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CIO podcast: Paul Heywood, managing your wellbeing as a CIO

“After many scans, they diagnosed Parkinson’s, aged 48,” Paul Heywood tells the Horizon CIO podcast.  Until 2015 Heywood was a member of the CIO community leading technology teams and delivering change in legal and financial services organisations. Parkinson’s disease has no cure, Heywood is controlling his symptoms and using his experience to form a new startup organisation to ensure his CIO peers don’t find themselves facing a similarly frightening diagnosis at what is now a young age.

Heywood is now founder and director of Halcyon Life an executive wellbeing organisation built on his personal experience, which has enabled him to bring together a diverse team of experts.

A fairly typical career trajectory via supervisory, consultant and programme management led to a senior role in 2007 as IT Director of law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse.

“I had always wanted to be an IT Director, it was my career ambition and I finally reached that,” he tells the UK’s only CIO podcast. “I was brought in as IT Director initially to sort out their operational issues and systems availability problems which we did, but ultimately to add some value in terms of strategy.”

After four years Heywood moved into financial services to become IT Director at investment house 3i Group. “I had to outsource the IT department and recruit a new team in London and move the team from Birmingham to London and in fact sell the building they were occupying, all in six months, which we achieved in six months, which was pretty hard going,” he says. 

“There are always challenges in every role, whether it is technical challenges or political challenges but what really starts me is understand the business and seeing what really impacts the business and seeing that transformed.”

Diagnosis

“I was walking to work at Field Fisher and I noticed that my right arm wasn’t swinging naturally,” Heywood says of the first signs that something wasn’t quiet right with his health. “I dismissed it as probably a strain or just a temporary thing. After a while it was still there and it became apparent that something was definitely still wrong.”

Heywood did what many do, especially men, and ignored it and took some time before he set up an appointment with the doctor. “He said you need to see a specialist, probably a neurologist, and I was convinced he was wrong,” Heywood says of the surprise that a problem with his arm should require a visit to the neurologist.  “But he was spot on and after some scans and tests I was told I had Parkinson’s, aged 48 and also told that if I had any big holidays planned, to take them sooner rather than later as the disease will just get worse.

“Parkinson’s has no cure at the moment, there are lots of ways to deal with the symptoms, but no cure at the moment. It is described as a progressive chronic disease, but the theory is it will just get worse and worse,” Heywood says.

“It is never going to get better, but it needn’t be the death sentence that something like cancer can be, there are lots of things that you can control and the prognosis of finding a cure for the disease is quite good.”

Stress and redundancy

When I first began writing about the CIO community the role was often likened to that of a Premiership football manager with CIOs being fired after just two years in the role and throughout the community fear and uncertainty stalked its corridors. Today, in my humble opinion, the role is on more solid ground, but for those, including Heywood who went through that brutal cycle of redundancy there was an increase on their personal stress.

“It is hard for anybody, the first time you go through it you can explain it away and it is just one of those things, but the second time you go through it you start to challenge yourself and wonder if it is something you are doing wrong are you not delivering enough value. It is very difficult emotionally, especially when you have a family to support,” he tells the podcast. Heywood says the process was well handled in the two times it happened in his career.

On the day before the podcast was recorded I took part in three meetings where organisation expressed concern about recruiting and retaining talent. Yet it is amazing to hear across the business sector how many organisations see their skilled and connected staff as little more than a cog that can be deployed elsewhere in the organisation with no consultation and a bullying attitude.   These same organisations then find themselves being overwhelmed by rivals with a significantly better approach to teams.

“I think it can be used a little bit too frequently and it is important to remember that behind everybody that is being made redundant there is a human story and in my case that was dealing with a chronic illness diagnosis and making sure that it is dealt with sensitively and with dignity every time is important,” Heywood says of those leaders that use the threat of being made redundant as a way to redeploy staff.

Throughout the discussion at the Horizon CIO podcast studio it is clear that one of the reasons for Heywood falling ill with a chronic disease was stress.

“Undoubtedly it played a part. The stress of the job is just one thing and we have stress in our everyday lives and I can’t put my hand on my heart and say it was just the stress of the job, though it obviously played a part. Stress is not an illness, it is a physiological reaction to an action or a danger. These days threats are not physical so you have no need to fight or flight, but dealing with the emotional stress is that much harder as there is no trigger to turn it off,” he says.

Stress is exacerbated by just how busy you are as a CIO, which in turn leads to short cuts that are not good for your health. Heywood, like many CIOs was eating fast food rather than good food: “Time is poor so you eat processed food and ready meals and there is no time to exercise,” he says.

“I wasn’t doing anything to excess, with hindsight we would all do things differently. The one thing I regret now is not taking action early enough. I could have taken action to eat more healthily, to exercise more,” Heywood adds.

Creating a Halcyon life

“When your whole life has been leading up to your career ambition and when you finally achieve that and then to make the decision yourself that you can no longer perform at that level is pretty shattering,”

“It  wasn’t clear to me immediately what I should do, but slowly you realise there are lots of things that you can control. You can control your eating, sleeping, how much exercise you do; how you relax; how you spend your leisure time, and by doing all of those things you realise you can counteract the effects of stress and Parkinson’s.

“Having to finish work and stop my job at 3i, it was a very easy decision, I just realised there was no other way, if I carried on I was going to make myself very ill and I couldn’t perform at that level for that position, so it was my decisions and I spoke to my boss and she was very supportive. At 3i I had just built a new team and it was forming and it was beginning to do some good things and I felt I could no longer lead them in the way they deserved.

“When your whole life has been leading up to your career ambition and when you finally achieve that and then to make the decision yourself that you can no longer perform at that level is pretty shattering,” Heywood says with honesty.

Once Heywood was no longer working he was able to focus on his wellbeing, something he readily admits he should have done whilst in role. He began to eat more healthily and felt the affect of fresh food. “I became aware that there was a link between the digestive system and that I had Parkinson’s so I asked to be referred to a dietician and she was very helpful and go me into probiotics, which made sure that my gut health was as healthy as it could be.”

“Within a year, the combined effect of all the things I had been doing I considered going back to work. Retreat for a little while and then get back on the battle field,” he jokes. “But I was reluctant to get back on the corporate treadmill. I had the idea, that there will be lots of people in the same position that I was in and that they may regret it in years to come? I could then package all this knowledge and experience up to help others.”

In setting up Halcyon Life Heywood has created a team from the specialists that have helped him manage his Parkinson’s.

“I am confident we can help anyone to be healthier. Attendees can expect a personalised experience. They are small programmes, a maximum of eight delegates on each programme,” he says of the two day residential courses which will be held at Henley Business School and Wakefield Park, near Reading.

“It is an educational experience and they will choose the areas that they think they need the most help with, set their own goals and we will support them for a couple of months after the programme to help them make sure those goals are achieved.”

The residential programme is based on 10 principles of healthy living and covers everything from physical fitness, diet, stress management, relaxation and sleeping well, as well as an introduction to complementary therapies such as reflexology and yoga.

Experts will assess every delegate individually and advise them how to improve their overall health. At the culmination of the programme, every delegate will select their own areas for personal improvement and set the goals they wish to achieve. Halcyon Life then support them over the next eight weeks to ensure that these goals are fully accomplished and their new lifestyle has been established. And if they are particularly inspired to pursue a particular area, they can continue.

To learn more about the course visit: http://www.halcyonlife.co.uk/

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