Welcome to Uncommon Leadership.
I’m Michael Hunter with Uncommon Teams.
Today, I’m talking with Anu Arora.
An experienced technology leader, trainer, author, leadership and executive coach, Anu thrives in complex environments that require both technical and interpersonal excellence.
After starting her career in building helicopters at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, she managed the training function of a government department in Australia. She then moved to the United States to engineer software products for Microsoft, including managing the quality division of Microsoft Windows.
Now, as the founder of Infinite Potential Leadership, she helps leaders find their way to thrive.
Anu Arora 0:55
Excellent! Good. I’m glad to be here.
I’m glad you’re here.
In your journey to seeing people as people and leveraging the unique gifts that each person brings, when did you first realize this might be a valuable approach?
That’s a good question.
When did I first realize it was a valuable approach?
I don’t think it was any particular point in time when I recognized that that was a valuable approach, of seeing people as people and their talents, their gifts.
It might have been something innate in me, because when I look at my Gallup Strengths, Michael, Positivity and Maximizer are two of the top five strengths.
When you look at both of them, Positivity is about being positive, seeing good in the world, in life, in others, and Maximizer is “How do you leverage that? How do you leverage that in people? How do people leverage their talents and strengths?”
Combined, those two strands allow me to see that in people.
There is a time in my career where it got reinforced as a manager, because I saw when people were leveraging their strengths, their talents, their goodness, they were happier.
They were in flow.
They were enjoying themselves.
They felt more aligned.
And in fact, my one common question I ask folks always, is, “Are you having fun?”
They’re like, “Why does she even ask that? We are just doing the work.”
But it’s not about just doing the work.
Are you really enjoying the work you’re doing?
And that became a benchmark for me as a question.
Trying to know, are people really enjoying what they’re doing?
I saw that when they are enjoying what they’re doing, we have happier, healthier, more productive teams.
Yes, I’ve found the same.
In my own career, the times that I’ve described what I do as “play” are the times where I’ve gotten the most recognition from others for doing a great job. And times where I didn’t do that, when I didn’t describe my job that way, are times where I was miserable, and everyone else was pretty miserable as well.
That’s very obvious, isn’t it? Once you start seeing, you can’t stop seeing it.
People also want to start recognizing the joy they get in doing things that are more aligned to who they are and what their gifts are, then it’s hard for them to go back. They want to create their state again, and again.
Sometimes they may not know how to.
But they want to be in that state.
When you’re working with someone who wants to be in that state, but doesn’t know how to get started, how do you help them take that first step?
This is my job as a coach. I do this day in and day out. This is what I do for a living.
My approach is two things.
The first one is around appreciative inquiry.
Let’s just go in and figure out what’s already working for you.
I give them an exercise to follow yourself for a week, and follow you at the end of every activity, a meeting, or coding work you did, or something you did.
At the end of that activity, can you rate yourself for how engaged you were, how energized you were doing this, and what state of flow you were in? Did the time stop for you during this activity?
That starts to create that awareness.
“Where do I find that?”
What are those moments of joy, like you were describing for yourself, as you noticed?
You were more appreciated when you were finding that flow, when work became play.
That’s what they start to recognize. That, “These are the kinds of things where I am aligned.”
It usually turns out that they are leveraging their gifts at that time.
And so we start to recognize, they start to recognize, what their strengths are.
Then I’ll ask, “Why do you think this happened? What was at play? How are you leveraging, what skills were you leveraging? How are you showing up?”
It turns out that there are certain gifts at play during that time, which they start to become more and more aware of.
So you start with becoming aware of the emotions that we’re experiencing, how we’re feeling, and then backing up from there, to what we’re doing, when we’re happy with the way we’re feeling and when we’re not so happy with the way we’re feeling. Then, using that, you further back into what’s causing, bringing that happiness.
Exactly. You articulate this well.
As people then start recognizing what brings them joy, how do you help them apply that to the work that they’re doing right now? Or is it that, if nothing you’re doing is bringing you joy, it’s time to quit and go find something else?
Sometimes that’s also an option, but sometimes it’s not. This is your livelihood. This is where you need to be.
How do we start making bringing more joy into it?
Again, it starts with self-awareness.
There is also a little bit of gremlin work in coaching, which is looking at how you might be coming in your own way of bringing yourself joy into your work.
Sometimes people feel that it’s about others. “If this boss were to disappear, everything will become great in my life.” Or, “If circumstances, the causes and conditions will change, I will have a better life and my work will become really play.”
And of course, if your work is not bringing you any joy at all, and the causes and conditions are so bad, then we look at what are other places for you. How can you bring your strengths to another place?
But, the first thing is, can we create moments of play within this work?
And that’s, again, looking at your day and saying, “Okay, this is the kind of work which brings more joy. Can you negotiate with your boss, with your manager?”
Lots of times there is, if there is alignment, they do better work there anyways.
If anybody is noticing that, they can see that when they are involved in that particular kind of activity, they have a higher leverage.
And so, start articulating that. Making it visible.
I always say, “Make the invisible visible.”
You assume that somebody is watching this and saying, “Wow,” but can you make it visible? “This is what I enjoy. Here’s how I produce results here. Here’s the value to the business. Here’s how it connects with the business.”
Can you make the bridge for them to see how valuable it is and then start bringing more of that work into your life?
Do you have a specific example you can walk us through of a time where either you or a client was faced with a situation where it seemed that nothing that brought them joy was needed or allowed, and yet you helped them, or yourself, find a way to bring even a tiny bit of joy into that dismal situation?
This is a good question. Let me see if I can.
This comes up a lot.
Especially in current circumstances, where tech companies have been laying off a lot of people and when people who are remaining feel that they don’t have choices.
So now they are working extra hard, and they are afraid to even bring up that this is not what I want to do.
But there’s somehow the drink or whatever is being offered to them with their eyes closed.
I have a client who were very upset that her company’s wasting time in these useless meetings.
She would multitask and she just shut off from that and she says, “It’s boring. It’s a waste of time. I spend six hours of my day in that kind of stuff.”
We discussed and she recognized her talents.
One of her biggest talents was that she can sift through this fluff going on and truly take stuff out of that on what’s meaningful.
I kept pushing her on, coaching her on, “What’s the value you can bring? What is it you do?”
She says, “No, there is there isn’t anything I can do.”
Finally, she said “I’ll do this because I want to try it. But I’m just committing to doing it once. I’m going to, this time, just focus on listening and see what value I can bring.”
Then she interjected halfway, saying, “Why are you discussing what you’re discussing? Haven’t we discussed this six months ago, and we had this whole email on what we brought out of that. And as a result we did this, and why.”
She pointed out that meeting ended, first of all, she got the half-an-hour back.
And then, the second thing was her manager came back and said, “Where have you been, all this while? Why have you not been speaking up and bringing more meaning into this?”
And so that became her thing then from there on.
She said, “Meetings were a time I would do some other emails, I’d take care of the emails side by side.”
She dropped everything.
She focused on it.
She says, “My gift is to sift through this fluff. And what is the stuff, what question can I ask, which will bring the stuff out?”
The power of presence is really amazing. What we discover we’re able to do with we take the time to be present.
This idea of, “What is the value that I bring?” is something I work on with my clients as well.
How do you help your clients understand what that value is? Is it just, as you said, having them pay attention over a week of what’s bringing them joy and what’s not? And then the things that bring them joy are probably part and parcel of where they’re adding value?
That’s one piece of it.
I’m also big on having them understand their purpose.
What are they there for?
How do they fit into the organizational purpose?
How do they fit into the team purpose?
Value is at multiple levels.
Individually, I’m happy and I’m in flow and I have joy. That’s one aspect.
The other aspect is that, collectively as a team, what are we here to do? And how do I fit into that picture?
So that is that understanding, and that’s also important.
It’s not just about the individual. It’s about the collective.
Then, how do I fit into the organization? And what is it doing?
That helps reinforce my own why.
So, connecting my why, to the team’s why, to the organizational why.
I help them with all three.
Because one, it’s not in isolation and not an entity in isolation.
We’v got to understand that we are part of the larger collective.
I am here as a part of the team, and I am a valuable member of the team, and here’s how I contribute to the bigger goals of what we are here for.
When my team or my organization doesn’t know, isn’t interested in identifying, what our why is at those levels, how can I plug my why into their whys? How do I find my way to fit in and help further what they’re trying to do?
When they don’t know their whys.
If they don’t know. If I ask, “That doesn’t matter. This is our mission.” Which often isn’t a why.
It isn’t a why.
I’ve seen that too, where the organization’s why’s not clear, team’s why is in fact even more unclear than the organizational why.
In that case, it’s also asking those questions.
Because nobody has asked the team, “Why are we as a team? What makes us successful? What does this organization’s success look like? How would you define that success? How would you measure that success? How do you know we as a team are doing well?”
A lot of times this doesn’t exist because nobody’s bothered to ask.
We just get together for meetings, we check mark or discuss this, this, this.
But nobody has gone and asked, “Why are we doing what are we doing?”
Just because somebody put us together, we assume that we have our own tasks and we’re just checking them off the list.
Part of it is building confidence in asking those questions.
Going back to Simon Sinek’s Why, his work on Why: when people don’t understand why they fit in, it’s very hard for them to feel like they’re having fun and joy and alignment.
So that is number one.
Number two is I’ve become in the last five years now, I’ve become very interested in the idea of team coaching.
It’s been picking up a lot.
Let’s work with the teams to help them identify why are they as a team, what norms do they need to have to work together as a team?
So, working with the teams and helping them understand their why.
That’s the other thing: individuals are a part of very complex, adaptive systems, in teams and organizations.
They can do as much, they can push hard, they can ask the questions, but at the end of it, their boss just says, “You don’t have time for this, go do your work. This is derailing us from what we’re supposed to be here for.”
We’re saying as team coaches, “This is defining what we are here for.”
The need for building the norms, the psychological safety, defining the collective purpose, is helping individuals understand why they come together to work on this.
That in itself is powerful.
But, see how much more powerful it is for the organization.
Now they have productive collective entities instead of individuals.
The question that you started with, the variations on, “How do we know that we’re being successful?” That seems an easy question that anyone can ask that isn’t directly bringing in all this squishy people stuff.
It’s on the surface—well, all the way through—focused on, “What is the value that this team is adding for the company? Why does this company have the team here? And how is the company evaluating whether the team is pulling its weight?”
If those questions are not answerable, then this is an easy way for anyone to start pointing out, “We don’t know what we’re doing here. And we need to get some clarity.”
Asking those questions is the starting point.
Do you find that’s the case with most of the situations that you’re encountering? That there’s one or a set of questions that need to be asked, to start resolving whatever the issue is?
It all starts with those open-ended questions.
Let’s try to figure this thing out, even if we don’t know the answers.
In fact, I say, ask questions for which there are no obvious answers.
Instead of asking, “Is it so?” or, “Do we have it?” ask, “What does it mean? How do we show it? What’s important here?”
Questions are, curiosity, questioning, is the starting point for this.
If I don’t feel comfortable, or my team doesn’t yet have the psychological safety, to answer these questions truthfully, and instead are just spouting whatever we know management is expecting the answer to be, how can we start opening that, bringing in that ability to answer what we truly feel?
Are you talking about the individuals or the leaders?
Psychological safety is the quality of interactions.
The very first step in that is vulnerability.
There’s something we can do to model it, to model vulnerability.
Vulnerability, I’m saying, “I don’t know.” Or, “This is not something I understand at the moment.” Or, “I have no idea, but collectively we can do this.” Or, “Here’s how I feel about this.”
Now you are making space, Michael, for emotions to be present, for ambiguity to be present, for the unknowns to be present.
We are making space for all that.
There will never be a point where all questions can be answered.
In fact, there shouldn’t be a point.
Because when there are questions that can’t be answered, that’s what leads to innovation, that we get creative.
Modeling vulnerability is that very first step to embracing psychological safety or making it a little bit more safer than what it already is.
And here is one thing to add.
(I know you have another question coming up. I can see it from your lips.)
When you model it, I feel it.
When I feel it, I get the courage to model it as well.
And it’s like smiling.
Safety is also the same thing. Basic. Innate in us, our desire to feel safe.
When we are with another human, they are exhibiting signs of safety and vulnerability, I feel courage to do the same thing.
So it spreads.
That was the point I was trying to add.
When we as leaders are faced with environments where everyone believes they need to be professional and the perceived safety of being vulnerable is super low, how can we, do you have some suggestions for ways to sort of ease into that are safe for me? Safe for my team?
I may be scared to start sharing parts of me, and my team may be scared both to hear that from me, and also then to share that for themselves.
That’s a very good question.
If this is something organizations have not done, leadership have not done it before, this can look very, very scary.
So you’re telling me that we’re going to open our hearts up and so that’s not ideal.
We work a lot of times from just your neck up, that’s where you function at.
And so, what I suggest, Michael, is to create some kind of norms within the team.
Come up with some acceptable ways of bringing safety in.
Do we all agree?
What is the way that feels comfortable for everyone on the team?
And we’ve done various ways, I’ve worked with the teams, I do a lot of team coaching. One of the first things I do with the team, when I meet with them, is to create ways of working together, or norms.
“How would you tell your innermost feeling?” and they say, “Well, I don’t know.”
Or when I say, “How could you challenge the status quo?” because one of the levels of psychological safety is that we can challenge the status quo.
That’s what will bring change.
Otherwise, things stay in the same way unless another force comes in and changes it. Newton’s Law.
So then they say, “Okay, what seems like an acceptable minbar for the entire team.”
One of the tools I use is a temperature check.
Cool, warm, hot.
I’ll ask you, “What’s the temperature today for receiving feedback on this?”
You say “Cool,” I’m going to be very gentle with my feedback and say, “Here’s what you did.”
You say “Warm,” I’ll ask “Why are you doing this, Michael? Why, what’s the point of doing this?”
And then, “Hot” is, “Bring it on. I want straight what you feel.”
So that temperature check itself, a tool like that, gives people a way to express with each other, because now we are creating the safety for that expression.
How do you make it safe to answer even that question truthfully, when my manager has said, “I want your open and honest feedback” and then shown that they do not want your open and honest feedback?
There can’t be psychological safety in this.
I don’t have a magic wand.
If they don’t mean what they say, people can’t feel safe.
It’s a human, basic human, survival.
I am going to go into my very primal part of my brain and try to protect myself, because they don’t even mean what they say.
There can’t be safety.
At some point, the starting point is only when, some things can’t be started unless you reach a certain condition.
The condition is that there has to be some level of openness.
It’s not like they can’t still be very ignorant. It’s fine. They don’t know what it is.
But, yes, “I am open to entertaining the fact that we need to build some more psychological safety.” Or, “I like this idea.” Or, “Let’s just try it.” Or, “I don’t think we need it. I have an open-door policy.”
But if you say it, let’s just experiment with it.
There has to be limited opening to increase their safety, and the only way, Tim Clark says this, Timothy Clark has written the four levels of psychological safety and he’s done a lot of research on this, and he says that sometimes helping them see that the business results are suffering, mapping it to retention is a problem on the team with constantly hiring, is showing them as some kind of business results that matter to them.
What will shift them?
Why would they go here?
“I don’t want to go to this place.”
“Well, if you don’t go to this place, you will constantly be hiring. Why don’t people stay on your team?”
I have a hard time imagining that, how do we bring safety, when the leader’s completely closed on that.
You’re bringing this back to what we were speaking about earlier, that we can always frame the question in terms of what the business does value. What the manager does value. Show that those measures are not matching up to what they want them to be. Then, we can start opening the door by asking questions around, “How do we change this?”
You are a connector. I see that. And also synthesis of all this.
Let’s bring them to what they value and then connect to what values even more.
We’ve been talking a lot in this conversation about situations where people are not so accepting and ready to do all the squishy people stuff. I imagine—or at least I hope for you—that you have also had experiences where the teams were super ready and welcoming of doing this transformation, diving in, and still encountered problems.
What most surprised you in that sort of a situation, wherever you were this, “Rah rah! Let’s do this!” We all dive in, and then something smacks us upside the head that we’d never expected.
Teams can be in any stage of growth and evolution and will have more room to grow.
There’s never that state where they arrive.
There’s no arrival because they’re changing all the time.
They might be high performing. From our very traditional model, we looked at forming, storming, norming, and performing.
They are at performing.
Then, something shifts.
Then they are back to norming and storming.
That’s what usually happens.
I start working with the team, and they are energized and they’re happy and they’re going, “We want to work on this. We want to bring on more psychological safety. We want to double our results.”
They’ll have all these ambitious goals.
You can see there is camaraderie within them. There is respect.
But, inherently, humans are complex.
No system is stable.
These are dynamic systems.
They are never in one state.
An external force comes.
For example, I was working with a team, was just tremendous work they were doing, they were growing so well.
Pandemic came, hit that industry so hard.
The numbers were tanked, these were one of the industries which was hit hard.
In six months, all that energy seemed to evaporate.
You could see, even that behavior shifted, from being very, very kind to each other to they were snappy, they were judgmental.
I just had to remind them, “What was it that brought you to this state?”
Six months ago, it could be just results.
And if business results are shifting, what’s needed from this team even more at this point, to stay resilient, to keep the people under them calm, and to keep the business still afloat.
And also being realistic that it will take a hit.
So, yes, yes, because the systems are inherently complex, there will be something, I can guarantee. If it’s not pandemic, something else will shift.
Even if there isn’t a big external shift like that, there’s still the internally created shift from making this shift. And therefore, we’re in a different place, on different ground, with a different center of gravity.
And, what they were working on, that also happens.
They chose a goal, they were all working on it, that brought them together, that created the energy they reach there.
And so now, that itself shifts them.
So again, both internal and external factors play a role.
This is maybe what surprises my clients the most, that when they reach a goal they’ve been pursuing, the, “Oh, well, now what?”
Whether they’ve been going after that for years, or just a day or two.
It still so often takes people by surprise when they accomplish what they’ve been trying for.
And that is the hurry to move on.
I don’t know if you notice in your coaching work; in my coaching work, people will hire me for a certain thing, a big goal they want to achieve. They achieve the goal and sometimes tell me a month later, “By the way, I did it, I got it, I got that promotion.”
I’m like, “This is why we started this journey.”
But then the client would say, “No, but now I have a bigger goal,” or they have already moved on.
One of the things which I’ve worked with them is, “Let’s pause. Let’s just literally stop here. Pause. Let’s celebrate this. Also, let’s do a root cause analysis here, in technical terms. Let’s look at what brought you here so that your brain can register that you are, your system is, capable to hit goals and this is how it hits it.”
We are reinforcing that circuitry in your brain so that it becomes reinforced, that we can achieve goals, that you can achieve goals, again and again and again. It’s not a fluke.
Those are the two things I do, the pause, and then reflect.
This sequence of act–pause–reflect comes up in so many different ways for me in so many conversations that I have. It seems like it must be a fundamental law of the universe.
You cannot simply act without doing anything else.
If you want to make consistent progress, if you want to really find the joy you’re going after, you must take those pauses and take time to reflect so that you can continue acting in a way that fits for you.
Yeah, yeah. Makes sense. Yes.
The way, what fits for us so, so often changes every step.
I take another step, I get that promotion, I get the whatever I’m going after—or even just, I’ve taken another step, I have a little more information.
Now what I thought fit for me, isn’t quite the same anymore.
Maybe the most unhappiest people I’ve worked with are people who have assumed that what fit for them at the beginning would fit for them forever. And so, like a rocket ship, they’re zooming out on that first trajectory. All of a sudden they’re in another galaxy, looking around, saying, “Why am I so unhappy?”
It requires them to evolve again.
And then they reach somewhere and they have to do it all over again.
In our human journey, we never arrive, and that’s a hard thing. It’s our human nature is to control stuff. Control the conditions, control the environment, control all these parameters.
Then you recognize that the Earth moved.
When I moved, literally I moved away from that Earth, so reach a certain point I’m not standing at the point on which I was standing.
So everything has moved.
Or I moved from there, in fact, which they also forget.
Now to expect things to stay that way, that’s not even possible.
Just because I moved, I have a different perspective on everything.
My scenery has changed.
My ability to zoom in and out has changed.
I’m seeing different things.
I’m experiencing different things.
I’m with different people.
My causes, external, internal, causes and conditions, have changed.
Which reinforces the point of act–pause–reflect so that we can know the best way to act for our next step.
This has been a lovely conversation today, Anu. What else should I ask you?
We’ve talked about a lot of things.
There’s one thing which I have not talked about, is my work in mindfulness.
And the shift which I have made for myself.
It was more internal work which I’ve been doing.
I am recognizing that, in some ways, that as we work with our coachees and help them to understand their gifts, get into that state of power and courage and confidence, there is more work done at the collective level.
The reason why I say that, is that the leadership itself needs to shift a lot more.
Some days our world is in crisis.
To put it on the individual, their emotional challenges, their mental health challenges, their challenges of burnout, or their insecurity and not looking at the systemic level of that, that bothers me.
That’s where I said, “Oh, I’m feeling that angst within myself.”
I’ll work with these coachees and I feel the angst on, you can take them that far, but the system is not supportive.
In the same way we talked about psychological safety.
How do we open the system up to see that these are societal issues?
Employee well-being, employee growth, employee empowerment, employees recognizing their full potential, is a societal issue.
How do we as a collective need to change that?
My way has been through mindfulness.
It opens up a huge question for us on the kind of work we need to do and the kind of work or leadership, the corporate leadership needs to step into.
It doesn’t matter how happy and safe and vulnerable I am, and how happy, safe, and vulnerable my team is with each other, if we can’t have that outside of those boundaries.
In many ways, making that shift internally without also helping the external system make those shifts can end up being—or at least feeling—more harmful than just staying the way we had started out.
And that was my source of angst.
The clients were moving forward and they had “Aha!”s and they were recognizing what they were capable of, and they’re just stepping into that, and then squashed.
That started me to think about what’s missing here.
Is this part of why you have built up, are offering, a library of mindfulness?
This is my way of, this is my nudge
This is my subtle, or maybe not that subtle, way of introducing people to the idea of, “Let’s come into the current moment. Let’s try to understand what the other person’s going through in this moment. Let’s connect with the hearts and minds of others. Let’s just start to feel what they might need.”
Tell us more about this lovely library. How do people find it? How do they make use of it? How it helps them shift their life.
I’ll send you a link. [Mindful Leader Practices on Apple Podcasts] It has currently 20-plus mindfulness practices in there. I will add more and more. I have a goal of at least recording three or four per month. So, the library will increase over time.
It gives you practices of coming into the present moment, or working with triggers, or stopping yourself when you are worked up, working with anger, anxiety, all the common things that show up as part of our human existence.
Let’s just face them.
Let’s just face them.
And then, let’s just manage them.
That is the tool, what it is for.
I am human.
I will go through all this.
Anger is present.
Anxiety is present.
Burnout is present.
Some of these are not just me, it’s societal, because of all the pressures we are in.
What can I do about it?
Here are some practices.
Thank you for putting this together for us, for the universe. Sounds lovely. I’ll have those links in the show notes.
If people like what they’re hearing today, would like to learn more about what it might be like to work with you, follow up with a question they have from our conversation today, what’s the best way for them to connect with you?
So I have my website, which I’ll share with you, it’s InfinitePotentialLeadership.com. And then I’ll also share my email which you can put in show notes, it’s email@example.com. I know it’s a long email so might as well as put that in show notes so that they can click on it.
Yes, I’ll have all that in the show notes.
What would you like to leave our audience for today?
There’s so much we have already.
And if we just turn inwards and notice that and take the moment to acknowledge ourselves, how whole and complete we are in this present moment.
That’s a lovely exercise for our audience to do after they stop listening to this.
Thank you, Anu, for this great conversation today.
Thank you, audience, for being here with Anu and I.
Let us know, what did you like? What do you have questions about? Where have we utterly confused you? That we can help make more clear.
Thank you so much.
Have a great day.
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