Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google parent Alphabet, has offered some advice for people who want to run a successful company: Find something that excites you.
In an hour-long interview with the BBC’s media editor Amol Rajan, Pichai talks about the potential of quantum computing, the dangers of AI, and whether Alphabet, with a market capitalization of $1.6 trillion, is too big.
He also recalls the “simplicity” of his middle-class childhood growing up in Madurai, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and his rise up the career ladder to become CEO of Alphabet in 2019, aged 47.
“I’ve always felt that – more than what your mind says – you need to figure out what your heart is excited by. It’s a journey and you will know it when you find it,” said Pichai.
“If you find that, things tend to work out,” he added.
Pichai said that he had wanted to work in Silicon Valley since he was a teenager and that his father took out a loan, worth a year’s salary, in order for Pichai to afford his flight and study at Stanford.
When asked how to land a job at Google, he gave some insight into the interview process when he applied for his first role in 2004. Pichai said: “You keep interviewing. I was interviewing on April Fool’s day and Google had just announced Gmail – which I thought was a joke.
“People kept asking me what I think of Gmail, which was invite-only at the time. It was only the fourth or fifth interviewer who asked ‘Have you seen Gmail?’ and I said no. He showed me on his computer.
“Then the next interview somebody asked me, I was able to answer it for the first time.”
He speaks to Mark Zuckerberg ‘as and when needed’
Pichai also offered some insight into his own personal work habits as CEO of one of the world’s biggest companies.
He wakes up between 6.30-7 am and tries to exercise three or four times a week. He doesn’t eat meat, and drinks tea in the mornings and coffee in the afternoons. He speaks three languages – English, Hindi and Tamil – and currently drives a Tesla.
The Wall Street Journal has been a long-term reading habit, although “90% of his consumption” is now online, from publications around the world.
When asked how often he speaks to Facebook chief and rival Mark Zuckerberg, he replied “as and when needed.”
Jeff Immelt’s first day as CEO at General Electric was on September 10, 2001. The next day, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon shook the world, the financial markets, and GE’s business. The airplanes, one of them powered by GE engines, crashed into the WTC towers, which were insured by GE Capital.
At the time, GE was heavily invested in commercial aviation, insurance, and media – all three of which were rocked by September 11.
“It was the first terrorist event I had ever seen – that most Americans of my generation had ever seen,” Immelt told The Profile. “I think what you learn in a crisis is that good leaders absorb fear. They’re not accelerators of fear – they know how to manage a sense of calm while still being really clear about the challenges ahead.”
And unbeknownst to Immelt at the time, the challenges ahead were many. The terrorist attacks would be the first of a number of crises that Immelt had to grapple with in his time as CEO. He was at the helm of the company through the bursting of the dot com bubble, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the fall of Enron, and the 2008-09 financial crisis.
“You learn to hold two truths,” Immelt said. “You learn to say, ‘Things can always get worse, but here’s a dream that I have for the future, and I’m not going to give up on that.’ You learn how to make decisions even when you don’t know all the facts. In a crisis, you just got to make decisions.”
Unfortunately, many of the decisions that Immelt made in his 16 years at the helm of GE did not pan out in his favor nor were they particularly popular. At one point during his tenure, he characterized his role as CEO in this way: “I feel like I want to vomit all the time.”
“I never felt sorry for myself, but it was just the pressure and the consequences of all the decisions, how little was known,” he said. “That period of time – it was just relentless.”
Immelt succeeded Jack Welch, who was largely considered to be one of the best CEOs in the history of business. He had led GE through two decades of extraordinary corporate prosperity, so when he named Immelt as his successor, the pressure to perform was immense.
Even though Welch was no longer CEO, his legacy loomed. He was regarded by many as the greatest leader of his era by people both inside and outside the company.
During the summer of 2001, Immelt went on a golf trip with his friends before it was publicly announced he was CEO. In the locker room, a member asked him what he did for work, and he simply said, “I work at GE.” The man looked at him and said, “GE, huh? I feel sorry for the poor son of a bitch who’s taking Jack Welch’s place.”
Shareholders blamed Immelt for his inability to turn the company around and for allowing GE to lose $150 billion of market value under his watch. In his new book, “Hot Seat: What I Learned Leading a Great American Company,” Immelt doesn’t make excuses: He takes responsibility for his missteps and lists the thorniest mistakes he regrets making in his time as CEO. They include failing to generate more shareholder value from GE Capital, missing an opportunity to reset the company in the early 2000s, and not developing a deep enough bench of rising leaders.
“It’s a complicated story, and I didn’t want to seem defensive, so I wanted to let the reader be the judge,” he said. “I thought it was important for people to see the totality. That’s why I decided to write the book.”
In this conversation, Immelt shares what he’s learned about leading in crisis, how he’s taken responsibility for the consequences of his decisions, and why he believes the next generation of founders and CEOs need to be masters of chaos.
(Below is an excerpt of the interview, but I encourage you to listen and watch the full interview here)
Just to paint the picture here: Your predecessor Jack Welch was largely considered to be the best CEO in history.
IMMELT: Fortune magazine had named him the best manager of the previous century in the year 2000. That’s a pretty tough act to follow, but he was just very well known. He was a celebrity CEO – kind of like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos all wrapped up into one. He had done a good job, and he’d done it for a long time. He was very charismatic, and so that was a pretty daunting task. That was the person whose shoes I was stepping into. That was my task in 2001.
When you were offered the job as CEO, did you ever think, “Those are really big shoes to fill. Maybe I’m not the right person for this?”
You know, I was a realist. There was no way not to think that his image would cast a shadow. That’s just the real world. But I never really wanted to be him. I was a very different person, and I felt like that the job that the company needed was going to be different, and you have to make a choice of how much to honor the past versus how much to push forward.
So when I was at GE, I was never critical of him for over really 16 years, but I always wanted to do things my way and work on things I felt were gaps inside the company. You just have to be really comfortable with that judgment without dwelling on it for too long.
I was in Tokyo in 2014, and I was being interviewed in front of 2,000 people by the Nikkei press. We were in the green room, and the person interviewing me says, “What was it like following Jack Welch?” And I was like, “I’ve been asked that question in 100 languages, 30,000 times over the last few years.” We kind of laughed about it, so we go out on stage, and the first question was, “What was it like following Jack Welch?” So you just get used to making it part of your repertoire even though I never really carried it as a burden in terms of what I thought was important to the company.
What was your relationship to Welch when you became CEO?
I had immense respect for Jack, but when someone’s that powerful inside the company, it’s hard to have a mentorship relationship. I had other mentors, but not him. We had about eight months of overlap where I got a chance to ask him a ton of questions, and he was very helpful then. And then I think over the first four or five years, we had a good relationship, but I think the financial crisis kind of changed the nature of our relationship and made it a little more difficult.
Even through the arc of my career, every tough problem I ever encountered, I would ask his opinion – even when I didn’t really like him that much or when he didn’t really like me that much. I would always ask him for his opinion because he had great judgment, and he knew the company. We both cared about the company in different ways.
From the outside, things looked great. Under Welch, GE had been the most valuable company on earth for a period of time. Can you discuss the reality of the business that you inherited?
The business model was kind of an old-line industrial company that generated a lot of cash. That cash would go to a financial service company. We had a 50% stale industrial company, and 50% financial.
The perception didn’t quite match reality. We understood that as we were taking over, and I had conversations with the board. And that’s what we said about re-investing in the industrial company to try and rejuvenate the business while still growing financial services. That’s the decision we made. That’s one of the challenges that every leader runs into – it’s how do you match perception with reality?
Looking back now, do you wish you had been more clear and transparent about the reality of the business at the time?
There was a window of time after 9/11 when I think people after a crisis have a chance to reset their companies and their narrative. There was probably a window at that time when I had a chance to kind of reset: lower earnings, less financial services, and a really clear path of how much our industrial businesses needed to be invested in in order to get them positioned for the 21st century.
It’s a long-winded way to answer your question, but the answer is yes. There was a window. I do look back on that as something I wish I had done.
The 2008 financial crisis shook GE to the core. You had missed your earning numbers three weeks after you promised to hit them. And then Welch went on CNBC, where he said that if you missed earnings again, he would “be shocked beyond belief, and get a gun out and shoot you.” What was your reaction in that moment and how did you handle that?
Yeah, I was really hurt because, in 2008, I had very carefully never looked backward or pointed a finger at him. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re doing, there are like five moments in your life when you just need a friend. You screwed up, you know you screwed up, and you need somebody to give you their hand and not smack your butt. And he chose to smack my butt, not give me his hand – and you remember that.
I never thought it would be a good thing for the company to see us bickering in public, so I never did that, but we had a very direct, private conversation. It was a line of demarcation in our relationship for sure. Even after that, when I had a really tough decision to make, I always called him – even when we weren’t friends. I thought he had a good perspective that I could learn from and listen to.
Let’s be clear – I knew I goofed up. I knew that, but I was trying to recover, and I needed a friend. I just needed a hand. And what he did was just the opposite of that. He made a two- to three-day story become a one-month story. It was unnecessary roughness.
In your time as CEO, it was crisis after crisis after crisis and a lot of turbulence in your professional life. How did you manage to have a solid personal life?
I’ve always been good at compartmentalizing. I’ve always been good at focusing on staying in the moment to focusing on what needs to happen and trying to separate that from other things that I’m working on.
The fact of the matter is that I have a really great wife and a great daughter. And they were always really unaffected by what I was doing. Clearly, they read things and heard things, but they were always into the person and not the business person. That was a blessing.
There were days when hundreds of thousands of people hated me, but one person loved me, and that was enough to keep persevering into the future.
Shares plunged nearly 30% since you took over the company. How do you respond to the people and the shareholders who feel genuinely angry at you for the decisions you made as CEO?
Look, the share price is important. It was $38 when I started as CEO, and it was $30 when I left. I understand that. I completely understand that, and I don’t run from that.
What I try to point out is that we generated almost $300 billion of cash and earnings over those 16 years. We had great businesses. We generated good leaders. In other words, the team really worked hard through different crises and did their best. That’s the best I can offer – a more complete story of what happened.
In the book, you have a section in which you list several of the thorniest mistakes you believe you made during your time at GE. Can you share the one mistake you regret the most?
We had good leaders, many of which are CEOs of companies today, but we ran the company for efficiency. We had eight big P&Ls. Having lived in Silicon Valley for a period of time, what I would’ve done differently is run the company with 100 P&Ls to give leaders more focus, accountability, and to make them more innovative earlier on.
A question from a Profile reader: “Although Jeff takes public responsibility for the overall volatility during his tenure at GE, if given the chance to do it over, what 3 things would he have done differently?”
I would’ve simplified the company even further, faster. I would’ve shed more businesses and doubled down. I would’ve made the company deeper. I would’ve actually driven the digital initiative even harder. I would’ve been even more determined and more dogmatic in that regard.
In this uncertain world we live in, you advise a lot of young founders in your capacity as a venture partner at NEA. How do you advise them to learn to become masters of chaos?
There’s this notion of holding two truths at the same time. Knowing that the world is unfair, that it’s really tough, and that just when you think things can’t get worse, they can. You also need to keep your head up and know that the best opportunities may come your way during COVID, or after 9/11, or during the financial crisis. What every young leader can do is understand that you can hold two truths at the same time. You must hold two truths at the same time. But only a select few can do that.
Clarke Murphy is a CEO recruiter and adviser for Fortune 500 companies.
He said board rooms are looking for leaders with a high “LQ” or learning quotient.
Having high “LQ” means you’re able to adapt to change quickly.
This article is part of a series called “Secrets of Success,” which examines specific leadership tips from prominent business leaders.
For over three decades, Clarke Murphy has helped the biggest companies name their next CEO. For the last eight years, as the CEO consultancy Russell Reynolds, Murphy has advised more than 30 Fortune 500 CEO appointments and over 60 board appointments at companies that will remain unnamed due to privacy agreements.
While Murphy’s advice spans multiple industries including finance, retail, and technology, he’s found that boardrooms and executive committees today are looking for leadership candidates with one particular trait in common: a high LQ – a person’s willingness and ability to adapt to change.
“CEOs are not paid to have all the answers,” Murphy told Insider. “Today, it’s about your ability to be agile.”
The events of 2020 forced leaders to double down on this trait, the CEO adviser explained. Many corporate executives had to move their employees to remote work in a matter of days and ensure their workers were safe. Weeks later, they had to respond to demands for racial equity amid nationwide protests with statements and pledges. The role of the CEO changed, and leaders have had to adapt.
“What the COVID pandemic has brought on is the need for pretty rapid transformation,” he said. “Leaders not only have to have emotional intelligence, they have to have LQ, the ability to learn, listen, watch, and communicate transformation.”
How to develop LQ
To develop your own sense of LQ, Murphy recommends professionals ask their bosses for feedback, explore how they can improve work for their direct reports, and think about the problems their consumers face.
Ask your boss where you feel you could grow personally and professionally. Having this understanding will help you focus on how to become a better leader, Murphy said.
“You want to show that you’re always learning,” he said, “that you’re always improving.”
The second is to explore the obstacles your direct reports encounter at work, in order to make your organization more efficient. According to Murphy, this will help you lead transformation within your company.
Lastly, Murphy recommends that managers keep a pulse on the issues their customers care about, like reducing pollution or increasing data privacy, so they can develop innovative products.
“Successful leaders of the future will know these three things,” Murphy said. “They’ll know where they can grow and innovate to help their stakeholders.”
The PepsiCo case
In addition to the transformation exhibited by corporate leaders during the pandemic, one CEO, PepsiCo’s Ramon Laguarta, stands out to Murphy for his ability to be agile.
Laguarta has grappled with rapidly changing consumer habits that pose a threat to the company. People are looking for healthier food options and environmentally friendly products. That’s a potential risk for a company that sells snacks and plastic bottle products.
In response, Laguarta doubled down on a decades-long effort to cut calories in its products and engineer new, healthier ones. In the company’s 2021 statement to investors, the Pepsi CEO spoke about the company’s “special focus on no sugar beverages” and its continued efforts to “reduce added sugars, sodium and saturated fat in many of our products.”
He also announced the company’s goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40% by 2030, and has launched new climate-friendly agricultural projects. All the while, the company’s stock has been on a generally-upward trajectory.
“Laguarta has really been able to usher in change,” Murphy said. “He’s an example of truly embracing transformation.”
More CEOs will be tested on their LQ as the climate crisis worsens, Murphy added. Investors and consumers will want leaders who are able to respond to environmental, social, and good governance (ESG) issues like the need for more transparency around diversity efforts as well as carbon-cutting measures.
“I think the great leaders of the future will balance operational profit with sustainable leadership,” Murphy said. “They’ll adapt to changing times.”
What changes can you make in the office to increase your team’s performance?
We asked Richard Wiseman, professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and author of “How to Remember Everything”, for advice on how you, as a leader, could better lead your team.
Richard Wiseman: There are lots of myths in psychology – things that people believe there simply is no academic research for.
When it comes to brainstorming, right now around the world companies are all be getting together to kick around some ideas and generate some new thoughts. A terrible, terrible idea.
If you look at the research on brainstorming, it decreases the number of ideas and the originality of those ideas by around about 20%. Why, because when we all get together, the most dominant people take charge of the meeting and who knew they’re not the most creative people in the world?
So, a very, very simple change which is that you ask people to brainstorm on their own to come up with three innovative solutions before they get together, and then when you get together you go around the group and everyone talks about their solutions no matter how crazy actually increases innovation and creativity. So, again, a very, very simple change. A very easy change, but a very powerful one.
When it comes to meetings, often we all like to sit around and we all like, quite frankly, to waste a great deal of time. So, if you stand up in a meeting, a standing meeting, it doesn’t reduce productivity.
What it does do is massively reduce the time of the meeting. People want to be out of that room quickly, so they’re just as productive in a much, much shorter time.
Also, if you think that a colleague or maybe a client is not being entirely straight with you, what’s the best thing to do to try and find out if they’re being economical with the truth?
Well, if you look at the amount of lying across different types of communication, you see people lie a lot face-to-face, a bit less on the phone, a little bit in texting, but absolutely not in emails. Only around about 10% of emails carry a lie because people don’t want to commit themselves to print.
So, if you think someone isn’t being totally straight with you, just say, oh, can you email me about that? Instantly you’ll find out whether or not they’re being economical with the truth.
At the moment, we’re trying to cut down on sleep as much as possible, there’s an epidemic of sleeplessness. And sleep is absolutely vital. It underpins productivity, it underpins focus, it underpins creativity.
What’s happening right at the moment is we’re taking our smartphones to bed, often putting them on our bedside table and treating them as alarm clocks, and then, of course, in the middle of the night, you wake up, “I think I’ll just check social media or whatever it is” and you get this blast of light, which actually contains blue light, which is very disruptive to the production of melatonin, which is essential for sleep. It really messes up the rest of the night.
Value sleep. If there’s any way of incorporating a 20-minute nap into the middle of the day, really good for productivity. Businesses should be doing that. Value sleep.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in July 2018.
As the vice chair of the Federal Reserve from 1997 to 2006, he steered the country’s economy through the massive financial aftershock of September 11. After serving as an executive and then chair of reinsurance company Swiss Re for two years, he took the helm as CEO of TIAA in April 2008 – leading a financial-services company that manages over $1 trillion in retirement funds.
And in the past year, he’s overseen 17,000 employees through a shift to remote work during a pandemic and the racial reckoning following George Floyd’s death.
“I’m really proud of the fact that during those periods, we kept our values,” Ferguson told Insider. “We have come through these series of crises as a financially strong and stable company with ample capital.”
Ferguson is set to retire at the end of April, handing the company over to Thasunda Brown Duckett, former CEO of consumer banking at JP Morgan. As his tenure as the company’s chief winds down, he’s had more time to reflect on his career. He told Insider that there are four specific traits that define a good leader: expertise, vision, perseverance, and empathy.
Empathy, he said, has been the most helpful in his career as a leader – especially during difficult or uncertain times. Having this trait, regardless of your industry, will make you a better manager or executive, he said.
Empathy, as Ferguson defines it, is the ability to create an environment in which team members can bring all of themselves to work.
“Individuals don’t want to follow someone who’s going to treat the follower as just a cog in some grand plan, a small piece of wood in the large machine – that does not make anyone feel very good,” the CEO said.
Effective leaders take time to embrace diversity, the unique skill sets individuals bring to the table. They care about how their employees feel and cultivate an environment where all people can feel comfortable.
Workplace experts agree that empathy, and emotional intelligence in general, are key to leading productive and engaged teams.
Empathy can take many forms. It can be a leader making work more flexible for employees juggling caregiving responsibilities or expanding child care benefits, as many parents struggle to work and raise their children during a pandemic. Ferguson took both of these steps to support employees recently.
“In a crisis moment, showing some empathy gets people to follow you,” he said.
There’s a clear payoff. People are generally happier when they’re shown empathy. And multiple studies, including one conducted in 2019 by the University of Oxford, have found that happier employees are more productive.
“At the end of the day, the leader probably makes a small number of decisions, but many other people make daily decisions and they must be done in a way that’s consistent with the larger goal,” Ferguson said. “I think that’s best done by people who are really most engaged and are really committed to and bought into the vision.”
This was a question one of my clients, Sarah, came to coaching with.
Sarah was an accomplished manager and executive. During her career, she had earned two PhDs and over the course of twenty years, worked her way from the legal department to director of business development at a luxury retail company.
One year earlier, the CEO had tasked Sarah with starting a sub-division within the business development department to focus specifically on innovation. This meant her team was responsible for creating and implementing cutting-edge strategies to modernize the company’s marketing and distribution channels.
As a Sensitive Striver, Sarah was thoughtful, empathetic, and skilled at spotting opportunities others missed – a combination of skill which made her a perfect fit to lead the team.
But Sarah had started her career as a lawyer and operated under the false belief she had no idea what she was doing. The thought of building the innovation team filled her with imposter syndrome. She doubted whether she had what it took to get the job done and make their work a success.
Soon, her insecurity started to hold her back in other ways, namely in terms of her ability to make decisions. Sarah often found herself overthinking choices – both big and small – which stressed her out and slowed the team’s progress. She had trouble trusting her own judgment, and instead sought excessive amounts of outside approval before making a call.
Most of all, Sarah was constantly second-guessing herself.
After she would eventually make a decision, she would find herself preoccupied by all the what if’s (What if we had chosen direction B? What if X wouldn’t have happened? etc). She would toss and turn at night (and feel distracted at his desk during the day) by thoughts of whether he could have made a better choice.
In other words, Sarah couldn’t stop ruminating.
What is rumination?
Ruminating is a type of overthinking that involves obsessing over the same thoughts. Typically these are “dead-end” thoughts that aren’t productive, positive, or useful. It’s as if your mind is a record, stuck on the same track that keeps playing over and over – hence the second-guessing.
When you’re ruminating, you’re dwelling and living in the past. You analyze and replay situations over and over. You may rehash conversations, dissect people’s body language, and stress about what you did or didn’t say.
When it comes to decision-making, ruminating can look like:
Beating yourself up for making a decision too slowly.
Worrying about other people’s reactions and judgments.
Thinking about a decision can be helpful – especially if it leads to a resolution or provokes new solutions and insight. But rumination doesn’t do that. It simply causes distress and drains you of mental and emotional energy you need to do your job effectively.
Why rumination affects Sensitive Strivers
Rumination to some extent is normal because we tend to believe that by ruminating, we’ll gain insight into a problem.
The problem arises, however, when it becomes an ingrained mental habit that begins to hold you (and possibly those around you) back from your full potential – as it was for Sarah in the story above.
Ruminating is also common in people who possess certain personality characteristics, like Sensitive Strivers.
As driven, deep thinkers, Sensitive Strivers pride themselves on being conscientious and thorough. When well balanced, their thoughtfulness can be a strength – contributing to above-average self-awareness and giving them superpowers like intuition and creativity.
However, when unbalanced, their Thoughtfulness can become a hindrance, which is exactly what was happening for Sarah.
Sensitive Strivers also tend to be perfectionists. So while they deliver high work quality, they are often extremely hard on themselves and their own worst critic, which leads to rumination.
If this sounds like you, then fear not, because it is entirely possible to rebalance your Thoughtfulness. With new tools to channel your sensitivity and ambition, you can stop second-guessing yourself and learn to regain your confidence and trust your judgment.
How to stop second-guessing yourself
Here’s a three-step process to end rumination that I coached Sarah through, which will also serve you.
At its core, rumination operates on negative self-talk. These unhelpful thoughts can sound like:
I’m such an idiot. Why didn’t I think of that sooner? A smart person would have.
This is all going to turn out to be a disaster.
I bet everyone is thinking I’m a failure.
Everyone’s inner critic is different, so your brand of negative self-talk sounds different. Regardless, your first step remains the same, and that is to interrupt the unhelpful thoughts.
This works because rumination is like an automatic, knee jerk reaction. It may be so automatic that you’re not even aware it happens. But interrupting the thoughts helps you build internal strength and command to be more in control of your experience.
You can interrupt your negative self-talk in a few ways, such as by silently saying STOP or “This isn’t helpful” or snapping a rubber band on your wrist. I also like to have my clients name their inner critic, so they can find emotional distance from their cruel inner voice when it arises.
Rumination and second-guessing yourself are characterized by wishing you or a situation were different or beating yourself up for all the woulda-coulda-shoulda’s that exist in decision-making. In both cases, you are wasting valuable time and energy fighting against reality.
A much more productive approach is radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is not the same as resignation or passivity. Rather it is about:
Adjusting your perspective to willingly and realistically take in the facts, realizing you can’t change them even if you’d like to.
Assertively moving forward without staying stuck in thoughts like “why me,” “this is unfair,” or “it wasn’t meant to be this way.”
Embrace radical acceptance by rooting into the present instead of fighting it. Sarah did this by reminding herself “this is where I am now” or “I don’t like the situation we’re in, but I can’t change how it unfolded” after making decisions.
After you’ve interrupted rumination and accepted reality, you can approach the final step in the process: redirecting your thinking.
By redirecting your thinking, I mean channeling your depth of thought and intelligence more constructively. Specially, you can do this through self-coaching – asking yourself open-ended, growth-oriented questions that open up new possibilities.
Self-coaching questions to stop second-guessing yourself include:
How can I make the most of the circumstances in front of me?
How might someone who is confident respond?
How would I advise my closest colleague to approach this?
What thought helps me feel energized and powerful?
What would I believe if I knew everything was going to work out?
What’s the very best next step I need to take?
Keep in mind that you can’t attempt this process once and expect rumination to magically dissolve. Changing any habit, especially a mental habit that’s as ingrained as second-guessing yourself, requires repetition and dedication.
But if you follow the steps above, soon you’ll experience greater success without so much stress.
We are, as the saying goes, creatures of habit. According to a study from Duke University, around 45% of our everyday actions are made up of habits. Our habits, then, are a fundamental reflection of who we are. “Habit is but a long practice,” Aristotle wrote, which “becomes men’s nature in the end.”
So our lifestyle is, in essence, the sum total of our habits. Change your habits and you change your life. But as most of us have learned, unlearning bad habits and learning new ones are not so easy. Even the most generous estimates show that half of us fail to keep our New Year’s resolutions.
That’s because most of us start off too big. We decide to launch into a whole new lifestyle all at once. Or we think we’re just going to get there by the sheer exercise of willpower. But that ignores the science of how willpower works.
In their book “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” Roy F. Baumeister, a leading expert in the subject, and coauthor John Tierney show that willpower isn’t a fixed, genetic trait – it’s a muscle, and one that can be strengthened.
And the best way to use our willpower to adopt healthier habits is by starting small. It’s a common element of every successful behavior change program. “Make it easy” is how James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones,” puts it: “The central idea is to create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible. Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits.”
For BJ Fogg, director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford, it’s about making the minimum viable effort – going as small as you can. “To create a new habit, you must first simplify the behavior,” he said. “Make it tiny, even ridiculous. A good tiny behavior is easy to do – and fast.”
The benefit of even one small win goes beyond just the new healthy behavior you’ve created – it actually builds that willpower muscle to create even more wins and good habits.
“The more you succeed, the more capable you get at succeeding in the future,” Fogg said. “So you don’t start with the hardest behaviors first, you start with the ones you want to do and you can do and you persist.”
In one of my favorite passages of Fogg’s book “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything,” he shows how our tiny habits can spark a positive impact beyond just ourselves:
Habits may be the smallest units of transformation, but they’re also the most fundamental. They are the first concentric circles of change that will spiral out. Think about it. One person starts one habit that builds to two habits that builds to three habits that changes an identity that inspires a loved one who influences their peer group and changes their mindset, which spreads like wildfire and disrupts a culture of helplessness, empowering everyone and slowly changing the world. By starting small with yourself and your family, you set off a chain reaction that creates an explosion of change.
In my conversations with Fogg and Clear, I have been inspired by how they have pushed our understanding forward and helped establish the scientific foundation for the power of taking small steps. “Your Time to Thrive” builds on this foundation of behavior change, sharing a practical system for exactly how to implement Microsteps into each facet of our life. When it comes to leading a healthier, more fulfilling life, most of us know what we should do. And yet, all too often, we fail to act on this knowledge. We need a little help moving from knowing what to do to actually doing it. That’s what our system is here for.
More action, more meaning
When we take Microsteps, we are not only moving forward, we’re going inward. By creating rituals in our day, we allow ourselves to get into the metaphorical eye of the hurricane – that centered place of strength, wisdom, and peace that we all have inside ourselves. We all veer away from that place again and again – that’s the nature of life. And it’s a place that we are too distracted to access when we are living life breathlessly and always “on.” But from that place we can tap into the inner reserves of resilience and wisdom that make behavior change possible.
You can see it in this Microstep, which happens to be one of my favorites:
Pick a time at night when you turn off your devices – and gently escort them out of your bedroom. Our phones are repositories of everything we need to put away to allow us to sleep – our to-do lists, our inboxes, multiple projects, and problems. Disconnecting from the digital world will help you sleep better, deeply recharge, and reconnect to your wisdom and creativity.
It’s one of my favorites because, for me, it is impossible to separate this Microstep from a very specific moment in my life – a moment when behavior change wasn’t just something I aspired to, but something I desperately needed.
On April 6, 2007, I woke up in a pool of my own blood. I was two years into building the Huffington Post. A divorced mother of two teenage daughters, I had just returned from a week of taking my eldest daughter on a tour of prospective colleges. And since she had insisted that I not use my Blackberry during the day (the Blackberry, if you’re not familiar, was a communication device used in ancient times), I would stay up each night working.
And so, the morning after we returned home, I woke up burned out and exhausted – and then I collapsed. The result was a broken cheekbone, several stitches over my eye, and the beginning of a long journey.
In the days that followed, I found myself in a lot of doctors’ waiting rooms, which, it turns out, are great places to think about life. And that’s what I did. I asked myself a lot of questions, like “Is this what success really looks like? Is this the life I want to lead?”
The answer was no. And the diagnosis I got from all the doctors was that I had a severe case of burnout. So I decided to make a lot of changes to my life. I started meditating again, which I had learned to do as a child. I changed the way I worked so I could be more productive, more focused, more energetic, and less tired and stressed. I started sleeping more. I knew my sleep deprivation was directly connected to my addiction to my phone – it was an addiction – and to my flawed definition of success.
I got deep into the growing body of science on the connection between wellbeing and performance, and how we can actually be more productive when we prioritize our wellbeing and take time to unplug and recharge. And – eureka! – a Microstep was born.
My 70h birthday, in July 2020, was a powerful reminder to me that we don’t need to wait to begin living our best life. At the time I was sheltering in place with my daughters and sister at our family home in LA, and while cleaning out the garage I came across dozens of old journals and notebooks filled with pages and pages of my thoughts and goals and worries and dreams from my twenties on!
And as I read back through half a century of notes, I was struck by four things. First, by how early I knew what really mattered in life. Second, how badly I was at acting on that knowledge. Third, how draining and depleting all my worries and fears were. And fourth, how little those worries and fears turned out to matter.
As I paged through my old notebooks, I wanted to shout advice at myself across the years – telling the younger me not to worry or doubt so much, or to just go ahead and take that risk. And that is one of my biggest hopes for this book: that instead of looking at those fearless and wise elders among us and thinking, “I want to be that way when I’m old,” we can use Microsteps to tap into what is wisest, boldest, and most authentic within us and live each day from that place right now, however young or old we may be.
Arianna Huffington is the founder and CEO of Thrive Global, the founder of The Huffington Post, and the author of 15 books. In 2016, she launched Thrive Global, a leading behavior change tech company with the mission of changing the way we work and live by ending the collective delusion that burnout is the price we must pay for success.
Marina Khidekel is Thrive Global’s head of content development, bringing Thrive’s corporate and consumer audiences compelling multimedia storytelling and actionable, science-backed advice to help lower stress and improve wellbeing.
As an adviser to many startups today, I still see that most of you entrepreneurs see yourselves as the sole driver of your new solution, and the key driver of your new business.
That’s not all bad in the beginning, but as you scale, every business has to build a team to keep up with the wide range of skills needed, fight new competitors, and respond to changes in the marketplace.
For many, it’s hard to make the switch from that top-down, order-giving culture, and it’s hard to find the time to recruit and coach the new team members you need to scale the business to success.
Many new businesses fail at this stage because they don’t build the required team culture to keep teams engaged and committed, and founders burn out trying to do too much.
Based on my own experience in large companies, as well as small ones, here are seven key strategies I recommend for building the teams and culture that will drive business success:
1. Admit to yourself and others that you need help
Don’t let your ego and passion prevent you from building a team around you, listening to others with complementary skills, and delegating decisions as far down as possible. We all need to be humble and recognize that what we need to know about technology and the market changes daily.
2. Identify a business purpose and goals that motivate any team
Today, modern teams are engaged by a higher purpose, such as improving the environment or helping the underprivileged, more than just money and profit. You need them to make a personal commitment to customer service, improved quality, and change to improve the future.
Blake Mycoskie, founder of Toms Shoes, set a goal of donating a pair of shoes to the needy for every pair sold, and maintains team commitment by providing international trips to assist partners in distributing shoes in interesting places, including Nepal and Honduras.
3. Encourage your team to make decisions and take action
Many teams I know are frustrated by never-ending debates and constant requests for more analysis by management. Satisfaction and commitment come from choosing a path to move forward, evaluating results and customer feedback, and learning from all their best efforts.
4. Keep teams small, diverse, and collaborative
I find that teams with more than eight or nine people often get bogged down in internal politics and have trouble sharing data effectively or reaching consensus. People all need to trust each other and be able to recognize the value of diverse perspectives. Avoid long and never-ending projects.
As an example, CEO Jeff Bezos at Amazon is known for his two-pizza rule: No meeting or team should be so large that two pizzas can’t feed the whole group. He is convinced this assures maximum productivity and that no one’s ideas get drowned out or ignored.
5. Practice active listening and open team communication
As the size and number of your teams grows, the amount of time you spend listening and communicating must also grow. Resist the urge to limit what teams need to know, interrupt negative messages, or jump quickly from listening to a solution. Promote the sharing of ideas and feedback.
6. Foster a culture of constant learning, even from failures
Many new business leaders can’t wait to implement fixed team processes to improve productivity and minimize risk. While productivity is important, the bigger risk is not learning from customers and the market and falling behind. Reward new ideas, experiments, and critical team feedback.
7. Be the model of customer focus for the team
Too many business leaders I know retreat further and further from the customer as their business scales. Make sure you schedule time for regular customer visits, and make sure your team understands that providing value to more customers is your definition of growing the business.
As your business grows from a startup to a sustainable business, you too have to grow from an entrepreneur to a business leader. Of course, if your interests and passion don’t lean in this direction, you can always bring in an outside CEO who already has the skills, or you can merge or sell your startup to another enterprise and move on to start a new venture.
Just be aware that a winning team makeup and culture won’t happen by default. It takes recognition of the need and effort on your part. I urge every entrepreneur to take a hard look at their own situation – you may be a key part of the problem, or the driver of the next unicorn business solution.
Emotional intelligence is a crucial leadership skill that is going to become more important for executives across the board.
That’s according to diversity and inclusion consultants who said leaders can’t achieve the important work around racial equity without it.
Emotional intelligence is defined as “the ability to understand the way people feel and react and to use this skill to make good judgments and to avoid or solve problems,” per the Cambridge Dictionary.
“It’s a crucial leadership skill to have, one I think more people are going to be talking about in the future,” Arquella Hargrove, DEI consultant and leadership coach, told Insider.
Here’s why. Calls for racial equity and diversity, equity, and inclusion have never been louder. Workers and customers are demanding corporate leaders take action. In order to achieve those goals, experts tell us that leaders have to listen to their colleagues from underrepresented backgrounds. They have to engage in tough conversations on race and privilege. And they have to enact changes and work with others to solve problems.
“Diversity and inclusion – we are dealing with people. We want to humanize it. There’s emotion there,” Hargrove said.
The killing of George Floyd and other unarmed Black Americans, and the resulting resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, turned DEI from tired buzzwords into business objectives. It became personal, Hargrove said.
Doris Quintanilla, executive director and cofounder of The Melanin Collective, a DEI consultancy, agrees.
“If we’re trying to center around humanity and accept people for who they are, you have to have a skillset of understanding and of empathy,” she said.
What emotional intelligence looks like and how to build it
There are multiple parts to emotional intelligence leaders (and managers in general) can work to improve. They fall under a few broad categories, explain Daniel Goleman, famed author of “Emotional Intelligence 2.0,” and Richard E. Boyatzis, psychology professor at Case Western Reserve University.
One is social awareness: or the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s having empathy, they write in Harvard Business Review.
To boost your empathy, Hargrove and Quintanilla recommend leaders spend more time learning about their employees from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds. Invite them to share their experiences, and listen to them. In addition, educate yourself by reading books on anti-racism.
“The beauty of this is when leaders listen to their colleagues from different backgrounds, they start to value those differences. They make people feel included on the team,” Hargrove said.
Another part of emotional intelligence is how well you manage relationships, or your ability to communicate effectively and work with others.
“One part of emotional intelligence is asking for feedback and being able to accept that feedback. That makes managers and leaders better,” she said.
Quintanilla recommends leaders invest in their relationships with Black and brown employees. Give them a seat at the decision making table, and incorporate their advice into your plans.
“Everyone had a statement after the murder of George Floyd, those things don’t matter anymore. The words that you say – if they’re not in alignment with the actual actions you’re taking, the people you’re hiring, the people you’re promoting – we don’t want to hear it,” Quintanilla said.