Posts in October

Work-life balance starts with mindset

October 30th, 2016   •   Uncategorized   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

Work-life balance starts with mindset


A Japanese government survey, endorsed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet, recently claimed that one fifth of the Japanese workforce risked death by overworking (karoshi). Hundreds of cases are reported each year of young people dying from stroke, heart attack and suicide – influenced by extreme workloads, sometimes reaching a hundred hours per week.


In certain sectors in other countries, the work pressure can be just as demanding. I regularly come across people who boast of pulling an “all-nighter” or who stumble into bed in a stupor after a 16-hour workday. While a crisis may call for this kind of effort, in many environments it has become the regular pattern. The culture is that in order to demonstrate your commitment, you have to put in the hours. One quip that illustrates this was addressed scathingly to an associate who chose to recover on Saturday and ‘only’ work on Sunday: “If you can’t be bothered to come in on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday!”


There is ample research that demonstrates that extreme working hours kills productivity. (See for example David Rock’s overview in The Brain at Work). Still, it takes more than mere facts to break an unhealthy pattern. You may be in a less extreme situation than the ones sketched above, but you may still be at risk of burn-out or, simply, at risk of experiencing declining engagement. As the proverb goes: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Here, ‘dull’ refers to both boring and bored.


Many of my coaching clients request support to tackle the need for better work-life balance. From working with hundreds of people on this topic, here is what I have learned:

1: Achieving a sustainably healthy balance often requires a mindset change

2: There are some valuable techniques, and they make a big difference once the mindset is right

3: An external shock or external support can be extremely helpful.


1: The need for a mindset change


If we don’t have a clear perspective on our work contribution, we will be buffeted by external forces. We are liable to say yes to any request to help out, any request to put in extra effort, any request to work overtime. In some environments, there are bound to be many such requests. They may be dressed up nicely, for example: “This is a real step-up opportunity for you!” or “You are going to have a chance to work with some important people and extend your network in a valuable way” or “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity … and an opportunity to demonstrate your commitment”.


Without a clear perspective, it is hard to turn down such requests. So what are some useful perspectives?


First: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. If you saw someone starting a marathon as if they were doing a 100-meter dash, you’d think they had misunderstood, or that they were trying to be funny, or that they were deeply deranged. Starting out at such a pace is clearly not a sound strategy. Guess what – the same consideration applies at work. You may have decades of productive work years ahead of you, yet sometimes run as if your work life was going to be over in a year or two. You may strive to please your current boss or to impress people around you to secure the next promotion. When you look back, ten, twenty or thirty years from now, that promotion is likely to not stand out as being quite as critical as you think right now. When you make your next decision that is going to affect your work-life balance, think about what it will take to go the distance.


Second: You are a valuable asset to your organization, and you have a responsibility for stewarding this asset. Your organization hired you for a reason. The people who made the decision very likely wanted to benefit from your skills and talents for an extended period – rather than seeing you flame out after an intensive sprint. Now, the organization at large and your leadership, in particular, have a responsibility for supporting and nurturing this asset that is YOU. But you also have a responsibility. In fact, you have a unique responsibility. Only you know the details of your current workload. Only you know the details of your physical and mental health. Only you know what else is going on in your life right now, which might affect your energy level and your productivity. Therefore, you have a particular responsibility for setting sane boundaries, so you get the sleep you need, the exercise you require, the social interaction that will sustain you.


Third: It is likely that you are good enough. Many people live in constant fear that they may not be quite good enough. An inner voice may be saying: “Look at the people around you – they are truly impressive. You don’t really stack up. Looks like you are a hiring mistake”. When this anxiety grips a person, it is easy to compensate by working more hours: “At least I’ll show them that I am totally committed. I may not be as smart as the others, but I will make up for it.” Some environments even make a point of hiring “insecure overachievers,” as such people are bound to work very hard. If you find yourself in this trap, take a step back, breath deeply and reflect. You may or may not be “good enough” for this environment. One way to find out is to cut back the hours to a sane level and see what happens. Chances are very high that it will work out just fine, provided you are strategic about where you focus your efforts. And if it doesn’t work out, think about it: do you really want to work in an environment where you are such a marginal performer that you need to work insane hours to get ahead? Doesn’t sound like a recipe for a fulfilling, meaningful life that will bring happiness… If you continue to struggle with the work-life balance, you may have to do some deep thinking – perhaps with support from someone you trust. Questions to ponder may include: “Am I driven to perform in order to combat insecurity?” “Do I have an exaggerated sense of responsibility, so I cannot let go?” “Do I fear standing out from the crowd?” Clear answers to these questions tend to be helpful.


Leaders have a particular responsibility when it comes to role modelling these mindsets, to help people around them make wise choices.


2: Valuable tools and techniques


Mindset, which we just covered, is important, but not sufficient. In addition, we need practical tools and techniques that help us manage workload to we achieve a healthy balance. However, applying these tools tends to have marginal, short-lived effect unless the mindset is right.


A few classical tools and techniques should be second nature for you. Here are some examples that have worked well for leaders that I have coached:


a) Keep a to-do list and regularly classify the items in your list into a simple 2×2 matrix with axes urgent/not-urgent and important/not-important. Track where you spend your time. Think critically and eliminate the less important points. Build skills and habits (including robust estimating and planning skills) so you bring down the number of urgent tasks. Over time, shift your focus to the important/not-urgent quadrant.


b) Spend quality time up front defining and structuring the problems and challenges you are tackling. Much time is wasted on poorly defined problems. Think hard up front about the essence of the problem. Test your understanding with people around you. Refine your understanding by gathering diverse perspectives. Once you have a sharp problem definition and a good structure, you are in a great position to arrive at a quality solution with half the effort.


c) Aim for 80/20. Eighty percent of the value may come from twenty percent of the work, and eighty percent may be good enough. This requires a deep understanding of the quality criteria and the expectations of those you serve – be they users, customers, colleagues or some other set of stakeholders. And this understanding needs to be fleshed out in the problem definition (see point b).


d) Delegate more. Once you have a good problem structure, you are in a much better position to delegate. Be clear about the outcome you require. Spend time up front validating that the task you are delegating is well understood. Agree key milestones and how you will provide support.


e) Finally, very tactically, make an appointment with someone after work. Make sure you have something meaningful to go to. This helps you to avoid lingering in the office for vague reasons.


3: An external shock or external support may be helpful


Sometimes, even the combination of the right mindset and the knowledge of good tools and techniques is not sufficient. It can be hard to break out of old habits. If this is your challenge, an external shock or external support may help.


I have seen a couple of external shocks that truly helped people get into a new rhythm. One friend of mine had been working extremely hard for several weeks. One day when was walking down the corridor in the office he fainted and keeled over. His colleagues got him to hospital, where he regained consciousness. This experience gave him the motivation he needed to apply his theoretical knowledge and build new, healthy habits.


Another friend of mine had a pattern of working late. The pattern had lasted several years. At the end of the work week he was so tired that he spent much of the weekend catching up on sleep. His wife had made it clear that this was not the relationship she had pictured when they got married. The couple had, as you can understand, very little quality time together. In spite of the wife’s encouragement and her admonitions, my friend continued in the same pattern. His wife turned up the temperature and indicated that this marriage would not last unless my friend changed his working habits. Still, the working habits did not change. One day, very late, my friend came home – and found that his wife had packed all her personal stuff and moved out. Then it hit him. This slap in the face got him to wake up and re-assess his priorities. He loved his wife and was prepared to do anything for the two to get back together again – including quitting his job. His new perspective was convincing enough that the couple did get back together. I worked with this friend and colleague after the event, and observed his iron discipline when it came to managing his workload.


Let us hope that you will not need this kind of external shock to build new, healthy habits. Still, you may benefit from external support – e.g. someone to call you at the designated hour and ask: “What are you doing now – still in the office?” Someone to hold you accountable. Someone to remind you of the commitments you made. Find a friend or a coach who can walk with you through the transition.


Life here on earth is short. There is no time to waste. Be clear on your identity and establish the right mindset. Practice the tools and techniques that will make you highly productive. Build healthy habits – with support, if required. In this way, you can invest yourself in a deeply meaningful portfolio of activities that will bring you balance and fulfilment. Chances are, your impact on the world around you will grow. Who knows what effect the ripples will have.


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

Discover the deep value of checking in

October 23rd, 2016   •   Uncategorized   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

Discover the deep value of checking in


Many years ago, I started to work with a sociologist. It was an eye-opening experience. Until that time, I had mainly worked with people who had their education in mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and business. I had collaborated with the odd lawyer and the odd medical doctor, but a sociologist was something new. And different.


My new colleague (and, later, friend) would, every time we met, share with me how he was feeling and what was going on in his life. Sometimes he would share happy moments and little victories. Sometimes he would share troubles, challenges and difficulties. At first, this was odd to me. It seemed almost child-like. I would nod politely while he shared his status, with a wan smile, often feeling mildly uncomfortable. It was as if I was invited and led into a living room where I did not really belong.


But his behavior grew on me. Gradually, I started to look forward to his sharing, candidly and vulnerably, what was important to him. As our relationship deepened and our trust grew, I felt that I could ask him about his habit. At one level, it seemed entirely natural to him, but I was convinced that it was a conscious choice to live his life so openly. He confirmed this. To him, this was a way to connect more deeply as human beings. While he did not expect others to adopt his style, he clearly sensed that he was role-modeling something important and that his sharing represented an invitation to others to be, more fully, themselves. I started to experiment with this. When we met, I would share, more openly, what was going on in my life. This accelerated our trust building and it rapidly made for a richer relationship.


I recently lead a leadership program in Hanoi. One of the participating leaders, Kate, shared that while she had had a successful career, she had recently moved to a new position where expectations seemed different, and she was receiving poor upward feedback. She had paid extra attention to following up her people, but this had mot helped much. I inquired how she followed up her people, and she shared that she would check on their progress, ask if they needed help with their tasks and check if they were on track to deliver on their targets. And, she would do this in a supportive way, truly wanting all her people to succeed. I had an inkling that what the issue might be. It seemed that she was only providing support at the intellectual level. And she was only checking in at the intellectual level. We explored this together, and she left our program excited to open up a new space.


We humans are whole, integrated beings, with mind, body and soul. We have intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs. All too often our work places, however, pay scant attention to anything but our intellectual contribution and our intellectual needs. We provide training to our people, and give them information, frameworks, models and tools – all addressing the intellectual side. And our work places remain emotionally and spiritually, barren wastelands.


When we “check in” with people – be they peers, followers or leaders – it is valuable to see them as they are – whole, integrated beings, with mind, body and soul. This is the perspective that is embedded in the Zulu greeting “Sawubona” – often translated as “hello”, but rendered, literally as “I see you”. What a wonderful greeting! “I see you … in all your humanity; your strengths, your weaknesses; your hurts, your aspirations, your hopes, your yearnings, your victories, your joy.” Without prying, it is enriching to be open to all these facets – not just where people stand ‘in terms of meeting their targets’. And we can signal our openness to others by sharing more of what is going in our lives – like my sociologist friend did.


There are many ways to “check in”, even if we restrict our exchanges to the professional domain. It is legitimate to ask: “Is your work giving you joy? What would you need to get more fulfilment from it?” It is straightforward to inquire: “To what extent are you meeting some of your personal aspirations as you engage in this work?” or “Are you continuing to learn and grow in your current role? What would it take for you to learn and grow the way you want to?”


A friend of mine, Brechje van Geenen, recently shared the way she checks in with people. When she gets together with another person, she encourages them both to answer three simple questions:

How am I feeling right now?

What is keeping me from being fully present?

What is my intention for this meeting?


(See her post here). I find that beautiful. It opens up a huge space – respectfully. It builds connection. It fosters belonging. It avoids misunderstandings. What a tremendous investment of time and energy – to ask these three simple questions … and then to listen deeply. Not problem solving with the other, not showing sympathy, not criticizing – merely accepting and acknowledging. And seeing the other.


Another friend of mine, Irina, shared a different notion of checking in. She was focusing on the challenge of a loving, married couple to stay close – decade after decade, as they grew and changed, individually. Her starting point was provocative: “You are married to a different person each year. The person you were married to last year, no longer exists. They have matured, they have experienced new things and they are, now, literally a different person.” Unless you do something special, you risk drifting apart, and one day you ask the question that “Schmidt” (Jack Nicholson) asks in the movie “About Schmidt”: “Who is this old woman who lives in my house?” A possible antidote, Irina suggested, was to ask a single question of one another, every day: “What is the most important thing that happened to you today, and how did it make you feel?” At the end of a year, you have 365 data points that give you an excellent basis for understanding who the other person is.


Whether it is at work or at play, let us check in with one another in a meaningful manner. Find your way to check in, and make the world a better place, locally, around you, by simply seeing the people around you in their full humanity.


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

As a leader, how important is it for you to be liked?

October 17th, 2016   •   Uncategorized   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

As a leader, how important is it for you to be liked


Most leaders (psychopaths aside, perhaps) enjoy being liked. We appreciate the little gestures and the subtle social cues that indicate that people like working with us, they like our style, they appreciate our contribution.


All things being equal, it is indeed a good thing that people like you. This means that they are more receptive to your input, they are more willing to help you, they are better prepared to go the extra mile. The opposite is clearly undesirable: if people dislike you as their leader, they are going to be less happy, less creative, less inspired. Not a good thing. So a certain interest in how the people you lead feel about you, is natural and necessary. Fortunately, many of the things leaders do that contribute to people liking them are productive and beneficial: listening deeply to the people they lead, showing respect, giving encouraging feedback, signaling appreciation.


But give ‘being liked’ too much attention, and it becomes debilitating. Leaders rapidly lose effectiveness when it becomes important for them to be liked. They start shying away from giving tough messages. They avoid difficult choices that may be unpopular. They let conflict fester. They become reactive and lose focus. As a result, their integrity can easily be questioned.


Striking a good balance where you ensure you command healthy respect and at the same time avoid pursuing popularity can be challenging at times. Which battles do you pick? How much do you soften tough messages? How long do you choose to wait before making difficult choices?


I recently observed an inspiring example of such balance. I was working closely with a global team of very talented leaders – the team members came from more than a dozen countries from five continents. The team members had not worked together before and so a natural level of forming and storming was going on. Given the diversity of cultures and styles represented, there was clearly some bruising of egos as the team tackled a complex design challenge. At one point, Alan was at the flip chart, drawing and explaining his idea to the rest of the team. Charlie, who was listening, clearly disagreed, became impatient, got out of his chair, went up to the board, took the pen from Alan and started to explain why Alan’s idea was not practical and how his own approach would work much better.


Alan was livid. He was so taken aback by this behavior that he went silent – perhaps choosing not to say anything lest his fury take the form of unprofessional epithets. Charlie seemed completely oblivious to the anger he was causing – not just with Alan, but with the rest of the team, who felt that he violated basic rules of teamwork. The tension was high. Most people present could feel that this was a critical juncture for the team. What happened now would contribute strongly to the forming – or the destruction – of this team. Calmly, Brooke, who had been observing, got out of her chair, walked over to Alan and Charlie and addressed Charlie: “Did you notice what you just did and the effect it had?” She continued to explain that while Charlie’s enthusiasm and energy were laudable and well intentioned, his behavior was utterly unacceptable. Charlie was surprised by such clear and direct feedback – offered not out of frustration, but out of care for the team as a whole, for Alan who had been slighted and for Charlie – who was ‘stepping in it’ without noticing. Brooke’s intervention shaped the team in an admirable way. It took less than a minute, but it set the team on a new course. As I observed Brooke, it struck me that she exhibited two strengths: i) strong social awareness and ii) healthy disregard for being liked.


Reflecting on the profiles of the more than a thousand leaders I have coached and served, it strikes me that they can gainfully be considered along two axes: social awareness and the need to be liked.




In quadrant I, we find the leaders who are attuned to what is going on, but have a strong personal need to be liked. This can stem from insecurity, but it can also have other causes. For example, if the leader’s vision is less than clear and compelling it becomes tempting to optimize for the here and now. It is hard to find the courage to deal with conflict and to give tough messages. Courage is not absence of fear, but the assessment that something else is more important. If the vision is not seen as more important, the leader can get into the mode of pleasing people in the environment. Since leaders in this quadrant are socially aware, they know what it takes to make people feel good and to ensure they are liked. This leadership style can work reasonably well in a protected, steady-state environment. We sometimes find such leaders in the public sector or in organizations that for some reason enjoy a (possibly temporary) monopoly.


In quadrant II, we find the leaders who struggle to understand what is going on around them. Still, they want to be liked. Such leaders have sometimes been promoted and put into their leadership positions in organizations that value and reward long tenure and loyalty – perhaps without equal attention to leadership capacity. These leaders often feel awkward as they seeks scraps of recognition. They typically do not continue for long in their leadership roles, unless they are able to change their mindset and build new skills.


In quadrant III, we find the leaders who have no need to be liked, and who are socially unaware. They can be dictatorial. They don’t care whose feet they step on, and they may be blissfully unaware that the toes of those around them are blue and black. Such leaders can be effective – if effectiveness is measured in terms of a few simple metrics such as sales or profits. We find many highly intelligent leaders in this quadrant. Churn may be high among their followers, but this is subordinate to the financial results. Motivation is often provided in terms of large bonuses, and this attracts a certain type of follower. Loyalty is limited: “If I get a better offer, I’ll bail.” The organization at large may be aware of the carnage going on, but may choose to tolerate the behavior of the Dictator due to the results achieved. This style may work in environments that focus on narrow, well-defined challenges: increase sales, grow market share, enhance short-term profitability.


In quadrant IV, we find the inspirational leaders who are socially aware, but have no personal need to be liked. In many ways, they are detached from the outcome. They are typically personally inspired by a higher calling. They seek to nurture a healthy and supportive work environment, because this brings meaning and fulfillment to the group, encourages interdependence and facilitates team work, which in turn can help the team solve complex problems. This style works better when addressing “wicked problems” – highly complex challengesthat may be ill-defined, that requires many different kinds of expertise, that have many diverse stakeholders. The leaders in this quadrant are often respected and liked. Indeed, they may inspire fierce loyalty. But their “being liked” flows from their pursuit of a higher calling and from the courage that comes from this calling.


Brooke clearly demonstrated “quadrant IV” type leadership as she confronted Charlie. It shaped the subsequent discourse in the team.


Questions for reflection: How important is it for you to be liked? Where does this desire or need come from? When does it get in your way? How can you understand it more deeply and, through this, reduce the grip it has on you?


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

Are you in the flow?

October 10th, 2016   •   Uncategorized   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

Are you in the flow


I am richly blessed: I love my work. I get a thrill out of supporting leaders to become the best they can be. Going on a journey of discovery with a client to explore potential, hidden talents, blind spots, and options is deeply rewarding to me. Nurturing and encouraging clients to tackle challenges in new ways is intensely meaningful. Hearing their reflections as they grow in understanding and insight is often hugely inspiring. Receiving news on the breakthroughs they have achieved is enormously energizing.


In deep coaching conversations with clients, I often experience a state of “flow” – the special feeling in a high-challenge situation where you use yourself to the utmost of your abilities and apply all your skills and experience … in such a way that it seems effortless.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied flow over a long period and highlights seven characteristics of being in flow:

1: Completely involved in what we are doing – focused, concentrated

2: A sense of ecstasy – of being outside daily reality

3: Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are going

4: Knowing that the activity is doable – that our skills are adequate to the task

5: A sense of serenity – no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of ego

6: Timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes

7: Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces flow becomes its own rewards.


As I work with my clients, I wish, intensely, that they might regularly experience flow. Sadly, this is not common. People often feel stuck in a dead-end job that does not challenge them. Or, they experience very challenging situations but do not have the mastery required to tackle these situations, and become victims of circumstance. Regularly, people feel stuck in well-compensated jobs that they do not find inspiring, but they struggle to articulate the vision to break free. They struggle to find the courage to step out.


Friends: life here on earth is short. Do not settle for mediocrity. You were gifted with talents, skills and passion for a purpose. Keep looking until you find the sweet spot where three circles overlap: your strengths, your passion and the needs of your organization. If you know what your strengths and your passion are, but there is poor fit with your current organization, find another organization where you can invest yourself and find fulfilment. If there is a good match between your passion and the organization you are in, but your struggle to deliver what is expected of you, build the additional skills required for true mastery, so that you can excel and experience flow. If you are doing well in your current organization, using your skills optimally, but your heart is not in it, beware. You may come to regret your loyalty. Investigate what you are being loyal to, and explore how you can live out your passion more fully.


Where and when do YOU experience flow? What can you do to savor this experience more frequently?


[If you are interested in the topic of “flow” and want more, check out this classic talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi].


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

Is your leadership squishy?

October 4th, 2016   •   Uncategorized   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

Is your leadership squishy


Over the past few months, I have been following the discussion of leadership in the blogosphere. There are countless entries with titles like “5 tips to become a better leader” … or 10 or 20 tips. The torrent of such articles is overwhelming. Only on LinkedIn last week, there were more than 5000 posts on the topic.


What has struck me is that the vast majority of these articles focus primarily on the EQ (Emotional Quotient) side of things. They talk about listening better, showing more empathy, praising frequently, being more generous, giving freedom, being more caring, being passionate and so forth. It sometimes seems like the authors are shouting in an echo chamber – with the same messages, reverberating back and forth. And many of the messages don’t go much beyond the importance of being nice.


Yes, EQ is important, indeed very important, but it takes more, much more, to be an effective leader. Effective leaders must:

· Precisely articulate the problems to be solved / the opportunities to pursue

· Ensure problems are structured well, so they can be solved effectively

· Guide problem solving so that the organization uncovers insightful, value-adding solutions

· Set high standards for individuals and for teams and assert these clearly

· Set meaningful and measurable targets and ensure that results are tracked and followed up

· Create a sense of urgency

· Hold people accountable

· Give clear feedback, including tough messages

· Identify and challenge assumptions

· Be courageous in uncovering and addressing conflicts.


Why is there so little discussion of these “hard” topics in the leadership forums?


In my experience, it is most effective to develop the “soft” side of leadership and the “hard” in tandem. Executives often have opportunities for growth in both areas. It is the balanced development of hard and soft leadership skills that makes for exceptional leadership. And here, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.


It takes maturity to deliver a tough message with compassion. It takes wisdom to address conflict in a way that heals. It takes calm confidence to give feedback that encourages. It takes a centered mindset to raise difficult topics and hold up the mirror. It takes clarity on values to say “no” respectfully.


Where do you have the greatest opportunity to grow? How can you blend the development of your hard and soft leadership skills to unleash your potential as a person and as a leader … thereby unleashing the potential of the people you lead?


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