Virtual Coaching: The Good, The Bad, And the Disclaimer

By: David Herdlinger

We’re living in an increasingly virtual world. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, many industries were forced to embrace the remote or hybrid workplace a lot sooner than expected, or even regardless if they’d ever made such plans.

But like it or not, we now have countless digital opportunities at our fingertips, including professional coaching.

But does it work? Does video-calling your coach yield the same benefits as face-to-face meetings?

Let’s unpack the issue.

The Good of Virtual Coaching

Professional or personal coaching can be incredibly powerful for a lot of people in need of a little help reaching their goals.

But depending on where you live, you might not have access to the best coaches, or even not have one in your area at all.

Virtual coaching, therefore, allows many more people to access these types of services, from anywhere, and even at any time.

This leads to some compelling advantages:

  • Easily fit the coaching sessions into your busy schedule
  • Find more opportunities to get coaching even for niche matters
  • Get the chance to find a coach who can truly help your specific situation, etc.

The Bad of Virtual Coaching

There are two things I want to mention here:

First, you need to be careful who you trust. Since virtual coaching is on the rise, naturally many people may try to take advantage of them. It’s important to fully vet the coach and be sure you’re going to work with someone who’s experienced and can genuinely guide you to the success you look for.

That’s the biggest downside of virtual coaching.

But, there’s also a matter of what style you may respond best to. Simply put, some people still need face-to-face experience. The message resonates much clearer with them when they receive it live, as opposed to a video call.

The Disclaimer

I don’t think it’s necessarily productive to claim one style of coaching is better than the other. Both virtual and in-person coaching can provide you with a great experience.

Instead, be very careful how you select your coach, no matter if the meetings will occur in real life or through a digital platform.

There are some things you should always be looking for in a coach:

  • Compatibility – Like any relationship, you have to be compatible with your coach at least on some level;
  • Experience – If you’re going to learn from that person and take their advice, then they need to have the right experience to genuinely help you reach your goals;
  • Expertise – The coach is an expert in their niche, but is their niche right for what you need? Always be sure to check;
  • Trust – This is the foundation of any collaboration or relationship. If the coach isn’t the type of person you can trust to open up to, then your coaching experience will suffer because of it;

If you find someone compatible with you, has the right expertise and experience, and you feel you can trust them, then you don’t need to concern yourself with the virtual vs. real-life coaching debate.

Improve Your Intuitive Thinking

“The real challenge is not whether to trust intuition, but how to strengthen it to make it more trustworthy.” ~ Gary Klein, PhD, The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut to Make Better Decisions at Work (Crown Business, 2004)
Many executives will tell you that decisions should be based solely on a thorough analysis of data. But a new breed aims to achieve breakthroughs by harnessing the power of intuition.
The more experiences we have, the stronger our intuition becomes. Repetition (practice) sets the stage for competency. Intuitive decision-making improves when we acquire more patterns, recognize how they play out and develop a larger repertoire of strategies.
Pattern Recognition
Repeated experiences are unconsciously linked to form patterns. A pattern is a set of connected cues. When you spot a few of the cues, you can expect to find others.
As we gain experience at work, we assemble a catalog of recognizable patterns. Over time, it becomes easier to match a situation with a previous pattern.
Truly inspired decisions require a more sophisticated mechanism: cross-indexing. The ability to see similar patterns in disparate fields elevates your intuitive skills.
Action Responses
Patterns include routines for responding, known as “action scripts.” If we see a situation as typical, then we can recognize the typical action to take. We develop hunches about what’s really going on and how we should respond.
Using our intuition, we translate our experiences into judgments and action responses. When intuitive leaders see familiar patterns, their response is usually obvious.
Professor Klein offers the following diagram to explain the pattern-recognition process behind intuitive decision-making:
Pattern recognition occurs instantaneously, without conscious thought. We make intuitive judgments so quickly that they seem mysterious. Professor Klein’s diagram demonstrates the science behind these judgments. Situations generate recognizable cues, and patterns trigger typical action responses that, in turn, affect the situation.
The Role of Analysis
Analysis has a proper role as a supporting tool for making intuitive decisions. Not all situations and experiences are the same, obviously. The extent to which we apply previous action scripts or devise new ones depends on our ability to analyze projected consequences.
Professor Klein recommends using “pre-mortems”: discussions that imagine scenarios with various applied actions and consequences. Intuition helps us decide how to react, and analysis ensures our intuition won’t mislead us.
Know “and Check” Yourself
Intuitive thinkers admit their instincts are often plain wrong. They understand that human nature can cloud decision-making. For example:

  • We will often take unnecessary risks to recover a loss.
  • We tend to see patterns where none exist -a phenomenon statisticians call “over-fitting the data”.
  • We tend to be revisionists. We frequently remember when we didn’t trust our gut and should have, while conveniently forgetting when we were fortunate to have ignored our instincts.
  • We set up a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we hire or promote someone, for instance, we consciously or subconsciously expend extra effort to ensure the person’s success, obscuring whether our choice was actually a good one.

Intuitive People
Certain characteristics define executives who outperform their peers in intuitive decision-making.

  • They’re open to feelings and impulses.
  • They seek continual learning experiences and are unafraid of asking questions.
  • They’re inquisitive and keenly observant.
  • They have a good sense of what will happen next.
  • They can articulate how a current situation has developed.
  • They’re aware of their fallibility and are open to alternative interpretations.
  • They’re confident when dealing with time pressures and uncertainties.
  • They anticipate problems in time to avoid or defuse them.
  • They aren’t put off by unexpected events; they use them to find new solutions.
  • They understand their routines and are aware of system limitations and traps.
  • They’re self-aware and acknowledge potential biases.

10 Tips for Improving Intuitive Decisions
Professor Klein offers 10 critical tips for growing your intuitive abilities:

  1. Be the best. There’s no guarantee you’ll be an intuitive savant, but this strategy is backed up by empirical evidence.
  2. Use analysis to support your intuition. Imagine which actions your impulse suggests taking; then anticipate what could conceivably go wrong.
  3. Put more energy into understanding the situation than into deliberating over what to do.
  4. Don’t confuse desire with intuition. Intensely wanting something to happen is not a reason to ignore commonsense intuition.
  5. Override your intuition when it misleads you. Intuition is fallible. Your mind excels at holding onto inaccurate beliefs and faulty biases. Try forming an alternate story to get unstuck from a stubborn mindset.
  6. Think ahead. Intuition helps us create expectations, connect the dots, flag inconsistencies and warn us of potential problems. A “pre-mortem” discussion helps teams run through a strategy to see how it will play out. In short, learn to foresee problems.
  7. Uncertainty adds excitement to decision-making. Intuition helps manage this emotion.
  8. Use the right decision-making strategy. There’s a time to rely on intuition and a time to analyze all of the factors that go into a decision. If the issues are complicated and no one has good intuitions about the situation, analysis makes more sense.
  9. Consult the experts. If you’re in unfamiliar territory, learn to trust the intuitions of experts with experience. Experts will see cues you won’t notice and will introduce options you may never envision.
  10. Stay alert for intuition barriers. Red flags should go up when everyone is expected to follow specific systems and procedures, regardless of the situation at hand. Understand when to question the data, and find out how parameters are acquired. You should clarify each step of your organization’s standard operating procedures to understand their purpose.

Midcareer Crisis …or Opportunity?

Have you ever had a midcareer fantasy where you quit your job and go do something new?
Many executives secretly admit to their coaches that they’re contemplating midcareer shifts. They may not actively seek change, but they certainly start imagining it.
Of LinkedIn’s 313 million members, 25% are active job seekers; 60% are passive job seekers (not proactively searching for new jobs, but seriously willing to consider viable opportunities). There’s also been a steady increase in self-employed and temporary workers over the last two decades. Entrepreneurship may sound lucrative every time a startup goes public.
Regardless of your age, background or professional accomplishments, you’ve probably dreamed about a new career at some point. Midlife is often a time when we reevaluate our goals, aspirations and what truly matters to us in life.
In “5 Signs It’s Time for a New Job” (Harvard Business Review, April 2015), Columbia University Professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic examines what happens to many people at midcareer. Few of us actually shift to something different. As he explains, complacency often trumps transformation:
Humans are naturally prewired to fear and avoid change, even when we are decidedly unhappy with our current situation. Indeed, meta-analyses show that people often stay on the job despite having negative job attitudes, low engagement and failing to identify with the organization’s culture. So, at the end of the day, there is something comforting about the predictability of life: it makes us feel safe.
Chamorro-Premuzic cites five signs that indicate it’s time to seriously consider a career switch:

  1. You feel undervalued.
  2. You’re not learning.
  3. You’re underperforming.
  4. You’re just doing it for the money.
  5. You hate your boss.

Yet, who hasn’t experienced these feelings periodically? Do they mean you’re headed for a full-fledged midlife or midcareer crisis?
The Stereotypical Story
Hearing the phrase “midlife crisis” evokes the cliche of a successful man, between 40 and 55, who wakes up one day and decides he’s been chasing all the wrong things: his career, family, wife, car and possessions. Nothing provides him with the satisfaction he craves. He demands more.
Suddenly, he divorces, changes career or organization, dresses differently, gets a young girlfriend and buys a red sports car. Years later, he finds himself with the same unfulfilled yearnings, having metaphorically changed seats on the Titanic.
While this scenario has become today’s hackneyed midlife-crisis narrative, the concept of middle age as a distinct life stage dates back to the 19th century, according to Patricia Cohen, author of In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age (Scribner, 2012). The term “midlife crisis” was first coined in 1965 by psychologist Elliott Jaques. In 1974, journalist Gail Sheehy famously depicted the midlife crisis as a life stage in her bestselling book Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life.
Roughly a quarter of Americans reports experiencing a midlife crisis, according to research published in 2000 by Cornell University sociologist Elaine Wethington. Many who disclaim the notion regard midlife crises as a lame excuse for behaving immaturely.
The term crisis also contributes to stigmatization, as it suggests a shock, disruption or loss of control. But the actual data on midlife experience and the relationship between work and happiness points to something different: an extended and unpleasant – but manageable – downturn.
The Happiness U-Curve
The average employee’s job satisfaction deteriorates dramatically in midlife, according to a British survey conducted by Professor Andrew Oswald of The University of Warwick.
Midcareer crises are, in fact, a widespread regularity, rather than a few individuals’ misfortune.
But here’s the good news: In the second half of people’s working lives, job satisfaction increases again. In many cases, it reaches higher levels than experienced early in one’s career, essentially forming a U-shaped curve depicted in the following graph:
(Source: Crisis, The Atlantic, December 2014)
Subsequent research revealed this age-related curve in job satisfaction is part of a much broader phenomenon. A similar midlife nadir is detectable in measures of people’s overall life satisfaction and has been found in more than 50 countries.
The U-curve tells a more accurate tale of what happens midlife and midcareer. It’s not a story of chaos or disruption, but of a difficult – yet natural – transition to a new equilibrium.
Just knowing the phenomenon is common can be therapeutic. Princeton University health economist Hannes Schwandt cites a feedback effect: “Part of your disappointment is driven by the disappointment itself.”
Understanding the U-shaped curve allows us to recognize midlife as challenging, yet ultimately gratifying. We should resist judging ourselves harshly for feeling disappointed. We can avoid making bad decisions that potentially lead to midlife divorces and career catastrophes.
The Other Side of Midlife
Fortunately, most people avoid upending their lives at the first signs of midlife dissatisfaction. As noted earlier, only 25% of us even admit to experiencing a crisis. So, what happens to the75% who may feel dissatisfied at midlife, but who don’t do anything about it? Are they in denial or simply more mature?
Freud described two requisites for sanity: work and love. What happens when work and love lose their sparkle, as often occurs in midlife?
Work carries a large, invisible burden: the presumption that it will provide our lives with meaning and energize our spirits. Sometimes it does. By midlife, however, we may find that work drains us.
The ego tends to prefer security over development. Heeding it too closely means you may wind up with neither.
At midlife, most of us feel the need to rethink our priorities. Unfortunately, we avoid this task. It’s much easier to succumb to fear. We view change as threatening, and we don’t want to risk losing our hard-earned stability.
In Search of Meaning and Wisdom
Psychologists have not yet determined why people in 50+ industrialized nations experience midlife crises. It’s certainly a major reason why executives hire executive coaches. “What’s next?” is one of life’s most worrisome questions. A coach can help you reevaluate your cherished convictions, morals and guiding principles.
Experiencing disappointment doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong. It signals that something is missing.
There’s a mental shift at midlife from “time since birth” to “time left until death.” We begin to feel time is running out and, more crucially, question whether what drove us in the first half of life is worthy enough for a fulfilling second half.
Being aware of the pitfalls associated with the midlife experience can prevent you from committing irreparable errors. If you know you’re vulnerable to doubts, anxieties and mood swings, you can stop yourself from storming out of a meeting or acting out of desperation. If you feel trapped, midlife can become a truly dangerous life passage. Perhaps Carl Jung said it best:
We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in morning was true will at evening have become a lie.
Midcareer Coaching
Consider retaining a professional coach to guide you through self-examination and reflection on what truly matters most to you. The process often entails reconnecting you to what you love about your life and career.
Clinging to the status quo may, on the surface, appear to be a safer, more mature choice. Nothing could be further from the truth. Redoubling your efforts to achieve happiness based on what drove you in the first half of life is foolish.
In the second half of life, facing our failures and losses facilitates course corrections. We are rewarded with deeper, more fulfilling life and career experiences. Avoiding life’s natural progressions prevents you from broadening consciousness and becoming your authentic self.
Midcareer is a time to examine regrets and accept mistakes. A coach can help you turn failures into meaningful learning opportunities. You won’t need to bury bad memories. Greater self-acceptance opens new avenues.
Unfortunately, most of us work so hard to obtain an identity that it becomes very hard to let it go. What worked earlier in your career is nearly always inadequate to meet the challenges of your mature years, as Marshall Goldsmith proved in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (Hachette Books, 2007).
Acknowledging midcareer dissatisfaction opens a window to exploring your options. Ask yourself:

  • What steps must I take to transition to the next stage of my journey?
  • Can I give myself permission to explore new paths?
  • How does fear keep me in a reactive stance, constrained by outmoded routines?
  • Am I content to live partially, or am I ready and willing to explore new ways of thinking and feeling?
  • Can I gather the energy needed to realize my unlived potential?
  • How can I take one small step?

The age-old Serenity Prayer comes to mind:
“Grant me the courage to change the things I can, to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Do You Know Your Strengths?

Most of us have a poor sense of our talents and strengths, yet are acutely aware of our weaknesses and flaws.
Throughout the education system and subsequent careers, there’s often been much more attention paid to how to improve and fix our shortcomings rather than enhance our strengths.
“Most Americans do not know what their strengths are. When you ask them, they look at you with a blank stare, or they respond in terms of subject knowledge, which is the wrong answer.” – Peter Drucker, management expert
Parents, teachers, and managers are well versed in spotting deficits. In fact, most people – partners and spouses included – consider it their duty to point out our weaknesses in the hope of helping us improve.
As a result, most of us have become experts in our weaknesses and spend our lives either trying to fix these flaws or accept them as permanent character defects.
Consequently, our strengths lie dormant and neglected. The research, however, is clear: we grow and develop by focusing on our strengths, rather than trying to correct faults.
Over the last decade, coaching and leadership professionals have been placing greater emphasis on developing personal strengths. The goal is to help individuals work with what they have and build on their natural talents.
Large corporations like Wells Fargo, Intel, Best Buy, Toyota, and Yahoo now require that employees take surveys measuring talents and strengths. Their CEOs recognize that company success depends on leveraging what already works instead of trying to fix what’s broken.
Cultural Differences
A Gallup poll investigated this phenomenon by asking Americans, French, British, Canadian, Japanese, and Chinese people of all ages and backgrounds this question:
“Which do you think will help you improve the most: knowing your strengths or knowing your weaknesses?”
The majority of people don’t think that the secret to improvement lies in a deep understanding of their strengths.
 

  • The most strengths-focused culture is the United States, but still only a minority of people–41 percent–felt that knowing their strengths would help them improve the most.
  • The least strengths-focused cultures are Japan and China. Only 24 percent believe that the key to success lies in their strengths.

Interestingly, in every culture older people (55 and above) were the least fixated on their weaknesses. Perhaps they’ve acquired more self-acceptance and realize the futility of trying to be what they are not.
A Focus on Faults
Why do so many people waste time trying to fix themselves and others’ Weaknesses are fascinating and strangely mesmerizing, like watching characters in soap operas and on reality TV shows. The attraction lies in the fact we deeply fear our weaknesses, our failures, and even our authentic selves.
The human brain is wired to pay attention to fear and danger. However, if you do not investigate your strengths you will miss out on becoming who you are really meant to be.
Strengths vs. Weaknesses
Often a strength can be a weakness, and vice versa, a weakness can be a strength. Here are some characteristics to watch for in yourself and in the people you work with.
(Sources: Peter Urs Bender’s Guide to Strengths and Weaknesses of Personality Types, &
Brinkman, Rick, and Kirschner, Rick (2002), Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst, 2nd ed. McGraw-Hill.)
Do you recognize yourself as fitting into any of these general personality types? Can you identify your strengths? Are you able to see how they can also turn into weaknesses?
The Courage to Use Your Strengths
Most of us take our talents for granted. They are so embedded in us, we aren’t aware of them. We assume everyone else is just as capable.
This way of thinking excludes developing and becoming stronger and more brilliant. You can’t develop what you don’t recognize.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure” We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous”? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. Marianne Williamson, spiritual teacher
The first step for self-improvement is to identify your strengths. WorKuno.com offers a free online strengths test, and the book StrengthsFinder2.0 includes the Gallup assessment. Several excellent books can walk you through the self-assessment process:

  1. Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton (Free Press, 2001)
  2. StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath (Gallup Press, 2007)
  3. Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Outstanding Performance by Marcus Buckingham (Free Press, 2007)
  4. Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams and Why People Follow, by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie (Gallup Press, 2013)

Once your five top strengths are identified, you can examine how they manifest – in your life. It may be easier to develop your strengths by working with a professional coach. A coach can help you to identify your talents and strengths and then work on expanding them, putting them into deliberate practice with action steps.
Discovering your strengths is the path toward personal improvement and success. When you pay attention to your deficits and try to overcome them, you over-emphasize your weaknesses. You wind up living a second-rate version of someone else’s life rather than a world-class version of your own.
 
 

The Future of Work: 5 Skills for the Robotic Age

The challenges of 21st-century work – rapid innovation, unrelenting change and unprecedented uncertainty – have created a stress pandemic.
Depending on your disposition, you may view the future as ripe for a spectacular explosion of creativity or poised on the brink of self-destruction. Either way, there’s no going back.
The tools and skills we’ve developed over the last century inadequately address imminent challenges. We’re caught between two paradigms: a collapsing industrial platform and an uncertain new one.
Man vs. Machine
In February 2011, the IBM computer “Watson ” trounced two Jeopardy! champions over a 3-day competition. Watson’s cognitive-reasoning skills were far superior, with access to 200 million pages of structured and unstructured content (4 terabytes of disk storage, including the full text of Wikipedia).
Even before Alex Trebek finished reading a clue, Watson’s 2,880 parallel processor cores began to divvy up the workload. At 33 billion operations per second, they could search 500 gigabytes of data (roughly 1 million books) in the blink of an eye. Watson could also hit the buzzer in less than 8 milliseconds.
During the 3 seconds Watson took to deliver a correct response, various algorithms worked across multiple processors to return hundreds of hypothetical answers. Watson was programmed to hit the buzzer only after reaching a 50% confidence level. By the end of the game, Watson had surpassed previous champions’ winnings by almost 200%, easily becoming the first nonhuman Jeopardy! champion.
In February 2013, IBM announced that Watson’s first commercial software application would be used for utilization management decisions at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Ninety percent of nurses who use Watson now follow its guidance.
This is an example of how robots, machines and computers will ultimately take our jobs. We must harness our creative energy in new ways to stay ahead of the “robot curve”.
“Help! A Robot Ate My Job!”
If you haven’t yet heard this complaint, you will. Today’s widespread unemployment is not a jobs crisis; it’s a talent crisis. Technology is taking every job that doesn’t require a high degree of creativity, humanity or leadership.
In times of rapid change, success favors those who can make big leaps of imagination, courage and effort. The call for new ways to work will become even more pressing.
10 Areas Ripe for Innovation
The Doblin Group, a Chicago think tank, has identified 10 areas where innovation can deliver competitive advantages:

  1. The business model: how a company makes money
  2. Networking: including organizational structure, value chain, partnerships
  3. Enabling processes: the capabilities a company buys from others
  4. Core processes: proprietary methods that add value
  5. Product performance: including features and functionality
  6. Product systems: extended systems that support the product
  7. Service: how a company treats customers
  8. Channels: how companies connect offerings to customers
  9. Branding: how a company builds its reputation
  10. Customer experience: including the touchpoints where customers encounter the brand

Think of problems as opportunities to find worthy and inspiring solutions. In Metaskills: 5 Talents for the Robotic Age, business adviser Marty Neumeier encourages leaders to use the following questions as inspiration points:

  • What’s the “either/or” that’s obscuring innovation opportunities?
  • In which areas do the usual methods no longer achieve predicted results?
  • What’s the “can’t-do” that you can turn into a “can-do”?
  • Which problems are so big that they can no longer be seen?
  • Which categories or sectors exhibit the most uneven rates of change?
  • In which area is there a great deal of interest, but very few solutions?
  • Where can you find too little or too much order?
  • Which of your talents can be upscaled in some surprising way?
  • Where can your passion take you?

5 Skills for the Robotic Age
We need to stay on top of the robot curve – the constant waterfall of obsolescence and opportunity fed by competition and innovation.
Neumeier presents five metaskills that – so far – robots cannot handle:

  1. 1. Feeling encompasses intuition, empathy and social intelligence. Humans draw on emotion for intuition, aesthetics and empathy – skills that are becoming more vital as we enter the robotic age.
  2. 2. Seeing is the ability to think whole thoughts (also known as “system thinking”). We understand parts of a system when we appreciate their relationship to each other, rather than in isolation. Before tinkering with a system, we need to ask:
    1. What will happen if I do nothing?
    2. What may be improved?
    3. What may be diminished?
    4. What will be replaced?
    5. Will it expand future options?
    6. What are the ethical considerations?
    7. Will it simplify or complicate the system?
    8. Are my basic assumptions correct?
    9. What has to be true to make this possible?
    10. Are events likely to unfold this way?
    11. If so, will the system really react this way?
    12. What are the factors behind the events?
    13. What are the long-term costs and benefits?
    1. Dreaming requires you to apply your imagination. Innovators transform their dreams into practical solutions. You dream by disassociating your thoughts from all that is linear and the logical. Like most things, dreaming improves with practice.
    2. Making involves mastering the design process, including skills for devising prototypes. Creativity is nothing without craft. The act of making something turns imagination into brilliant products, services and successful businesses.
    3. Learning is an ongoing process. We must continually master skills to adapt. We then apply our newfound knowledge in innovative ways. Learning is enhanced through good moods, action and emotional experiences. We become masterful through deliberate practice.

 

Renewing Yourself: The Power of Play

What ever happened to unbridled joy in our daily lives? Remember the fun of play as children? Nearly everyone starts out in life playing quite naturally, with whatever’s available. We make up rules, invent games with playmates, fantasize, and imagine mysteries and treasures.
Maybe we need to renew ourselves and start playing more. Something happens as we become working adults: we shift our priorities into organized, competitive, goal-directed activities. If an activity doesn’t teach us a skill, make us money, or further our social relationships, we don’t want to waste time being nonproductive.
Sometimes the sheer demands of daily living and family responsibilities seem to rob us of the ability to play.
“I have found that remembering what play is all about and making it part of our daily lives are probably the most important factors in being a fulfilled human being. The ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person.” ~ Stuart Brown, MD, author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, Penguin Books, 2009.
Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, presents his ideas on this TED TV video: Play Is More than Fun. Sprinkled with anecdotes demonstrating the play habits of subjects from polar bears to corporate CEOs, Brown promotes play at every age while defining it thus:
Play is an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time. It is also self-motivating and makes you want to do it again.
We tend to underestimate the power of play. Imagine a world without it – not only the absence of games or sports, but the absence of movies, arts, music, jokes, and dramatic stories. No day-dreaming, no teasing, no flirting. Play is what lifts people out of the routine of the mundane, and offers a means to find joy in even the little things.
Studies show that play provides a survival advantage in the wild. When young animals engage in rough and tumble play-fighting, they are learning skills and social rules. Those that play the most grow more neurons and develop more robust mental and physical stamina.
Humans, of course, also benefit from play, but not only as children and adolescents. In older adults, those who engage in the most cognitive activity (puzzles, reading, engaging in mentally challenging work) have a 63 percent lower chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease than the general population.
Adults who continue to explore and learn throughout life are less prone to dementia and less likely to get heart disease. The people who stay sharp and interesting as they age are the ones who continue to play and work.
When we stop playing, we stop growing– and we begin dying.
Work vs. Play
The opposite of work is not play. Play and work are mutually supportive. Yet most of us have learned to be serious when it comes to our careers. We squelch our natural drive to have fun.
Neither is play the enemy of work; in fact, one cannot thrive without the other. We need the newness of play: the sense of flow, imagination, and energy of being in the moment that play provides.
We also need the purpose of work, the economic stability it provides, the sense of meaning and competence. The quality that work and play have in common is creativity. In both we are creating new relationships, skills, and situations.
Often an overwhelming sense of responsibility and competitiveness can bury our inherent need for variety and challenge. If we deny our need to play, we eventually succumb to stress and burn-out. Recognizing our biological need for play can transform our work life.
Play helps us deal with difficulties, handle challenges, and tolerate routines and emotions such as boredom or frustration. Play provides a sense of expansiveness, promotes mastery, and is vital to the creative process.
Play at Work
It’s obvious that play outside of work — through sports, games, family activities, and community functions — is essential. What is less obvious is our need to play at work, as we work. Play – as we work – can energize us, helps us to see new patterns, sparks curiosity, and triggers ideas and innovation.
Play helps us deal with work problems. What kind of play is appropriate at work? You don’t have to engage in off-site team-building games to play at work, although those are occasionally beneficial.
A playful attitude gives people the emotional distance to rally. Often the problem is not the problem; it’s how we react to the problem.
Play is a lubricant that allows individuals to be close to one another. When we play, we don’t put up defensive walls; we accept others as they are. We have a responsibility to play fair. When our interactions are based on a foundation of caring, we avoid hurting others.
Play enables cooperative socialization and nourishes trust, empathy, caring, and sharing. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages to those with a playful mindset is that it stimulates creativity. Playfulness leads to imagination, inventiveness, and dreams – which help us think up new solutions to problems.
Play is what allows us to attain a higher level of existence, new levels of mastery, imagination, and culture. When we play right, all areas of our lives go better. When we ignore play we start having problems. ~ Stuart Brown, MD, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul.
 
 

Noticing: An Elusive Leadership Skill

“Leaders often fail to notice when they are obsessed by other issues, when they are motivated to not notice, and when there are other people in their environment working hard to keep them from noticing.
– Harvard Business School Professor Max Bazerman, The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See (Simon & Schuster, 2014)
As a leader, you’re responsible for making key decisions each day. But how confident are you in your ability to notice all pertinent information?
If you’re like most leaders, you probably believe your perception skills are keen. As convinced as you may be, it’s possible that you’re overestimating your aptitude. What’s in front of you is rarely all there is.
Even if you have a superior grasp of common blind spots, you must remain alert for unplanned surprises and acknowledge your cognitive biases. Even the most venerated leaders make egregious mistakes, failing to notice – or even ignoring – essential data. As they handle an emerging crisis, they may ask: “How did this happen?” or “Why didn’t I catch this sooner?”
They should really be asking themselves:

  • “What information should I have gathered, beyond the basic facts?”
  • “What information would have helped inform my decision?”

Imagine your advantage in negotiations, decision-making and overall leadership if you could teach yourself to spot and evaluate information others routinely overlook.
More than a decade of research shows that successful leaders take no notice of critical, readily available information in their environment. This often happens when they have blinders on, focusing on limited information they’ve predetermined to be necessary to make good decisions.
What YouTube Can Teach Us
In a popular YouTube video, viewers are asked to watch a basketball game and tally the number of passes made.
The social scientists behind the video don’t really care whether you accurately record the passes. What truly interests them is whether you notice the man in the gorilla suit who walks onto the court. (In earlier research, they featured a woman with a red umbrella.) You can search for similar experiments on YouTube using the terms attentional blindness or selective attention.
Many viewers are so focused on counting passes that they miss seeing the gorilla or red umbrella. The same phenomenon frequently occurs when we problem-solve and make business decisions. We see only what we define as the “important information” – something 1978 Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon termed “bounded rationality.”
More recently, Daniel Kahneman, a 2002 Nobel Prize winner, demonstrated that systematic and predictable biases affect even the best and brightest among us. Even when we strive to be ethical and rational, we miss – or fail to seek out – critical information that’s readily available in our environment.
Noticing pertinent information is essential to successful decision-making, and it has become a defining leadership quality. Too many avoidable failures remind us of the consequences:

  • NASA’s Challenger explosion
  • Enron’s accounting irregularities
  • Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme
  • Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky scandal
  • USB, Barclays, LIBOR and other bank frauds
  • The housing-bubble collapse

The Rule of WYSINATI
Successful leadership requires vigilance. Leaders often fail to notice when:

  • They are obsessed with other issues or crises.
  • They are motivated not to notice.
  • Other people work hard to prevent them from noticing.

A catastrophic lack of vigilance occurred at JPMorgan Chase in September 2013, with estimated trading losses of $6.2 billion. CEO Jamie Dimon said he was unaware of the impending debacle, later telling the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, “It morphed into something I can’t justify.”
Responsible leaders notice when things are going seriously wrong in their organizations. Failure to do so is unacceptable. We must ask the right questions to anticipate avertable catastrophes.
Unfortunately, leaders often act as though “what you see is all there is,” according to Kahneman. They neglect to identify and obtain the additional information they need. Complacency lulls them into acting on only the most basic data provided to them.
In The Power of Noticing, Bazerman coins the term WYSINATI: What You See Is Not All There Is. With forethought and knowledge, we can learn to identify when and how to obtain missing information.
The Problems with Auditors and Board Oversight?
In principle, regulatory boards are charged with overseeing leadership decisions. In reality, they often take direction from the leaders who appointed them in the first place. Boards with even the most skilled, highly educated and experienced members all too often fail to meet their fiduciary responsibilities.
Even when outside auditors monitor companies, they cannot help but be influenced by the organizations that hire them (thus providing lucrative revenues). Despite regulations that require auditors to be independent, few truly are.
Numbers don’t lie, but the way they are recorded into the books is ripe for “flexibility”. Some auditors will accept outlying data as anomalies and discount them instead of investigating thoroughly. Others allow ineffective monitoring that favors skewed data. Professionals know better, yet an incredibly faulty monitoring system was widely accepted by financial institutions that facilitated the recent LIBOR scandal.
Lessons from LIBOR
The very banks that could benefit from manipulation of lending rates were in control of setting the rates for LIBOR. How could financial regulators ignore how easy it would be for the banks to manipulate rates for their own benefit (and at society’s expense)?
While reforms are currently being proposed, a critical question remains: Why did it take a disaster for overseers to recognize the need for commonsense changes?
The banks’ failure was a moral one: They engaged in intentional distortion of rates for their own benefit. Regulators worldwide failed to notice that the system itself was corrupt and in need of regulatory reform.
Unintentional Blindness
Reform is necessary for most industries – not necessarily more regulation, but certainly wiser laws. Recognition of human drives, self-interest and biases should inform the way we set the rules. Even with the best intentions, ethics and honest mindsets, no one is immune from blindness and biases.
While it is always easy to spot problems in hindsight, we usually don’t recognize them in our own organizations. While we may see ourselves as scrupulous and well-intentioned, we’re usually averse to noticing our own potential for questionable ethics. This can lead us to make improper and even immoral decisions.
When a situation doesn’t seem quite right, we cannot afford to ignore data that flies in the face of commonly accepted values. This is not the time to accept insufficient evidence, refuse to raise questions, be unwilling to badger people or avoid upsetting the apple cart.
Silence and complacency promote corruption. Nonetheless, we tend to wait. We hope we’re not being overly sensitive or alarmist. We trust that others will notice and speak up for us.
When faced with small discrepancies and anomalies, we avoid seeing the slippery slope until it’s too late. Responsible leaders don’t have this luxury. They must learn to notice – and act upon – conditions before a scandal erupts.
Faulty Attribution
The best leaders are skilled at detecting deception, including patterns of indirect action and errors of omission. They also have a noticing mindset. They detect slow, gradual changes that may indicate the start of a slippery slope. They’re aware of overconfidence traps, optimism biases and positive illusions.
The human brain is fallible. It can lead us to make cause-and-effect attribution errors. Most crises can be attributed to both internal and external causes, but to which are you more likely to pay attention?
Most of us are prone to a fundamental attribution bias: When we think of our successes, we tend to come up with internal attributions and focus on what we did right. By contrast, when we think of our failures, we tend to come up with external attributions. We blame others, or the context, the economy and/or circumstances beyond our control. This can lead to dire consequences in decision-making and strategic planning.
How to Develop Better Noticing Skills
Leaders often fail to notice when their systems encourage misaligned goals. When we incentivize the wrong achievements, we often experience ineffective outcomes (for example, rewarding booked sales instead of actual profits).
Encourage employees to notice the gaps between the right actions and right results. Work teams are often in a better position to spot discrepancies, yet they may be reticent to speak up.
Develop your abilities to:

  • Pay attention to what didn’t happen
  • Acknowledge self-interest
  • Invent the third choice
  • Realize that what you see is not all there is (WYSINATI)

While effective leaders take pride in their keen focus, they may miss outlying data, omissions and the gorilla on the basketball court. You can benefit from stepping back, removing your blinders and noticing valuable information around you.
 

A.C.T. Like a Hero: The Journey to Se

It’s relatively common: you’ve got all your ducks in a row, established some healthy routines, and you’re comfortably progressing on your career path. Then “bam!” you hit a wall. You’re stuck. You wake up knowing something’s missing and you don’t know what it is.
It may be a mid-life thing, but it can happen early on, and it also strikes toward the end of one’s career. In that moment of stuckness, we are faced with three choices: go back, stand still and stagnate, or jump ahead to an uncertain future.
Welcome to the hero’s journey, a story which has been told and retold in many different ways in every culture throughout the world. Joseph Campbell wrote about this phenomenon in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he examines mythic figures such as Jonah, Odysseus, and King Arthur.
The hero’s journey begins with a call or a problem that we can’t ignore, but which requires we discard outmoded ways of being. To learn what we need to answer the call, we risk facing unknown challenges.
To refuse the hero’s call is to stagnate and die. To move forward we must change–but we don’t know exactly how. The hero engages in the serious work of self-assessment, reflection, and painful exploration of his insufficiencies and failings.
To undertake the hero’s journey is to question everything, but particularly one’s self. How can we accept ourselves in spite of our doubts and insecurities? How do we gain confidence to lead others knowing our weaknesses? The hero faces self-discovery with brutal honesty to become more authentic and real.
The paradox of the hero’s journey is that when you accept and incorporate the parts of yourself that you’d rather not acknowledge or share, you gain tremendous energy. As you integrate your whole self you become more authentically you, your best self.
While we may never become heroes like Mandela, King, Churchill, or the Dalai Lama, everyone can become more authentic and capable of heroic acts. This requires attention and mindfulness as well as connectedness and compassion. The journey doesn’t have a final destination. It meanders, so you need to be vigilant, pay attention, stay connected and focus your intentions in order to transform and create a life full of meaning.
Three Steps to Self
How do you become your best self? How do you learn to act like a hero? According to author Greg Giuliano in The Hero’s Journey: Toward a More Authentic Leadership, the journey to self is a perpetual three-part process, abbreviated by the letters A.C.T:

  1. Attend to Who You Are: First, we pay attention to who we are and where we are right now. This involves being mindful and engaging in honest self-reflection.
  2. Connect with Your Best Self: Second, we connect with ourselves and recognize when we are our truest and best self.
  3. Transform Your Life: Lastly, we seek to transform, to be intentional and create the life that is the most accurate expression of who, what, and where we want to be.

Attend to Who You Are
Can you make an honest assessment of where you’re at in life right now? How do you perceive yourself intellectually, cognitively, emotionally, physically, socially, sexually, and spiritually at this point in your life?
Many people find having such conversations with a coach to be revealing and helpful. Sometimes tools such as the Wheel of Life can help elucidate your different roles and how you experience a sense of meaning and fulfillment.
When you find that some of your answers cause sadness or disappointment, this suggests that you want your answers to be different. Ask yourself, “What will it take for me to be able to answer differently?
Connect with Your Best Self
What will you do with the information you discover when you pay attention to where and who you are? The next step is to connect with your best self by expressing your deeply held values, beliefs, and principles, as well as your skills and strengths.
Each time you use your strengths and express your values, recognize them as gifts. Find meaning and purpose in every moment of life, including those that are less than ideal. Seek out the answer to this question:
What am I doing here, and what is my life for?” Find out what resources and goals you will need to move forward.
Transform Your Life
When you’ve taken a brutally honest assessment of yourself, and connected to what and where you could or should go, you are ready to take the next step. Transformation is a bold act of renovation, of stepping into life. It is clearly intentional.
Transformation is conscious self-definition. But it’s no good without a plan, without taking action. It doesn’t just happen, and this is where many people falter. Changing attitudes, beliefs, and habits that are a deeply ingrained part of our self will require undoing and redoing.
It requires courage, practice, and self-discipline. It takes time and perseverance; however, eventually the meandering path that you are on will become clear and meaningful.
King Arthur had Merlin, Harry Potter had Professor Dumbledore, and Luke Skywalker had Obi Wan Kenobi. You don’t have to take on the hero’s journey alone. Get a coach, a mentor, or a trusted colleague to help you along the way.
Take the journey and you may be surprised where it leads you.
 

Successful Living through Mindfulness

Most self-help books focus on how you can achieve more. How can you do more, be more – and do it all faster.
This article takes the opposite tack: how and why you should simply sit and be still. The practice of mindfulness – being fully present and aware of the here and now – leads to successful living and greater fulfillment in all aspects of work and life.
The happiest and most successful people are those who have developed their social and emotional intelligence. They have finely tuned self-knowledge and self-awareness.
This includes:

  • The ability to connect with personal values and principles
  • The ability to imbue actions with meaning
  • The ability to align emotions with goals
  • The ability to keep motivated, focused and on purpose

Honing the skills of awareness requires mindfulness – becoming aware of what’s going on inside and around you on several levels. Mindfulness leads to living in a state of full, conscious awareness of one’s whole self, of other people and the context in which we live and work.
Before you dismiss mindfulness as New Age rhetoric, pay attention to the research. Recent studies in management science, psychology and neuroscience point to the importance of developing mindfulness through the experience of meditation.
Mindfulness and Busy People
Mindfulness meditation has long been practiced by those seeking calm and peace of mind. A Buddhist-trained HR professional, Michael Carroll encourages stressed-out executives to meditate to become more open and, consequently, more effective.
In his book, The Mindful Leader: Awakening Your Natural Management Skills Through Mindfulness Meditation (2008), Carroll explores the key principles of mindfulness.

  • How to heal toxic workplace cultures where anxiety and stress impede creativity and performance
  • How to cultivate courage and confidence in spite of workplace difficulties and economic recession
  • How to pursue organizational goals without neglecting what’s happening here and now
  • How to lead with wisdom and gentleness, not only with ambition, relentless drive and power
  • How a personal meditation practice develops your innate leadership talents

Many workplaces are adopting mindfulness meditation:

  • Companies like Raytheon, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nortel Networks, Comcast and law firms offer employees classes in mindfulness meditation.
  • Executives like Bill Ford Jr., Michael Stephen, former chairman of Aetna International, Robert Shapiro, ex-CEO of Monsanto, and Michael Rennie, of McKinsey & Co., consider meditation beneficial to running a corporation.

The Benefits of Mindfulness
Recent research highlights the many benefits of mindfulness meditation:

  1. 1. Repaired immune system
  2. 2. Heightened emotional intelligence
  3. 3. Reduced anxiety and depression
  4. 4. Sustained levels of joy and satisfaction
  5. 5. Greater resilience
  6. 6. Improved cardiovascular health
  7. 7. Fewer days lost to illness and stress

But practicing mindfulness requires much, well, practice. It demands vulnerability and heart, rather than ambition and achievement – a tall order for many hard-driving, results-oriented people.
How to Practice Meditation
In brief, mindfulness meditation is a friendly gesture toward ourselves, in which we take time to sit still and focus on breath for 10-25 minutes or longer. You can meditate in your office, sitting in your chair. Here are some essential guidelines:

  • Sit upright – relaxed, yet alert.
  • Close your eyes or maintain a soft, relaxed, downward gaze.
  • Place hands palms down, resting gently.
  • Tuck in your chin.
  • Breathe normally.
  • Observe your thoughts gently, without judgment.
  • Label your thoughts as “thinking” and dismiss them. Let them go.
  • Return your focus to your being, breathing and bodily sensations.
  • Be still.
  • Experience being you in the moment – in the now.

The Restlessness Experience
At some point in meditation, we experience our mind’s restlessness – a strong desire to be somewhere else, doing other things. You’ll be reminded of matters that need your attention.
When you experience restlessness, you’ll come to realize how you shut down your sense of “here and now” – your own presence in the world as it really exists. It’s easy to become distracted, and hard to sit and be still with ourselves.

  • As you begin to meditate, focus on nothing more than your breath. Shortly, you might find that your mind has wandered off or has distracting thoughts. Simply acknowledge it, and return to your breathing.
  • You may struggle to simply observe thoughts as they arise and to let them go. This is because the judging mind kicks in. We find it difficult to not think of problems, opinions, and “things that need to be fixed.” Worse yet, we begin to judge the thoughts themselves, and judge our judging.
  • This is when we begin to discover how we interact in the world: When we shut off the here and now, we distort our sense of purpose and miss opportunities to appreciate our reality. The ensuing anxiety prevents us from being open.

Being You
To become mindful, you must understand the distinction between trying to improve yourself versus experiencing who you already are:

  • To be mindful, you acknowledge you’re already open (not trying to be more open).
  • You acknowledge the wisdom and kindness you hold within (not trying to be more wise or compassionate).
  • You don’t strive to achieve a better, improved you. Rather, you meditate to get in touch with who you already are. Discover your basic sanity and true qualities, as they already exist within you. You turn off the inner judge and critic.

The Art of Non-achievement
Practice mindfulness meditation with non-achievement in mind. Meditation’s benefits are attained by exercising unseen “mindfulness muscles” as you sit still. Focus and concentration improve with each practice of meditation. Eventually, you learn to turn off the part of the brain that judges.
Mindfulness skills develop with practice and are then applied with a natural ease and familiarity to your thinking, feeling, and expression as you go about your day.
When you slow down, you gain a realistic picture of what’s going on instead of speeding through your day – or worse, speeding through your life.
 
 
 

In Search of Authentic Leaders

Employees at all organizational levels seek meaning and fulfillment at work. Most are willing to work hard for authentic, trustworthy leaders.
Sadly, employee morale is at an all-time low. A 2013 Gallup poll found that only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work and psychologically committed to their jobs.
People are not easily fooled or quick to offer their loyalty, which explains why inauthentic leaders struggle to hire and retain exceptional staffers.
Authentic leaders have mastered three key skills: clear vision, formulating sound strategies and finding approaches that inspire others to act. To join this elite club, you must align people around a common purpose and set of values. As they perform at peak levels, they’ll know precisely what’s expected of them.
Three Problems with Authenticity
While virtually every leader has a sense of what “authenticity” means, few know how to develop it as a skill. To complicate matters, being authentic in today’s rapidly evolving global marketplace has its share of challenges.
A too-rigid view of oneself can be an obstacle to leading effectively. Three common leadership pitfalls include:

  1. 1. Being true to yourself. Which self? Depending on your role and the context, you show up differently. You grow and shift with experience and evolve into new roles. How can you be authentic to a future self that is uncertain and unformed?
  2. 2. Maintaining strict coherence between what you feel and what you say or do. You lose credibility as a leader if you disclose everything you think and feel, especially when you’re unproven.
  3. 3. Making values-based decisions. When you move into a bigger role, values shaped by past experiences can misguide you. In the face of new challenges, old decisions may produce authentic, but wrong, behaviors that fail to suit new situations.

Frame Your Life Stories
The journey to authentic leadership begins with understanding your life story, which provides a context for your experiences. Your story is powered by experiences that can help you inspire others and influence them to follow your lead.
That said, life stories are not always pretty. While most of us can reframe negative experiences in a positive light, authenticity requires us to face up to our mistakes and failures. An honest appraisal may prove uncomfortable, but it’s necessary for self-improvement. It also paves the way for authenticity and resilience.
Practice Your Values and Principles
The values that form the basis for authentic leadership are derived from your beliefs and convictions, but you cannot truly know them until they’re tested under pressure.
Leadership principles are values translated into action. Without action that supports your stated values, you cannot be authentic. The hard decisions you make reflect what you truly value.
Balance Your Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivations
If you’re like most leaders, you may be reluctant to admit that you measure your success against the outside world’s parameters. You enjoy the recognition and status that come with promotions and financial rewards.
But intrinsic motivations are derived from your life’s meaning and purpose. They’re closely linked to your life story and how you frame it (i.e., personal growth, helping other people develop, social causes, making a difference in the world).
Authenticity requires you to balance your desire for external validation with the intrinsic motivations that provide fulfillment at work.
Build Your Support Team
Authentic leaders build extraordinary support teams to help them stay on course. Team members provide counsel in times of uncertainty, offer extra assistance in difficult times and share in celebrations of success.
Support teams consist of spouses and families, close friends and colleagues, and mentors and coaches. Leaders must give as much to their supporters as they receive from them. Only then can mutually beneficial relationships develop.
Develop as an Authentic Leader
In “Your Development as an Authentic Leader” (Harvard Business Review, February 2007), Bill George, Peter Sims, Andrew N. McLean and Diana Mayer urge leaders to ask themselves the following questions:
1. Which people and experiences in your early life had the greatest impact on you?

2. Which tools do you use to become self-aware?
What is your authentic self?
In which moments do you say to yourself, “This is the real me?”
3. Name your most deeply held values.
Where did they come from?
Have your values changed significantly since your childhood?
How do your values inform your actions?
4. What motivates you extrinsically?
What are your intrinsic motivations?
How do you balance extrinsic and intrinsic motivations?
5. What kind of support team do you have?
How can your support team make you a more authentic leader?
How should you diversify your team to broaden your perspective?
6. Is your life integrated?
Are you able to be the same person in all aspects of your life (personal, work, family and community)?
If not, what’s holding you back?
7. What does authenticity mean in your life?
Are you a more effective leader when you behave authentically?
Have you ever paid a price for your authenticity? Was it worth it?
8. What steps can you take today, tomorrow and over the next year to develop authentic leadership?
Authentic leaders demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practice their values consistently, and lead with their hearts and heads. They establish long-term, meaningful relationships and have the self-discipline to get results. They know who they are.
Ultimately, superior results over a sustained period make for an authentic leader. It may be possible to drive short-term outcomes without being authentic, but authentic leadership is the only way we know to create sustainable long-term results.