Petra Velzeboer was 22 when she finally cut ties with the cult that defined her childhood – California’s notorious Children of God group, which has also touched the lives of Hollywood stars including Rose McGowan and the Phoenix family of actors.
Today, she draws on her dramatic experiences to coach businesses in mental health awareness and delivers inspirational talks with events bureau Speakers Corner. Working with everyone from construction workers to CEOs, Petra’s bootcamps and workshops are designed to harness hope in the darkest of times.
“Businesses can often be very much like cults,” according to Petra. “I’ve seen them work amazingly as well as become hotbeds of toxicity.”
“There’s a responsibility for business owners to adapt to the times and think of their people not only because it’s the right thing to do but because investing in your people builds productivity and avoids crisis costs down the line.”
The idea that businesses can become similar to toxic sects has surfaced as a new breed of organisation has emerged, blurring the lines between cult and culture.
At some fast-paced global companies, employees have reported sleeping at work, participating in group chants or rituals and working towards the mysterious vision of an all-knowing leader. Some businesses even attempt to control what employees eat or even ban competitor products.
A dramatic journey and changing mindsets
Striking a balance between creating a healthy corporate culture and a cult-like business environment is incredibly vital for business leaders. It can make the difference between prosperity and longevity or a nose-dive towards failure.
Petra understands this difference better than most – after an unconventional childhood raised in a cult, she found herself with no formal education to speak of. This meant she needed to discover what healthy structures looked like, and in the process has learned a great deal about overcoming adversity.
“Over time I built up my education and experience through studying and experimenting with all the mindset tricks out there to get me to a place of being successful. I became a psychotherapist, executive coach and have built a mental health and emotional intelligence training company.”
This incredible journey makes Petra well-placed to help others through dark times. Importantly, she understands how to make the change from toxicity to success – and connection is the key.
“My experience has taught me that humans can overcome so many things. The one thing that keeps us stuck much longer than we need to be is the feeling that we’re all alone, that no one would understand us and we have to figure everything out on our own.
“I see it time and time again – the shame connected to how we’re feeling prevents us from reaching out but when we do get brave enough to be vulnerable with people, we realise that everyone is struggling or has had a time when they felt the same.
“We now have neuroscience to back up how much our brain affects how we feel and how we can teach our brain to think differently. Once we realise that there is a lot in our control when it comes to training our mind – in the same way, that we would train our body at the gym – the whole world opens up to us.
“I’ve also learned to make a mindset shift: I frame every challenge I face as useful to my growth, which is what it’s all about, evolving and developing our minds.
“After that, you learn to enjoy the ride and seek out the learning even from the hardest experiences. It revolutionises how we experience life and allows us to push outside of our comfort zone in the effort to reach our full potential.”
Creating a connect and positive culture
When it comes to creating genuinely connected workplaces that achieve ‘culture’ and not ‘cult’, Petra recommends starting small.
“It’s really true that how we do one thing is how we do everything. When we cultivate the ability to really see our people, notice the small things and get curious about their motivations and aspirations, our people feel that shift and want to get loyal and help us achieve our dreams.
“Here’s where to start though. Every day, with your partner, your kids, your friends, you have the opportunity to practice putting down your tech device and really being present with them.
“Practice listening without an agenda, get curious about their motivations and hone the skill of focus. The stakes can feel lower when it’s outside of work, and this will help you build the confidence for genuine connection in your leadership role at work.”
Petra also recommends Brene Brown’s newest book Dare to Lead, which is filled with exercises to support connection and vulnerability in the workplace. If there is one thing business leaders usually get wrong, it is failing to embody the true spirit of workplace wellness, according to Petra.
“Leaders may think focusing on the individual, and the wellbeing of their people will slow down productivity, or they put focus on fruit bowls and gyms but forget about the culture of openness needed to truly support each other.
“The fear is that they won’t know what to do if they open up a deep conversation, they’ll say the wrong thing and make it worse or will all be sitting around campfires singing kumbaya pretty soon!
“They may task someone from HR with the people role, but unless they lead by example in showing some vulnerability and connecting to their people, it won’t embed in the culture. Active listening and empathy don’t need to add hours to the day – rather, it’s something we can integrate into every action.”
The science of gratitude
One of Petra’s most valuable tools is her understanding of the science of gratitude. This is especially true when she coaches highly pressured CEOs.
“I mean gratitude changes everything,” Petra explained. “It helps us see the possibilities and cultivate Carol Dweck’s idea of a ‘Growth Mindset’ by shifting the deep conditioning around negativity in the news and our culture.
“When I coach executives who have everything but have relationships that are suffering, and they’re not sure what they want or if they’re even happy, gratitude is the starting homework. Write down three things you’re grateful for daily. It’s incredible how many people at the top of their game forget to celebrate the wins.
“Gratitude is something I try to live by. If I’m feeling overwhelmed in business, parenting or life, I just get grateful that I have the opportunity to play in the big leagues and create an impact in the world. What could be better than that – the opportunity to grow as a person, create a business, not have a boss, take risks and play to my fullest potential? Bring on the challenges!
“I guess the higher up you are, the bigger the temptation to ‘show no weakness’ and act like you know everything to the detriment of your mental health. In the world of being always on, it can be challenging to lead by example in switching off.
Demands of the modern CEO / Executive
“I’m very passionate about what I do; I enjoy working hard, so I’m not the person that tells people to just slow down and do nothing. Execs and CEOs thrive off the adrenaline of building something so switching off completely can be a shock to the system and isn’t necessarily the right answer.
“I try to ask disruptive questions, though, to help them reflect on where they are in life and find out what they really want, what brings them joy – how are they stuck in their comfort zone and not necessarily pushing in the way that would make them feel alive? What are they avoiding through numbing habits or being reactive rather than reflective?
“The modern corporate world is very fast-paced, and the best execs work on their mindset and take time within their day to reflect so that they can make conscious decisions. This allows them to avoid burnout but is also better for business. Being able to slow down, listen to intuition and focus on the big picture can give CEOs the edge.”
Mindset starts, according to Petra, from your morning routine: “There’s lots of evidence that creating a reflective morning or evening routine can work wonders for our mindset and productivity.
“Carve out a little bit of time each day for reflection. This could be doing some meditation, journaling, taking a walk – it’s about connecting to your intuition and your purpose in the world. This helps us get out of our primal fight or flight to make conscious decisions about our lives and is remarkably hard to do in our fast-paced tech world.”
“Next, don’t ignore the mindset of your people when it comes to growing your business. Get some training for your exec team, so you fully understand the business case for focusing on the wellbeing of your people.”
For managers who are experts in their own field but have limited people knowledge, training is vital, says Petra. Understanding topics like the psychology of motivation, empathy and emotional intelligence are vital areas that can help with day-to-day business, the retention of talent and can even reduce long-term absence.
“We have a primal need for human contact, eye-contact, a feeling of belonging,” said Petra. Creating a healthy working environment that evades the cult-like lure of toxicity is all about harnessing this in the right way.
Related: Developing a great company culture
By taking a step-by-step approach to changing your mindset, almost anything is possible in life and business. Petra’s remarkable story is proof – and her understanding of cults gives her an insight into the mindset of the workplace.