by renita kalhorn
“Have you ever been incarcerated?” When I was mentoring at Defy Ventures, an organization that trains formerly incarcerated individuals for employment and entrepreneurship, I learned that that was the question participants dreaded most in a job interview (and understandably so, since it often meant the end of the interview).
Though, for most of us, the question we dread being asked may not be as damning, we all have one that puts a pit in our stomach: What’s your market traction? Who are your competitors? Why should we partner with you? Why did you leave your last job? What happened in your last relationship? How come you never got married?
Nothing will trip us up faster, however, than getting defensive. As Mannish Sethi, creator of the Pavlok wristband for changing habits, told Business Insider after his painful Shark Tank presentation: “I was caught off guard by how quickly and forcefully Mark [Cuban] turned against us, and that really changed the tone of the pitch.” Flustered, he wasn’t able to address the Sharks’ focus on clinical studies to tell them about the thousands of “real-life user” success stories — at one point, grabbing his face in frustration, saying, “You guys are making me so ADD” — and he walked away without a deal.
So, earlier this week, at the Paris Pionnieres incubator coaching a group of start-up founders in preparation for an upcoming pitch competition, I asked them: “What’s one insecurity you have about your business?” As it turns out, two of them are married to their co-founders — a set-up they’ve found investors typically frown upon —which means they need to be prepared to respond to that concern.
How do you respond to tough questions or being put on the spot without getting defensive? First, understand that our defensiveness stems from feeling judged, that we’re in the wrong somehow, which — thanks to primitive fears of being thrown out of the tribe — our brain translates as a survival threat and goes into “fight or flight.” And in survival mode, as you may have noticed, rational thinking (and active listening) go out the window.
Since hoping that people will not ask you about aspects of your experience that you’d rather not talk about is not a reliable strategy, you’re better off learning how to override the instinct to protect yourself or attack back: Answering “I don’t agree,” “how is that relevant?” bumbling through your answer or becoming a deer in the headlights (my personal default) is likely to trigger a “fight or flight” response in the other person and derail the conversation.
The answer is: practice!
Know your trigger questions and come up with several variations on how to answer. If the question highlights something you know is a weakness — like low user conversion — say, “Yes, you raise a good point and here’s what we’re doing to improve it” (which is what the question is really asking). If the question is about something that was out of your control, like a toxic work environment: focus on what you did accomplish while you were there and that it’s not a good fit with your goals going forward (you get to decide what’s most relevant to answer the question).
Practice your answers over and over — at least 20 times, I tell my clients — including having someone ask the question so you can practice feeling the emotional response when you hear it.
Yes, it will be uncomfortable. But the real question is, would you rather be uncomfortable now or later, when the stakes are higher?
by victoria crawford
I am sure you have heard that running is good for you – and there is a plethora of evidence to show that running makes you healthier, happier and even smarter.
But if that’s not enough to get you off the sofa, then know this: playing sports can make you a better leader. In fact, research surveying 400 women executives for the EY Women Athletes Business Network and espnW showed that the majority of C-suite women played sport at university level, and concluded that a sport background can help accelerate a woman’s leadership and career potential.
During my time as a Global Leadership Fellow at the World Economic Forum, I have reflected on this and what I have learned personally about leadership from my experiences as a competitive runner.
Here are my top takeaways.
1.Know your goal and want it
I really like running, and I don’t often think of it as a chore. But when I do, it is less often because of some self-imposed obligation to follow a training schedule, and more often because my diary is blank. With no race to aim for, I begin to feel like a hamster running round and round my wheel but going nowhere. Without a purpose, it is difficult to have much motivation and drive. Yes, it’s nice to go outside and get some exercise, but for what?
On the other hand, with an upcoming race to focus on, I actually quite enjoy a hard training session. Not that I particularly like the jelly legs, metal taste in your mouth, can’t-catch-your-breath feeling – but there is a strong sense of satisfaction in setting out a goal and taking concrete steps to get there.
Even better is when you’re in it with your teammates. Long runs in the rain together, track sessions trying to keep up with one another, and evenings spent chatting over plans or sharing war stories, all contribute to a shared focus, and a desire to do better with and for (or even against…) your friends. And what is up for grabs when you work together is much greater than anything you can do by yourself: when my team Serpentine won the London cross-country league or the UK marathon team championships, I wouldn’t have got very far solo.
Winning a cross-country league isn’t a goal that everyone aspires to, but whatever you’re aiming for, having a clear vision of what you want to achieve gives you and your team a sense of purpose that will help you get through even the most soul-destroying of necessary tasks.
2.If you’re always at your peak, you’re not at your peak
When runners train, we are preparing to run at our fastest on race day, not to run as fast as we can every day. This means working systematically on the individual components of running: lots of slow running, steadily building up strength and endurance, with the occasional day of short, fast bursts to improve our speed. Going out as fast as possible every run would leave us shattered – or worse, broken – and unlikely to be able to switch it up a gear when the starter gun fires. And herein lies a key trick of racing – learning how to peak when it really matters, and making sure we don’t blow up getting there.
This graph shows how a sports player might alter the level of their training over a training cycle in order to ensure they perform at peak level during the main competition
This is the same in other contexts. Whether it is a first meeting with a potential partner, a deadline for an important report, a deal, an event, an interview or a presentation, we need to be the best we can be on the big day. That means taking the time to prepare, to rest up and, importantly, to relax and celebrate our victories after a big push. It might mean some slow days but it also means avoiding a perpetuity of mediocrity: ready to rock and roll – stronger than ever – the next time the pressure’s on.
3. It is always a game of psychology
It is pretty obvious that if you want to run at your best possible, you need to be physically fit. However, often overlooked is the need to also be mentally prepared. Even at my amateur level, I can think of races when I have failed to do as well as I could have, and psychology is often a key culprit (along with unexpected hills, and blizzards, and someone faster than me turning up). In a situation where the results are so obvious – you get a time and a position – it becomes very clear that top performances require focus.
Elite athletes are cottoning on to this and are increasingly employing psychologists as part of their support teams. From talking through how to react to high-pressure scenarios, visualizing what they are going to do in competition, to figuring out how they can best use stress and anxiety to their advantage, the mental is increasingly becoming part of their preparation.
So being on top of your game means being focused and present, anticipating what you need to do, and being prepared for the unexpected – as well as having the slide deck in order. A good leader needs to make sure they and the people they are collaborating with are in that place.
4. Be in it for the long run
From months of training, to turning down that last drink for an early night, to the feeling of exhaustion as you push to the finish line, it is fair to say that distance running is not about immediate rewards. There is however a “theory of fun” that explains why we keep coming back for more. It says that fun can be classified in three ways:
- Fun when you are doing it (example: a party or concert)
- Not fun when you are doing it but fun afterwards (example: a 10km race)
- Not fun when you are doing it and not fun afterwards, but makes a very good story (example: a near-death experience in the mountains).
Now, spending weekends racing around a muddy field has certainly left me with a greater appreciation of Type 2 fun. Sure, some of it might be unpleasant, but the fun lasts for longer and the rewards are greater in the end.
There is a lesson here for leaders: in a world where the challenges we face – from climate change, to gender inequality, to the protracted crises affecting so many people –are complex, long-term and without quick fixes, this ability to look to the long term, whatever it feels like right now, is critical.
5. Invest in communities
Even as one of the most individual of sports, running doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The person standing on the podium may have the medal round their neck, but there are teammates and coaches, volunteers and physios, supporters and friends and family, who all played a role in getting them there. To be as successful as possible means building your network to include the right support that works for you, and drawing on it when you need it – whether that is words of encouragement and advice from a coach or some friendly competition from your teammates.
But leadership goes beyond drawing on your contacts, to actively contributing to building that community – and the running community is full of examples of people giving back in support of those with similar aims, from marshals, to coaches, to race organizers, to cheerers.
For leaders to make a true impact in the world, whatever their aims, they need to be able to build that community and take their allies with them.
by graham ward
When collective emotions gather steam, knee jerk reactions can make a bad situation worse.In the comedy western Blazing Saddles, one seminal moment has the sheriff point a gun to his own head, threatening to blow his own brains out if everyone doesn’t do as he says.
There have been echoes of this persuasive technique recently in the U.K., whose populace voted to exit the EU. A cabal of leaders fell on their own swords like dominoes in the days after the referendum, the biggest casualty being the Prime Minister, David Cameron. Was such a bloodbath necessary? I would argue that in critical times, the case for reflective rather than reactive leadership, in society and organisations has never been stronger.
Much has been written recently about the notion of empathy. According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, there are three types: cognitive, emotional and compassionate. Most leaders can easily articulate what empathy is. Defining empathy, however, is not the same as deploying it. In fact I’ve found that many executives I have worked with do not even have the basic emotional vocabulary necessary to understand the broad landscape of emotions that exists in organisations and society.
Keeping in touch with changing emotions
Humans are, at an anthropological level, reflexively programmed to recognise threats and act on them. Fight, flight, freeze! Daily, we see instances: the angry soccer player fronts up and butts heads with an antagonist. The small child runs from the playground bully. The brain reacts, the person acts. In these cases the Delphic maxim “know thyself” is redundant, “save thyself” being the wiser option. In organisations, however, strong emotional reactions take longer to emerge and build gradually below the surface. As in Newtonian physics, emotional reaction is subject to the same laws: an initial impulse or changing circumstance is required, a causal link: change causes reaction, which causes emotion.
The challenge is that leaders enacting change (their primary task) are not only slow to recognise what is going on, they are also generally ignorant of how to deal with it. Why? For one, there is a constant pressure to act. We have become “human doings”, not human beings. Reflection is undervalued and frequently impossible in a world where leaders are incessantly battered with new information. As a consequence, the rage, anxiety or sadness often residing in the substrate of organisations, like volcanic magma, is both invisible and untapped. And like volcanoes, it has the potential to explode out destructively. In stressful environments, the pressure to act can lead easily to intellectual arrogance and dominance in decision making, rather than taking the slower (and often more painful) process of deductive dialogue. It requires effort and focus and can signal the death of what Ludo van Der Heyden defines as fair process.
The power of collective emotion
Leaders protest that diagnosing organisational systems is complicated and there is insufficient time. Symptoms of dysfunction however, are often hidden in plain sight. In 2015, Marissa Mayer, struggling at Yahoo! described a rash of departures from her senior bench as “part of the design”. It is plausible to believe that this was simply an expedient public rationalisation of the deep problems that Yahoo! was facing. However, the welter of departing talent should have signified that something was rotten. It was reported at the time in Business Insider that “the world is crashing in on her…she has stopped listening to what people have to say”. A few weeks ago, less than a year later, the company was sold to Verizon. One wonders if Ms Mayer, beset by pressures, ever stood still to consider what was happening.
Worse still is failing to reflect on the emotional landscape of your customers. Seaworld Inc. is a salutary example. If you are unaware that people are concerned with our ecology, then you have been living under a rock. Yet the company took three years to announce the cessation of the breeding programme for orcas, after the damning 2013 documentary Blackfish revealed how these magnificent animals suffer in captivity. In spite of the outcry, it failed to act. It has now missed forecasts in seven of its eleven quarters as a public company. It remains to be seen whether the company can reinvent itself.
Jack Welch said many years ago: “The problem is that leaders fail to ask often enough the question: What is wrong around here?” Upon reflection the answer to that question is more likely to be felt in the leaders’ gut than seen in the company accounts. The feeling is likely to show up way in advance of the earnings miss.
To pre-empt disaster, I would like to suggest that actions should be “reflective” not reflexive.
First, leaders need to make an imaginative leap into the emotional world of their followers, to identify the prevalent feelings. In town halls and in small groups they need to call those feelings out. If they are wrong they will stand corrected, both vulnerable yet courageous.
Secondly, and importantly, leaders need to learn the habit of listening both actively and critically, recognising and acknowledging their own defensive formations as they do so. To that end, they need sparring partners with whom they can parse information, offload their own feelings and problem solve. This can take the form of a coach, chairperson, mentor or trusted advisor. Ironically, the higher the position, the more likely this will be both necessary and useful.
Finally, leaders need to take into account the other constituencies that connect them to the outside world: customers, shareholders and broader society. Reflectively seeking to understand will mitigate misjudged statements such as that of BP CEO, Tony Hayward, who notoriously said after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe “I want my life back,” in spite of the oil spill having destroyed the livelihoods of thousands along the Louisiana coast. He got his life back: it cost him his job.
The danger of failing to listen
Political leaders who fail to do the hard work of comprehension allow demagoguery in through the backdoor, permitting crafty opportunists to tap in to popular anger, polarising opinion and creating exclusive “others” who are the enemy. Even worse, they can end up on the end of a “Brexit style” backlash, when the silent majority is finally given a voice.
Similarly, organisational leaders who misread smoke signals in their organisations will be subject to sabotage of their plans, passive resistance, whispered treachery and ultimately oblivion. In a globalising world, individual scrutiny is increasing, societal disparities are growing, and the actions of organisations become daily more visible in social media.
Leaders, therefore, should keep close to society, their teams and themselves through “reflective” action, if they are to avoid stigmatisation and remain at the vanguard of value creation.
Graham’s article was first posted at http://knowledge.insead.edu/blog/insead-blog/reflective-leaders-needed-for-the-age-of-rage-4880#dxSLJCLDUWI162Gz.99
by renita kalhorn
Remember the story of the Chinese farmer? When his horse ran away, the neighbors came around to commensurate, “So sorry to hear your horse ran away.” And the farmer said, “Maybe, too soon to tell.”
The next day the horse came back, bringing seven wild horses with it, and the neighbors came around to say, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events.” And the farmer said, “Maybe, too soon to tell.” The next day, his son was riding one of the horses and was thrown and broke his leg. Once again, the neighbors commiserated saying, “Oh, dear that’s too bad.” And once again, the farmer said, “Maybe, too soon to tell.”
The following day, when the conscription officers came around to recruit men into the army, they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Of course, the neighbors had to chime in, “Isn’t that wonderful.” And the farmer (who, for some reason, kept answering the door when they came by) said, “Maybe, too soon to tell.”
Our modern lives work the same way — although we’re quick to judge whether an event is good or bad, fortune or misfortune, we never really know.
As a child, Spanx founder Sara Blakely dreamed of being a lawyer. She gave that up when she failed the LSAT twice, and instead went on to found a billion-dollar company. “Every terrible thing that happens to you always has a hidden gift and is leading you to something greater. I actually started writing them in my notebook. I’ve been keeping a notebook since the start of Spanx, and I always have it with me. So I probably have about 20 notebooks on my shelf. I log and keep track of all the terrible things that happened to me, because it’s almost become a game for me now. I like to see the gift and when it unfolds. It doesn’t always come right away.
“It’s almost become a game for me now:” If you want to be more resilient, this is the mindset to develop. I know, physical reality can be hard to ignore but — like the boy who was convinced there must be a pony hidden somewhere under all the manure — you can train yourself to look beyond unpromising circumstances and adopt an attitude of expectation: “I wonder what unexpected opportunity or learning is going to come out of this?”
Start by looking back at the events of your life that were a disappointment at the time. In my case, an opportunity to buy a two-bedroom Manhattan coop fell serendipitously into my lap. Within weeks, I had reached an agreement with the seller for an apartment on the 8th floor; however, the notoriously slow coop board took over 12 months to approve my application and by then, the seller had gotten a promotion at work and decided to stay in the apartment. I was crushed, I thought I wouldn’t be able to find another apartment as perfect as that one.
But, instead of concluding it wasn’t meant to be, I asked around and found someone on the 11th floor in the same building looking to sell. Because the board had rejected her two previous buyers, she was eager to close and I ended up paying the same price for an apartment that was superior in every way — better layout, nicer view, sunnier and quieter.
It’s become a powerful reference for me. Now, when I have any kind of unwanted outcome, I remind myself: “Chinese farmer. This is just the 8th floor apartment and something better is in store.”
Clients, strategic deals, funding, relationships…what’s your “8th floor apartment” story?
…and the things you look at change. ~Wayne W. Dyer
If you have been a loyal North of Neutral reader over these past years you already know that we are committed to slowing down over the summer months. Recharging our batteries lets us be back with loads of energy for our clients, come fall. Slowing down can mean many things; it might mean working mostly with local clients and limited travel, but it will also mean kicking back and sharing laughter and guacamole with family and friends. And of course, reading some good books!
Here is one that is on our summer reading list:
Check it out if you are interested. We look forward to hearing your thoughts.