It’s become clear over the past year that being a good manager is less about managing the work and more about coaching people to reach their highest potential.
How do you actually do that?
For answers, we reached out to Katia Verresen, a longtime Silicon Valley executive coach, who has worked with leaders at organizations including Airbnb, Facebook, Stanford Business School, and The New York Times. Her approach has been profiled in First Round Review.
Here is a transcript of the conversation, edited lightly for clarity:
What are the issues that you're encountering in the leaders that you're working with right now?
One of the issues that I'm seeing across the board that has been normalized over time is the level of burnout at scale. For teams, the ability to focus, the ability to take action rather than be frantic, and the ability to innovate and really foster creativity are down because there's a lot of multitasking, which decreases cognitive function. There is 'go fast, slow down,' which is more of a frenzy and motion than it is progress. That's just across the board. I mean, we have gone through 18 months of a pandemic. The rate at which we're moving, rather than working, is accelerating. What I'm working on a lot with people is an ability to slow down and have more impact. Because everything in the outside world is changing, a core practice that we talk about is [getting in touch with our inner power].
A lot of high performers have a desire for control. If the pandemic taught us anything, it's that we actually don't have control, but we can create. Since all of the external compasses are changing, there's a reinvention of everything, and old structures are falling apart. We need to get in touch with what I call our inner power or an inner compass. How do you do that? That is your ability (as a leader first, because you're always leading by example) to self-manage. Tend to your physical energy and your vitality; tend to your emotions, because when used well, your emotions are rocket fuel and can be very energizing; and tend to your mind and your ability to have clarity versus being numb, frantic, or unfocused.
Most importantly, particularly because I mostly work in tech with investors and entrepreneurs, is an ability to have all of this in service of creativity. When we're inventing the future, we need to be able to be in a state of flow and do our best thinking. That's actually a discipline, which turns into a way of life, but that's the first thing. As I say to a lot of leaders, you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first and lead by example, and then give those same permissions to your teams. That's what creates coherence from the top down.
What are practices that allow people to slow down and focus on this inner power?
For ease, we'll just focus on the physical. People have back-to-back meetings. They're completely exhausted. They have no time to see the big picture. They have no time to zoom out. That's been normalized, not to mention what's happening in other aspects of their life. We need to put down boundaries, and we need to go to structure. A structure can be simple, such as starting every meeting five minutes after the hour. You're having 25-minute meetings or 45-minute meetings or 55-minute meetings, but it's five minutes after. For that five minutes, you actually need to do a practice. Maybe you get up and get some water. Maybe you physically move your body and walk because that resets the nervous system.
Maybe you close your eyes and breathe quietly. The point is, you are responsible for the level of energy you show up with to the next meeting. It also allows you to drop all of the cognitive noise from the previous meeting. You're really creating a break, which fosters mono-tasking, which is much better for us. When, as leaders, you do that and respect that boundary, it gives permission to the rest of the team. The other practice is to do an audit of your schedule. Which meetings are actually necessary? Which of them are not? When we do an energy audit and an audit of schedules, there's a lot that can be taken off.
That’s a useful reminder that when one goes from one meeting into the next, we bring the energy of our previous meeting without realizing...
They say that cognitive drag lasts about 23 minutes if you go back to back to back without pausing in between. A lot of research has shown that when we're doing deep thinking work, 52 minutes is very good for us. More than that and we start to flag. To me, the physical energy component is to work in harmony with your body so you get the most out of your flow and your day, and it's astounding. In my class, the Foundations of Inner Power, I literally see people come back to life. We have a first session, and they pop open like, 'I have agency!?' The point is to remember that you have agency, you have choice, and you're the one driving. Getting back into the driver's seat is really, really key because as a leader, your creative energy is in service of a greater whole. Once you've cleared your calendar, we're looking at pockets of deep thinking time. For a CEO—or for anyone in a strategic role—to be able to look ahead, that strategic thinking is key. That's when you do your best thinking.
When you say when you do your best thinking, that's if you do it in the morning or the afternoon, for example?
Eleven o'clock seems to be a good time, but another trick that I recommend is after we workout, we have greater focus and clarity for up to two hours. Make sure to have your movement right before you do your deep thinking time. Think about these blocks like Legos that you can move around for higher performance. Again, leaders, you're leading by example, so your people will take note and will follow as well.
Is there a length of time that you recommend people schedule for deep strategic thinking?
What I've seen is 55 minutes, take a break, and then go back. Chop it into 55-minute blocks, and after two hours we're pretty much done. Take a break, get outside, and get some movement. Movement is really, really key, whatever movement you're able to do.
Why is movement key?
It resets our nervous system. When executives feel burnout or get short-tempered or impatient, it's actually a nervous system threat response. After 18 months, our systems are really fried. Going for a walk outside and breathing really helps to reset. There are ways, either through breathing or movement, to increase oxygenation. It's also a pattern interrupt. Your eyes are looking away from a screen, so your field of vision opens up and the system registers safety. Again, we have to remember that we are biological humans and there are very simple things like moving our neck, looking around, and locating ourselves in the day that suit our social nervous system. It registers safety. It takes less than 10 seconds.
It can be listening to a song you like—that gives you dopamine hits. Three minutes and 50 seconds. It's amazing to have a practice of having a confetti of things that refresh you and reset you throughout your day. It's absolutely life-changing and so simple. So simple.
Are there other dimensions of burnout that you're talking to people about?
The next part is abundant thinking versus scarcity thinking. We want to understand that our mindset is the lens through which we see the world, and we have two modes. People are familiar with fight or flight or rest and digest. But we are all familiar with situations where things feel complex, we can't think straight, and there are no solutions. Everything feels absolutely threatening to us, and our body is contracted. I call that scarcity—that's one mode. The very same person can also be in a completely different mode, where we can connect dots easily, and ideas come to us out of the blue. We seem to be at the right place at the right time. That's flow state.
We have both modes. I've created ways to identify your scarcity profile and your abundance profile, so each individual can know what you are like when you're in scarcity mode. What does it feel like in your body? What are the sensations? What are the things you typically tell yourself? What's your inner dialogue? ‘We'll never figure it out. You know, they haven't done it again.”' What images are you typically looking at? Is it just metrics? Then in abundance, typically people will have an experience of buoyancy, lightness, and vitality and clarity, focus, and ease. We have both these modes.
Inner power is 1) noticing when you're in one mode or the other, without any judgment, and 2) choosing to do something about it. The fastest way to do something about it is to take any action that takes you back into abundance. I found that it's things that are enjoyable. It could be a dopamine hit through music. It could be pausing and stepping out of the meeting to get some water. It's any kind of pattern interrupt to get yourself back and resettle. It could also be, if you're having a key meeting at four o'clock on a Friday, saying ‘Hey, everybody, this isn't going anywhere. We're not at our best. Everyone is in scarcity. Let's pause, reboot, and meet for a strategic meeting once we've all decided to be fresh and in abundance.’ That could be 30 minutes later, or it could be the next morning at 8am. The key is to be very deliberate—we have a choice. In abundance thinking, people are always astounded. They think, 'Wow, it didn't take any time' or 'what was the problem again?' It's almost like being in a different multi-verse. We have a choice of which one we step into.
So abundant thinking unlocks better work and creativity?
In scarcity, we don't hear human voice as well. We see threats that aren't there. Our aperture is very small, so that's not where we're gonna get our best solutions. Biologically, it's an impossibility, or it'll just take so much more effort or time, which is not efficient. Abundance is that state where there's a sense of safety—a biological sense of safety—and we tend to have clarity because we are tapping into more elevated emotions, like inspiration, a sense of power, and a sense of inspiration. Often when a leader says, ‘I'm putting the oxygen mask on. I want everyone to be in self care, but we have a deadline. How am I getting them to put in extra hours when I also want them not to burn out?’
The answer to that is to connect them to the creative energy and connect them to the deep, meaningful purpose as to why this sprint is happening. Why is this meaningful for them, for the bigger picture and for the impact in the world? Also, have an end to the sprint. The other thing that needs to happen relates to high performers. When they reach their goals, they move on and completely dismiss what they've created. That's disrespectful of their work and their team. It's really important to pause, reflect, and celebrate that we went from zero to one with a journey in between so that we can capture the wisdom, the learnings, and the richness of the experience. That way, it's easier to create and go after our next challenge. The ability to take that in is not some cheesy celebration. It's actually noticing and taking in to your human experience—the movie of your life—what you actually created. You're taking that wisdom and those medals to the next thing rather than uprooting yourself and starting from scratch all over again.
How do you have the same level of creativity and connection in a remote work configuration?
It's all about setting with intention. For example, my class is online. To me, it's like a playground in the meta-verse and I set it that way. I specifically don't want it to be in person because I want that fluidity of ‘look at us and how we're all connected in different physical locations. We're bringing the best of all those locations, and there's no other way in life that we could meet but this wonderful playground that we're in.’ There's a way to set the playground, to set the rules, and to be clear on what's going to be created together. That's really in the facilitation. There are more and more tools that are being created to encourage brainstorms, but I think the future is going to be these meta-verses of co-creation as well as quarterly meetings in different parts of the world, more for bonding. That's part of the future of work.
It's very clear that being a manager is less about managing the work and more about coaching people to reach their highest potential. As a coach, you have a special perspective on this—how should managers approach it?
One of my goals with all my clients is that they become coaches with their entire team. The mindset is to have the ability—one of my clients, Fidji Simo, says it best—to see the magic in your people. You, as a manager, have to identify the superpowers in these wonderful people that you're working with. Often, people don't know what their zone of genius is because it comes to them so easily. As a manager, it will become very apparent to you. You need an ability to articulate what you see them do, show them the movie so their brain registers it, and really encourage them to take that to the next level while being very practical about what that might look like. A great manager mirrors back the zones of genius and has the ability to give direct feedback because your goal is the growth of this person.
A lot of research shows that people leave because of their managers. When you turn a manager into a coach, the dynamic completely changes. You become involved in the career path of your reports. Part of that is identifying with them. What is their true dream? And how are you going to get them there? What are their areas of growth? Really make sure that you make one-on-ones about co-creating together and elevating the potential of this person. Within that, you can give direct feedback about what's working and what you want to see more of, being very practical. I also find that helping them find mentors is very helpful. For instance, if you have a leader who has high potential, but you need them to get to the next level and they've never done that before, who in the organization would be a great mentor for them? That way, they can learn through osmosis.
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