Dreading your weekly all-hands meeting? How to lead them with less social angst.

All-hands meetings, sometimes referred to as town halls, have become common practice in organizations of all sizes, giving employees across teams an opportunity to meet with leadership. They also provide an opportunity to engage remote colleagues, fostering their sense of connection to their company. Marc Benioff of Salesforce stresses the importance of all-hands meetings “there is nothing more important for a growing company than constant communication and complete alignment.” Whether I’m coaching a seasoned CEO or an emerging team leader at a tech startup, one of the first areas people want to work on is their executive presence at all-hands meetings. According to Gokul Rajaram from Square, the best led all-hand meetings should drive company culture by:

  • celebrating people and accomplishments
  • drawing alignment to the organization’s mission, strategy and priorities
  • providing a forum to ask and answer questions.

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“To be honest, I dread our all-hands meetings. I feel pressure to share updates that prove I’m effective in my role, but worry that what I’m saying is boring or meaningless to others.” (actual confession made by nearly everyone who’s ever had to give an all-hands update.)

“I end up spending my entire night preparing for the all-hands, and I don’t even know if it makes a difference- I end up feeling anxious regardless, and I could use that time to get other work off my plate.” (remorse expressed by nearly everyone who’s ever prepared to lead an all-hands.)

Why do so many people experience angst at all-hands meetings? Even people who are typically comfortable speaking in front of others can feel awkward and unsure of what to say at their all-hands, especially if they fear their update to the group will be perceived as too granular, vague, inferior- wasting people’s time. Not only does the all-hands place us squarely in the middle of social comparisons, it forces us to witness real time reactions in a group setting increasing our self-consciousness. Our human nature compels us to seek approval from others, fear social judgement and rejection, and analyze our social standing relative to others. Human social norm adherence is at the backbone of our evolutionary history.  Adhering to social norms was critical to our survival for thousands of years, providing group protection from predators, nourishment through cooperative hunting and farming, and securing our genetic legacy through cooperative mating.

In today’s day and age, people’s perceptions of us continue to influence our sense of social standing, particularly in our place of work, where success or failure remains critical to our livelihood and self image. Organizational leaders feel pressure to orchestrate effective all-hands meetings, knowing that a poorly led one runs the risk of being a massive drain on productivity, dampening the collective mood across and within teams. Left unchecked, these all-hands can turn into ‘sharing for the sake of sharing’ and a lost opportunity to energize and inspire attendees.

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So rather than spending the evening before an all-hands on gut-wrenching rehearsal, use this simple framework for filtering what to include and what not to include:

Share compelling information that illuminates both progress and challenges:

  • Focus on sharing updates and progress with an emphasis on WHO this information will be helpful to, and WHY it matters in the big picture of the organization’s mission and goals.
  • Provide context by drawing connections between strategy and results, comparing outcomes with expectations. Rather than framing missed outcomes as failures or alluding to blame, recognize when people’s efforts revealed compelling information, both positive and negative.

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Connect with listeners through the lens of their shared experience.

  • When you acknowledge common frustrations and shared experiences, you increase trust by recognizing the challenges commonly felt across a team. Team shortages, sparse resources, and stalled progress are all opportunities to express empathy, normalizing people’s grievances.
  • Particularly when things get rough as a quarter gets underway, boost morale by talking about personal highlights of gratitude, encouraging shout-outs to team members who went the extra mile or helped the most in the past month.

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Provide opportunities for people to safely share feedback about the all-hands to leadership.

  • Answer pre-asked questions: Provide a forum  ( ideally through an online tool) for people to ask questions in advance of the all-hands, and for everyone to vote on the questions they want answered. The person who is closest to the topic responds to the top questions asked.
  • Use anonymous surveys to ask attendees to rate the all-hands, and provide an open-ended comment field around how it could be better. And, like with everything else, if you don’t actually address and plan to act on the comments, you shouldn’t ask for them.

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This framework gives attendees an opportunity to feel acknowledged, curious, empowered and informed during their all-hands. No matter how you go about running an all-hands, stay connected to their purpose. All-hands meetings exist to reinforce what matters to everyone, all at once. Keeping that in mind can help you take all of the above and shape it to reflect fit your organization’s culture, mission and goals.

 

 

 

 

 

How startup founders use cognitive behavioral coaching to master their toughest conversations.

Executive coaching was developed to help people make the most of their abilities, gain deeper self-awareness, build people skills and resiliency for mastering the challenges of work life. Startup founders, senior management or leaders with significant responsibilities enlist coaches to help them bring new insights and skills to their relationships and broader life picture. 

 Coaching startup founders through crucial conversations isn’t just serving as a sounding board while they pitch investors, work through co-founder conflict and make hiring and firing decisions as their company scales. Founders undergo a great deal of personal transformation on this journey. They are also responsible for elevating early employees into leadership roles in which they likely have little to no experience. When founders use coaching to learn evidence-based cognitive behavioral tools for personal growth and in their management practices, they internalize a coaching mindset. This leadership style positively impacts the overall health and stability of the organization’s interpersonal climate.

This week while working with a client on communication skill building, she asked me:

“Why are crucial conversations so much harder for some people than others? Giving negative feedback to my employees is the least favorite part of my job as a CEO.” –Startup founder

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Here’s a truth I’ve learned from having thousands of therapy and coaching sessions with people about their toughest crucial conversations: everyone experiences heightened, uncomfortable emotions. So unless you’re a psychopath (which is a different article!) it’s not realistic to expect to remain emotionally unchanged when facing high-stakes, crucial conversations. Humans evolved to experience this ‘Fight or Flight’ Response as a survival instinct in the face of perceived threat. When we anticipate having a high-stakes conversations, our brains can get railroaded by our emotions, mimicking the addiction response and diminishing our ability to think critically and generate effective responses. Without developing a practice to manage effectively this pattern, founders are at high risk for making poor management decisions and eventually burnout. 

The premise of Cognitive Behavioral Theory is that our emotions are triggered by automatic thoughts that serve to alert us to the possibility of imminent danger. People’s perceptions occur as spontaneous thoughts, which directly influence their emotional, behavioral, and physiological reactions. Our perceptions are often magnified or distorted when they are distressed, making it difficult to see things objectively. By examining our “automatic thoughts” and identifying the factual evidence that refutes them, we are more capable of seeing a view that more closely resembles reality. With practice, our distress will decreases considerably, allowing us to make behavioral choices with higher functionality.

 

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Billionaire investor, author and co-founder of Oaktree Capital Howard Marks discusses risk assessment and the psychology of investing on The Knowledge Project with Shane Parrish. He attributes his success with high-stakes decision-making to his ability to confront the evolutionary emotional programming that automatically drives human behavior. He shares that by adopting a mindset of ‘dispassionate observation and examination of thought‘ before acting, people can learn to accept the impossibility of predicting or controlling the future with 100% accuracy. This mindset reduces the risk of making decisions that overshoot a situation, out of instinctual enthusiasm or fear. In essence, putting cognitive behavioral tools at the helm of his investment decision-making. Founders can use this approach for their toughest, crucial conversations to stabilize their emotions, conserve mental energy and improve the odds of a successful outcome.

How to Use Cognitive Behavioral Tools in Crucial Conversations:

Practice writing out evidence-based thought records to dissect past situations that have lead to uncomfortable feelings. This simple but powerful exercise trains your brain to re-examine how your thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all interconnected.

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Practice observing behaviors and listening for the ‘content versus conditions’ of a conversation as a way to spot the risk of a conversation turning into a conflict. The instant people perceive disrespect in a conversation (a hostile condition), the interaction is no longer about the original purpose (the content)- it is now about defending oneself, further escalating emotions.

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Our emotional responses naturally turns into a ‘storyline’ or narrative in our head when we perceive hostility that feels like an injustice, shaping how we ‘make meaning’ of the person’s actions. Look for the factual evidence that supports your storyline and identify the emotional response tied to it.

With the understanding that rarely is any situation 100% factually true, look for the evidence that does not support your ‘story’. Practice questioning your conclusionslook for evidence that supports other possible perspectives with the goal of identifying multiple perspectives.

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Keep practicing the habit of identifying your emotional response and stories, developing a more balanced point of view rather than accepting your own without question. Learn to understand and take into account multiple perspectives before engaging in crucial conversations.  This mindset will translate into more effective exchanges in your relationships, and ultimately help you become a more successful, well-respected leader.

Your brain responds to competition more than you know- choose your motivational tools wisely.

Do you know what drives your urge to compete? Your motivation influences your performance outcomes, whether you acknowledge it or not. 

Wanting to win‘ versus ‘wanting to avoid losing‘ are two subtle yet measurably distinct differences that drive people’s sense of competition. Murayama and Elliot’s (2012) meta-analyses found the effects of competition depend on this difference in the minds of competitors. When someone wants to outperform others by winning, they tend to benefit from competition, but when they want to avoid performing worse than others, competing reduces their performance. Burnette et al’s (2013) meta-analysis found that the desire to win is positively related to goal achievement, whereas the desire to avoid losing is negatively related to goal achievement. Senko et al’s (2017) meta-analysis found that “wanting to win” improves performance only when it’s accompanied by strategies that leverage a competitor’s feelings of mastery. The take-away from these research findings is that “wanting to win” is not enough to protect people from the pitfalls of social competition that provokes fear of losing.

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A primary function of executive coaching is helping people build lasting tactical strategies that motivate behavioral change for goal achievement and peak performance. My coaching practice in Silicon Valley is filled with non-stop competitive people- entrepreneurs, CEOs, venture capitalists, and creative builders leading the edge of tech innovation. Naturally, using competition to fuel new habit formation and improve performance is a no-brainer for many of my clients. But not all tools designed to foster competition  will improve motivation and performance for all people, in all situations. Competition is good for sustaining motivation and achievement only when it reinforces feelings of competency or a person’s intrinsic values beyond winning alone.

Designing life goals through the lens of one’s self-determined values is vital not just for achieving a high success rate but for overall psychological well-being. As one might expect, people generally like to feel in control of their own lives. Self-Determination Theory asserts that people seek and engage activities that satisfy these Three Basic Psychological Needs:

Competence: the feeling of satisfaction achieved through completing a challenging goal. Why does this matter? You get to feel masterful and effective. You get to feel that you’re achieving hard things. (Great for people whose personal pet peeves are ineffectiveness and helplessness!)

Relatedness: the satisfaction you get when you feel understood, liked and inspired by people you care about or value. Why does this matter? You get to feel closer to the people you’re engaging with in meaningful ways. (Great for people whose personal pet peeves are feeling rejected and disconnected!)

Autonomy: the satisfaction you get when you act with a sense of personal commitment and choice. Why does this matter? You get to feel in control and the master of your own outcomes. (Great for people whose personal pet peeves are feeling coerced and micro-managed!)

Cross-cultural research has shown these Three Basic Psychological Needs to be intrinsic to all people’s healthy development, engagement, motivation, and well-being. When these needs are met people achieve greater work performance, less perceived stress, and experience fewer turnover intentions. When these needs are blocked, people are likely to experience negative psychological consequences.

A Behavior Change Technique (BCT) is an ‘active ingredient that brings about behavior change’. BCT’s are often used to build a competitive framework, and can either support or frustrate the three Basic Psychological Needs.

How Different Behavior Change Techniques support or frustrate the ‘Three Basic Psychological Needs’
  • Behavioral Change Technique: Goal Crafting.
    • Build in meaningful ‘whys’ or reaching the end goal of a competition won’t matter. Self-Determination Theory tells us many goals fail to motivate because they aren’t personally relevant, or they provide incentives that help people avoid losing rather than winning for personally rewarding reasons. Helping people craft goals that reflect their unique values reinforces their sense of autonomy.
  • Behavioral Change Technique: Feedback Crafting.
    • Build in useful feedback or making progress in the competition won’t matter. Self-Determination Theory tells us well crafted feedback promotes feelings of competence and mastery. As people monitor their progress through feedback they have the chance to use well-timed feedback for making improvements. Crafting feedback that provides a practical roadmap for making improvements helps people achieve feelings of competency. Encourage how feedback is incorporated to reinforce the person’s sense of autonomy.
  • Behavioral Change Technique: Social Comparison.
  • Behavioral Change Technique: Competition Size Matters.
    • Build a group size that factor’s in a person’s proximity to the top performance to optimize a person’s effort. There’s a reason why Junior Varsity and Varsity teams are still a thing! If you want to get the most benefit from a competition creating small, ability-based groups may be the best way to go. A 2009 study by Stephen Garcia and Avishalom shows competition is most motivating when there are fewer competitors in the comparison pool.

Whether in a work environment or in one’s personal life, people who measure their growth against those with comparable values and abilities experience boosts in motivation and performance. “When we see someone else just like us being able to complete a task and gain the recognition we seek, we up our game to achieve these outcomes for ourselves” according to Jillene Grover Seiver, PhD, professor of psychology, who’s research findings demonstrate the positive influence of rivalry on competition outcomes.

These are just a few of the techniques I use to inspire meaningful motivation through executive leadership coaching. By considering how our innate psychological needs factor into what’s driving our sense of competition, we can achieve greater outcomes with longer lasting results.

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Assuming positive intent- the secret weapon to surviving the holiday season.

The holidays are coming, or as people in the tech industry like say ‘seasonality‘ is approaching. During this time of year most of us will face a series of negotiations and decisions with people across our professional and personal lives. Conversations will unfold with co-workers and loved ones as we work to sync calendars, discuss budgets for spending, solidify holiday plans, and account for the differing needs of others during the busiest time of year. When differences of opinions arise, the urge to ‘be right’ is an irresistible response that heightens our emotions and can fuel conflict with others. (To every family member of mine reading this bear with me as I illuminate the small yet significant insights you’ve inspired over the years. Thank you for being my experimental group! Signed, Dr. Know-It-All.)

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‘Assuming positive intent‘ can help us move past our need to ‘be right’ and ‘win the debate’ and instead, cultivate a conversation where both parties are invested in finding effective solutions.  While the following tips won’t necessarily ‘feel right’ or reinforce your hard-won identity as a debate champion, it will help you avoid the emotional drain of gridlocking with others committed to their point of view.

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How to ‘assume positive intent’

The act of trying something new with a lightness of heart can be referred to as a ‘lark’. How to assume positive intent when conflict arises with others using my L.A.R.K. approach:

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  • Listen for their story. When we hear an opinion from someone that contradicts our understanding of a situation, we tend to stop listening because we become preoccupied with changing their mind until they agree with us. When we stop listening, we not only signal to the other person we aren’t interested in understanding them, we literally cut ourselves off from hearing critical information that could help lead to a mutually agreeable solution.
  • Acknowledge their point of view. Our tendency is to jump to conclusions when someone does something differently than we would, and assume the worst. Because humans are hardwired to perceive threat in instances of conflict, we focus on finding ulterior motives in those who disagree with us. Make a genuine effort to understand the premise of their opinion based on the information they have, and acknowledge their right to see things differently than you do.
  • Respect their difference. When we assume another person is misinformed, wrong or has malicious intentions, our tone of voice and non-verbal micro-expressions can turn negative. This can be read by others as an unwillingness to respect differences of opinion. Guard against communicating unintentional disrespect by modeling the response you would like to receive from others when it’s your turn to share your opinion.
  • Kindness cultivates generosity. Now when you feel yourself gunning to ‘prove your rightness’, take a step back and remember that when you preoccupy yourself with changing someone’s mind, you are reducing the likelihood of them responding with generosity, and increasing the likelihood of them responding with animosity when it’s time to generate possible solutions. Your job is to listen, acknowledge, respect, and convey kindness before moving on to explore possible solutions that could be mutually agreed upon.

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Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, describes learning to assume positive intent as the best advice she’s ever received:

My father was an absolutely wonderful human being. From him I learned to always assume positive intent. Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional quotient goes up because you are no longer almost random in your response. You don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, “Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.” So “assume positive intent” has been a huge piece of advice for me.

Recognizing a different opinion doesn’t mean you are admitting fault, that your point of view is inferior, or that your opinion should have less value than others. Rather, assuming positive intent gives the other person the benefit of the doubt in order to set the best possible tone for generating solutions. It doesn’t mean you agree with their opinion, but it does allow you to see with more clarity where bridges could exist.

So when your co-founder, team mate or significant other holds an opinion that is entirely different than yours, aim to identify their operating system before trying to change it!

Give yourself the command “Tools > Clear History” to rid your mind of cutter that obstructs your ability to listen with less judgement. While we may never truly ‘know’ another person’s underlying motivation  behind their point of view, we can aim to convey a willingness to respect their difference.  Our mutual bandwidth for problem-solving is increased when we assume positive intent, so all parties gain more data points to generate viable solutions.

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How mindfulness meditation is strengthening today’s top leaders- the science behind the hype.

To stay ahead of the competition these days, high performing leaders are going beyond daily wellness habits in exercise, diet and preventative behavioral health. Mindfulness meditation has become the gold standard for fueling the uppermost skills that leaders depend upon in moments critical to their success. David Gelles’ book Mindful Work discusses the rising utility of mindfulness in the workplace, with leading companies like Google, General Mills, Disney and Patagonia using mindfulness training for measurable gains across all levels of employment. 

The ability to focus and stabilize our emotional responses to internal and external stimuli cannot be understated. Even for individuals who thrive under pressure, operating under chronic fast-paced, demanding conditions taxes our brain’s acuity over time. Brain training through mindfulness meditation works to restore our mental agility, improving our ability to effectively respond to stressors.

What is mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness, put simply, is paying attention in the present moment and choosing to respond purposefully and without judgement rather than automatically. Using mindfulness allows us to respond from a place of clarity and compassion, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the physiological changes we experience in moments of stress.  This ‘freeze, fight or flight’ response evolved in humans as a survival mechanism, enabling us to react quickly to life-threatening situations and is responsible for instinctual emotional reactions like greed, fear or anger meant to protect us from harm. Chronic activation of this survival mechanism not only impedes our ability to think clearly and perform optimally, it’s proven to be deleterious to our overall health.

The practice of meditation dates back thousands of years with a wide span of techniques tied to cultural and spiritual origins. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT PhD in molecular biology developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in 1979. His work has been instrumental in bringing the health benefits of mindfulness practice to the public’s attention and scientific communities worldwide. Scientific outcome studies on mindfulness have since demonstrated positive benefits for people with chronic pain, heart diseaseaddiction, tinnitus, and complex physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.

My doctoral training in mindfulness meditation began nearly 20 years ago through UCSF/San Francisco VA Medical center. I helped vets manage chronic pain and anxiety, quit smoking and improve their eating habits, teaching mindfulness and meditation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing and guided imagery. Since then, I’ve seen how universally effective mindfulness is for helping people achieve health and performance goals that otherwise might be insurmountable. Bob Lesser, MPP, LP teaches mindfulness as part of his mental skills training with entrepreneurs in the tech ecosystem, who “gain mental clarity and focus, become less reactive and volatile, and achieve more control over their most challenging emotions.”

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How does mindfulness meditation change your brain?

The science behind the hype:

  1. Improves decision-making. Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the MIT have found evidence that meditation alters the physical structure of the brain, increasing thickness and brain activity in parts of the prefrontal cortex, where higher-order thinking takes place – judgment, decision making, planning, and discernment. A publication by The Wharton School of Management “Debiasing the Mind through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias”  discusses how short meditation sessions reduces the likelihood of making decisions based on information from the past that should have no bearing on the choice at hand.
  2. Stabilizes communicate skills under pressure. Instead of avoiding or exacerbating conflict with emotional reactions, mindfulness allows you to navigate clashes with the cool-headedness needed to facilitate successful conflict resolution. A Massachusetts General Hospital study showed that meditation reduced the size of the amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for emotions, particularly fear-based survival instincts) after just 8 weeks.  Mindfulness practitioners were less likely to overreact and had fewer angry outbursts. Gains in “emotional regulation” increased by meditation endured in some cases for up to four years of follow-up.
  3. Increases energy for heightened productivity. Mindfulness practitioners are more equipped to thwart stress and anxiety, and report increased energy levels compared to non-practitioners. Outcome studies on mindfulness have demonstrated reduced cortisol levels among users, quelling their experience of errant stress.
  4. Improves your focus. Meditators have been shown to perform significantly better than non-meditators on all measures of attention, processing speed, and inhibitory control. The most extensive longitudinal study on meditation to date discusses the role of meditation for improving focus and altering cognitive change across a person’s lifespan, preventing age-related mental decline.
  5. Strengthens your body’s immunity and pain tolerance. Mindfulness has proven to help people better manage chronic painaddiction, tinnitus, and recover from complex physical conditions, such as heart diseaseirritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.
  6. Awakens a deeper creativity. Meditation quiets the brain’s limbic system and supports mental decompression, facilitating the mental flow and innovation that gets lost in a busy, stress-filled day. Mindfulness practitioners were less cognitively rigid than non-practitioners, demonstrating a higher aptitude for getting ‘unstuck’ when solving creative problems.
  7. Builds resilience in the face of setbacks. Highly successful leaders use mindfulness to bounce back from failures, smarter and stronger. Fast-paced, demanding roles require a high stress tolerance, the ability to weather unpredictable outcomes and preserve a solution-focused mindset.
  8. Enhances peak performance. Taking a mindful moment (think seconds not minutes) primes and stabilizes the mind and body for optimal performance outcomes. SEALFIT Founder and CEO Mark Divine puts it beautifully, saying mindfulness is “a progressive process of integration: refining the physical, mental, emotional, intuitional, and spiritual until they emerge as one.”  Michael Gervais, a high performance psychologist for the Seattle Seahawks and other world class athletes and co-creator of USC’s Peak Performance Institute  shares that every morning, he practices the following routine: first thing, (even while lying in bed) take one breath to reconnect your brain and body and remind yourself that 1. everything is ok, 2. followed by setting one clear intention for the day, and 3. one thought of gratitude.

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Is “mindfulness” at risk of becoming just another buzzword? 

With science-backed evidence that mindfulness improves many vital areas of human functioning, the mindfulness meditation movement faces the threat of dilution by detractors hoping to capitalize on its potential, without generating real value for the consumer.

“By slapping the word mindfulness on new products and services simply to make them fashionable, these corporations are making the word itself somewhat impotent.” David Gelles, author of Mindful Work

As a result, people will need to be discerning about the quality of different mindfulness products and services, as the market floods with new apps, programs, and brands that tout mindful solutions.

How should I decide what mindfulness services and products to try? Where to begin?

Whenever exploring a behavioral change for health-intended purposes, it’s important to clarify your goals and expected outcomes, and consider ‘why now’ is a good time to commit to a new activity like mindfulness meditation. Make sure to share this intention with your personal support system, and check in with professionals anytime you encounter challenges in the process. As the holiday season approaches, consider how mindfulness training could be positively impactful for you and/or your organization.

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How startups use psychometrics for leadership development can make or break them: 4 major principles to follow

A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management estimates that at present, 18% of companies use psychometric testing for a range of purposes, most commonly recruitment and hiring.  According to Harvard Business Review, skillful application of cognitive and personality tests (also known as psychometrics) help companies avoid hiring and managerial mishaps, which are estimated to cost a company at least one year’s pay.  Poor management can be especially fatal for startups, making skillful leadership critical to a startup’s early growth and success.  Ray Dalio founder of Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world managing $160 billion discusses the value of psychometric use for leadership development in his widely recognized bestseller Principles: Life and Work.  Dalio and his employees use psychometric observations and evaluations to identify and minimize derailing behaviors among high potential leaders.  In sum, leaders who lack self-awareness and fail to learn from their experiences contribute to their own derailment.  Honing self-awareness is the prevailing objective among clients in my executive coaching practice aiming to mitigate the derailing pitfalls that new challenges bring.   Applied research findings in this area reveal the most common derailments among faulty leaders:

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  • Problems with interpersonal relationships
  • Failure to build and lead a team
  • Lack of self-awareness
  • Inability to learn from feedback and experience
  • Trust/integrity issues
  • Inability to change or adapt
  • Poor composure under stress
  • Over-reliance on strengths

Unfortunately, many organizations choose the wrong psychometric assessments to use in their leadership development efforts, or use them in the wrong way.  Expert application of psychometrics can be a costly investment for small startups.  Typically the luxury of employing an esteemed management company like McKinsey for psychometric use in leadership development is far outside of the budget of early stage startups.

My professional experiences teaching and utilizing a range of psychometric assessments and later coaching tech leaders through challenging transitions provide a framework for offering these guiding principles on how startups can optimize psychometrics for their leadership-development.

Four major principles to follow:

Consider applicable laws.  Stay in legal compliance whenever employing psychometric tests. in your organization.  Anti-discrimination laws apply to psychometric assessment tools (particularly cognitive tests) stating they must be job-relevant and demonstrate internal and external validity.  The Americans with Disabilities Act provides specific guidelines for using psychometrics within organizations- they must respect people’s privacy and not aim to “diagnose” potential hires or employees in any way.  Historically organizations have used clinical psychometric assessments like the MMPI-2 for employment decision-making, though it was designed for the purpose of diagnosing mental illness and identifying traits common in those with personality disorders.  Because the MMPI-2 was developed for use with psychiatric and prison populations,  some employers have been taken to court for using it in their organizational decision-making and lost.  Using psychometric tools designed for use and application in industrial/organizational settings is a safer bet for company decision-making.

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Choose your tests wisely.  Aim to build an evidence-based approach for evaluating leadership growth and performance, with specific purpose in mind. If using psychometrics for hiring, aim to demonstrate that your hiring tools predict how you’re defining ‘success’ in a given role using rigorous statistical analyses.  Relying on interesting but random psychometric outcomes will at best waste time and resources, and at worst lead managers to make faulty decisions.  If using psychometrics to increase self-awareness in leaders, select assessment tools designed for this purpose, proven to be scientifically valid by experts in the field, and have demonstrated utility in identifying and redirecting problematic behavioral patterns.  Whenever possible, get support from experienced organizational consultants to help your company select appropriate tools for your company’s specific needs.

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Follow test administration protocol or risk invalidating outcomes.  “Proctoring” assessments ensures they are being taken according to the test’s protocol, either by having people take the assessments in front of an informed test proctor, or through video conference monitoring if they are remote.  Be sure that test takers are given clear directions according to the test developer or risk invalidating test results.  Be aware that some people may feel compelled to influence their results in order to appear more competent for a particular role, or may be more guarded in their responses as a way of presenting themselves in the most favorable light to potential employers.  Some psychometric tests have built-in measures that indicate whether a candidate’s pattern of responses reflect an effortful attempt influence their test outcomes, or if their responses are inconsistent with one another.  Using outcomes from multiple psychometric tests (referred to as a ‘test battery’) can help to gather a more accurate, comprehensive testing profile.

Leadership development initiatives with opportunities for privacy and self-directed learning enhance engagement.  When participants are allowed to maintain a sense of privacy over their psychometric assessment outcomes, they are more likely to engage in deeper, lasting growth.

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This practice provides a safer space for leaders to do a deep dive into understanding their own personal challenges.   Innovative venture capital firms like Alpha Bridge Ventures are investing in startup founder success with an on-boarding process that uses psychometric surveys to determine leadership style, then tailors support through an inter-disciplinarian team of coaches and wellness professionals.  Other venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz recognize the limitation of time and resources executives have to spare for developing their own employees.  Outsourcing leadership skill-building through founder retreats, externally facilitated consultation groups modeled after Stanford’s T-groups, or providing a broad and deep alumni support network à la Y-Combinator are all ways startup founders are achieving leadership success.   Larger organizations are investing in employee development through bespoke leadership programs like Potentialife, which provide participants access to strategic, self-directed leadership growth modules through the convenience of an interactive app.

Startups that invest in their leaders self-awareness will benefit from the long-term gains that self-knowledge delivers.  Appreciate that no matter how much progress we make, there’s always more to learn.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

– Albert Einstein

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Olympic athletes and entrepreneurs share one critical trait to conquer pressure under fire.

In sports, mental toughness is defined as “the ability to consistently perform in the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.”  The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea have been rife with performances by athletes with well honed mental toughness, giving them the competitive edge over athletes with matched or even higher ranking talent.  Two-time U.S. champion figure skater Nathan Chen was the gold medal frontrunner heading into the 2018 Winter Olympics, only to crumble under pressure during his Olympic debut, underscoring how critical it is for young athletes to harness mental toughness under extreme pressure.  It was a devastating outcome for Chen, the most talented US men’s figure skater to compete in the sport in recent memory. 

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U.S. figure skater Adam Rippon’s incredible grace under pressure has been widely recognized during this winter’s Olympic Games, especially given the level of criticism he’s received for being the first openly gay American figure skater to ever compete at the Olympics.  His positive attitude, willingness to lead with charisma and humor, and champion performances have catapulted him beyond just physical mastery as an athlete.

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If anyone in the business world ever needed mental toughness at their disposal, it’s an entrepreneur.  Investors and other tech industry insiders all agree that startup success is all about mental preparedness, tenacity, and skillful pitch execution under high stakes circumstances.  Entrepreneurs regularly face cutthroat competitors and critics, and must be able to push their ideas and products past consumers resistance to change.  In his most recent book “Executive Toughness,” Dr. Jason Selk discusses mental toughness and other shared traits between sports and business high performers.  Given the self-driving nature of entrepreneurial work, startup founders must exemplify this critical trait to prevail.  In his Harvard Business Review article “How the Best of the Best Get Better,” sports psychologist and former consultant to Olympic and world champions Dr. Graham Jones says, “Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability — coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities — just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head. Rather, it is [mindset] mental toughness.”

After living and working in and around Silicon Valley for more than 20 years I’ve seen firsthand the underpinnings of mental toughness, the stamina it takes to succeed here, and the price those people pay to stay at the top.  Through executive coaching I’ve supported top organizational leaders through pivotal growth periods in life and business, leveraging best practices from peak performance psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral design and critical communication skill acquisition.  

Top 5 best practices for augmenting mental toughness:

  1. Notice the subtle shifts in your physiology and thought patterns, and where they drive your emotions, behaviors and decision-making.  Cultivate control over this chain reaction through mindfulness training, and commit to embodying your most unflappable self in high stakes situations.  Use tools like visualization, auditory prompts and self-directing phrases to tap into deep learning through habit formation.
  2. Prepare confidence-boosting engagement and response scripts to the three most challenging interpersonal situations you face.  This is especially helpful for those who aren’t naturally charismatic, because they serve as a guideline for how to best interact with people. Well-developed and practiced interpersonal responses work to center you, bringing you back to a place of familiarity, reducing socially anxious reactions that can interfere with peak performance.
  3. Develop a relentless and optimistic ‘solution focused mindset’. It is so irresistible to ride the wave of emotion that surges when facing a hard problem. Our brains can get railroaded by our emotions, mimicking the addiction response and diminishing our ability to think critically and generate effective options.  Approach all potential solutions one step at a time, giving yourself time to process your emotions first.  Even mapping out a single step completion is progress and an improvement to the current situation. Remember you can’t solve all problems at once, so choose one and stay focused on it until measurable progress is made.
  4. When you set your mind to do something, find a way to get it done, no matter what. While a relentless solution focus is the mental step, behavioral discipline is the action step that makes effective solutions materialize. In this way, discipline delivers success. Make discipline a habit by looking out for triggering temptations and planning accordingly.
  5. Be willing to embrace change.  Mentally tough people are flexible, constantly adapting in order to solve for best possible outcomes.  Fear of change is paralyzing and a major threat to one’s progress towards broader goals for fulfillment and happiness. 

A backbone of mental toughness is essential for providing the courage and internal compass that top competitors rely on to steer through the challenges they face. It also emboldens them to take on new opportunities for learning and growth- healthy life habits for effectively navigating stress, conflict and crises.  If you can develop mastery in this, you win!

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New year, new goals, now what? Ten lessons from some of Silicon Valley’s fastest rising founders.

For many of us, 2017 was an exhausting year fraught with political change, devastating natural catastrophes and economic strain.  But Silicon Valley never stops evolving, fueled by talented people driven to create positive change and effective solutions.  I’ve had the pleasure of coaching some of the Bay Area’s fastest rising founders, tech leaders and startup teams as they turned their ideas into reality, started companies that attracted clients with the biggest and hottest names in tech, joined executive teams that launched transformational products, and challenged themselves to take professional risks in new high level roles.  Engaging in coaching helped them sustain motivation and gain clarity through periods of doubt, burn out, and high stakes decision making.

Their pathways to achievement in the startup space are not meant to remain hidden and unaccessible to others who are just beginning their journey.  My goal as an executive leadership coach is to share honest lessons from their pivotal experiences so that others can find encouragement and make progress with aplomb.

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  1. You don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done (or the way others have done things for that matter) to “make it”.  For every newly minted ivy league graduate gunning for entrepreneurial success in the startup community, there are countless others who have leveraged their humble education or work experiences with immensely profitable gains.  Not having a degree is no longer a reason to believe you can’t create opportunities to learn and achieve in your chosen field.
  2. Fear and doubt are emotions not behaviors. Use mindfulness to manage your thoughts, which have a direct impact on your emotions.  You can’t rely on waiting for your emotions to ‘be ready’ to start taking on new challenges.  Set yourself up for success by using ‘SMART goals’, a behavioral timeline that is realistic and achievable, at a pace that allows small but measurable progress.
  3. Take your own short cuts.  Use what’s available rather than re-inventing the wheel. Our time and energy are better spent creating impact in unique ways than in rebuilding something that’s now available off the shelf.  Open-source, high engagement educational tools and projects, third-party design tools, and strategic outsourcing are ways to focus more of your time on leveraging your core competencies.
  4. Listen to your gut.  What are you truly curious and passionate about doing?  Find a space to explore and track these thoughts, talk about them with trusted others or engage in coaching to gain clarity around what you want to build towards in this phase of your life, and how to set yourself up to achieve your biggest goals.
  5. Embrace your difference.  Undeniably, the world remains in the grips of a political climate that systemically limits opportunities and equal rights for ‘otherness’ identities.  Yet now more than ever there is evidence that embracing diversity yields unique perspectives that reinvent what’s broken, generating innovative solutions that raise the bar across all industries.
  6. Grow at your own pace. While many people would love to have the problem of achieving rapid success, growing pains that strain one’s functional capacity can feel like a dam threatening to burst.  What’s at risk if you lose control of your growth pace?  It’s not necessary to convince yourself you ‘have’ to accept all the big opportunities that come your way.  Helping founders decide how and when to aggressively prioritize growth opportunities has revealed to me the critical value of pacing growth in the big picture of one’s success map.
  7. Use losses and transitions as a chance to re-evaluate and re-direct your personal vision of success.   The tech industry has the lowest average employee tenure, creating a cutthroat climate for those in the game.    Employment transitions and lost opportunities can feel overwhelming, especially for those whose work identity is a grounding anchor in their self-esteem.  It’s normal to feel uncertain about what to pursue next, especially if it opens up other major decisions like where to live, and what relationships should be prioritized in the grand scheme of one’s life.  Borrow Salesforce‘s ubiquitous alignment tool, the V2MOM.  Creating a personal V2MOM is one way I have helped clients formulate next steps according to their vision, values, methods, obstacles and measures.  It can help to do this exercise with an objective person you trust, or anyone without personal stakes in your decision-making.
  8. Pay attention to how far you’ve come, it’s further than you realize!  One of the most fulfilling parts of being a leadership coach is taking inventory with my clients of how much they’ve learned and grown by tracking their measurable progress.  As a lifelong skier, I’ve always enjoyed taking that moment to pause and look back at the steep, icy, once intimidating run I just came down.  It’s so important to acknowledge where you started!
  9. Surround yourself with people who want to see you win.  Well cultivated friendships and supportive social networks are irrefutably one of the healthiest, most rewarding things we can instill in our lives.  Making friends in adulthood can be intimidating, don’t hesitate to review some surefire tactics for building social equity into your current phase of life.
  10. Engage in mentorship for highest ROI.  Contributing to the collective wisdom of groups you been inspired by reinforces the ‘why‘ in your daily life, and serves as a springboard for reinforcing gratitude and resilience when you need it most.  It’s a way to bring together your values and share in building the communities you believe in most.
 

Winning together: conflict resolution tactics for startup founders

As a executive coach I support startup founders, CEOs, senior executives and other tech leaders in their pursuit of entrepreneurial success in Silicon Valley.  Their leadership development goals prioritize enhancing emotional intelligence, improving interpersonal communication and honing conflict resolution skills for managerial effectiveness.  The startup life is often grueling as co-founders face high pressure, high stakes decision-making during the rapid growth of their company.  Harjeet Taggar, former Y Combinator partner, once wrote, “The relationship between co-founders is usually the single biggest risk to a startup in the earliest stages, it’s certainly the most common reason for failure we see at YC.”  According to Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, successful conflict management requires skillful self management, and the ability to separate self-interest from winning solutions “You have to be prepared to see the better idea when it arrives. And the hardest part of that is often discarding your old idea.”

Seasoned entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley recognize that it’s not just the idea, product or timing of a startup that sets the stage for success, but arguably the founders’ ability to work together to tackle emerging problems as a company scales.  It means working through differences aligned in partnership rather than at odds with one another.  Just like the honeymoon phase of romantic relationships, early startup success can mask a lack of effective conflict management skills between founders.  When things are going well, it’s tempting to believe that major conflicts can be avoided.  While the gambling spirit is worn like a badge of honor among successful entrepreneurs, this is one gamble they can’t afford to lose.  Without practicing conflict resolutions skills early and often, they risk losing time and resources battling each other instead of leveraging their collective strengths when they need them most.  Gary Tan, former partner at Y Combinator shared with TechCrunch “Successful co-founders actually embrace conflict, and are constantly in the process of resolving it. If you can’t argue and arrive at the best solution, you’re not doing the work to actually have a real, healthy working relationship.”

So what works?  Evidence-based strategies like those developed by psychologist John Gottman are applicable beyond marital relationships, and have been successfully utilized by other respected startup coaches in Silicon Valley.  Gottman’s research has a proven track-record for both relationship success as well as predicting relationship failure with scientifically rigorous precision.

1.  Aspire to ‘win’ as a team, not as individuals.  

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When your team is busy arguing over every minor detail your competitors are busy winning, and your company is busy failing.  

There’s a saying in Silicon Valley that it’s better to have an A team with a B idea, than a B team with an A idea. Dedicate yourself to operating as an A member of an A team.  Each member of your A team has lived their life aspiring to win on an individual level, using tactics that work best for them as individuals.  The hardest part of submitting to a team is accepting others’ differences and shortcomings gracefully, and carrying on with your best work ethic and respect for others regardless of who’s slowing company progress.  You think “I never would have made that mistake!  This problem could have been avoided if they’d listened to me.”  When oversights, insufficient planning, unclear communication, failed efforts, personal problems, and fatigue set in, they can lead to setbacks in your combined efforts to succeed as a team.  Adopt the mental framework that ‘winning’ is modeling cooperation and flexibility, ‘losing’ is fighting to get your way all the time.  Winning is practicing humility and accepting constructive feedback because it sets the best stage for improvement.  Are you using tactics to succeed as a team or are you using tactics that are better suited to individual success?  Are you willing to do whatever it takes to make progress as a team?

2.  Recognize that company success is tied to your team’s willingness to trust one another.  By working as part of a founder team, you are acknowledging you are better off working together versus alone.  If you agree to build something with someone you are agreeing to rely on them, and you must also be reliable.

Founders of a company are gambling on each other, and there is no way to gamble without trust.  Partial trust begets mistrust.

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Can you trust that your cofounder has the best interest of the company at heart? Are you both committed to making the relationship work and the company successful?  If you are not all in, you introduce risk to the foundation of your company.  Trust functions to give team members a “reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.”  By agreeing to work with and rely on one another, you’ve accepted that each person adds important value, unique insights, and specialized abilities that compliment yours.  By giving this to one another you maximize the time and attention you have for your own contributions instead of using your energy to raise doubts or second guess others’ work.

 

3.  Attempting to track and keep score of who’s working harder or contributing more ‘worth’ wastes time, fosters animosity and reduces positive synergy. 

Everyone’s best effort looks different, so spending time making comparisons rarely produces progress for the relationship or the company.

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According to University of Illinois psychologist Brian Ogolsky and Texas State University’s Christine Gray, people who keep score in their relationships damage their potential for healthy relationship maintenance because the very act of counting implies a lack of trust, rigidity, and negativity.  Co-founders and team members should aim to delegate responsibilities based on ability and expertise, and if a continual imbalance in the workload emerges, plan to discuss this as a team to solve for more efficient allocation of tasks that factors in individual strengths, resources and availability.  Avoid placing blame when ever possible, and focus on actionable solutions that are tied to current circumstances.  The potential for success is maximized when everyone’s strengths are being efficiently utilized in real time.

 

4.  Create space for differences in opinion- exploring these differences will generate the most ingenuous solutions.  Aim to facilitate a wide range of possibilities, and take an objective approach to problem-solving.

Even if you don’t agree with a particular solution, it’s more effective if everyone shares their vision how this solution could result in success or failure.

This style of debate fosters constructive involvement and reduces power struggles.  If you oppose a decision, it’s not sufficient to point out a suggested plan’s low probability of success.  Research and prepare an outline of alternative action-oriented solutions to share with the team.

5.  Pay attention to people’s feelings.  Conflict will naturally give rise to emotional expression that can work in your team’s favor.  Strong emotional overtones are bound to emerge during a heated debate- take this as a sign that people care deeply about the work, about the team’s success, and that everyone at the table wants to avoid pitfalls.  Identify what people are feeling and why.  Let their answers inform how to proceed based on the expressed ideas.  If the discussion doesn’t lead to an agreed upon direction, rely on people’s primary areas of expertise as a guide for who has the most insight for the final call.  If the plan doesn’t work as out, take part in supporting a change in course quickly to minimize stalled productivity.

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6.  Ignoring reoccurring bad vibes between team members will only lead to bigger problems- resolving conflict is one problem startup founders CAN control.  The sooner you address them, the sooner you can get back to business.

Lastly, if all diplomatic efforts fail, agree to seek outside advice. I always recommend that founders and executive teams establish a range of outside resources (experienced mentors, business advisors, legal counsel) to give your team the insight it needs to resolve conflict.  Having an outsider broker your disagreement will end the gridlock- it’s like couples therapy for co-founders.  This might be what saves your startup from sinking.  Your team should agree in advance to take the advice with the goal of moving past this stage with finality.

 

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And don’t lose your sense of humor!  At fast-growing startups, the sheer magnitude of work should be complemented with some light-heartedness.  Laugh in solidarity at the crazy, silly things that you face together as a team- it will help lighten the mood.  When you look back at this time in your life, those are the things you’ll remember with a sense of gratitude and character-building strength.

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Smart solutions when productivity stalls- perspective is everything

You know that feeling when you’re stalled by something that needs to get done?  Even the most efficient people face roadblocks in their productivity from time to time.  This is especially frustrating for people who are used to completing challenging tasks with relative ease.  I recently met with an accomplished young gaming engineer for executive coaching to support his exploration of new work opportunities in Silicon Valley.  He revealed that he’d struggled for hours to complete a cover letter email, and this left him feeling baffled and weary about the whole process of interviewing for new employment.  We used the session to get to the root of what was creating this stall in productivity, and generated smart solutions based on his personal strengths.  Strategy and perspective makes all the difference.

Working with the Bay Area’s talented tech community has taught me this- the smartest people take it the hardest when their performance and results don’t meet their expectations!  Many have grown accustomed to things coming easily to them and have quickly advanced in their chosen career trajectory.  Early giftedness in STEM can sometimes lead to people develop an identity centered around being ‘brainy and capable’.  It may come as a shock when something as simple as creating a cover letter sidelines them and deflates their sense of efficacy.

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Why does this happen?  Over time, our strengths get reinforced as our primary means of solving problems because they get us from point A to point B quickly and easily.  Since these same strengths are also tied to our sense of identity and self worth, we become less willing to set them aside and use other methods of ‘solving’.  Tasks that force us to operate outside of our comfort zone trigger feelings of frustration because we aren’t as effective as we’re used to feeling, which stalls our productivity.  A guy who’s honed skills as a talented engineer, fluent in the most sought after programming languages will probably not be as adroit at English writing composition and will likely need to give himself more leeway in completing a thoughtfully composed cover letter.

Apply a smart solutions formula when your productivity stalls:
1. Conscious self-awareness.  Identify the evidence in your life (historically and currently) of how and when you have leveraged your personal strengths to achieve good outcomes.  How did your strengths allow you to perform optimally?  Result outcomes might be found in academic, career advancement, kinesthetic/athletic, social/interpersonal, emotional, musical, aesthetic, experiential, operational or other realms of functionality.

“I can recognize times in my life when my skills and abilities have allowed me to make progress, overcome obstacles, and reach important goals that have led me to where I am now.”

2. Balanced self-acceptance.  Scientific advancements in human cognition and intelligence reveal that all people possess strengths and weaknesses relative to their overall functioning.  To expect to function only by means of our strengths is unrealistic.  Sometimes we must be willing to step back from our most comfortable mode of operating and acknowledge certain tasks don’t call for our ideal skill set.

“This task calls for specific skills that I don’t practice as often (e.g. writing English composition).  I can’t rely on my core strengths to complete it.  I must be willing to feel uncomfortable if I’m to make progress.  So what?  That’s true for everyone sometimes.  If I let this slower pace of progress demoralize me it could stop me from getting from point A to point B.  Any pace will do, as long as I’m trying to move forward.”

3. Realistic expectations.  Plan to break down larger goals into chunks that are achievable and utilize breaks to regain energy.  Attempting to complete a difficult task in one fell swoop doesn’t lead to efficiency, it’s a set up for failure.  When you’re using your brain to work in less familiar ways, expect to take breaks before your mental energy begins to stall so your overall motivation remains strong.  This way you avoid feeling demoralized and progress remains steady.

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4. Shift perspective.  Pay attention to how you’re evaluating yourself- when we only measure our progress based on ‘results’ rather than ‘performance effort’ we can end up feeling ineffective or lose our sense of purpose.  Another coaching client of mine works in a highly specialized area of machine learning/artificial intelligence (AI).  While there has been genuine advances and exciting new applications here in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs around the world, the field remains experimental, and it still requires time-consuming, exploratory research.  Even the most brilliant minds working together face a sense of disappointment when big breakthroughs don’t happen, especially with constant media hype  fueling the AI frenzy.  If you are working on the cutting edge of new scientific discovery, it may be difficult to quantify progress and demonstrate measurable value compared to an ever-changing larger community.  While it’s natural to want to make comparisons, track and measure your contributions by ‘showing your work’ rather than evaluating yourself on outcome results alone.  By documenting your steps in the scientific process, generating strategic hypotheses, testing them critically through observations and experiments you are creating a useful path of ‘knowledge’ as you arrive at Type 1 or Type 2 errors, etc.  Find value in documenting how you’ve made progress to better direct your future paths of discovery.

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5. Prepare to use trial and error.  If one particular process of completing a task isn’t coming together, try a different plan of action.  Step away from a task and let your brain absorb the learning and develop new insights.  Go back with fresh eyes in regular intervals and adjust accordingly, and practice applying new insights.  According to the latest neuroscience,  researchers have discovered that moments of creativity take place when the mind is at rest rather than directly working on something.  Since creative approaches are so crucial to success, be sure to give yourself space from your work efforts.

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Bringing it all together:  Discover optimal productivity methods based on your personal strengths and challenges.  Practice applying a perspective that takes into account all the moving parts and your abilities before comparing your pace to others.  Remember that everyone hits roadblocks from time to time; taking this mindful approach and using smart solutions will help you overcome them as efficiently as possible.