Recently, Omar Tawakol – CEO of Voicera – had the chance to sit down and chat with Ingrid Sanders – CEO of Solela Inc. They sat and discussed mindfulness in meetings and what types of executives were the best to learn from. Below are some excerpts from the conversation and they are definitely worth a read as you look to get better, more productive meetings.
Omar: You have run companies and served as an advisor in many others, which means you have probably learned from other great executives. When you think about the most effective executives, what sticks out the most?
Ingrid: Interesting question. As you asked me that one thing that occurred to me was that I haven’t worked for any female executives. I hadn’t really noticed that before but that’s one thing that stands out. I can think of a couple different leaders that I’ve worked with that had substantial military training. One was special forces and another was Navy, so that stands out. They pushed things in a more egalitarian way, more about results and less about posturing or maneuvering, and that strikes me as interesting. In the military, you go through boot camp and there are people from all backgrounds and you get the foundation for viewing people based on their output versus where they come from or what they look like.
Omar: You take a very interesting angle regarding acknowledging people’s life outside of work, do you want to elaborate on that?
Ingrid: I think the workplace has invaded our personal lives, particularly through laptops, smartphones and things like that, and there’s this expectation of, in many companies, employees being available 24/7 and responding to e-mails non-stop. So consequently, we have less personal time to spend with family and friends to de-stress so when we come to the workplace, we’re carrying a lot more of that baggage back with us.
It’s harder, I think, to maintain this differentiated persona of your work-self and your home-self, and so when we think about productivity, one of the things that impact us that is often times we’ll have that background narrative of the stressors that we’re carrying from home. So, when we would hold team meetings we would start it with a very brief check-in that allows the team members to share, for thirty seconds each, what’s happening for them in that moment emotionally or mentally, related to work or related to their personal life. Some examples on the work front include, “I was so excited because I just finished this project that I was really struggling with” Or on a personal front, “I’m feeling very tired because my baby was crying all night last night, and I haven’t had a chance to sleep.” What this does is it helps take that background narrative that everyone is carrying around and let it go so that when the meeting starts, everyone is fully present together as a team and focused on the topic at hand.
Omar: That’s a great idea, so you’ve done this at meetings? Did it bleed into the rest of the meeting or was it always a small time commitment?
Ingrid: We’ve done this at pretty much every team meeting. You get into the habit of keeping it very contained and then what happens is, in addition to enhancing the productivity of the meeting itself, you start to foster these deeper, personal connections with the other team members. You start seeing them more as people versus roles, so you have a little bit more compassion and empathy and connections with them, and if something surfaces in that brief check-in that feels a little bit heavier, you can check in with them after and have a longer conversation over coffee, or at lunch.
Omar: What inspired this technique?
Ingrid: I was originally inspired by Holocracy. I remember going to a very brief Holocracy training, and we started doing it after that because I thought it’d be something that would be really helpful in the work context.
Omar: I would like to try this.
Ingrid: For decades our leadership and management training has been very much about results, productivity, focus, top-down leadership style. We haven’t really been trained to even think about integrating some of these other techniques. I think as we’re seeing leadership move from a more purely masculine model of leadership into something that incorporates more of the feminine type elements and with that, you start to see the openness to techniques like this.
Omar: What other things techniques get at this same goal?
Ingrid: Here’s one more very specific thing that we would do with some weekly team meetings with the check-in, we’d also do a “Mindful Minute”. You take literally 60 seconds, somebody would set a timer and the whole team would just sit quietly together around the table, it doesn’t need to be any formal meditation practice, everyone could experience it how they wanted, open eyes, closed eyes, just sitting quietly and that would kind of close that check-in period and transition you to the meeting base and let the thought settle. We’d also do that Mindful Minute in pretty much every meeting.
Omar: You do that check-in before the rest of the meeting starts.
Ingrid: So that’s one more kind of specific little thing that we found to be really interesting. More broadly, I think we’ve moved into this phase of having open workspaces and office configurations that are very much a chaotic space environment, and that worked great for the extroverts. For the introverts, it’s awful and it really killed productivity. Often times, particularly for engineers, you hear it makes their work exceedingly difficult because they need time to sit down and focus. So that’s insensitive to some individual’s preferred work style. The key is to understand this and provide different options. Similarly, a lot of companies do various forms of personality tests so that they better understand what styles work for different people. One of my favorites is still Myers-Briggs. It allows the individual employees to understand themselves better and also it allow the managers to understand how those particular employees perform best, especially if you have an environment that’s safe and supportive enough where people feel comfortable sharing it with each other.
Doing these tests helps you understand people’s emotional strengths and preferences, and that makes it easier to identify potential problem spots in advance and then also how to resolve challenges.
For example, if you understand that one person approaches things in a very data-driven standpoint and one person that approaches things in a very intuitive way, they’ll have a hard time seeing eye-to-eye but that’s just because they see the world differently. It’s not because one is right or wrong. If you know this, you can develop translation layers, to help them see each other more effectively. This is useful for productivity because, in order for you to get things done efficiently and therefore quickly, you need to take out all of the friction from the process and a lot of the friction of the experience and the workplace has to do with interpersonal communications.
Omar: So would you give any advice on productivity that takes into account different styles preferred by different genders.
Ingrid: There’s one specific example I would mention. There’s a lot of data showing that diverse teams make for a better company. One of the challenges that you have in diverse teams is because of a broad generalization, men and women sometimes have different communication styles. Often times, the men will dominate conversations or ideations or things like that. Women, our voices are often quieter, we’re not taught as much the whole way through school to speak up. We’re not rewarded for it, and sometimes, as a lot of people say when women speak up we’re called bossy, but when men speak up they’re called assertive. So there are these denigrating remarks about women who tend to be more assertive, and yet, if women aren’t speaking up, you’re not getting the opinions from let’s say, half the group or less, depending on the gender balance of the group.
So, one specific tactic that can be employed by everyone on the team is to notice when a woman in the meeting starts to say something and get cut off by a man, or when it looks like they want to say something and they just don’t quite put the effort for it. For somebody else in the group to say, “Hey, you know, Mary, what do you think about this?” Or “What were you going to say?” Or “John, hold off one minute, Mary was about to contribute something.”
So, if we can all start noticing, maybe this isn’t only a gender thing, maybe it’s also an introvert/extrovert thing and the person who’s not speaking up could be a man. If we can all start noticing when the under-voiced people are not sharing their ideas, I think we can have much more effective and much more productive communities.
Omar: Keep going.
Ingrid: That’s one idea. I think the gender-based issues, in particular in the technology industry are so challenging. One thing that has occurred to since the news about Uber and Justin Caldbeck’s actions is that I’ve had a significant number of women contact me privately who I’ve known for a very long time and tell me their very severe stories about harassment, abuse, that I had never heard before. And these women, even with everything coming out they didn’t want to speak publicly or couldn’t because they were silenced by NDA’s or other sorts of things. And so it shows me that these overt actions that happen in the workplace are far more pervasive than even I realized. It also tells me that we all need to really play a role in calling out each other for bad behavior.
So, we all do it and human nature is engrained with the sort of pattern recognition and biases for survival, so as soon as we’re able to start recognizing that we have these built-in biases and become conscious about what they may be, we’re in a better position to try to address them.
Omar: You get an opportunity to coach a lot of people at work. If you had to talk to certain areas that you had to coach people, what is one of the most common areas you get asked about?
Ingrid: I would say two key things that can have the greatest impact on the people I coach are first, getting very clear with your value set and really just why do you do what you do including your motivators, so that when you’re coming to work every day you can pursue it with that in mind and focus through what those motivators are. And that’s different for everybody, for some people, it’s purely about money. For some people, it’s about prestige, for other people it’s about teamwork, or some greater social value. None of them are really bad, the key is to understand, “What is it that you really value?” And how is it that the work you’re doing can support any goals that enable that value. I think generally speaking when we’re able to get through to our core human nature and values, what we tend to come up with is things that are generally positive for those outside. It’s when we’re acting out of ego that we tend to do things that are much more self-oriented. So, the understanding our values and aligning them with everything else that we’re doing at the office and keeps us focused.
The second is understanding how to interact with our team or colleagues or customers in a way that at a very human level versus at a role-based level or through some other lens. If we can see them as people who are reciting their own motives and things like that, we have a better opportunity to form strong relationships and create great work.
Omar: Getting to understand your core values is very important.
Ingrid: Yeah, that’s more about personal discovery. In that process, you start to strip away the layer of ego. When you act because of your ego you tend to be very reactive which isn’t very thoughtful or productive. So, if for example, we’re triggered by something that someone else did, instead of just reacting right away and yelling, we can take a moment and just understand why that particular thing happened. We can look at what we really care about, and what that person cares about, and how we can move forward together to resolve the issue. We can reduce a lot of friction that way and it all starts with each individual having a better sense of self.
We’re starting to see certain practices come into the workplace to facilitate that. There’s been a significant increase in interest in meditation in the workplace. You see that with the unbelievable amount of money that has raised to go after the corporate base, you see it with discussions, with Ariana Huffington and others that are really starting to come over and say meditation has really been helpful for me in my professional career. It’s part of my secret to success. When you do practices like meditation that help you quiet the mind, you are able to see more clearly, you are able to be less reactive, have a better sense of self.
Omar: And meditation reduces stress which has all sorts of health benefits beyond the workplace.
Ingrid: It’s interesting that one of Steve Jobs’ favorite books was Autobiography of a Yogi, apparently, he read it every year and one of my favorite messages from that book is that basically, to paraphrase, he kind of says one day we’ll be able to prove things that we’ve always known to be true.
So, there are all these ancient practices and teachings and insights that for many years, our kind of Western culture or civilization forgot about and we’re rediscovering them, but we’re doing so in a way that we now have the technology to be able to measure their impact. We’re able to study brain scans, we’re able to see through FMRI and other techniques how the brain has developed over time through meditative practices and that parts of the brain get more lit up permanently from having these types of practices. I have a yoga practice and am a certified teacher with Jivamukti Yoga, and similar to something like mindful meditation, having a movement practice, whether it’s yoga, or other types of things where you can start to become aware of where you’re holding tension in the body or how releasing a certain part of the body muscle can then help you feel different emotionally. It becomes really interesting to start integrating these practices and observing their impact on work.
Omar: Prioritization, presence, responsiveness, and bias for action are all important productivity attributes Pick the most important ones to you and tell us why it is important.
Ingrid: I would say presence. My probably second would be the perpetual beta. This is another idea from meditation of the beginner’s mind, always looking at things from a fresh perspective can be really powerful. But I think presence, particularly as you’ve been trained by these devices that we carry around to be super fragmented and in and out of stories or Facebook and constantly having notifications and all sorts of things, we’ve really forgotten how to just be present with ourselves and others and that’s usually distracting to the goal of productivity.
Some techniques that we use occasionally to drive presence include having no devices in the meeting. Your phone can’t even be on the table. Also, instead of scheduling an hour meeting that is filled with all sorts of distractions and devices perhaps you can get into the habit of starting to schedule 30-minute meetings or even 15-minute meetings that have complete focus and attention.
Omar: Is there one secret to productivity that I haven’t asked about yet?
Ingrid: I would say just take a minute. Don’t jump directly from one thing to the next. When you take a minute you can really understand what the most important thing is and what’s not so important. Particularly if you’re running a company. If you’re the head or CEO of a company, particularly an early stage company, you’re juggling a thousand balls and everything is new, you probably have a lot of things to manage and may need to let some things fall off your plate to be able to just survive to the next stage of the business. So, understanding which of the things are okay to do that with and which aren’t- Yeah, that requires taking a moment to think and get focused before you act.