Dr Lynda Folan, the author of ‘Leader Resilience, The New Frontier of Leadership (2021)’, is an Organisational Psychologist and renowned specialist in Leadership and Organisational Development.
Lynda has considerable expertise in leading organisations through transformational change and works with organisations across the globe to deliver Leadership Development, Organisational Development and Resilience building. As the Managing Director of Inspired Development Solutions, Lynda leads a team that provides leading-edge and bespoke solutions for businesses across all sectors.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background, and your current role
With a life and career that has spanned four countries, three continents and travelling to over 110 countries, it has been an exciting journey of learning and growth. My international career has allowed me to take on a broad range of roles in various businesses with diverse learning experiences. At the same time, it has allowed me to indulge in my passion for travel and exploration. As a parent, it has allowed me to provide my son with some fantastic travel experiences and support him in developing a high level of independence.
I was born and brought up in South Africa and completed my first degree at the University of Natal in Durban. Like most young people, I was uncertain about my career direction at that stage. To keep my career options open, I chose to do a triple major in Psychology, Economics and Marketing. My first job was as a Human Resources officer in Local Government. The early challenges of finding ways to engage people in a challenging work setting ignited my passion for organisational psychology. From that point on, I became single-minded in developing my capability as an Organisational Psychologist and Human Resources Professional. This included taking on new challenges, continuously learning, honing my skills, developing a toolkit and taking on new experiences on the job.
Like most young people, I dreamed of travelling the world and exploring other cultures. At 22, when the opportunity arose to go and live and work in Belgium, there was no question about making a move. At that time, I had never travelled outside South Africa, so it was a big step. It was, however, the start of a life transformation that opened a world of opportunity. Living in mainland Europe made travelling easy, so I indulged my passion and started exploring the world. During my time in Belgium, I also completed an Honours degree in Industrial Psychology, cementing my focus on this career direction.
Two years later, I moved to the UK to take up an opportunity at Tesco, which was pivotal in the evolution of my career in organisational psychology. This was a fantastic learning period where I was part of an organisational transformation that was simply awe-inspiring. At 29, way ahead of my planned career trajectory, I was appointed to my first Board Directors role as Vice President of Human Resources for the Hard Rock Café. This was, again, an incredible experience and exposed me to extensive travel and remarkable experiences. I had always aspired to study at the University of London (Birkbeck), one of the top schools of Organisational Psychology. While at the Hard Rock, I completed a part-time Master of Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck. This had challenges, as the International VP of HR role was very demanding and required extensive travel.
During my time in the UK, I built a highly successful career leading International Human Resources and Organisational Development teams and delivering large-scale cultural change programs in various organisations. I was involved in the purchase and sale of businesses, a management buyout, the closure of a business operation and an extensive range of business transformations. This provided a fantastic range of opportunities to hone my skills, knowledge, and experience in my chosen field. My corporate roles in London included Tesco Stores (Retail), the Hard Rock Café, Wyndham International (Hotels) and The Number (Telecoms).
In 2003 I fell pregnant with my son Matthew, precipitating a shift in priorities and focus. His entry into the world was unexpected; however, he was and is utterly adored and will always be the most important person in my life. While my career focus remained consistent, Matthew’s arrival brought significant changes. As a family, we made a lifestyle choice and commenced the process of migrating to Australia. In June 2007, we landed in Australia after spending three months exploring Africa on route to our new country. I initially worked for an established consultancy business in Australia, but in 2012 decided to set up my own company, Inspired Development Solutions Pty Ltd. The business is a niche Organisational Psychology consultancy firm founded on solid client relationships and delivering bespoke solutions that deliver results. Over the years, the business has continued to grow and develop in diverse areas.
Working with leaders across the globe, I developed an interest in understanding what supports leaders, their teams, and their organisations to achieve excellence. This evolved into a very defined interest in the personal attributes that support outstanding leadership, which was the starting point of my Doctoral studies. Unlike most academics, I never set out to complete a Doctorate, and it was definitely not in my life plans. However, in 2020 after eight years of research, I graduated with a Doctorate in Organisational Psychology. Completing this took a significant effort, as I am not a natural academic. In school and my early university studies, I achieved average results. And as a teenager, I recall my father telling me I would have to work hard at university, as ‘I was not university material’. He was right, academia is not natural for me. However, I was passionate about making a difference for my clients, and I spent eight years confirming the importance of resilience for effective leadership. After submitting the final version, one of my mentors suggested that it was a waste not to turn my research into a book. As you can imagine, after eight years of study, my initial response was not positive. However, in the end, I spent another eighteen months converting the research into a book. In November 2021, I published my book, “Leader Resilience – The New Frontier of Leadership (2021).” The book has generated significant interest worldwide, particularly in the present context, where resilience is a big topic.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
When I left University, I was still uncertain about my career direction. However, I was very driven to achieve and build a career. Once I found a path in organisational psychology, my career direction became eminently apparent. I have always had an overall plan of what I want to achieve in my career and life. I take time every year to evaluate what I have achieved in the previous year and what I want to focus on in the future. More specifically, I take the time to define my goals for the following 12 months. During my time with the Hard Rock, I was lucky enough to spend time in Uta studying with Stephen Covey (the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and his team. I have never forgotten the things I learned under his guidance, and each year I use the process I learned under his expert tutelage. My mentors have played a large part in my career direction as they questioned my thinking and challenged me to go beyond my limitations. I will always be incredibly grateful for the fantastic people who have mentored me and guided me over the years.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
There have been many challenges, but I will hone in on one professional and personal challenge.
The professional challenge that stands out was when I found myself in a role I loved but where the organisation’s values conflicted with my personal values. While I was passionate about the job and built a great team around me, I was aware that the organisation and the senior leader’s values did not align with my own. Daily I grappled with this conflict of values, specifically when I was called upon to make decisions that directly violated my values. Over time I felt my energy drain, and I could see my passion being eroded. I was convinced I could change the culture and kept hoping it could be shifted. Unfortunately, it didn’t change, and I eventually left the organisation. I learned from that experience that your gut instinct is essential, and we should listen to this. When your values are being eroded, it is impossible to bring your best in an organisational setting.
The personal challenge I want to discuss is dealing with the teenage years. There is a code of silence during this period of parenting. Even in the middle of it, I learned that people lie about the challenges they are experiencing, cover up their difficulties and become very judgemental of young people who don’t fit their view of the world. This was difficult with a son who is larger than life and does not go below the parapet or accept social norms being imposed on him. I was fortunate to have some fantastic friends who were prepared to be vulnerable and talk about their challenges as parents. Parenting is one of the most critical leadership roles we take on in life. I have learned that it is even more essential that we maintain a high level of resilience in this context, or we won’t be able to effectively support our young people through this crucial transition into adulthood. I can’t say it is done yet, but I have managed to get my gorgeous son to adulthood alive and well, with a strong sense of self and a healthy streak of independence.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
Professionally, completing my Doctorate and publishing my book.
Personally, being told by my 18-year-old son that he respects me more than anyone else he knows.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
Several factors have supported my success.
- Hard work is the first thing that comes to mind. I am totally dedicated to what I do and often work what many people consider unreasonable hours. Whether that is studying, learning a new skill, doing additional preparation to deliver excellence for a client, staying longer than required to achieve an outcome or simply ensuring excellence in written form.
- Not being prepared to be defined by the social norms and values of my generation – I have always chosen to dance to my own tune. When society said I should be having babies, I was travelling the world, chasing an international career. When the social norms said I was less of a mother because I went back to work so quickly, I decided that I was a better parent because I worked. I am not saying this has been easy, and there have been many people who have judged me for my choices, and there were many times when I was unable to be there for events at school. However, it is my choice, and I own it. I genuinely believe I bring incredible value both as a mother and an expert in my profession.
- Continuous learning – I tirelessly work at developing my intellectual capability and social-emotional capacity and learning new tools and techniques to support my work.
- Pushing my boundaries – I regularly do things that scare me and push my limits. When I become nervous or avoidant of something and sense that I have reached my limits, I simply push on, do whatever it is, and face my fears.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone, or are you someone’s mentee?
I have personally had some of the most amazing mentors in my career. They have been instrumental in some of my personal and professional life decisions. To give back, I also mentor a range of people, particularly young people entering Organisational Psychology or developing their careers.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?
Throughout my career, I have spoken and listened to other women talk about ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ and achieving gender parity. Yet as we look across industries and continents, we still don’t seem to have significantly shifted the dial on the gender issue. We have still not even achieved the basics of human rights for women in the workplace – sexual harassment and discrimination still plague the workplace. From my perspective, the fundamental shift we need to make is to shift our unconscious processing so that we no longer see some people as more or less capable but all with equal potential. To make this shift, leaders must do the work to clean up their unconscious processing, which results in mental bias.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
I would give myself the advice that I give people daily. Clean up your unconscious, make yourself conscious of the things that are holding you back, and develop strategies to process negative emotions effectively. If I had developed the disciplines of emotional and mental cleaning in the early part of my life, things would have been even better. I would not have had to sweat some of the small stuff and would have been more successful in navigating the challenging times and taking action more quickly.
What is your next challenge, and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
In 2022 my business has expanded significantly, and the plan is to continue this in 2023. Additionally, we will take up the challenge of reaching a broader number of people through online content that can be scaled. There is a significant demand for mental health, well-being and resilience support. The plan is to provide research-based online content to support people to flourish in the present volatile context. We have been researching the best ways of doing this and will go live with the first iteration in the first half of next year.
My passion for supporting individuals, teams and organisations to achieve the exceptional is built into every aspect of our work, and this will continue to drive the business focus. However, we will explore new and creative ways to do this in 2023. I am super lucky because every day is an opportunity to build capacity in individuals, teams, and organisations and make a difference in people’s lives.