking to you today.

Yolande: Thank you and I would love to come into studio and chat more face to face.


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