5 Lessons on Being an Introvert in a Loud World

I’m a writer, a presenter, and a teacher. My talents, at least the latter two, are best put to use in situations where I have an audience. In addition to being all of these things, I am also an introvert and a highly sensitive person. This means that mentally and emotionally, I am better without an audience and all of the stimulus that comes with lots of public interaction.

Isn’t this a contradiction? Absolutely it is. Navigating in a world where I shine in a place that also happens to be emotionally detrimental to me has always been challenging. Doing what I love comes at a cost, and I’ve had to learn to be protective of myself.

What is a Highly Sensitive Person?

We’re all bombarded by various stimulus at any given moment. Some of this is related to the five senses. This could be background conversations, various things occurring in our field of vision, somebody brushing against us as we pass, and the smells we encounter. Then there is emotional stimulus. In any given day, we witness people displaying a wide range of emotions.

For most people, the brain does its job quite efficiently by filtering all of this stimulus and storing it away as background noise. For people like me, the brain doesn’t do this job as well as it should. All of the inbound ‘noise’ can become unbearable. Like many HSP individuals, I am also an introvert.

This makes for a very noisy world. Fortunately, it’s one I’ve learned to thrive in, thanks to these lessons.

1. Stick to a Schedule When Possible

This isn’t to say that life as an HSP introvert is a life doomed to no spontaneity, but there is some real value in predictability. If I start the day knowing what my schedule looks like, I can identify the tasks and interactions that will be challenging for me, and be able to predict the times when I will need to take action to recover and recoup my emotional resources.

The result of this is that not only am I better off emotionally, I am much more enjoyable to be around, and I can make the most productive use of my talents. This is because I can bring out the teacher and presenter sides of myself when I need to be switched on, and then seek solace in being a writer when I have time to myself.

2. Take The Time to Figure Out How Your Brain Works

If you are an introvert, take the time to understand exactly what that means, not just in a general sense, but for you specifically. HSP and introversion don’t operate in exactly the same way from one person to the next. For example, I can be in a relatively loud environment if I have a focal point. I do absolutely fine attending the theater or enjoying a concert but, on the other hand, parties and crowded nightspots are an absolute nightmare for me. I suspect this is because, in these situations, I don’t have a single thing on which to focus. When external stimuli come from so many different sources at various levels of intensity, I struggle to sort it all out.  Understanding my particular brand of HSP and introversion has helped me to create some great coping strategies.

3. Know Which Situations Will be Most Challenging

I have something called my ‘Defcon 5 List’. This is my list of situations that are extremely difficult for me to contend with, even for a relatively short period of time. Unfortunately, this list is the result of painful and very personal experience. However, once I became aware of some of the situations that caused me to struggle the most, I realized that I could then predict other situations that would be just as challenging for me.

Of course, awareness doesn’t necessarily translate into the ability to avoid. Not only that avoidance isn’t always desirable. What awareness does do for me is that it lets me know that I need to prepare myself for these situations and that I need to allow myself time to get back to normal afterwards.

4. Focus on Growing Not Fixing

Being an introvert or an HSP is not a disease, and it’s not a character flaw. It isn’t something that needs to be cured. However, it also doesn’t mean that no effort should be made to grow or challenge yourself. When I am deciding whether or not to expose myself to a challenging situation, I do a bit of a risk-benefit analysis. I try to determine what I will gain not just from the experience itself, but also from forcing my boundaries to get a bit wider and challenging myself.

If I determine that I simply am not up to the challenge, I don’t beat myself over it. When I am able to challenge my limits, I give myself permission to feel proud of the effort and accomplishment.

5. Develop an Understanding of Extroverts

I think the world is becoming more accepting of introverts and becoming more educated on what it means to be an introvert. In fact, if you were to Google ‘introvert memes’ you can find lots of visual depictions of what life is like for an introvert. Many of these are very spot on. One thing that has come with this increasing acceptance and understanding is a bit of a backlash against extroverts. I think it’s important to put it out there that extrovert is not synonymous with loud, insensitive, brash, or boorish. Someone can be an extrovert and also be thoughtful, contemplative, and bright.

I’ve found it easier to relate to extroverts now that I understand that where I lose energy, they gain energy. That’s helped me to get past some of my own prejudice and tendencies to misinterpret the actions of introverts that I interact with. For example, I understand now that when one of my extrovert friends really wants me to socialize, they aren’t pushing me to do something I don’t care to do. They are sharing something that brings them joy.

What do you think? Do you have any coping strategies that you have created as an HSP? If there are extroverts who are also HSP, your input would be especially interesting.


How Writing Helped Me Find a Life Balance

Do you know a person who has never faced any obstacles in life? If you can think of a name, then you probably don’t know enough of their personal story. People are torn apart between their ideas, desires, personal goals, expectations of other people, and the sad reality that never leaves enough space for complete self-accomplishment. Those struggles can easily take us to a bad point in life. I know that for a fact because I’ve been there myself.

When I finished college, I faced the inevitable existential crisis: now what? Do I start looking for a boring job? Do I go to graduate school to get the degree I had zero interest in? My head was a complete mess and I could not see a clear road to a happy future. That’s when I started writing. I thought that the only way to understand the chaos in my head was by writing how I felt and what I was thinking. This turned out to be a masterful trick that helped me find the balance in life.

When I told my friends that writing was my therapy, they thought I was kidding them. I was one of those students who always complained about writing assignments, so it was weird that I arbitrarily turned to this method. Let me tell you how writing helped me get my life back.

I clarified my thoughts by writing them down.

When you’re anxious, the unstoppable flow of thoughts can make you go crazy. When I started writing, the text turned out as a complete chaos. With time, I noticed that my thoughts started clarifying. My mind intuitively start thinking in a way that could be brought in written form – clear, short, specific thoughts and ideas that I could finally recognize and connect.

Before I started writing, I didn’t know whether I was feeling sad, angry, confused, or dull. With this writing ‘therapy’, I could finally understand the emotions I put on paper. That was the first step towards healing: understanding how angry I was.

Writing helped me grow.

I started the writing therapy with a plain notebook, but then I started using Penzu – a free online diary, which is completely private. I took the weekends to review the writing I did throughout the week, and I noted down the impression. That online diary is still the witness of the progress I made. It shows how I found the sense of my existence, step by step. I started from zero, and I wrote my way towards awareness.

Writing helped me sleep.

I spent many sleepless nights after I finished college. I couldn’t stop blaming myself for not choosing a better educational path. When I started writing before going to bed, I got rid of all those thoughts by noting them down. It was like they were passing through my mind onto the computer screen, so I could read them there like they were someone else’s words. It was important for me to get those bad thoughts out of my system before I could start seeing signs of a brighter future.

Writing made me wiser.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that writing made me wiser. It brought sense to my thoughts, and I started being more careful about the things I was saying. I also noticed that my style of expression became much clearer over time. I wasn’t writing only about my thoughts and emotions; I also noted down the impressions I got from things I read, as well as all new things I learned during the particular day. Since I was writing everything down with a conscious state of mind, my memory improved and became more aware of the things that surrounded me.

Finally, writing helped me find the balance.

The most important benefit I gained through writing was getting rid of the anger I carried inside. I felt guilty about being so angry at myself, my parents, my friends who had jobs they liked… I was angry with everyone. When I got that out of my system, I didn’t have to show the pages to anyone; I just wrote and I understood it was okay to feel that way. I stopped identifying myself with those thoughts – the momentary state did not convey the true nature of my character. When I paid attention to that anger, I realized it was the main enemy I had to defeat. And I did that. The diary shows the progress I made towards achieving balance.

If you’re at a low point in your life, take my honest recommendation: write about it. It’s the best therapy you’ll ever have.

How a Small Decision to Travel Led Me to a Very Different Life

It was a plain sheet of paper with typing packed on both sides, and it was yellow. A dozen different cities were listed, each with a short description. I remember wondering why the university’s honors program had chosen such a garish color for such a boring purpose. Was an administrator having a whimsical day at the office, or did they simply run out of white paper?

This was my sophomore year at NYU, the beginning of my second year living in the city—I’d adapted and learned it was never New York City and always just “the city,” because it was the only one that mattered—and I was already disillusioned. The winters were cold, fun was out of reach on my student budget, the contrived irony of people I met was difficult to relate to. I was lost, but at first I was too busy choosing classes and chasing unpaid internships to notice.

When I went to visit my mother that winter I broke down in the car ride home from the airport and sobbed that it wasn’t working, that I wanted to quit. In her usual practical way, she made it very clear too much had already been invested in my tuition for me to even consider backing out now. I had chosen this, against her better judgment, so I was going to see it through. I carried on, miserable and scattered.

I joined the Honors Scholars Program for less than honorable reasons. I had the grades, and it would look good on my curriculum one day. The application process was easy, the research requirements few. None of that mattered; my real motivation was the spring break vacation the program offered. Honors Scholars could choose an all-included trip from over a dozen possible destinations, with flights, hotels and outings almost entirely covered by the university. It was my chance to escape New York for a while and enjoy myself. I signed up and received my yellow paper, a list of potential destinations, in the mail a few months later.

It was that easy. If I replied quickly enough, I could spend an entire week almost anywhere in the world, from Ghana to Paris to London to Mexico. It was only a week, hardly a monumental decision. At most, a heartbeat of escape.

I nixed Hong Kong, Beijing and the other Asian destinations as being too far away. I ruled out Paris and London because I’d been there before, the rest of Europe because of jetlag. I looked south. By coincidence, by elimination, I chose Buenos Aires.

I knew nothing about Argentina. There were no romanticized images of gauchos galloping through my mind’s eye, no smell of charred parrilla, Argentina’s barbecue, tickling my nostrils. I didn’t know who Evita Perón was, and had never heard Madonna sing “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.” I chose letters on a page, a place that to me evoked nothing. I simply hoped that the March weather would be kinder in the Southern Hemisphere than it was up north.

Tour guides often refer to Buenos Aires as the Paris of South America, and I can understand the comparison. In the upscale neighborhood of Recoleta where I lived that spring break week, the architecture has a deliberate Haussman vibe. Tall white buildings line wide avenues, and on many sidewalks rows of trees grow so tall their canopies touch, filtering the sunlight and tingeing the streets with a green glow. I was never a romantic, but I fell in love immediately.

Buenos Aires is defined by its details. It’s the dinners that begin at 11 p.m., and how no one ever complains they have to work in the morning. The simplicity of the empanadas and the way the sun shines even in winter and no one leaves the house when it rains, because it doesn’t really rain that often. The way each neighborhood has its own chosen identity, from pleasantly bohemian San Telmo to fashionable Palermo. It’s the way Argentines have lunch with their families every Sunday, without fail, and look forward to it.

Guidebook comparisons aside, Buenos Aires isn’t Paris. Outside Recoleta, the city’s tumult is visible in its buildings. In the central Plaza de Mayo, right outside the presidential palace, neo-classical edifices and 1970s monstrosities sit side by side, daring visitors to find a pattern. The presidential palace itself, the Casa Rosada, is painted a bright pink. At night the effect is accentuated by small purple bulbs that light up its façade. The people themselves, porteños as they are known, exhibit Latin warmth in everything they do, from their crude catcalls to the barbecues that last well into the small hours of the morning.

The truth is, I never really liked Paris, its history and arrogance. Like New York it feels too cold, too harsh, too expensive. When I look at the city it glares back, whispering, “how dare you presume to belong?”

In that week Buenos Aires felt like home. Maybe because, like me, the city—and the country—is still finding its way. Argentina has been economically unstable for much of its history, and inflation is rampant; accusations of political corruption are met with resignation; the shadow of the Dirty War that killed thousands in the 70s and 80s still hovers at the edges of it all. My messy utopia isn’t for everyone. Loose pavement stones spray un-cautious pedestrians with leftover rain and waste. Spicy food is inexistent, bureaucracy labyrinthine. Much like Paris, dogs leave gifts on every sidewalk. But under the chaos there is a beauty, a space to breathe that New York, with its crime-free streets and sky-high rents, never gave me.

Five years later, sitting in my apartment in Palermo, Buenos Aires, I can’t imagine another place to be. Though the decision to move here after college was monumental, that first choice, the childish desire to go south for the winter, seems incredibly small. From my balcony I can catch a glimpse of the Jardín Botánico, the botanical gardens where the author Jorge Luís Borges used to wander for inspiration. I stroll there too on occasion and peer into the ancient greenhouses, careful not to disturb any of the dozens of stray cats that claim the gardens as their home. That yellow piece of paper is long gone, but when the noise of the streets disappears between the trees and the light catches a certain green glow, I can still feel its weight in my hand.

By: Sam Harrison
Sam Harrison is a journalist and English teacher who lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She enjoys learning about different cultures, studying languages, writing, and traveling.

How to Achieve What Matters Most

For most of my life, I have impulsively jumped into new projects. Ideas about things I want to accomplish are constantly swirling in my head. I want to learn to cook, take improv classes, and workout regularly.

I want to do it all. Mixing this inclination with a lack of follow through led to a long list of unfinished goals for me a few years ago. I excelled at getting started. When the motivation faded, I would quit a project and shift my focus to the next shiny project.

The frustration from this cycle propelled me to make changes. Over the next few years, I developed the habit of focusing on one goal at a time and making massive progress in one direction.

“Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be” – John Wooden

Focus on the most important thing

About five years ago, I had a long list of projects that I was working on at the same time. The list included improving my personal finances, eating healthier, studying for my professional designation, and reading books regularly.

I didn’t make meaningful progress in any direction. I didn’t study consistently enough to pass my exams. I started working on my finances every few months but didn’t follow through after the first couple of days.

I was producing many “Incomplete” grades in my life. I was trying to do too many different things. Every goal was my highest priority. They were all a level 10 in importance. I didn’t prioritize or push off any projects for a later date.

Our society sends us a constant stream of messages that tell us we need to do it all now. We need to consume more information, check more email, and work longer hours.

We can combat the pressure to do it all by consciously taking a step back to look at the big picture. We can design our lives in a way that facilitates the achievement of what we want the most.

Our mind is scattered when we try to do too many things. Our thoughts are dispersed, our energy is diffused, and our actions are all over the place. We make small progress in many different directions.

When I decided to make significant changes in my life, the first step was to figure out the most important thing. Not the five most important things. This was a big change for me. I started going deep on one goal at a time.

Make massive progress

When we focus on our highest valued goal, we consciously decide to ignore many other interesting opportunities. We direct our attention to what matters most to us. We make massive progress in one area.

After my change in mindset, the first goal I tackled was eating healthier. I read many articles and several books about nutrition. I created a detailed plan that included a list of foods to cut out as well as a cheat day that helped me stay committed in the long run.

Eating healthy was the most important goal in my life for an entire year. Today, eating healthy most of the time is effortless due to the habits I developed. Once eating healthy was on cruise control, I tackled the next most important goal, which was improving my personal finances.

I achieved my most important goals by diving deep on one goal at a time. When we fully commit to a few goals and put off other goals, we can follow through more effectively and with less friction.

When we finish the goals we are currently working on, the other ones will still be there. We can pick them up at the right time.

Making consistent progress on our most important goal propels us to continue to take action. It fuels and motivates us. This cycle of action, progress, and motivation drives us to achieve what we want. We can’t make that consistent progress if we’re juggling too many projects.

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.” – Steve Jobs

Reap lasting rewards

We continue reaping benefits years after accomplishing most goals. Four years ago, I focused on improving my personal finances for three months. My finances are still running smoothly and automated with minimal effort. I’m still reaping the rewards from the three months of work I did years ago.

By focusing on one thing at a time until crossing the finish line, we take advantage of the cycle of success. It seems like highly successful people have more hours in the day than average achievers. It’s like they unlocked cheat codes that allows them to get more done. The reality is that each time they achieve a goal, they learn lasting lessons and skills.

We don’t learn these valuable lessons if we leave most of our projects unfinished. Instead of growing, our lack of progress would lead to doubt and frustration. We would have cycled through many projects without producing changes in our routines, beliefs, and results.

In the road to accomplishing goals, we build habits and mindsets that make it easier to accomplish the next goal. We gain skills that equip us to reach the next level. At each new level, we have more tools, strategies, and tactics we can use to overcome obstacles. The rewards from focusing on the most important thing last a lifetime.

How do you focus on doing the right things instead of trying to do it all?

My Transformation from Corporate Hostage to Full-Time Traveler

It’s two years since I made the decision to change my life. Two years since I took a leap from the supposed security of an executive career and comfortable home. Two years since I started prioritizing happiness and began changing my life for the better.

My story is a pretty typical tale of pursuing the American Dream. After my university education, I entered the workplace and stepped onto the first rung of the corporate ladder. I fell in love, got married and bought a home. My husband or I earned various promotions or received job offers to move to other parts of the country, or in one case across to the other side of the world. We bought bigger homes and newer cars and acquired all the other trappings of success.

I was particularly ambitious. I found my work style especially well-suited to my chosen career in strategic marketing and I rose up the ranks. But as I climbed higher up the ladder and as the corporate landscape changed after the financial crisis, I became increasingly disillusioned. I found companies became focused on short-term thinking with an insatiable appetite for instant gratification and sales promotions, rather than good strategy and strong execution. Their expectation was that my every waking (and sometimes sleeping) hour should revolve around them. But I had a California-sized mortgage and matching lifestyle to pay for – so it seemed I had no choice. I felt trapped in the corporate world.

My respite from this was my love of travel. For vacation, we would rent apartments in fun places and pretend to live like locals if only for a week. We fantasized about leaving all the corporate nonsense behind us and having the time to visit all the national parks we had read about and to travel the world and experience different cultures. Then a lightbulb came on and we realized it wasn’t our jobs that were stopping us living the life we wanted, it was our financial obligations. Without the costs of a mortgage, property tax, condo fees and running two cars, we could afford to earn considerably less, and stretch our savings to travel long term.

It was like a reset in our thinking. We thought our desire to travel long term was hampered by our need to have a full-time salary to pay for our house but realized that if we traveled then we didn’t really need a house. Our desired lifestyle actually fit perfectly with the idea of selling our home and most of our possessions. The deal was sealed. We put our house on the market, we got rid of most everything we owned, I quit my job and we bought an Airstream Trailer and hit the road.

We now split our time between traveling in the US and renting apartments in other places in the world. I work part time to supplement our savings, but our lifestyle is so much less expensive than it used to be, we hardly notice the reduced income.

So how do I feel about my new life?

I am a much more mindful consumer: Traveling light and living small have taught me to appreciate everything more. When living off the grid I am acutely aware of the weather, wondering if the sun will shine enough on our solar panels to charge our batteries or if the incoming storm means I have to hunker down and secure our home. I only buy things that have more than one purpose, don’t use too much water or electricity or generate too much waste. When we travel overseas we pack light and make sure our clothes and shoes are practical and meet a variety of climates.

I have better relationships: The pressures of my work could make me irritable and short-tempered with people who didn’t deserve to be treated badly. On the other hand, I also had to work with people who I didn’t like, who were jerks or who were just a negative force. I am now lucky enough to be able to work with who I want and quit working with people whose values I don’t share.

The quality of my work is better: It’s a strange phenomenon but now that I work as a freelance consultant I am less concerned about career progression and I am less vested in a single product or company. I have an outsiders view which allows me to be less emotional, more candid and I provide impartial direction to my clients that I may have been intimidated to bring to the table as an employee. Also because my schedule is flexible and my plate is not as full I am more responsive than ever

I feel in control: When you talk about selling everything and quitting your job, many people question how you could leave that security. But with a mortgage, a stagnant economy, and the fact that I’m getting older, i.e. less employable, I didn’t feel I was leaving much behind. Now I can turn my life on a dime. I can adjust my expenses easily by locating myself in areas with lower costs of living, I can take more work if I need to. I feel fully in control of my life and I’m not beholden to an employer for my financial stability.

I am excited about the future: My nomadic lifestyle always gives me something to look forward to. It’s hard to be bored when you move a lot. You are either experiencing new things, or you are planning what you are doing next. Sometimes you are just relaxing and enjoying where you are. It’s almost impossible to not be filled with optimism if you have endless possibilities in front of you.

I am making great memories: Many people talk about how quickly time passes, I used to be that person. Time does fly when you do the same things day in day out. But now when people say “can you believe it’s March already”, I say I can’t believe it’s only March. In the last 6 months I have traveled to 3 continents, I have hiked in national parks, kayaked in mountain lakes, and tried to communicate in a language I don’t understand. I’ve done so many things I can’t believe that I fitted it all in. I am a great believer in the ethos – if you want to lead a memorable life you have to do things worth remembering.

I am so much happier: Full time travel is not all plain-sailing and it certainly isn’t a permanent vacation. It can be uncomfortable, unsettling and frankly sometimes just a pain in the ass. Finding somewhere to do laundry, dealing with cultural confusion and wondering if I’ll ever have a decent haircut again are just some of my first world problems. But I would never trade my old life for the happiness I feel and the freedom I have to schedule my own day to decide where and how I want to spend my time.

So do I have any regrets from the last 2 years? Do I miss the executive title, salary or expense account? Do I regret selling my home and most of my possessions? Absolutely not, it was the best decision I have ever made and it’s hard to imagine living any other way now. My only regret is not doing it sooner.

Not all life changes have to be quite so drastic. What changes have you made that have made you happier? What do you think would bring more happiness to you? Why do you think we prioritize things over experiences in our society?


A 10-Year Study Reveals What Great Executives Know and Do

Despite the huge impact executives can have on their organizations, failure rates remain high. Prescriptions for what to do continue to fall short. So we wondered: If we closely studied the executives who succeed in top jobs once appointed, could we identify distinguishing features that set them apart and defined their success?

As part of Harvard Business Review’s ten-year longitudinal study on executive transitions, which included more than 2,700 leadership interviews, they did a rigorous statistical analysis (including more than 90 regression analyses) to isolate the skills of the top-performing executives. They isolated seven performance factors correlated to strong organizational performance as well as leadership strengths through IBM Watson’s content analysis tools as well as historical performance reviews of these leaders and their direct reports. These seven factors led to their discovery of four recurring patterns that distinguished exceptional executives. What separated the “best of the best” from everyone else is a consistent display of mastery across four highly correlated dimensions, while “good” executives may have only excelled in two or three. Executives who shine across all four of these dimensions achieve the greatest success for themselves and their organizations.

They know the whole business
Exceptional executives have deep knowledge of how the pieces of the organization fit together to create value and deliver results. Many leaders arrive into the C-suite having grown up in functions like Marketing or Finance and lean too heavily on instincts and cognitive biases shaped by their ascent within those disciplines. Leaders who ran one business of a multi-business enterprise often favor that business within the larger portfolio. Exceptional executives defy such predispositions in order to integrate the entire organization into a well synchronized machine. Executives develop breadth by broadening their exposure to the full organization and taking assignments across disciplines.

They also focus on strengthening the organization’s seams to minimize poor coordination and fragmentation while maximizing the things the organization must do in competitively distinct ways. One client struggled for years to consistently meet customer satisfaction expectations. In comparative rankings they were generally at or near the bottom of the list. When quarterly forecasts were missed again, Sales retrenched to fix a pricing issue, Customer Marketing focused on better content, and Supply Chain tried to stay ahead of last-minute changes. When all their well-intentioned, but separate, solutions showed up at retail, customer satisfaction never improved. It was the head of R&D who forced all the functions into a room to solve the problem systemically. Together, they revealed obstinate issues of coordination and contradicting priorities between functions who needed to synch up to meet customer expectations. A year later their customer satisfaction improved by 40%.

They are great decision-makers
Exemplary executives have the ability to declare their views, engage others’ ideas, analyze data for insights, weigh alternatives, own the final call, and communicate the decision clearly. This skill inspires markedly higher confidence and focus among those they lead. Because they’re good decision-makers, they’re also good prioritizers, since setting priorities is all about selectively choosing from among various tradeoffs. Focusing on a few priorities helps these executives ensure successful execution and avoid overwhelming the system with competing goals. They also ensure accountability is crystal clear to the organization.

At the heart of great decision making lies a balance between instinct and analytics. On one end of the continuum are leaders who “trust their guts.” They combine experience and emotion into well-developed intuition. On the other end of the continuum is the leader who relies on exhaustively mining data for insightful perspective to address the decision or problem they face. Exceptional executives function fluidly along this entire continuum, and recognize where their predispositions lie for either being overly impulsive or paralyzed by analysis..

Making good decisions seems to be a comparatively rare skill. In one McKinsey survey of 2,207 executives, only 28% said that the quality of strategic decisions in their companies was generally good, 60% thought that bad decisions were about as frequent as good ones, and the remaining 12% thought good decisions were altogether infrequent. This is consistent with our own findings. The proclivity of bad decision making is usually intensified by poor decision-making systems in organizations. So even leaders whose instincts might otherwise be effective have their ability compromised.

They know the industry
Exceptional executives maintain a solid grasp on the ever-changing context within which their business competes. Their natural contextual intelligence lies at the intersection of insights into how their organization uniquely competes and makes money, and what is most relevant to the customers they serve ─ even when customers may not know themselves.

The ability to apply intricate wisdom of one’s business to emerging competitive threats requires the ability to see trends and emerging possibilities on a multi-year horizon. Too often, leaders are stymied by competing investment options or caught flatfooted in the face of profit shortfalls. Lacking an understanding of how value is delivered to their market, they make suboptimal investments. More typically, they reflexively make across-the-board cost cuts that restrict their ability to maneuver in a shifting competitive arena.

The leaders who scored highest on this skill were described as having innate curiosity and deep knowledge of their business context which they apply to wider economic, technological, and customer trends. Armed with a clear point of view, these exemplars more readily addressed threats and took earlier advantage of opportunities. Executives develop context by grounding themselves in external realities of their organization, by remaining curious about adjacent industries, and seeking disconfirming data about commonly held assumptions regarding their company.

They form deep, trusting relationships
Every organization has executives everyone wants to work for. These executives form deep connections with superiors, peers, and direct reports, studying and meeting the needs of key stakeholders. They communicate in compelling ways and reach beyond superficial transactions to form mutually beneficial, trusting relationships. Their legacy becomes a positive reputation within the organization for consistently delivering results while genuinely caring for those who deliver them.

It was no surprise that of the four dimensions, relational failure led to the quickest demise among second-best executives. While exceptional executives led with a humble confidence that graciously extended care to others, second-best executives were inclined to manage perceptions, creating the illusion of collaboration while masking self-interested motives. Executives develop connection by investing heavily in their own emotional and social intelligence, actively solicit feedback about how others experience them, and learn to be vulnerable with their shortcomings to create trust with others.

There’s a lot of research on the importance of executive relationships. One study revealed that executive’s fears of appearing incompetent, underachieving, and political attacks from rivals accounted for 60% of bad behavior among executive team relationships. Another study supports our findings that among the high failure rate of transitioning executives, failed relationships account for a disproportionately higher percentage of all executive failure.

All four of these attributes are learnable, and it’s never too early to start developing these skills. Consider where in your current role you have the greatest opportunity for more impact, and which of these four dimensions might be holding you back. You will quickly find they are highly interrelated. So learning more about your own company’s business may require building relationships in others departments. Making sharper investment choices might require learning more about your industry’s changing context. Pick one place to start that will accelerate your impact, and you will be surprised at how quickly you and others see the difference.

By Ron Carucci as published on Harvard Business Review on January 19, 2016.

Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the best-selling author of eight books, including the recent Amazon #1 Rising to Power. Connect with him on Twitter at @RonCarucci.


Decision Making Overload: Pause, Breathe, Listen

“I just can’t wait to not have to make decisions for a few weeks!”

Sound familiar? Or desirable?

I remember a former manager of mine, who I loved and respected very much, saying this on her way out to an extended 3-week vacation. And I remember thinking, “THAT’S what you’re looking forward to? Not drinks on the beach or sleeping late or eating really great food?” Hmmmm . . .

That was before I held a leadership role.

Leadership has its challenges and rewards, but the constant pressure to make decision after decision after good decision can wear down even the best of us. From the minutia of office supplies and relationship issues amongst your team, to the critical choices of technology systems, innovation, vision and stakeholder satisfaction, decision-making can become a dense blur of burden.

So, how do we hold it together and keep our “heads in the game” and keep our teams moving forward?

I like to call my technique “creating space for the magic.”

Decision-making skill is a recipe that includes equal parts of training, education, experience, gut, trust and instinct. Training, education and experience are tangible. Visible. Measurable. Definable and comfortable.

Gut, trust and instinct are . . . none of those things! They require practice, finesse, dare I say intuition. They demand confidence. They beg for space to become real. So how the heck do you work on that?

Simple. Start small.

Give yourself a few extra minutes to get dressed tomorrow morning. Before you just go grab the blue shirt and black pants . . .pause . . . take a deep breath. Close your eyes.

Stick with me here.

Now, ask your gut, your instinct, your intuition, “What color shirt should I wear today?” Pause. Breathe. Listen. Laugh. Think to yourself, “This is ridiculous.” It’s all good. Keep going!

Throughout your day, practice pausing. What kind of tea should I have for my mid-morning break? What kind of salad should I bring home for dinner? Which route should I take home?

This is what “getting in touch with your gut” looks like. You can actually practice and develop it. Sweet, right? And it’s fun. And it will help you be a better leader.

The trick is to start with things that don’t have a big risk involved or a big emotional charge. Practice creating space for simple things like shirts and salads, and then when a real challenge lands on your desk at work, create space for the magic. Pause, breathe, listen. You will find that your decision-making muscle will get stronger and stronger over time and it won’t be so exhausting.

And then you can go on vacation and enjoy the simple things again. Eat, drink, sleep and be happy!

Meeting Makeover

It’s 1:55pm. There’s a 2pm meeting at work. Maybe you are running it? Maybe you are  dreading it?

Why do most meetings fail miserably and impart a sense of doom? And why, oh why, do we have so many of them?

Most people hate meetings because most meetings are run very poorly. How do you know if this is you? Consider these 4 things:

  1. Are people sharing and communicating openly, or are you doing all the talking?
  2. Do things actually get accomplished during and after your meetings, or is there a general sense of “I know nothing is going to happen after this meeting, so I might as well tune out?”
  3. Do people bring meals and large cups of coffee to your meetings because they know the meeting is going to last FOREVER?
  4. Do people frequently skip or conveniently miss a lot of meetings?

If you answered “yes” to any of these, not to worry! Here are a few tips to get you and your team on a better track.

One thing most leaders miss when they schedule a meeting is knowing what the purpose of the meeting is. What do you REALLY need to accomplish? When you think about the hourly rate of everyone in the room and the cost of that 30, 60 or 90 minute gathering, it might behoove you to take a closer look at various types of meetings and your desired outcomes.

Three of the most common types of meetings are:

  • Meetings to build relationships
  • Meetings to coordinate action
  • Meetings for innovation

The desired outcomes of a relationship meeting might include celebrating a particular success on the team or within the company. Another outcome might be for everyone to get to know one another better and build trust. Relationship meetings are extremely useful and vital for building effective teams and always include some activities and sharing. They are more informal and don’t typically require notes or minutes.

Meetings for coordinating action are much more formal and, much to your delight, can often times end efficiently and effectively in a relatively short amount of time. Take some time ahead of your meeting to map out 2-3 desired outcomes, and designate someone to take notes and capture commitments. At the end of your meeting, make sure everyone is clear on their commitments and timeframes and you are done! No muss, no fuss. People will learn to enjoy drinking their coffee on their own time, rather than in your long, boring meeting.

Finally, you have meetings for innovation. Maybe it’s time to reinvent a product line or shake up your customer service standards. These meetings are super fun and engaging and the least formal of all three types of meetings outlined here. The key to successful innovation meetings is creating a completely safe environment where all ideas are heard and captured and NOTHING gets left behind. Every thought/idea/concept that everyone shares is captured for consideration. It’s helpful to have toys, music and food for these types of meetings – and flip charts are paramount. Leadership commits to next steps, open communication and clear deadlines to start implementing action.

Put an end, once and for all, to dull, meaningless meetings with your team. The results will speak for themselves. People will be more engaged and you will feel less dread over planning and running them. A win:win in our book.