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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Can you tell the difference between a cult and your startup? Take the test.

 

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The tech community and startup culture has a long, widely-recognized history of romanticizing a cult-like approach for building successful companies.  Popular tech media publications like Wired have published pieces on the topic: You Should Run Your Startup Like a Cult. Here’s How, Inc.‘s The Cult-Like Cultures of Amazing Startups,  Forbes Are Successful Companies The New Cults?, Fast Company‘s Facebook VP’s Leaked 2016 Memo Betrays Cult-like Obsession With Growth, and Fortune‘s Fired Google Engineer: Tech Company Is ‘Like a Cult’.  It goes without saying that the rapid rise  and influence of technology companies have changed nearly every facet of the world as we know it.  Living and working within Silicon Valley’s tech ecosystem, I see firsthand how the ubiquitous mantra “our mission is to change the world” permeates organizations.  Have we lost sight of the line between cult and ‘cult-like’?  Is the over-use of the cult-inspired phrase “drinking the kool-aid” in tech pop culture a sign we have become numb to the real differences that exist between cults and startups?

Many years ago I had the privilege of completing coursework taught by renowned forensic psychologist Dr. Margaret Singer, a world expert on brainwashing, cults and psychopathy.  In her long career, she investigated and testified about techniques used by North Koreans against American soldiers in wartime, the Symbionese Liberation Army‘s influence over the kidnapped heiress Patricia Hearst, David Koresh in Waco with Branch Davidians, and countless other criminal cases examining psychopathy, cults, and serial killers.  Dr. Singer helped several people leave the San Francisco-based religious group Peoples Temple before 900 of the members committed mass suicide in Jonestown in 1978 by drinking kool-aid flavored cyanide.  Even in her late 70’s, Dr. Singer remained a formidable speaker and made a deep, long-lasting impression on me about the irresistible charisma of cult leaders, and the lure they had over their members.  I’ve outlined the key principles she taught as fundamental to a cult’s ability to successfully wield power over others.

Read through the following 15 tactics and ask yourself, can you tell the difference between a cult and your startup?

Submission:

  • Complete, nearly unquestioned trust is bestowed to the leadership.  Doubt and dissent are highly discouraged and may be met with uniquely tailored forms of punishment.
  • Leaders are given prophet-like power within the group, and embraced as special, visionary, ‘highly gifted’ individuals with unusual connections to a critical higher purpose or higher power.
  • Increased submission to the leadership is rewarded with additional responsibilities and/or roles, and/or praises, increasing the importance of the person within the group.

Exclusivity:

  • The group is the only ‘true’ belief system, and members are encouraged to think of themselves as elite and enlightened for their involvement in the group’s membership

Persecution complex:

  • ‘Us against them’ mentality is encouraged as a means to unify the group, and reinforce the group’s mission against outside thought or influence.  Extreme efforts to protect and shield the group from outside threats are manifested by expecting members to devote inordinate amounts of time to group-related activities, including recruiting.

Control

  • Keep members unaware of what is going on and how they are being changed a step at a time.  Potential new members are led, step by step, through a behavioral-change program without being aware of the final agenda or full content of the group.  The goal may be to make them deployable agents for the leadership, to get them to ‘invest’ in the group, or make a deeper commitment, depending on the leader’s aim and desires.
  • Total control of members’ thoughts, feelings and actions through repeated indoctrination and/or threats of loss of affiliation with the group’s special purpose. Members are rewarded for their expressions of loyalty, and are made to fear negative consequences for expressing autonomy of thought.
  • Members are encouraged to believe that they will experience deep loss (of love, financial opportunity, respect from a revered community) or danger should they lose their group affiliation.

Isolation

  • Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in group members.  This is accomplished by getting members away from the normal social support group for a period of time and into an environment where the majority of people are already group members.  The members serve as models of the attitudes and behaviors of the group and speak an in-group language.
  • This facilitates further control over the thinking and practices of the members by the leadership.

Love Bombing:

  • Showering great attention, , gifts of affirmation and love to a person in the group (especially newcomers) by others in the group, to help transfer emotional dependence to the group.
  • Threats of loss of love and severing of meaningful in-group relationships are used to maintain loyalty.

Special Knowledge:

  • Special knowledge and instructions comes from the empowered leader who is thought to have rare gift for predicting the future. This leader then instructs the members how to carry out plans according to this vision.
  • The special knowledge may be received through visions, dreams, or new interpretations of revered content from past adored thought leaders and their teachings.

Indoctrination:

  • Control of a person’s social and/or physical environment; especially control the person’s time.  Through various methods, newer members are kept busy and led to think about the group and its content during as much of their waking time as possible.
  • Manipulating a system of rewards, punishments and experiences in such a way as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person’s former social identity. Manipulation of experiences can be accomplished through various methods of trance induction, including leaders using such techniques as paced speaking patterns, guided imagery, chanting, long prayer sessions or lectures, induced states of physical taxation through sweat lodge sessions, fasting, hard labor.
  • The teachings of the group are repeatedly drilled into the members, but the indoctrination usually occurs around a system of ‘special knowledge’.

Salvation:

  • Salvation from the judgment of a higher power is maintained through association and/or submission with the group, its authority, and/or its special knowledge.

Group Think:

  • The group’s coherence is maintained by the observance to policies handed down from those in authority.
  • There is an internal enforcement of policies by members who reward “proper” behavior, and those who perform properly are rewarded with further inclusion, increased power and acceptance by the group.
  •  If one expresses a question, he or she is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to be questioning.

Cognitive Dissonance:

  • Avoidance of critical thinking and/or maintaining logically impossible beliefs and/or beliefs that are inconsistent with other beliefs held by the group.
  • Avoidance of and/or denial of any facts that might contradict the group’s belief system.

Shunning:

  • Those who do not tightly align with group policies are shunned and/or expelled, and remaining members are encouraged to see their exit as a personal failure and/or irreversible damnation.

Gender Roles:

  • Control of gender roles and definitions are maintained by the group’s power hierarchy to maintain rank and order.
  • Gender differences may be used for sexual exploitation of those with less power within the group by those with higher group rank.
  • Sexual favors may be encouraged to display group loyalty or affiliation with group leadership.

Appearance Standards:

  • A common appearance that signifies group membership is strongly encouraged or required.  There may be appearance differences that draw attention to group rank to reinforce the group’s hierarchy.
  • Differences in appearance among group members are created to convey special achievements in upholding the group’s tenets or purpose.

Lack of Accountability:

  • Group leaders are not held accountable for any mistakes or wrongdoings because of their special status within the group.
  • Group leaders are often protected from negative evaluation by other group members through systematic secrecy, and are treated according to special rules that free the leaders from accountability.
  • A closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure is used, permitting no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval or executive order.  The group has a top-down, pyramid structure.  The leaders must have verbal ways of never losing.

 

References:

(Singer, 1995)

Cults in Our Midst, The Continued Fight Against Their Menace

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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Millennial managers leading startups: their generation’s new face of management.

According to Pew Research center the millennial generation (born 1983 – 2000) now number 75.4 million, surpassing the 74.9 million Baby Boomers (born 1946 – 1964) and Generation X’ers (born 1965 – 1984).  More than one-in-three American workers today are millennials, and have become the largest share of the American workforce.

In today’s current work climate, it’s not enough for millennial-aged managers to focus on productivity for their company’s success.  Employees who share their generational employment outlook expect them to drive the company’s mission with clarity and inspiration, embody a leadership style that supports their work/life balance and self-care routine, and provide opportunities for them to do work that fulfills their passion for making a positive, meaningful impact.  Millennials widely embrace thought leaders like Simon Sinek who encourage them to marry their values and intentions to their work endeavors for lasting fulfillment in their life.  Amid these formidable expectations, it’s easy for a manager who understands the values of the millennial generation to feel conflicted about how to drive productivity while still supporting her employees work paradigms.

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Any manager who leads without a strong sense of direction is destined to fall short of their targeted goals.  A millennial manager I coach in the venture capital space suggested I write an article based on the headway we’ve made in developing her leadership approach to managing her millennial-aged team.  The following Q & A is based on questions she and other millennial managers have expertly hashed out through their leadership coaching work.

“How can I screen potential candidates during the hiring process to reveal their true work ethic?  The nature of our work is deadline driven, and it’s hard to know who will prioritize work objectives over personal objectives.”

How to hire them:  Work ethic fit is critical to a company’s success, because a candidate with mismatched work ethic will negatively impact productivity, disengage other employees, and create inefficiencies for the rest of the team.  Early stage startup culture has influenced new hire expectations – it’s not unusual for employees at startups to serve in multiple roles to sustain rapid company growth periods.  Experienced millennial managers ask potential hires to share how they’ve handled shifting workflow and multiple role responsibilities in prior positions.  “Can you tell me about a time when you’ve asked a manager for guidance on how to prioritize your workload?  Particularly when you’ve thought meeting a deadline was going to be difficult or impossible because of the high volume and pace of the workload.”  This gives hiring managers a chance to learn if the person has experience identifying and solving workflow prioritization with others. By being transparent about their company’s work style and pace, and sharing specific examples of how team members typically ‘get shit done’ they reduce the the risk of hiring a poor fit for their company culture.  Millennial managers recognize the need to reconcile workload with self-care routines, and have learned to ask revealing questions like “How do you deal with burn out or work fatigue?  How have you managed times when you’ve had conflicts with team members?  What are your expectations for personal time off, working overtime, or through holidays?”

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Experts in psychological personality assessment use tactical questions like this to measure what they refer to as ‘faking good’, to detect a person’s willingness to be forthcoming or tendency to present themselves in an unrealistically positive light.  If given multiple opportunities, can a potential hire share a well-rounded work history that naturally includes unmet challenges, times of burn out, and how they’ve learned from those experiences?  Or are they consistently defensive and unwilling to acknowledge when they’ve been challenged or experienced conflicts at work?  Millennial managers seek to hire people who are willing to be direct and forthcoming, understanding this communication style lends itself to effective problem-solving with others.

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“What can I do to inspire my team members to take initiative in their own professional development?”

Millennial startup founders-turned managers understand the desire for personally meaningful work as a motivating principal behind professional development.  Based on this core value, millennial managers can inspire their employees to invest in their own development by encouraging them to cultivate their personal vision of career growth and success.  Managers seeking to inspire their employees ask “What do you enjoy most about their role?  What would you like to eventually do more of, and less of in your career path?”  By understanding what personally motivates someone, what is most rewarding, and how they’d like to see their professional opportunities take shape, a manager can provide support based on that particular vision.   Further, supporting employees in this way and holding them accountable for progress in their role performance will resonate on a deeper, more meaningful level.

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“How can I set the standard for work ethic with my team?  My employees get overwhelmed by deadlines, and it seems to be influenced by low self confidence and their desire to protect their work/life balance.” 

How to drive high performing employees:  When managers find they have an employee struggling to meet deadlines, the situation can put everyone on the defense.   The dilemma of many millennial managers in startups is that most if not all of the employees are highly valued for their unique abilities and everyone’s individual contributions are critical to company progress.  Further, the time and resources it takes to replace an employee and the risk of destabilizing team morale makes opting to solve the problem a frugal first approach.  While some employees may be failing to complete work as a result of prioritizing personal time, others may be failing to meet work expectations for other reasons.

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Through coaching, a millennial startup founder I support resolved how to effectively manage one of her highest-performing employees who’d begun struggling to meet his production deadlines.  After processing her emotions and generating a communication action plan, she began by conveying her high regard for his contributions to the company’s success, giving examples and recognizing his overall growth.  She listened to his perspective about why his productivity had declined without jumping to conclusions, with the intent to support him in finding a resolution that fit both of their needs.  This encouraged him to share openly about what his challenges and mental roadblocks were, and what changes could lead to a return to consistently high productivity.  This inquiry-led communication style led to both of them making a shift in thinking about how he could best operate in his role without compromising future leadership opportunities, provided new ways for him to contribute to deadline completion, fostering a solution-focused dynamic between them as manager and employee.

Many of the millennial managers I’ve supported have found inspiration for their managerial style based on the wisdom of their favorite leaders in tech, turning up their employee productivity and balancing idealism with practicality by:

  • making changes to the types of work an employee is responsible for completing (e.g. shifting an employee from working autonomously on projects to working in a support role to others)
  • providing alternative options for employees’ work evaluations based on their preference (e.g. brief periodic check-ins to ‘debug’ work progress rather than a longer final project critique)
  • building a work culture that encourages employees to take part in decision-making in how they solve problems rather than dictating how problems get solved

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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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