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.

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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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Fyre Festival’s fraudulent founder Billy McFarland: overcome FOMO and spot dangerous narcissism before getting burned

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Fyre Festival’s founder Billy McFarland

Everyone’s talking about the newly released documentaries taking viewers behind the scenes of the disastrous 2017 Fyre Festival. Hulu’s Fyre Fraud and Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened. Both cover the social-media hyped event gone horribly wrong: festival founder and entrepreneur Billy McFarland duped thousands into purchasing tickets upwards of $3,000 each for a tropical island VIP get-away laden with models, celebrities, and A-list music acts. Instead, festival-goers were stranded, fighting over survival essentials like water and food in a squalid tent city.  Worse yet, Fyre festival proved financially deleterious to the island’s local inhabitants who were deprived of wages, some of whom depleted their life savings attempting to bring the grandiose festival to fruition. The documentaries bring viewers up to date with Billy McFarland, the 27-year-old founder of the company behind the festival, being sentenced to six years in prison in October of 2018 , and facing a $26 million forfeiture order. In a Vox interview with Maria Konnikova, the psychologist featured in the Hulu documentary, she discusses the “Dark Triad,” a set of three socially aversive personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, all wrapped up in one person. “I think [McFarland] definitely has narcissism and Machiavellianism,” Dr. Konnikova told Vox. “He might also have psychopathy, but it’s hard to know without talking to him further.” While McFarland’s actions have been captured by these documentaries and other media accounts of his company Fyre Media, it’s hard not to be intrigued by what sets him apart from other vision-driven, charismatic entrepreneurs.

Can you overcome FOMO and spot dangerous narcissism before getting burned?

No one wants to think of themselves as unable to spot a scam when they see one, or that they might fall prey to the type of person who is capable of blinding our rational judgement, swindling innocent people of their savings, or endangering people’s physical safety and professional livelihoods. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) can exacerbate our risk of being taken advantage of by diminishing the tell-tale signs of a threatening situation. In comparison, the threat of ‘missing out’ on something that has the potential to inflate our social status, evoke envy in others or afford us the chance to come into rare financial gain can seem like the bigger risk.

Silicon Valley is where entrepreneurs come from all over the world to participate in the get-rich-culture of startups, fueling FOMO and attracting top talent, cutthroat competitors and predatory schemers. Research findings have linked narcissism to  entrepreneurs, serving as a personality foundation for their larger-than-life dreams of creating the next Google or Facebook.

Is narcissism always a bad thing?

People commonly wonder “Isn’t some degree of narcissism typical and necessary for people to become high-achievers?” While healthy self-confidence is necessary to form resilience in the face of adversity, and sustains perseverance through trying times, this is different than true narcissism. Healthy self-confidence stems from hard-earned accomplishments, proven mastery, the fortitude to own ones’ mistakes, and a respect for those committed to learning, growing, and working. Narcissism is actually a psychological defense against underlying inadequacy and shortcomings (which is why it’s referred to as “malignant self-love”. Low self-awareness, high entitlement, habitual belittling of others, inflated sense of abilities, and need for constant admiration are other key features. Combined with psychopathy and Machiavellianism, narcissism emboldens people to take advantage of others regardless of the potential for harming them, in order to create opportunities for personal gain at others’ expense.

Fyre is testimony to how today’s ubiquitous FOMO culture fuels irrational decision-making, group-think akin to cult culture, creating opportunity for those with The Dark Triad to prey on unsuspecting others. Even if Billy McFarland was ultimately found guilty of fraud, countless people were willingly invest their money, power and influence which together, drove forward Fyre Festival to it’s spectacularly disastrous end. McFarland’s story is just the latest buzz in a growing pile of internet-fueled schemes where people forgo judgement for opportunity, and it certainly won’t be the last.

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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Decoding my personal truth: how to figure out what to do with my life (and still ideally pay my bills!)

These days, people are increasingly using executive coaching for the purpose of ‘figuring out what to do with my life’ (and ideally still be able to afford living in the Bay Area!)  From high-ranking executives at globally successful companies, to startup founders who’ve sold their company and are now free to roam, to Bay Area transplants who’ve grown disenchanted with the tech scene- all have entered my practice ready to decode their personal truth, find their greater purpose, and build a personally meaningful roadmap toward their version of success.

“A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.”  Albert Einstein

Our personal truth serves as our unique roadmap, helping us navigate toward a future created with purpose.  Every day we make choices that steer us on our personal path- our inner beliefs, preferences, sense of right and wrong all come together to drive the direction we take in life.  In his book Unapologetically You, behavioral science academic and author Steve Maraboli advises us of the importance of this position: “Live your truth. Express your love. Share your enthusiasm. Take action towards your dreams. Walk your talk. Dance and sing to your music. Embrace your blessings. Make today worth remembering.”  

But what if we aren’t sure of what we are meant to do, and our greater purpose seems unclear?  How do we ‘know’ what’s right for us?

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Disenchantment A new Netflix toon with a title that captures the sentiment of many.

How can we be sure of ‘what’s best’ when we make choices for our future?  Some people feel a deep sense of conviction about their life’s purpose- “I was born to make music. I was born to build.  I was born to heal.”  Other people don’t feel this depth of clarity, and take aim for their future by solving tangible problems first- they develop a range of practices, skills and resources to prevent commonly avoided hardships like sickness, injury, poverty, social isolation.  Others feel satisfied knowing they’ve contributed to offsetting the needs of their family, community, or are embodying their religious tenets faithfully.  Even with recognizable success, some people may still wonder if they they’ve adequately challenged themselves to fulfill their personal destiny or greater purpose in life.  How can we ‘know’ if we’ve made the right choices for ourselves? At some point, a person’s experience of happiness and purpose comes back to personal taste, or preference for achievement.

Cultural expectations, opinions of people we admire, and social influences related to the times further shape our notions of what an ideal, purpose-driven, meaningful life looks like.  How have outside influences shaped your assumptions about what you should do with your life?  Without awareness of what’s driving your thoughts, feelings and behaviors it’s easy to get stuck in the habit of chasing goals without fully understanding if it’s personally important to do so. We can distract ourselves by measuring outcomes in size, volume, impact, or accumulation as a marker to indicate the degree of our success.  We may even learn to rely on these outcomes to tell us how satisfied we should feel.   

Three Exercises for discovering personal truth-  how do you ‘know’ yourself?

Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of the mind as an information processor- cognitive psychologists seek to understand human perception- the process of how we experience our emotions, how we develop mental representations, and derive genuine fulfillment from our experiences.  

Bring to mind some of your favorite moments in your past.  When you think about places, recreations, or experiences that you enjoy for the sake of the pleasure they gives you- try to uncover the why behind the attraction, or the feeling they’ve given you.  Identify your preferences in the following areas, simply based on your experience of them: how do you ‘know’ you like them?

  • areas in nature (cliffs, beaches, snowy mountains, open fields, woods, etc)
  • Sounds of specific musical instruments, musical genres, or eras of music
  • Social activities at a party (group games, exploratory dinner conversations, group cooking, dancing, people watching, etc)
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Discovering truth in Silicon Valley

2. Can you identify how external influences or mental representations play a role in how you developed these preferences? 

  • Consider how your family, social circles, workplace or local communities have shaped your understanding of how to best spend your time.
  • How does the narrative you’ve adopted about your personality style (e.g. loner, leader, helper) shape your predictions of trying new experiences and how you’ll feel about them?
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3.  Imagine moving to a society where areas of achievement, compensation for work and the social status of various roles were completely different than what we know them to be now.

  • Can you imagine choosing a role/occupation (a collection of responsibilities and activities) without knowing how this society thought of it?
  • What would you be doing? (Starting an original project? Building a team after evaluating competencies in people? Leading growth?)
  • How much of your attraction to these elements are because you’re familiar and/or been successful in doing these things in the past?  
  • If you found out there was one additional responsibility within this role/occupation that you were apprehensive to take on, what would that be?

These exercises are meant to help you uncover and tap into your personal truth, creating a guiding force for making choices in the big picture of your life path.  Be patient with yourself, track the evolution of your thoughts, feelings and insights throughout the process.  You’re on your way to ‘knowing’ yourself better than ever before.

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Millennial men ask “Is it ever ok to approach women in public?” How to meet women in the age of #metoo

Downtown San Francisco during the work week is always swarming with millennials in clothing styles meant to convey ‘simple, smart and purposeful’ yet for many, dating life is proving to be anything but that.  The millennial clients that I coach through professional and personal life goals came of age in a time when digital technology had already changed how people communicate, disrupting social rules of dating among other mainstays of modern society.  Thirty-nine percent of Millennials admit to interacting more with their phones than the actual people in their lives, making them even less likely to to talk to strangers without clear cause in their everyday comings and goings.  Many millennial men who’ve achieved professional success are now ready to marry, but are realizing the strategies they used to find casual sex partners aren’t cutting it for finding ‘the one‘.  With no time to sift through dating profiles or spend nights in bars, these guys are engaging coaching to develop proactive dating strategies that set them up for success in their daily activities.

“I want to meet a really smart woman, much smarter than me!  Someone who is passionate about pursuing her goals, driven by values that we both share.  I want to be attracted to her mind more than anything! But she should want to be healthy and fit and enjoy being sexually active for us to be truly compatible.  Financial independence is important too, since living here is so expensive.  Is that too much to ask?”

That’s Silicon Valley in a nutshell, and honestly that’s not even a tall order compared to what my high-achieving female clients have on their marital check-list.  So while online dating has been effective for solving most people’s casual sex needs, it feels agonizingly inefficient to most people ready to meet someone marriage-worthy, especially with personal brand consciousness and FOMO influencing millennials’ major life decision-making process.  I encourage my single clients to attend curated social events or engage in recreational activities with a male/female ratio that benefits them, increasing the odds they meet people of similar caliber who share mutual interests.  I ask them to take the approach“if I had to solve this problem in the next two weeks, how would I do it?  What can I do to get started today?” which gives people a sense of urgency and gets them ready to apply practical solutions in the here and now.

After mapping out a few actionable plans with a male client, he earnestly asked “is it ever ok to just approach a woman in public these days? You know without coming across as desperate or creepy.” Admittedly I was taken aback by this question – I was struck by the difficult task of overcoming social anxiety they’ve spent less time addressing thanks to technology, while leveraging enough social finesse to engage others in a respectful and compelling way.  Many millennial aged men understandably prefer to play it safe in unclear circumstances, or risk coming across like a cheesy pick-up artist (PUA).  Have millennials come to rely exclusively on dating apps, social introductions, singles bars and events that serve the function of bars to form romantic connections?  Has the heterosexual male to female ‘cold call’ approach become totally obsolete?  Like the evolutionary equivalent of the human appendix, wisdom teeth or tonsils, once useful in our dark past but at best should remain dormant or at worst may trigger pain and suffering? Fox Monkey GIF by Animation Domination High-Def-downsized_large

Once upon a time men were far more likely to approach women in public outside of well-defined social circumstances, when our society was more deeply rooted in the notion that ‘masculine persistence wins the heart.’  American media largely produced by men has been dominated by storylines that convey if a woman responds to a man’s advances with disinterest, she can be persuaded to change her mind through a combination of charm, wit, and low-key psychological warfare.  This dynamic calls for female passivity, contributing to how women are treated as ‘fair game for romantic pursuits’ in public spaces.  The time of reckoning for gender inequality has come with the #metoo movement, an activist-led eruption of female empowerment that has become a global phenomenon, upending the longstanding tolerance of objectification and abuse of women for the purpose of male sexual gratification.  Though gender equality across all realms has a long way to go, it is still possible for men to safely and respectfully engage women in public by learning to read social cues with greater sensitivity.  It will likely not be easy or feel comfortable.  As I said to my male client “approaching a woman in public is graduate-school level game– we’re working on social skill mastery at the kindergarten level- first things first.”  (My clients are sturdy and know I don’t dish out what I know they can’t take!)

If you want to approach a woman in public but are unsure of how to proceed, take the time to read the situation closely.  This may take time you don’t want to spare- but keep in mind, a rushed approach increases the chance of a failed mission.

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HOW TO’S:

  • Make sure this woman is not wearing a wedding ring.  This is an easily avoidable rookie mistake!  Practice discreetly checking out left hands in various situations so you can be ready to quickly assess when it matters.
  • Respect women’s time.  Does it look like the woman is in a perceptible hurry?  Is she engaged in an activity that she’d probably prefer not to have interrupted?  If she’s busy working on a laptop she probably won’t welcome small talk- wait until it’s obvious she’s taking a break to speak to her.  Is the woman clearly relaxing, enjoying a meal by herself or having some personal downtime?  If she responds with only a fleeting or absent smile, minimal verbal response or eye contact, take the hint and keep it moving.  Persistence in the face of a minimal response is only going to feel uncomfortable and annoying to her.
  • Pay attention to eye contact.  Has the woman made purposeful, positive eye contact with you at least a few times?  Catching a woman’s eye once might be accidental, twice might be her checking to see if you are still looking at her.  Women naturally check their surroundings for their own safety, and women find they need to keep an eye out for guys who might be staring, stalker style.  Your job is to make sure you come across as friendly and safe– if you’re so nervous you can’t smile in the split second you catch a woman’s eye, you might not be ready to approach a woman in this manner.  Practice talking to women you don’t know in social settings where people are clearly expected to mingle so you develop a sense of how to accurately read non-verbal cues.

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  • Drop the idea that channeling alpha male confidence will lead to a positive outcome.  Guys are really attached to the idea that exuding cool confidence is what women want.  It’s refreshing and much more likable if you can manage to be yourself and talk with a woman like she’s a person not an object to win over.  Better to be awkward and able to laugh at yourself if the situation calls for it!  Take it from a woman- we’re often just as concerned with first impressions, and you’ll make it much easier for her to respond to you if open with something genuine and friendly.

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  • Ask her opinion about something related to the shared situation you’re both in, and be sure to listen and show appreciation for her response.  This is simple enough to do, especially if she’s in nearby proximity.  Respond with something of equal tone, and if possible include an opportunity for her to keep the conversation going.
  • Get out of your comfort zone, and use light-hearted humor to break the ice.  Authentic self-deprecation and self-declared inexperience is an easy way to gain a moment of sympathy from women.  Women are natural care-takers, teachers and experts in many, many things!  Guys, if you put yourself in a situation where there are women who are excellent at something, you will stand out not only because you’re willing to risk looking foolish, but also because you’re interested in something they clearly enjoy.  This only works if you demonstrate a genuine interest in learning.  If you keep at it long enough, women will likely take pity on you and offer some support.  I’ve seen it happen a million times before!

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Adopting these strategies aren’t meant to guarantee that you’ll get a date after perfecting them, but can work to start an engaging conversation that could potentially reveal a reason to stay in touch with a woman as result.  Good luck out there, and you’re welcome!

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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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Settling down in Silicon Valley, just another impossible unicorn to chase?

A recent article published in The Washington Post titled “Why Silicon Valley singles are giving up on the algorithms of love” illuminates the struggle single people face, even while living in one of the countries wealthiest and most educated urban areas, attracting young, ambitious people from all over the world.  While the San Francisco Bay Area remains a high ranking city for adventurous singles, others find themselves tired of FOMO-driven dating sprints and casual hook-ups and start to crave the intimacy of a committed romantic relationship.  To be single and searching for ‘the one’ in the Bay Area is complicated according the wide range of people I encounter through my executive coaching practice with entrepreneurs and other high performers in the tech ecosystem.  The single women are far outnumbered by single men making the odds good for heterosexual women, but they’ll quickly tell you the “goods are odd”, describing tech guys as low in EQ and difficult to navigate with through early stages of dating ).  Even with the odds stacked against them, single men in Silicon Valley are more selective in their search for a romantic partner than literally, anywhere else in the country.   These findings are completely consistent with the feedback I get from the millennials I work with in tech.

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Back in 2014 I penned an article for techcrunch.com titled #Love: Hacking Social Isolation, bringing attention to how the increasing reliance on technology is making it more difficult for millennials to form and maintain authentic relationships with others.  Not unlike Silicon Valley startups whose valuations promise more than they actually deliver, millennials continue to rely heavily upon dating apps, an investment that is more likely to lead to user fatigue and burnout than to the relationship promised land.  This is a new kind of failure, and Silicon Valley hasn’t come to grips with it yet.  You can’t swipe right for automatic intimacy, you have to build it.  Slowly and unpredictably, at least for now.

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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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