Posts in August

Practicing generosity

August 30th, 2016   •   communication, leadership, relationship building   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy



I recently shared some thinking on gratitude and on happiness. These are linked, in intricate ways, to generosity.


I reflected on these connections last week, triggered by a heart-warming experience. When I arrived in Phonm Penh from Amsterdam, I discovered that I had a small problem with my luggage. My rollerbag had a loose screw that prevented me from collapsing the handle in the regular way. I was mildly frustrated. I did not have the small Allen key required to fix it. I expected to struggle with my luggage until I arrived home in Hong Kong, where I have the necessary tools and would be able to tighten the screw. But, I accepted the situation and figured I would cope.


One morning, coming out of my hotel, I noticed, across the street, a hole-in-the-wall hardware store that sold cheap tools. [See photo]. It was an informal mother-and-daughter operation – I suspect the daughter was no more than 12 years old. I was uncertain whether I would be able to communicate (my Khmer is non-existent), but I chose to try my luck. I explained that I wished to use an Allen key, preferably not to buy it, but to “rent” it for one minute. Whether it was due to the weirdness of my request or the language challenge, I don’t know, but they looked at me as if I were from another planet. They did not seem hostile, though, so I said: “I’ll be back”. I ran up to my hotel room, retrieved the rollerbag, crossed the street again to the simple stall and pointed to the wayward screw. The mother immediately sized up the problem, got the right key, and tightened the screw. I was delighted. I offered to pay for the service, but they declined this. I raised my voice and explained that they had helped me in a way that I truly appreciated, and I really wanted to compensate them for their trouble. Their refusal was even more adamant. I gave up, bowed deeply to the two women, smiled at them, and went on my way – touched by their kindness and generosity.


The experience got me thinking: What generates such generosity? It struck me that generosity and gratitude are strongly linked. Naturally, when we show generosity, others will often feel grateful. But I am just as interested in the reverse link. As we practice gratitude, our generosity will naturally grow. When we are conscious of all that we have received, the wish will grow in us also to give. And generosity nurtures our own happiness at least as much as it nurtures the happiness of those around us. Generosity positively affects five factors that we know contribute to our own happiness.


  1. Generosity contribute to self-acceptance: it is easier to be OK about myself when I observe that I am a generous person.
  2. Increasing generosity is one dimension of personal growth and generosity is also a marker of personal growth. It indicates that we have moved beyond satisfying our very basic needs.
  3. Generosity contributes to positive relations – for obvious reasons.
  4. Generosity gives us a clear sense of environmental mastery. We can freely choose to give, and thus affect our immediate environment.
  5. Generosity strengthens our sense of autonomy. It gives us a clear sense of choices that we are free to make. It opens up the space between external action and our chosen response and gives us more options.


As leaders, we strongly influence our environments – sometimes more than we know. While we may frequently be busy and feel stretched, it costs us little to show generosity. We need to find the time. When we role-model in this area, we start and reinforce a virtual circle of gratitude, happiness and more generosity. I was touched by the Khmer mother and daughter who helped me in Phnom Penh, and I wow to pay it forward. And, I wow, more generally, to practice generosity.


Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.

Nurturing Happiness – a Clarion Call to Leaders

August 26th, 2016   •   leadership, leadership development coaching, leadership training   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy



Earlier this year Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, announced the establishment of a new post, the Minister of State for Happiness in the UAE:


Since then, Ohood Khalfan Al Roumi has been appointed as Minister of Happiness, and the new minister has moved quickly. His primary mission is to harmonize all government plans, programs and policies to achieve a happier society. To this end, he has launched the National Program for Happiness and Positivity. This has three main pillars:

  1. Promoting happiness and positivity in government work (policies, programs and services of all government entities, as well as internal work environments)
  2. Promoting happiness and positivity as a lifestyle in the UAE
  3. Developing indicators and mechanisms for measuring happiness in the community.

Work on the program is well under way, and involves both the public and the private sectors. For starters, the UAE government has appointed 60 “Chief Happiness and Positivity Officers” who represent federal and local government entities. And the government is equipping the newly appointed officers. The minister has signed an agreement with the Oxford Mindfulness Centre at Oxford University, to train the candidates on how to employ mindfulness principles to spread happiness and positivity. (Full disclosure: I am an Associate Fellow at Oxford University). The minister has also signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California – Berkley to implement of the Chief Happiness and Positivity Officers training program, and develop national capacities in the field of happiness and its practical applications. The next push is to inspire the private sector to follow suit.


Wow! That’s ambitious. And inspiring!


From the research literature, we know quite a lot about the factors that contribute to happiness*. Key among them are:

  1. Self-acceptance
  2. Personal growth
  3. A clear purpose in life
  4. Positive relations
  5. Environmental mastery and
  6. Autonomy.

You will, I expect, not be surprised to see that money and fame do not feature prominently on the list. Yes, money and fame can influence some of the six factors. They can contribute to environmental mastery and to autonomy, but the effect, even here, is limited.


What is great about this list of factors is that so many of the factors are under our direct control … or, at the very least, subject to strong direct influence from ourselves. We can all practice self-acceptance as we acknowledge who we are, recognize our strengths and our limitations, process forgiveness and redemption and mature in our perspective on ourselves. We can all achieve personal growth by being open to experiences, by staying curious, by learning something new every day. We can all strengthen the clarity around our purpose in life by reflecting, speaking with friends, experimenting, journaling and daring to make strong, values-based commitments. We can all invest in relationship building – deepening existing relationships and opening up new relationships.


As leaders, we have substantial influence on the happiness of the people we lead. We can give our people (partial) autonomy in the contexts where we work together. We can increase their environmental mastery by giving them direct control over factors that are critical to their work. We can role-model self-acceptance, personal growth, a clear purpose and positive relations. And, we can encourage those we lead to explore these factors for themselves. What an opportunity; what a calling!


I am inspired by what is happening in the UAE. One could ask all kinds of questions and it would be easy to take a cynical stance. And many have – referring to aspects of the Emirates society which are not so happy. But this is bold and exciting. Let us be inspired by this example to nurture greater happiness in the contexts where each one of us operates.


* See, for example, Carol D. Ryff, Life Satisfaction, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.

Practicing gratitude

August 24th, 2016   •   leadership   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy



I practice gratitude. I am committed to doing so, and to making this a more integral part of my live, year by year.


We know from research that gratitude:

  • Improves mental health and physical health
  • Enhances our sense of well-being
  • Makes us more generous and empathic
  • Helps us sleep better
  • Makes us better team players
  • Helps us tackle setbacks and loss.
  • It might be tempting to challenge these findings and ask whether correlation and causation have been co-mingled here. But there are strong indications that there actually IS a causal link: gratitude yields many compelling benefits – for ourselves and for those around us.


A friend of mine has a daily rhythm where she takes a bath every evening. While relaxing in the tub, she re-plays the movie of the day in her mind, and she singles out five things that she is grateful for. Five events from the day that is drawing to a close and that she wants to say “thank you” for. I find that inspiring. A simple, powerful ritual. A ritual that anyone can emulate.


I am attending a conference in Phnom Penh this week. I spent part of the weekend prior to the conference going around the city. I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum that commemorates the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. I also visited the S-21 prison where victims were tortured before they were executed. Sobering. And disturbing. I have visited the concentration camps in Germany and Poland before, but one does not grow immune to this level of human suffering and the evil that lies behind it. The scary part, to me, is that most of the horrors were perpetrated by ordinary people – driven by fear.


I find it important to visit such sites – to honor the victims, to guard against complacency, to be reminded of the darkness we all harbor and to help me practice gratitude. It is all too easy to take for granted the many blessings we enjoy.


At this time I am grateful for (among other things) clean water, good friends, loving parents, the rule of law where I live and deeply meaningful work.


Let us encourage one another to practice gratitude.


Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.

Finding the courage to say “no” – gently and respectfully

August 18th, 2016   •   coaching for excellence, leadership development coaching   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

Finding the courage to say no - gently and respectfully


This week I have been running a leadership development program in Central Europe. I feel privileged to be able to spend a week in a pleasant environment and help participants explore more of who they are, who they want to become, how they can become more effective in their leadership roles and how they can clear hurdles that stand in their way. We do this in group settings and one-on-one coaching.


Several of the participants shared that one thing that stands in their way is that they regularly experience conflicting commitments. They feel torn by requests and expectations coming from many different directions, and they struggle to say “no”. They end up living up to the vision that someone else has for their lives rather than realizing their own dreams.


Participants shared a number of tactical hints on how to say “no” smartly. “Explain to the requestor that you are already committed to something else.” “Express that you would really like to help but you are already stretched.” “Negotiate a later dateline for delivering on the request.” “State that you want to provide support, but that you will need resources to do so.” The list continues. Many of these suggestions are good, but they do not address the root cause of the conflict that many feel.


One of the participants nailed it when she expressed what lay behind the concern: Fear. Fear of what they will think of me. (Is he not a hard worker?) Fear of what they will say. (Is he not prepared to take one for the team?). Fear of poor evaluations. Fear of postponed promotion. Fear of being fired. And living in fear is of detrimental to any exercise of leadership. It is hard to be inspirational when you are scared.


Now, courage is not the absence of fear, but the realization that something else is more important, more valuable. How can we gather the courage to say “no” – gently, respectfully – rather than compromising on our principles and sacrificing our plans, our priorities? The key seems to be a combination of self-awareness and a strong sense of purpose. We need the self-awareness to recognize the lurking fear, name it and understand where it comes from. This is the starting point for testing assumptions and reframing how we view the request and the requestor. But this is not sufficient. We also need a personal, strong sense of purpose. This is what we say “yes” to when we say “no” to something else. If this sense of purpose is fuzzy, it is very hard to say “no”. When this sense of purpose is clear and well articulated, it gives us the strength and the courage to give ourselves permission to say “no” to requests which are unreasonable, arbitrary or simply not aligned with what are aiming for.


This is of course not an invitation to be self-centered and navel-gazing and only look out for ourselves. But it is the basis for living centered lives where we pursue our personal vision rather being buffeted helplessly by forces around us. The world will be a better place when our primary motivation is compelling vision rather than fear. Take time to deepen self-awareness and strengthen personal sense of purpose, and encourage those you love to do the same.


Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.

Boosting innovation and creativity

August 15th, 2016   •   creativity skills, innovation development, innovation research   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

Boosting innovation and creativity


Many of my clients are keen to accelerate innovation within their organizations. This has led me to focus on the question of how organizations can boost creativity, and I have been looking for fresh insights on this topic.


Professor York Winter is one of the most innovative people I know. I have known him for more than 30 years and his steady stream of ideas always inspires me. This past week York gave a tour of the Humbolt University campus in Berlin where he does his research. We also had a chance to see his company PhenoSys, where he and his team are manufacturing leading edge lab equipment that supports research teams around the world. [The photo above shows an intriguing example: a virtual reality environment for a mouse].


York spoke about some of the articles he and his teams have written, and which have appeared in Nature, Science and other prestigious publications. Articles about UV vision in bats, about aerodynamic properties of the flight of bats, about decision algorithms in animals – all underpinned by ingenious experiments crafted to glean new insights. As I have followed York’s career over three decades I have been struck by his creative thinking in two related areas. First, the design and manufacturing of very sophisticated lab equipment that automates advanced animal experiments using data analytics and machine learning, thereby greatly accelerating the generation of new insight. And second, the design and execution of experiments that wrest new insight from the fascinating world around us.


As we walked from lab to lab at the campus, I used the opportunity to explore how York thinks about the creative process and what inspires him. I figure there might be something here that could be transferrable. So, what did I learn? I distilled five characteristics of York’s mindset and behaviors that seem to fuel the steady stream of new ideas.


First, York spends quality time scanning his environment: reading broadly, going to conferences, and speaking with diverse people. As he does so, he is always looking for connection points – perhaps the connection of a solution component to a challenge, perhaps the connection of two solution components that can be integrated to create something much more powerful. This is a deep habit that is on auto-pilot most of the time. It is driven by York’s intense, natural intellectual curiosity.


Second, York spends time in quiet introspection: looking at a challenge from multiple angles, pondering how the challenge might be reformulated or how it might be attacked differently.


Third, York looks for step change. He is less inspired by incremental change than he is by step change that truly opens new doors. That means that he sets high quality standards for himself and his teams. Sometimes, this leads to him spending years on a problem before accepting that the current time is not right to solve this problem, and then parking the problem. But often, it leads to truly inspiring designs that represent real breakthroughs.


Fourth, York works as part of a team. He is a key member of several teams. And he often serves as an integrator on these teams. With his combination of knowledge of physics, electronics, computer science and biology, he has the conceptual apparatus to sketch his ideas to other team members and to integrate the contributions of the experts that he recruits.


Fifth, York is not afraid of failure. He pursues a lot of ideas and is relaxed about the fact that some of them will not pan out – at least not for now. York engages in a constant process of filtering – driven to some extent by what inspires him at any one moment. He has found this to be a good guide to what will actually make a difference.


I left our campus tour with a big smile on my face. It had been fun to see the bats and the labs engaged in automated diagnosis. It had been intriguing to see the high-tech equipment with the ingenious contraptions for training research animals. But most of all, it had been inspiring to watch the passion York displays as he shared his love of what he is doing.


I am convinced that there are learnings we can glean from people like York. I am also convinced that personal passion is a powerful fuel with few substitutes. Perhaps our best approach is to stimulate young people in an attempt to ignite the passion and then to search out those special individuals where the spark has ignited a roaring flame.


Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.

An admirable example of a “learning organization”

August 12th, 2016   •   leadership, lean startup, learning organizations   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

An admirable example of a learning organization


What does it mean to be a “learning organization”? A lot has been written about this – with varying levels of insight.


Recently I was inspired by the executive team of a high-tech company that I work with. This team was determined to strengthen the learning capabilities of their organization, and they were taking concrete steps to speed up the learning and deepen the learning – for themselves and their teams. This team was serious.


This drive for change was initiated by a real business challenge. The company had recently lost two large sales that had seemed promising. The sales team had worked for more than a year to lock in the new contracts and had received much encouraging feedback from the prospective customers along the way. And then – two painful losses in rapid succession. It would be easy in such a situation to become despondent or to focus on attributing blame. Instead, this team invited me to work with them to address three important questions:


1: What must we learn from these (painful) experiences?


2: How might we have gained this learning faster and at lower expense?


3: What must we do to ensure that in the future, we gain this kind of learning faster and less expensively?


We worked through a “5 x Why” analysis for the losses, moving down, level by level, from proximate to ultimate causes. For each level of the analysis, the team harvested insight and learning. And for each level they identified appropriate adjustments to strengthen the organization and its processes. But the impressive and inspiring part was the next step. The team asked: “How could we have gained this insight in an easier way?” and “How can we ensure that we do gather this kind of insight faster and more smoothly in the future – systematically?” In other words: “How do we accelerate and institutionalize learning in our organization?” These questions stimulated the team and helped them generate a rich set of actions. We filled several white boards with insights and actions.


The global economy is suffering from a marked slowdown in productivity growth. If more leadership teams asked these kinds of questions when they encounter setbacks, much of the productivity challenge would be solved. I commend the courageous executive team that turned painful experiences into valuable learning opportunities.


Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.

Thinking strategically about learning

August 4th, 2016   •   Asia, leadership, leadership architecture, talent development   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

Thinking strategically about learning


Earlier this week I led a leadership development program in Singapore. I do so regularly, but this week was special.


The client is a European startup company – just two years old, with less than 50 employees. I was impressed by the thinking of their leadership. They brought all the employees to Singapore to expand their perspective and to enhance leadership skills at all levels. The firm has global ambitions and this commensurate investment in people development was inspiring.


The firm organized briefings on macro-economic trends, including the rise of Asian economies. I was invited to work with the entire team to strengthen leadership capabilities. Together we went through several experiential learning exercises to help leaders manage stress (their own and others’), manage complex team dynamics and solve demanding problems in more creative ways.


This was obviously a substantial investment for the small firm, but they are committed to investing in their people for the future. The entire executive team is aligned on the need for this kind of investment to develop and strengthen shared values in keeping with the firm’s mission – “to create permanent improvements for their clients”.


The executive team is also fully committed to building capabilities to ensure the firm will serve their clients at higher levels, year by year. To this end, they have developed a thoughtful learning architecture that spans all levels of the organization – from summer interns to the CEO. It was a privilege to be invited to help shape this architecture.


We often refer to “the knowledge economy”. This firm has made the strategic choice to act on their conviction that the quality of their leadership will strongly influence their success. And the senior executives have not delegated the strategic leadership development work to HR, but have stayed personally involved throughout. Shortsighted cost control to pay dividends is simply not on the agenda. A lot of organizations might gainfully be inspired by this European startup.

Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.

Staying curious – respectfully

August 2nd, 2016   •   communication, emotional intelligence   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

Staying curious - respectfully


And so it is with people, also. We so often stay at the surface. Too often, we end up staring at the outside of the tent. A good friend of mine shared a saying her mother had taught her when she was little: “Every single person you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about”. That consideration makes me humble. Every person we meet also has untold treasures inside. And victories … that we know nothing about. Stay curious – respectfully.


Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.

Inspiring leadership is often about being, more fully, who we really are

August 1st, 2016   •   leadership, leadership development, leadership development coaching   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

Inspiring leadership is often about being, more fully, who we really are


I just completed a leadership development program on the US East Coast. It was a joy to work with participants from many parts of the world, including the US, China, Colombia, Ireland, the UK, Russia, the Netherlands and India. I always leave these programs profoundly grateful that I have the opportunity to work with gifted leaders that want to make the world a better place.


In last week’s program we explored leadership styles and we looked at how leaders inspire us in very different ways. I was struck by the input from participants: they listed warmth, caring, courage, perseverance, sense of mission, edginess and much more … for a total of 60 traits and behaviors. (The photo in this post shows a small sample). How to make sense of such a rich list? It makes a mockery of formulaic approaches that attempt to distill the essence of leadership in a handful of guidelines.


As we explored the meaning of this list of inspiring leadership traits, the emerging consensus was that at the heart of all this is authenticity. We become more inspiring leaders by being, more fully, who we really are and by showing, more clearly, who we really are.


It is deeply meaningful to work with leaders to identify and address blind spots, uncover and eliminate confusion, and name and address fear. By doing so, we allow ourselves to be – more fully – who we really are. My thanks go to a wonderful group of participants who inspired me with their openness, their determination and their support for one another.


Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.