„Feel Good and Purpose fall short!“

How to kill a great organisation-Podcast

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Maria Geir worked for many years in IT and innovation at a large Austrian bank. She recently started her own business as founder of the social impact start-up Octenticity, with the aim of supporting people in their search for meaning and an authenticity. In her opinion, „Feel Good“ and „Purpose“ alone are not enough for a successful business.

In an interview with Elisabeth Leyser, she tells us why leaders like Bobby McFerrin are needed and why groups must be able to withstand dissent. She describes her personal experiences as a project manager in a large corporation, her path away from the comforts of her job to the issues that are important to her, and lets us in on her secret of her success.

  • Groups must be able to tolerate dissent – otherwise there is no sustainable development
  • You can’t run large projects well if you don’t have an understanding of what’s going on in people’s minds.

In the interview, Maria Geir describes her experiences as a project manager in a large corporation, from the positive sides such as extremely exciting projects, a sense of unity, bonuses and social events, to the darker sides: the fragile atmosphere in so-called supertanker projects, loss of control, power struggles and the feeling of being a political pawn. Very personally, she describes dealing with human tragedies and related dilemmas:

„People have died in my projects. They had burnouts, there were break-ups, serious illnesses, miscarriages and all that hits you incredibly hard. And you very quickly get into a moral dilemma, on the one hand: how empathetic can I be without jeopardising the success of the project? At what point does protecting individuals harm the whole team? How much pressure can I put on the team at all so that I can still guarantee the success of the project? And above all: How long can I look myself in the mirror in the process?“

Do something that makes sense

Maria Geir describes her decision to leave the bank as a gradual process. In the conflict between the advantages of working for a large corperation and the desire to have more time for herself and important topics „that make sense“, there were ultimately only two possible options for her:

„Either I accept the rules from a large corporation. And accept the amenities. Or I keep my attitude. And at some point I decided on the latter. Fortunately! „

In her current project, she and her co-founder are focusing on the development of a psychological framework as the basis for a mental health app, which is about the eight pillars of authenticity and recognising blind spots. The goal is for people to be able to deal with their mental health preventively and independently. The social impact component is particularly important to her:

„The idea is that once we have the prototype ready for the market, we want to donate some of the sales we make with it to SDG relevant causes.“

New solutions emerge from dissent

The last part of the podcast deals with the topics of leadership and sustainable corporate success. The intangible aspects are becoming more and more important:

„At the moment, we are strongly in a wave where it is all about purpose, but that is too short-sighted. Because a company only lasts if I can keep my employees enthusiastic about something for years and also give them the space for their own development. Because only then do I get people who have enough rough edges that constructive, good consensus-based solutions develop from the dissent that arises from different people’s points of view.“

It shows clearly:

„You can’t run large projects well if you don’t have an understanding of what’s going on in people’s psyches. „

Maria Geir is an advocate of systemic thinking through and through and has diverse additional training to prove it. In addition to being a life and social counsellor, she is also a permaculture designer and is convinced of the unifying elements of the different approaches, „There are qualities of individual people, there are synergies and certain rules of how something new emerges from this in a perpetual cycle.“

She cites Bobby McFerrin, known to many only as the singer of „Don’t Worry Be Happy“, as an inspiration and ultimate leadership role model, and explains why:

„For me, Bobby McFerrin is the ultimate leader. Bobby McFly makes incredibly fascinating ensembles. And he manages, in a very playful way, to get the best out of people by listening to their needs. He uses body language and a lot of subtle humour to communicate where he wants to go and people follow him.“

To tame a squirrel

Finally, asked about the secret of her success, Maria Geir has a clear picture of how and with whom she wants to work:

„I want to work with people who are so convinced that I can help them, that they pay me enough so that I have enough time to be in balance with myself and tame a squirrel. That’s the image that shapes Octenticity for me as well, where I always want to get to…. I want to do something where I feel like I’m supporting people who actually want change – want change for themselves and for the world. … And I believe that when you have such images and emotions, they carry you through difficult times and also leave enough room to then find the good solutions along the way. „

The full length interview:

This text was translated by a machine and clearly shows that we still have a long way to go before we are in danger of being rendered obsolete by A.I..

Elisabeth Leyser: Welcome to the MetaShift Transformation Podcast. The title of our podcast „How to Kill a Great Company“ is the framework. We look at what determines the long-term success of companies. We hear from experienced leaders and entrepreneurs about what they think is most important for sustainable business success and how they came to these views. Today Maria Geier is our guest. After several years in the IT and innovation department of a large international bank, Maria recently started her own business. Maria, would you like to introduce yourself briefly?

Maria Geir: Yes, very much. As I said, my name is Maria Geir. I am a mother of two children and I live near the Hohe Wand in a very idyllic three-cornered farm. I am the founder of Octenticity. This is a social impact start-up that deals with the question of how people can deal with their mental health preventively and independently. And in parallel, as I am still in the process of setting up, I am also a transition designer at Austrian Standards, where I deal with very exciting questions around organisational and product redevelopment.

Elisabeth Leyser: Thank you. You worked for several years in a large company and managed quite demanding, also international, projects. Can you tell us what you experienced and perceived there?

Maria Geir: Large projects have a very unique dynamic. I have always found them incredibly fascinating because they are extremely complex, extremely multi-layered. And especially when you are in a key position at the beginning of such a project, there is a danger that you succumb to a certain high. Because I have to say, ten or 20 years ago there were still relatively many budget bonuses and social events. And of course it’s also incredibly good for your own ego to be invited to the board level. What’s more, there’s this incredible sense of unity that develops in such projects. And I know enough project managers who have become really addicted to it and actually describe their whole lives in terms of project phases. But unfortunately you forget very quickly how fragile the atmosphere is in such supertanker projects and it doesn’t matter at all how well you have planned such projects. At some point, there comes a time when you lose control. This can be because one becomes a political pawn with the project, or thus also oneself as a person, and power struggles are simply fought out there on one’s back. It can be that the scope changes fundamentally and a whole plan is thrown overboard. But of course there are also a lot of human tragedies In my projects, people have died, they’ve had burnouts, there have been separations, there have been serious illnesses, miscarriages, and all that hits you incredibly hard. And you very quickly get into a moral dilemma, because on the one hand: how empathetic can I be without jeopardising the success of the project? At what point does protecting individuals harm the whole team? How much pressure can I put on the whole team to ensure the success of the project? And above all, how long can I look myself in the mirror?

Elisabeth Leyser: What you are describing is obviously a concrete experience of a very strong field of tension.

Maria Geir: Yes.

Elisabeth Leyser: And I would just like to ask you: Did you have the feeling at some point that enough is enough? I think it can’t go on like this and it can’t work like this?

Maria Geir: I would like to say that I could. But honestly, especially in my environment at the time, I don’t think these „aha“ moments come at all, because for one thing, it’s part of the professional ethos of a project manager that we endure pressure and that we can deal with difficult situations and go beyond our limits. And there’s a bit of a heroic epic in there, which isn’t always entirely healthy. And precisely because I was a woman without a degree in IT and was also very young compared to the others, I definitely didn’t want to show myself up. There’s this story about the frog in the water that you can boil without it noticing if you just turn the temperature up slowly enough. And I think, looking back, that’s actually quite a good metaphor, because it’s such a gradual process. It’s a „yes that extra half hour, it’ll be fine“. And, „yes, I understand that the meeting is now later in the afternoon and evening, because the others just don’t have time“. And the boundaries are shifting more and more. At some point you say „yes, of course I’ll do the migration at the weekend, because otherwise you’ll disturb the running business“ and then it’s only a small step to „of course, pick up the phone when the board calls me on Sunday. It must be important, otherwise I wouldn’t do it“. And that’s where it gets really difficult, because at some point you feel it’s normal and you also succumb a bit to the belief that you’re irreplaceable. And that’s a very unpleasant spiral that quickly takes up a lot of energy.

Elisabeth Leyser: That is, you actually describe that it doesn’t work so consciously at the beginning and that there is obviously a lot of cultural or systemic pressure to play along well with what is demanded of everyone and where everyone actually has to play along. Otherwise it doesn’t work.

Maria Geir: You just have to imagine the ambience and the feeling of a big corporation, if you’ve never been in there, that’s: it’s intoxicating, it’s beautiful! You come into beautiful buildings, five restaurants in front of you, are to choose from. All the people are well-groomed, trying to be on their best behaviour. You play along with that. That’s how it is. And even if you somehow sense that something doesn’t fit. I had a rather bizarre way of compensating for that. It wasn’t something like, „No, I’m going to take a step back and make more time for the family or for myself“. No, I put one on top and said, „No, I want certain abuses in behaviour towards women in IT and the like to change“. And I’ve been a massive advocate for diversity issues. And, because it had a purpose for me, a meaning, and because I found my colleagues there just great, that was my way of cross-subsidising myself in the whole thing. But it didn’t work for ever, because at some point people asked me about it and said: „Maria, you look really tired! And my skin started to break out and what else? I’m a super emotional person. It’s great when you want to motivate people as a facilitator because just the energy is contagious. But I also have the problem that I am very susceptible to tears of anger and frustration in the most inappropriate situations when I am just tired and exhausted. And unfortunately, it has to be said now that in the financial industry and in the project management environment, swearing and getting drunk is much more recognised than bursting into tears because you’re grumpy. That tends not to be understood properly.

Elisabeth Leyser: I can imagine that. It’s certainly rather unusual, especially in a very male-dominated environment, as IT probably is. How did you find your way out of this situation, which must have been difficult for you? Was there a moment when you thought: That’s enough and now I have to do something different?

Maria Geir: For a long time I couldn’t find my way out of the situation, because, as I mentioned before, corporate life has so many advantages and nice sides. You have a good salary, you supposedly have a lot of security, you have a lot of benefits. And I have to say, I didn’t see any reason why I should have changed anything. I had all the methodological skills, they always had super ratings. People always said I was doing great work. And at some point I just switched to somehow taking every bit of recognition as a reason to keep going for a few more months. But I mentioned earlier that I was also massively involved in the field of diversity and that I somehow cross-subsidised myself emotionally. And then there was a project that I really put an incredible amount of free time, knowledge, expertise and a lot of heart and soul into. Unfortunately, this project also became a political pawn at some point and that was actually the trigger for my emotional inner resignation. Because then I knew that what I was trying to achieve was well thought out. It makes sense and I simply don’t need someone who doesn’t have the mindset to understand the networking and the impact of the whole thing – that such a person is not entitled to question my competences. And from that point on, it actually fell into place quite well and all of a sudden all the pieces fell into place that it fit for me. That was exactly the first Covid Lockdown. I’ve had time to go into the forest, to go for a walk in the evening, to indulge my thoughts, to lick my wounds. And a lot of elements just came together that fit perfectly, so that I found my way.

Elisabeth Leyser: That is, you actually drew the strength from a moment where you had the feeling that you had more or less failed, that after a phase of reflection and a phase where you also, as you said, licked your wounds and strengthened yourself again, that you then set out on your own.

Maria Geir: Well, it’s not quite that simple. I’ve actually wanted to be self-employed for ages and three days. And I’ve always found reasons why it’s not possible yet and why I should occupy myself with other things. And I have to say hats off to my husband, who has been infinitely patient. And he knows that I am and will remain a workaholic to a certain extent, he has taken over the day-to-day management, he has cut back for me so that I can live my life to the full. But he also knows quite well how to press my trigger points and has very discreetly pointed out that my 40th birthday is not that far away and how long I think I can actually talk myself into taking big turns in my life. If I stay in this bank much longer. Because he always told me, „Maria, honestly, with all that you can do and all that you are and all your instincts and your flair for new things. Yes, I know you are good at corporate life, but actually you are wrong there“. And yes, the whole thing came out of that. And suddenly it happened that in my last project, which was also a very difficult environment, I met my current founder, Chris Estherbauer, who said: „Great, I’m not a super innovative person, but I’m a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and I love getting processes in order and structuring things.

Maria Geir: And this has created a great dynamic, that we are now doing this together. I tried again to get a foothold in another position in the bank. And that didn’t work out in the end. But at the same time, the current managing director of Austrian Standards suddenly appeared out of nowhere and offered me a job that contained all the buzzwords I find appealing and said, „Come to me and you can do it all. And the deal is that you also have enough freedom to pursue your idea on the side. Because I like people who want to move something forward, change something“. And so it actually turned out very well for me. And now we started with the beginning of the year and we are in the middle of our effectiveness study. And it just feels good to follow my own path now.

Elisabeth Leyser: You have already mentioned „we“ and „founded“ several times, but not yet the name of what you have founded and what is actually behind it.

Maria Geir:  Oh, right, maybe I should do that sometime. The name of my company is Octenticity. Octenticity is a made-up word and stands for eight times authenticity. So it’s the eight pillars of authenticity. I have given up trying to teach other people the correct pronunciation of this made-up word. That’s why the product we want to implement with it is called Octavita. And Octavita is an app that is a psychological framework in which I can illuminate my personal blind spots with eight growth areas inside and outside, create synergies and get to the point where I can find my Ikigai, my purpose in life, and live it out with my strengths. And in addition to that, there is a social impact component. The idea is that once we have the prototype ready to go to market, we want to donate a portion of the sales that we make with it, or the profits that we make with it, to SDG relevant causes to be exact. And the ongoing use of Octavita generates coins for the user, which he or she can then donate to support selected small local projects according to their personal values.

Elisabeth Leyser: That sounds very prudent and, above all, it really does contribute to a greater, greater effectiveness of the whole. I understood that it is also very important to you to support people in their development and strengthening. I think this could also be connected to your experience in your professional life. And at the same time with what you describe again and again, that you actually perceive aspects that remain hidden to some people or many people, namely where the tensions are, where the excessive demands are on people. Yes, please.

Maria Geir: How can I say this? I think it has to do with my whole being. You can’t see it on the podcast now, of course, but I think I’m a person who stands out per se. My mother is Thai, I’m Tyrolean, I grew up in Tyrol, I’m a woman in technology, I had my former boss who liked to call me a diversity pin-up because I can combine pretty much all diversity in one person, which works out. And I also have to say that I struggled with this as a teenager, this feeling that somehow I don’t really belong anywhere. But in the meantime I have actually made this into a strength and I believe that precisely such free elements like me, who can somehow fit in anywhere, but can always retain a bit of an outside perspective, can contribute incredibly much to changing thought processes in companies, because you simply create counter-positions that then invite reflection.

Elisabeth Leyser: Well, I also understood what you said as a very important contribution from an individual perspective, so that companies can also function better. If it is taken up. Your ability to make things visible and to address them.

Maria Geir: I always find it very, very bizarre, how shall I say it? I’ve been approached umpteen times in my career that I’ve been told Maria, if you would develop a little bit more elbow technique, if you would get a little bit thicker skin, then you could get God-knows-where. Only why am I good at my job? No, I’m good at what I do because I have instincts, because I have no idea whether you want to call it hypersensitive or whatever. I just get what’s going on emotionally with people. And that’s why I’m able to respond to it and say, „Okay, why are you going into resistance? The logical conclusion is not because you are a fool, but because you have a good reason. And when you make people understand that, they behave fundamentally differently because they realise that the respect is there, that you want to respond. And that was very exciting because during my time in the financial sector I was often called in for conflict management and mediation in the background. And of course they never, never, never told the people that they were now doing something in the direction of systemic constellations, but I had a whiteboard in front of me and stuck some magnets on it and recorded positions. But in reality I didn’t do anything differently. But officially there was no room for it and in the long run that just made me really grumpy. I even told an HR manager once, the one who praised me to the skies, what a great standing I had – it was simply enough for me. And he asked, „Yes, and why do you act as if I were stabbing voodoo dolls in the back room and don’t give me a proper job where I can do it officially? And those were the moments when I said: „Either I accept the rules of a big company. And just take the amenities. Or I keep my attitude. And at some point I came to the latter. Fortunately!

Elisabeth Leyser: Yes, and at the same time I think you have such important insights into what is also important in a larger company, perhaps also really in a large corporation. For long-term value development to succeed. That the culture that is there also attracts the right and good people. That leadership is also lived in a way that actually supports the development of the company and not some individual ego goals. In this respect, I think there are many, many tips from people like you who could make a significant contribution. And we at MetaShift are convinced that non-material aspects also play a very important role in securing the long-term success of a company. How do you see that?

Maria Geir: Yes, I would fully subscribe to that. From several aspects. I once applied for a position where I was supposed to take on more leadership. And I tried to convey my ultimate image of leadership to the people, which I failed with. But nevertheless, I’ll stick with it, for me Bobby McFerrin is the ultimate leader. Bobby McFly is known to most people only as the singer of „Don’t Worry Be Happy“. But he does incredibly fascinating ensembles. And he manages, in a very playful way, to get the best out of people. He responds to their needs. He communicates through body language and a lot of subtle humour, where you notice he doesn’t take himself very seriously, where he wants to go and people follow him. And that, for me, is the ultimate goal of leadership, because this search for, after the meaning: „What is it about?“. That is something that has always fascinated me from a young age. That also explains my broad spectrum of training. On the one hand, I’m an agile coach, IT project manager, where it’s all about processes, connections, planning and strategy. But I’m also a life and social counsellor, because I’ve realised that you can’t manage large projects well if you don’t have an understanding of what’s going on in people’s psyches. I am generally a great advocate of systemic thinking, which is why I also trained as a permaculture designer during my second maternity leave. And spiritually my home is clearly in shamanism and in all these four disciplines there is always this connecting element of: There are qualities of single individuals, there are synergies and certain rules, how something new emerges from this in a perpetual cycle.

Maria Geir: And I think a company has to create exactly this framework. Because yes, you can just do it and say, „Okay, I have a claim that sounds kind of cool and is marketable. I have organic food, we’re fully digital and there’s an Office Dog to sprinkle on top and enough new people will come to work for me.“ But where is the long-term, where is the sustainability? Because if the next company comes along and says, „And in addition to the Office Dog, I’ll add, I don’t know, an Office Alpaca on top of it, which you can then pet and take for a walk in the woods“. Then those people are gone. And I just think. At the [00:22:41] moment we’re very much in a wave where it’s about purpose and feel good, but it’s too short-sighted. Because a business only lasts if I can get my people excited about something for years and also give them the space to develop themselves. If only, then I get people who have enough rough edges that out of the dissent that arises from the different people, then constructive, good consensus-based solutions arise through rules and discussions. [00:23:20]

Elisabeth Leyser: I think you said something very important, which certainly also has an effect on the innovative capacity of a company. The greater the probability or the ability of an organisation to deal with dissent and to develop something new from it, the more innovative things will emerge. But I found all your comments on this very exciting. I think it is now often used more in the sense of a fashionable term, without really recognising and living the deeper meaning. That’s what I’m saying now! And that is of course something that should and can have a relatively long-term effect. What do you mean? What should companies pay attention to now – apart from this ability, which you have now made very clear and which I also find very exciting, to be able to deal with dissent – what would you recommend to a company manager at the moment? What should they pay attention to if they want to be successful in the long term?

Maria Geir: Taking your time and really thinking about where you want to go and what the consequences will be. Because I am now also very much involved in product development and I notice that I very often have very ambitious colleagues who come around the corner with an idea that looks good at first glance, where you have to say: „Well, is it customer-centric? Is it economically feasible? Is there a market for it? Does it even fit us?“- When you ask these questions, you notice very quickly that such constructs then crumble. And I believe that at a time when the average attention span is eight seconds or so, it is very tempting to jump very quickly to the solutions. If now take Octenticity as a concrete example: I spent a full two years analysing my idea by every trick in the book. I don’t think there is a strategic framework from The Field, Business Model Canvas, Blue Ocean Strategy, Values (?) Map. I really used every framework I could get my hands on to spin through my idea. To make sure that I was on the right track, that I hadn’t overlooked anything. And at the same time, I also asked myself the question: Who do I want to be when I get there and turn this into reality? We have a very good acquaintance who is also a trainer and coach and who invited me to one of those self-awareness workshops. And one of the questions that was asked, which we solved with a mixture of movement and brain writing, was: What is the secret of your success? And we then had to stand up and tell a random person in the room the secret of our success, after thinking about how that would feel and where you would be.

Maria Geir: With me it’s a very bizarre picture, that’s why I always like to tell that. The secret of my success is a tame squirrel. Because I want to work with people who really want to make a difference. And I want to work with people who are so focused and so convinced that I can help them, that they will pay me enough, that I have enough time to be in balance with myself and get a squirrel tame. And that’s actually the image for me of Octenticity as well, where I always want to get to. I don’t want to end up on the hamster wheel anymore. I want to do something where I feel like people who actually want to make change and make a difference, change for themselves and change for the world. They end up with me and I think that’s a purpose, the one that really carries me and equally carries my co-founder. We spend an incredible amount of time together. Especially on Friday evenings over a pizza, philosophising about where we want to get to at some point. That maybe one day we can spend our lunch breaks going up to the high wall and eating our lunch there at the Herrgott-Schnitzet-Haus, because there is simply enough space for that. And I believe that when you have such images and emotions, they carry you through difficult times and leave you enough room to find good solutions along the way.

Elisabeth Leyser: Thank you, Maria. That was a very nice conclusion and I had the feeling that you really shared your journey with us, how you have developed over the last few years and also what drives you and where your wishes and ideas for the future are.

Maria Geir: Thank you in any case.

Elisabeth Leyser: Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed the podcast, we appreciate a good rating and tune in again when the next one goes online.