A liberating and authentic way to approach significant life choices

September 6th, 2016   •   coaching, coaching & mentoring, leadership   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy



In recent weeks I have been struck by a recurring theme that has cropped up in conversations with my coaching clients: “How should I think about a difficult life choice I need to make?”


The question takes many forms: “When is the right time to take a career break and have a child?” “Having established myself in a successful career, should I go for that advanced degree that I opted out of when I was a student?” “Having decided that I need to make a career change, should I go to a large corporate or should I step into the unknown and join a start-up … or even start something on my own?”


I feel privileged to serve as a journey companion to people who are facing these choices. It feels deeply meaningful to help my clients explore what is truly important to them and what they really want to achieve. Together, we regularly explore “what is the bigger question behind the question?” And we probe which beliefs, feelings or actions are making it difficult to make the choice.


When reflecting on these conversations, Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” comes to mind. Some readers will know this. It brings to life the choice of direction on a bifurcating forest path, and how the conclusion ends up making a big difference. (I have enclosed the poem below, for easy reference). While written as a joke to an indecisive friend, the poem took on a life on its own. It conveys, in a moving way, the difficulty of making choices when we have imperfect information: the excitement of having options, the challenge of weighing these options, the fear of regret.


Given our education and training, it seems natural for many people to approach such a choice in a way that any economist would recognize: we seek to “maximize utility”. We list pros and cons. Perhaps we attach weights to the different factors. Perhaps we make explicit or implicit risk adjustments. We try to do the sums of this utilitarian calculus. However, a niggling doubt tells us this is not right. And we feel stuck.


There is a good reason for this. This kind of calculus works well for everyday choices: Should I walk or drive to work today? Which pants should I buy? To which restaurant should I go? But it does not work well for existential choices. There IS no “right answer” in these situations. There isn’t even a “better answer”. When facing difficult life choices, we are choosing who we want to become. It is an existential choice.


Recognize this can be truly liberating: We stop using mechanical approach in a futile search for the right answer.


It can also be daunting. We are faced with the individual responsibility to make the existential choice, of selecting who we want to be and become. We cannot hide behind the utilitarian calculus. It is our choice to make – we are fully responsible. This is the challenge that Jean-Paul Sartre explores in L’Être et Le Néant (Being and Nothingness). It is also what leads Robert Frost to say he is “sorry [that he] could not travel both [paths]”.


I applaud my clients who reject the mechanistic approach to making life choices, and embrace the freedom – but also the responsibility – to select who they want to become. This alternative approach to life choices does not make the choices easy. But it is an authentic approach to living our lives.


What life choices are you facing and how are you approaching these choices? I would love to hear your reflections.


The Road Less Taken


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;


Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,


And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.


I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

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 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: https://twitter.com/HHShkMohd/status/696774633434058753.


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.

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.

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.

Learning from the close encounter with an impressive tiger shark – five critical aspects of leadership

July 20th, 2016   •   leadership, leadership development, role modeling   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

Learning from the close encounter with an impressive tiger shark – five critical aspects of leadership


Inspiring leadership examples are all around us. This week I had the chance to observe leadership in the face of danger and risk in a slightly unusual setting – the close encounter with a 4,8 meter long tiger shark at 25 meters’ depth off the island of Beqa, in Fiji.


The encounter was exhilarating. On earlier dives during the preceding week, we had observed a number of sharks of different species, including white-tips, nurse sharks and bull sharks. We were certainly alert – and the adrenalin was flowing freely – when a group of six bull sharks came to within five meters of us. Sharks normally don’t attack humans, of course, but bull sharks are certainly capable of severing a limb, and there have been a number of fatalities.


On this particular dive, the lone tiger shark came in while we were descending, and continued to circle us for 20 minutes. We descended to the bottom and placed ourselves with our backs to a coral wall in order to have some sense of where the shark was coming from. It seemed intensely inquisitive. I am no expert in shark psychology – and I was curious about the shark’s intent. Was it just inquisitive or did it also feel threatened? Or hungry? Might it attack? It certainly seemed useful to stay alert. Stefano, the marine biologist who led this dive, had recommended that we always keep eye contact with the shark. It was daunting to look into the eyes of this agile, elegant animal as it approached … especially at the point when it came straight at me and brushed past me within easy touching distance. I had to crouch on the bottom to avoid the shark bumping into me. This is not common shark behavior. It felt a bit too intimate and after just over 20 minutes, we surfaced. We had collected a truly memorable experience and the saying “quit while you’re ahead” seemed to apply.


So … that was fun. But there is a deeper leadership lesson here. What were the actions that Stefano performed that helped ensure a successful dive? There was real risk involved here. How did he orchestrate the behavior of a group of seven people that he has just met – some of whom had not encountered a shark before and who might freak out? As I reflect on the experience, five critical aspects stand out:


1: Prepare
2: Cast vision

3: Script the critical moves
4: Be supportive
5: Move fast


Stefano had spent more than a decade in preparation: getting his formal education in marine biology and performing over a thousand dives in diverse conditions. In a relaxed manner, he shared this preparation so that the entire group rapidly gained confidence in his capabilities. Credibility always makes it easier to lead.


Cast vision
During the dive briefing, Stefano prepared us thoroughly. He spoke openly about the dangers and the risks, but he also shared why he respects and admires the sharks and why it might be meaningful to seek a close encounter with them. His love of what he is doing and his passion for sharks were contagious.


Script the critical moves
Beyond casting vision, Stefano gave specific, detailed instructions. “Keep eye contact with the sharks. Don’t touch them. Check your air frequently, as air consumption can rise markedly when you are under stress. Stay close together to avoid having the shark swim between two divers. Let me know if you want to abort your dive, and we will get you to the surface again”. These specific instructions helped focus our attention so that there was not too much idle mental capacity to spend on the question of what might go wrong.


Be supportive
Stefano led from the front. When the tiger shark got a bit too friendly, he intervened and pushed the shark away. It was clear that Stefano was prepared to accept personal risk if this was required to keep his team safe. His more exposed position made the rest of us trust that we were (probably) OK.


Move fast
By turning in preparations into a well-orchestrated drill, Stefano left little time for doubt and speculation. As soon as our boat was in position, he asked us to move fast. Don gear. Gather in the water at the surface. Descend together to maximal depth as rapidly as equalization would permit. This left little time for doubt, speculation, and second thoughts about seeking this encounter. The well-rehearsed drill focused our attention and strengthened our confidence that Stefano knew exactly what he was going.


Inspiring leadership examples are all around us. These five aspects are clearly applicable to other challenging situations that require clear leadership – be they personal or organizational. I’ll be inspired by this experience for a long time.


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

The awesome power of role modeling

July 10th, 2016   •   inspiration, leadership, role model   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

The awesome power of role modeling


Meet Esita. She is a born-and-bred Fijian who works as the manager of a resort, on the island of Taveuni, in her home country. Together with her staff of 14, she creates amazing experiences for her guests. The kindness, the discretion, the attention to detail and the professionalism of the staff would put most 5-start establishments to shame. I was struck by the consistency of their superior service and I was curious about how Esita had built such an esprit-de-corps, such dedication, such service orientation.


One early morning I struck up a conversation with her in my quest to understand. Esita readily shared the three principles she uses when she recruits and manages her staff. They are deceptively simple:


1: Don’t steal


2: Be candid and raise issues


3: Listen to my guidance.


Those seem like good principles, but I doubt if Esita will ever achieve success writing a management book based on these three principles. (I did not ask permission so share them. Anyone is free to adopt them). It is clearly not here the secret to success lies – unless it is in a very refined reading of the principles.


I pressed Esita: “There’s got to be more”. What is the secret, Esita? Through our exchange, it became clear that Esita’s key tool is role modeling. Through her own behavior, she conveys vision, she inspires and she builds skills.


I never saw a vision statement or a mission statement while I visited the resort. I never saw a poster articulating “our core values”. I just observed Esita’s gentle, quiet demeanor and enjoyed the rejuvenating atmosphere of the place.


Esita will never write that book. But most of us can learn from her example.


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

Happiness and inspiration – our work environment matters and making a difference is within reach

June 29th, 2016   •   inspiration, leadership   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

Happiness and inspiration - our work environment matters and making a difference is within reach


I recently had the chance to visit the Google campus in Mountain View, California. A friend, who is an engineer at Google, showed me around. It was a nice, sunny day in June and it was delightful to wonder around the campus and enjoy the art, the architecture and the landscaping. I enjoyed the visitors’ center – which in Google style is in “perpetual beta”. The initial, custom-built hardware rack that supported Google in the first year made me smile. (Crumbling natural cork as an insulation material, anyone?) I enjoyed the quirky features, such as the slide that replaces an elevator or an escalator. Overall, impressive and inspiring.


Nevertheless … Having read so much about the Googleplex in the press, I was actually slightly underwhelmed.


Yes, it is a nice campus, thoughtfully laid out, with lots of nice facilities: gyms, cafeterias, social areas, and outdoor sports facilities. But most of the campus has grown by accretion – as Google grew, the company acquired the surrounding buildings. Most of the campus consists of quite ordinary office buildings.


This made me reflect: I believe we regularly short change ourselves and limit our thinking. It is easy to be blinded by the performance of industry leaders, and to think that an ordinary organization like ours cannot perform at the same level – “we don’t have the resources”. This may lead us into the trap of low expectations.


If we are to inspire others – clients, colleagues, team members – we need to be inspired, personally. It helps to ensure we work in a conducive physical environment. This is not a vain luxury. It is a prerequisite for high performance. And visiting the Googleplex inspired me – not because it was out-of-this-world-spectacular, but because it was fairly ordinary. A pleasant work environment is within reach for all organizations and can be great contributor to happiness, to inspiration, to common culture and to performance. It’s a good investment – within reach.


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