The remedy for self-judgement is simpler than you think

A convicted multiple-murderer stands in front of me, tears rolling down his cheeks.

We’re in one of the most dangerous prisons in the country, and in many ways this man’s life depends on the fierce, don’t-you-dare-look-at-me-the-wrong-way image he projects most every moment of his day. But right now, as a memory surfaces – a face in his mind’s eye that has haunted him for nearly two decades, a classmate from grade school – he slips out of the “mask” that provides him protection and allows the pain to move through him.

We are standing in a reinforced concrete cube, roughly 40’ x 40’ x 40’, bare cinderblock walls stretch from cement floor to ceiling. This is the “chapel” on C Yard in Folsom Prison. Our circle is made up of seven prisoners and five “outside men” – men like myself who have come in for four days to offer them our time and our hearts. Three other groups like mine are spread out around the chapel.

This man, who is not yet thirty, was convicted of terrible crimes while still in his teens, and will spend most of his life behind bars. But today’s tears are not for any of those transgressions. They are for a moment in his early childhood when he watched his friends take advantage of a weaker boy and he didn’t stand up for what he knew was right.

Making a new choice

He could have made a different choice those many years ago, he says, but at the time he couldn’t find the courage to tell his friends to stop. And this is the place where he and I meet, in something every human can relate to: the fear of saying “No”, and the shame of something bad happening that we might have prevented.

He cannot change what went down that day. It is real; it is a fact. What he can do is allow himself to reveal the events to another human being – to speak aloud the words that have been screaming in his head, instead of desperately holding them in. The more he has tried to prevent others from knowing what he judges himself for, the more he has reinforced those very judgments. By giving voice to what he considers unspeakable, he can allow himself to do that most vulnerable of human actions: to feel emotion.

Before my eyes, he walks right out of prison. Not the prison of his convicted crimes – the prison of his mind.

Give yourself permission

We think that freedom is about having choices of what we can do with our time and our resources, and that a life sentence in prison would take away any man’s ability to be free. But what I’ve learned is this: a cornerstone of freedom is giving ourselves permission to say the things we thought we dared not reveal to anyone.

We don’t always find the courage to “do the right thing” in the moment. But if we hold our missteps over our heads for days, weeks, years, perhaps even decades, we place ourselves in a very real prison.

Just yesterday, walking in downtown Los Angeles, I saw a man lying in the middle of the sidewalk, apparently drunk and passed out. My gut wanted to ask if he needed help, but my fear caused me to recoil. A moment later, the man walking two steps behind me went to him to offer help. I felt a blanket of shame envelop me for the next twenty minutes, as I replayed the scene and judged that I should have acted more courageously.

It is so easy for judgment to invade our self-image and constrict our belief in who we are. We’ve all let people down: our employees, our customers, our suppliers, our investors… our spouses, our children, our parents, our friends… the men and women we pass on the street… and most of all, ourselves. Dare we acknowledge this, inwardly and outwardly, and move past our self-judgment? What might we now be capable of if we did?

Give yourself permission to speak the unspeakable. It’s the first step on the path to freedom.

Built to fail: Are your mental models designed to thrive?

During my time as a graduate student at Pepperdine, I had the good fortune of meeting Dr. Chris Worley. He and a colleague published a book called Built To Change, an obvious play on the famous title Built To Last. In it Worley and his co-author argue that most organizations struggle and even fail in today’s rapidly changing business environment because they are inherently designed to do so. Of course no one is intentionally planning on a painful struggle; yet these same leaders and organizers are definitely, with the best of intentions, setting their organizations up to face sometimes insurmountable challenges. The reason is that traditional organizations are set up to maintain the status quo and resist change. They are static by nature.

Consider the following standard organizational practices: strategic planning, annual reviews, and job descriptions. They expect — and certainly reinforce — a stable, clear approach to organizational resources.

The problem here is that most organizational practices are outdated the moment they are created.

Being successful in today’s world requires that organizations be built to change, with flexible systems and processes and structures that embrace new things rather than attack them. Effort alone won’t win. The design has to be right.

The reality, in my experience, is that the same challenging dilemma exists on a personal, internal level: most people are built to fail.

Most people, I believe, want to do a good job. They want someone to look at their work and give it a good grade, as though this act somehow memorializes their worth.

Most people I work with want to get promoted. They hope that all their hard work and contribution will get someone’s attention, and that when the right option opens up, they will receive an offer.

Most people I work with want to appear confident. They believe that if they have a complete command of everything, know all the answers, and can appear in control, this will project strong leadership and impress others.

Sadly, the above three approaches all lead to failure. They’re the wrong way of looking at our business world. They represent an old mental model.

What new way of looking at this situation can I provide?

Doing a good job. This desire, by itself, is part of the problem. I want to do a good job. I want validation. I want praise. In most organizations today, the strongest work comes from complex, interdependent efforts that create, at best, temporary wins. While most everyone wants to make an important contribution, wanting to be the one with good marks and some sort of status based on a positive experience doesn’t work these days. The questions I find more helpful are: What does the project need right now to become better? What new way of looking at this situation can I provide? What resource can I offer to the group?

Getting promoted. Whose job is it to drive a promotion? The answer to this question drives the succeed or fail pathway. The answer in the traditional model is the organization. The employee does good work, keeps an eye open for new opportunities, and appears interested. The new reality is that most employees looking for a promotion need to drive a new opportunity into their world, and not because organizational leaders need to move this off their plate. It’s more because organizational leaders need solutions to challenges they don’t even see yet. The people closest to the work understand the workflow best; they regularly have the best new solutions, which often include new positions.

Appearing confident. The traditional model creates an absurd reality that organizational leaders by way of superior training, intellect, or education know things that others don’t, or have some crystal ball into the future. People looking to move up, therefore, need to pretend to be an executive leader in waiting. The current reality is that everyone’s making a best guess. The people who do better and inspire confidence are the ones who rapidly embrace reality and respond quickly. The confidence comes from others’ belief that an individual is clear about what they know, what they don’t, and what to do next. This is a product of the ability to integrate new information and make a sharp decision.

These are mainly soft skills, most of which show up in family or community settings. Most people are built to fail professionally because their change skills are attuned to impressing or mollifying some external source.

My father always used to say, “People get hired for what they know and fired for who they are.” How true this is. Especially in today’s world.

So, going forward, think about how you’re designed. Are your mental models designed to survive and thrive in this environment? The more time you spend doing what you think someone likes and then hoping for a pat on the back, the more you’re on a sinking ship. The more time you spend engaging your whole self — including your creativity, insight, and problem solving — the better off you’ll be.

If anything, my experience in the last few years in hyper-growth companies shows that people with the wrong mental models can’t outwork their competitors. It’s not an effort challenge.

Think about how you’re thinking. It could make all the difference.

How to lead in an unpredictable world

This year has been a trying one for many from both a psychological and a physical standpoint. Just last week, hundreds of thousands of people in Houston, Florida, and the Caribbean lost their homes to hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and hundreds of thousands more found out that they may be deported in six months after living, studying, and working in the US for most of their lives due to President Trump’s decision to end DACA. Last month, white supremacy reared its ugly head in Charlottesville, reminding us of the sheer amount of hate present in the US right now. Top it all off with an ongoing probe into Russian involvement in the election, and it begins to feel like we are living in a dystopian novel. The callousness, chaos, and calamity wrought by these events can be overwhelming, leaving me wondering what to do next. I’m guessing many of you also feel similarly, so I thought I’d share what I am doing to support myself so I can support others.

First, I remember to breathe. Breathing always slows me back down to the speed of life, as a friend once said. From that place, I can step back from the Matrix and see the world more clearly. I remember the practices that have served me over the years and return to those, namely meditation and journaling. Both are helpful grounding tools to bring me back to my core.

From here, I can more clearly self-reflect. The first question I like to ask myself is: what can I own of this situation I am in? In this case, it is my readiness to jump into the fray. When my fear and anxiety rise, I can easily get lost in news, opinion and social media to the point that I am spending more time focusing on these than with my family or sleep. I feed this propensity by adding my own comments and shares, which often serve only to make me more angry and frustrated.

I’m not saying engaging with current events is wrong, but I know it isn’t healthy when it begins to interrupt my life. With that awareness, the energy dissipates and I can ask myself a second question: what is important to me about this? The answer to that often relates to my core values, particularly freedom, equitability, truth, and transparency.

These values and the beliefs that are aligned with them, are the place from which I can take right action. I like to do this with the context of my work in the world so that my life can be as integrated as possible. In my case as an executive coach, taking an action that serves our clients and partners at Evolution, such as writing this blog, feels like a small, useful act of service to offer.

To Brian Chesky, CEO of AirBnB, taking action meant kicking the people who showed up to spread hate in Charlottesville off his platform, as well as offering Harvey evacuees free places to stay. Meanwhile, Microsoft announced that it will defend its Dreamer employees in court. Google and Facebook both announced that they would match up to $1 million of donations to the Red Cross in the wake of Harvey. While Lyft co-founders John Zimmer and Logan Green integrated donations to the Red Cross into the app’s round up and donate feature, as well as donated $100,000 out of pocket to the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund. Uber also stepped up to the plate, offering free rides to shelters for Harvey evacuees. This comes after Uber learned the hard way that doing nothing is not an option when the company failed to adequately respond to President Trump’s travel ban.

Many other business leaders spoke out against white supremacy, vowed to protect employees affected by the DACA decision, and offered their monetary and physical support to those affected by Harvey. These are all helpful ways to respond to troubling situations by drawing on core values and purpose.

But the news keeps coming, so finding a rhythm to continue this process as a leader is critical: grounding, self-reflecting, and then responding from your core, perhaps each day. As a leader, there is a great deal you can do — not only for yourself and your team but for your customers, partners, shareholders, local communities, and society, as a whole. Challenges always present opportunities to take an action that can make a difference. Evolutionary business leaders take these opportunities.

By productively processing your emotions, such as fear or anger, and devising integrated actions that are of service, you can take a huge step toward “being the change you want to see in the world.” Imagine the impact of Brian Chesky’s actions among team members in the AirBnB offices last week and in the many homes that took in evacuees through the platform, some of them using AirBnB for the first time as a result of this heartfelt decision. He was able to create a positive outcome for many from this challenge by integrating a solution and taking right action. Ask yourself: what can you do?

Five ways you can shape your company’s culture

Leaders create culture. Understanding this principle adds a dimension to leadership that many don’t expect or even care to focus on in the midst of a rapid scale of a business or hitting a financial metric. But as many parents learn — “they are always watching you.” Offloading cultural responsibility to HR or a culture initiative is misguided and an abdication of responsibility. Culture is being created all of the time, and many times the big-ticket initiatives (like a mission and values banner…) don’t have the largest impact. Instead, the small things matter. An organization’s culture is usually a direct extension of the founder, and while it sometimes evolves beyond them, it always remains in their hands — and hearts . Below are 5 key principles for leaders seeking to own their company’s culture.

1. Care and know what culture is. As simple as it sounds, a leader has to care about culture. They have to educate themselves about it so they can stretch beyond employee perks and the “vibes” that are used to describe it. This means reading books, learning and deconstructing what makes a specific culture unique, and taking the time to regularly think and discuss culture internally at their company. They have to have the finesse to talk about how it presents itself in the daily activities of the business. They have to keep it in front of mind on their dashboard — along with financial metrics or other metrics of performance. They should be able to draw the line between the culture of the business and the purpose of the business in the world. Then the work becomes keeping it alive and discussing it relentlessly.

2. Talk about what is intrinsic. Why are the colors of the brand important? Why is the office designed the way it is? How should people participate in meetings? What are the key values or principles that govern the work? These are some of the questions that need to be answered to articulate a culture, and a leader must be able to know and translate this to the business. Many times this means talking about the core values explicitly in a meeting or visibly rewarding team members who embody them. It means discussing performance management and why people are in leadership succession as well as why processes are run they way they are and being able to explicitly link them back to the intrinsic levels of the culture — the values, the key principles, the symbols of the brand, and the deeply held beliefs about the business or the world. We call this the BE level of culture — the bottom and foundation level of a culture that influences actions and behaviors. This also means having the courage and discipline to talk about when things are not working — to correct course or address certain behaviors that are counter productive or not aligned to the espoused culture.

3. Model what you expect in others. One of the top reasons people get cynical about culture is they see the words on a banner or a wall, but they don’t see the leaders modeling them. Understanding that every moment is an opportunity to lead in alignment with the company’s values is critical and modeling the way for others is a critical aspect of reinforcing culture. This is the DO level, the behaviors, actions, and processes that create the results an organization seeks in the world. It is critical that key behaviors are modeled and that culture is not just verbalized– this creates cynicism and destroys trust. It takes a high degree of personal courage and self-awareness to show up in a culturally aligned way, day in and day out. It also means calling out behaviors in others that are not aligned to the culture and holding team members accountable to lead by example as well.

4. Track and reward. Culture needs to be tracked like everything else in business. Sometimes the metrics are more discreet or difficult to quantify but important nonetheless. This may mean core values rating and ranking on an employee engagement survey or having individuals do an annual “core values report card”. It may include quarterly “pulse checks” where the leaders of various functions ask for feedback on key cultural attributes, which are then fed back into a leadership or executive group for consideration and changes. Publicly honoring key BE levels aspects for reinforcement is critical, such as having awards for core values and bestowing them authentically and publicly to role models on a regular basis.

5. Embed it in everything. Leading a team, a function or an organization provides a daily opportunity to design and redesign critical work processes. Each time, a leader can use an organizations values or intrinsic or BE level principles to inform management and organizational processes. Far from perfect, as long as the culture is considered in a more conscious way there will be a greater degree of cultural alignment than before. Calling the question “does this align with our values?” brings culture into consciousness.

Think about it, talk about it, act on it. Leaders lead culture, and all moments of the day are an opportunity to have a cultural impact. Much of the time building an organizational culture is not an expensive undertaking — but it takes time. If a leader gets this principle, they must align their team and regularly take the time to discuss what is working and what is not working. Having the courage to self reflect and act in alignment with a core set of beliefs and values is what creates integrity in a person, and an organization. It’s also the pathway for a healthy and thriving culture.

Three ways to hack passion

People often ask me “How can I find my passion?”

I’m not talking about recent grads here, but rather accomplished professionals in their 30s and 40s, some of them C-level. They fear they’ve missed their window, or that their passion is something they should have “found” a long time ago. Many have no idea what their passion might be, whereas some feel it’s their dirty little secret. Let me make it clear for anyone who thinks they’re defective for not knowing what their passion is: There is no “secret” to finding your passion. And there is nothing wrong with you for not knowing.

Passion is not something bestowed upon us from above. It’s not our “birthright” to arrive on this planet with one specific passion already pre-programmed in our minds. Sorry. The reality is that passion comes from taking action. The good news is that we get to choose our passion; we get to seek it out and create it all on our own.

So how can we go about this? Here are three ways to hack your way to passion:

1. Go hunting for passion:

Go out into the world and start trying a bunch of things you find interesting, but do it with a low dose of risk and commitment. For example: you could take a 6-week coding class, where you get to see if you like this craft. The personal and financial investment was small, you got to see if it’s something you’d like to dive deeper into or not. Even if you decide coding is not for you, you’ve likely gleaned new insights from what you liked and disliked about it i.e. “I hate focusing on tiny details that could ruin the project” or “Oh my God! I never knew I’d enjoy solving this type of mental puzzle so much!” and so forth. Either way, you’ve gotten new data to help you identify a new direction in your hunt for passion – and now you know what CSS means!

Rinse and repeat.

Try another thing with a low investment. Take on a freelance project with a company you’re curious about. Volunteer your skills in a different industry (Catchafire.org and Taproot Foundation will help you do this). Be patient. Hunting for your passion means you could be exploring for a while, so don’t let that discourage you. Enjoy learning about yourself and keep track of all the insights you gather along the way so that you feel you’re making progress. Enlist a friend in the process or work with a coach to help you stay focused. Soon, you’ll start seeing patterns: Your passion is located at an intersection: it’s where pleasure (the things you enjoy) meets talent (the things you are naturally good at).

You only find out where that is by testing things in real life. Bill Burnett (Professor in the Design Group at Stanford) has an interesting take on this concept, which he calls “running prototypes” for your life.

2. Generate your passion:

When you’re in a job or project that you’re not excited about, find ONE thing you can get fired up about and go to town on that. (Hint: There is always something.) This will help you to generate passion.

Here’s a personal story of how I applied this in my life. A few years ago, I headed a public health program that ended up losing most of its funding due to changes that made prevention programs less appealing to sponsors. My organization told me and my team we’d be laid off within a few months, to give us time to close all loops with our partners and clients. My team was devastated and I felt helpless for being unable to save the program and its jobs.

I couldn’t get motivated to go to the office every day. It was so depressing. And then an idea came to me: Why not use this time to coach my team members, to help them find their strengths, and essentially support them in preparing for their next move? And that’s what I set out to do.

In those last months, coaching my team gave me a reason to get up in the morning and rekindled my passion for something I loved: making a contribution to the lives of others. My experience changed from being depressing to purposeful.

In your current situation, what’s one thing can you commit your energy and focus to in order to generate some passion for yourself?

3. Trick your brain & body into feeling passionate:

When you have to do something you don’t enjoy, bring in an outside element (related or unrelated to the unpleasant task at hand) to make that situation more colorful. For example, I once briefly worked at a company where my job consisted of sitting at a computer all day and responding to emails, with little human interaction. I was like a flower with no water in that environment. So I brought my noise cancelling headphones to the office and played uplifting techno music all day. It made me smile and sway in my chair. It put me “in the zone” and changed my mood.

I also decided to work out at lunch time, so that I would have something to look forward to before 5pm and to boost my endorphins halfway through the workday. I would return to the office around 2:30pm completely energized, my brain feeling fresh. I was tricking myself into a state of passion, using my own physiology to change the way I felt about a less-than-ideal situation. (It also made me a lot more driven and productive in “planning my exit”.)

So, my question for you is: Out of these three techniques for hacking into passion, which one will you try? I’d love to hear what you come up with – it always makes my day. And it will put you back in the driver’s seat for finding your passion.

Yours in action,

Sylvana Rochet

Notes From Necker Island

Matt and Geoff Necker Island

A Temple for Purposeful Dreaming with Richard Branson.

It’s hard to know where to begin when writing about the famed Sir Richard Branson. Countless articles have been written about him and he is his own best spokesperson, having written numerous best-selling books and more recently, sharing his thoughts on business and corporate responsibility via social media.

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Gravitas at Work: Part One

Use These Three Key Skills to Establish Gravitas at Work

As an executive coach to entrepreneurs and senior leaders at startups, my clients often ask me about how to build gravitas. This is not surprising, given what it takes to start a company or lead a small business, and what it takes to run a larger one are much different. Gravitas is not necessarily required at the early stages, but as time goes by, it is one of those “soft” skills that is both necessary and quite hard to cultivate.

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Five Things You Should Do As You Scale To Avoid Losing Your Company’s Soul

One of the times that most start-ups begin to falter is when they begin to rapidly scale. Typically once they’ve closed a B round of funding, teams grow and founders and early stage companies sometimes identify this as chaotic or worse, the time they “lost their soul”.

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Culture Isn’t Just Office Perks

Many of the most iconic and admired companies today are known as much for their culture as they are for their product or experience. Hollywood made a movie made starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson featuring Google’s culture. Zappos has spun off an entire business teaching people how to recreate their distinctive culture. Disney became known for the “Disney Way” in the 80s and 90s, so much so that corporate executives began to go through their Disney Institute in order to understand what made Disney so effective at uniformly delivering a great customer experience. “Culture eats strategy for lunch” is a quote that many of us recognize from management theorist Peter Drucker.
But for many of us culture remains an elusive thing, something we note as a certain “office energy” or the “DNA of the people.” We sometimes say that a company is “Just a great place to work,” without any real clarity as to why. Culture can even become another one of those tired corporate euphemisms that is casually thrown around and regularly misused, creating Office Space-like cynicism for employees. Even so, culture is a critical component to organizational performance, driving behavior and execution. And there are definite ways to not only understand it, but also to develop and unleash it.

To really understand culture we have to, as the author Edgar Schein suggests, become organizational anthropologists. To do this, imagine visiting a remote village in the South Pacific that has just been discovered. How would we try to understand the people who live there? We might consider:

  • The way buildings look
  • What is rewarded and honored
  • Key leadership behaviors
  • How people gather and socialize
  • Where time and resources are given
  • Key rituals and meetings
  • Key roles
  • An understanding of what is worshipped
  • Shadowy aspects — things that are in direct opposition to how the culture espouses itself
  • Stories — key moments, origin stories, heroic tales
  • Symbols and icons

We can learn a tremendous amount by viewing organizational culture this way. We can see how things are done, what’s valued, and how the organization presents itself.

Yet understanding culture requires seeing things that are observable and also not observable. Many people refer to this cultural framework as the iceberg , or in this case “the island”— some things exist above the surface and quite a bit exist beneath the waterline. The results of an organization — everything from financial performance to the “feel” of the office — are what we call the HAVE level. This is the observable tip of the island.

The next level down includes all the efforts that go into driving the results. This level includes a complex set of behaviors, processes, and systems. This is what people in an organization DO to drive results. This is the land of tasks, reports, and deliverables.

These efforts are, in turn, driven by the core of the organization, the BE level. The BE level includes a set of values, beliefs, mental models, and mindsets. This is the “essence” of the organization. It’s how the organization sees the world.

Many organizations get into difficulty working on their culture because they focus on the areas that are the most visible or seem the safest to explore–often the DO level. They will design complex systems and launch sophisticated training programs to teach their people how to DO things differently. Yet they often ignore or avoid the most powerful and least understood level: BE. The BE level is the soul of the organization. The BE level includes core values, mission, and organizational identity. This is where we discover the DNA of the organization, what is ultimately valued.

Understanding the BE level of an organization takes real time and effort. Many use an inquiry based framework to collect narratives that speak to the heart of the culture. Origin stories, “best of” moments, and “defining” times are collected and compiled. After these data are organized and compiled, a set of core values, beliefs, and mental models are articulated that describe the heart of the organization. This work sets the stage for building and aligning HR systems, training, communications, and other key DO-level mechanisms that reinforce the core.

Sustained work at the BE level of an organization, followed by designing DO-level systems and process, eventually lead to powerful results at the HAVE level.

Culture development is generally a long-term process that focuses on discovering the core aspects of an organization and then coordinating the design and delivery of systems that will reinforce it. These processes require a certain level of commitment and can be time intensive.

And there is no cruise control setting for culture. It won’t run on its own. It requires dedicated resources. But when it works well, it’s an amazing thing to behold.

The key is to start at the BE level, the base of the island, the seafloor on which all of the structures rest. Focus on the essence of the organization. Consider the organization’s identity. Gaining a foothold on the BE level allows purposeful work at the DO level. This, in turn, drives results at the HAVE level.

Culture isn’t just the fun things. It isn’t just for the good times. Culture is understanding how human systems operate at varying levels of depth and that they can be guided. Guiding them is the role of the organizational anthropologists- the leaders. This is a difficult, but rewarding task that enriches the whole and drives deep and sustainable success.

Thanks, Yahoo! And Other Reflections on How It All Went Awry

As Yahoo! passes out of independent existence, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to reflect on all that I gained from my time there and share my perspective on how the leadership of Yahoo could have saved the company from faltering before things continued on a downward spiral that lasted nearly a decade.

While I’m frustrated to see the avoidable dismantling of this former internet titan, I remain proud to have been part of Yahoo and I’m enormously grateful for the incredible people I worked with during my two-and-a-half years there. I’ve had the privilege to work with many of you again during the past few years; people like Anne Toth, Jen Dulski, Dan Finnigan, and Ali Diab. Thank you, Yahoo, for bringing us all together–it was truly a magical time!

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