As we’re all taking a moment to reflect on 2022 and prepare for 2023, I wanted to share some thoughts on what I noticed showing up in my coaching work this year.
Founders reach out to me hoping to become better CEOs, improve gross margins, get closer to their co-founders or make some big decision. Yet, our coaching work, especially if it goes well, rarely sees us address these challenges head on.
This is disappointing news to some who expect me to offer a secret “be a better CEO” curriculum, which would magically improve gross margins, reduce stress and make investors send term sheets.
My experience as a founder, a coach and just a human being taught me that the beginning of becoming a better CEO is the moment when we stop hoping for others to fix our pain, stop hoping for things to be different and instead commit to facing the reality as it is and take responsibility for our choices.
An assumption that often goes unexamined is that there’s something wrong with us. As a kid, I grew up feeling that I’m not ok in some fundamental way. The pain behind feeling that we’re not ok often prompts us to engage in a never-ending process of self-improvement.
The false promise is that if we take another course, find the right coach, make a slicker investment pitch or implement the latest version of the OKR process, things will finally be ok. Eventually we may notice that the promise is false, and while we constantly feel we’re making progress, we never quite arrive at that magical destination where we perform well and feel good about ourselves all the time.
Often the first step in the coaching process is to acknowledge that there’s nothing wrong with us as we are right now, with all our imperfections and dirty secrets. You are ok, I am ok, we are ok, unconditionally. You are unconditionally human. And you don’t need to make a billion bucks or gain a million followers to be ok. You already are, you just sometimes forget it.
Acknowledging that there’s nothing wrong with us can also help with the next step: looking honestly at what’s going on, both in our businesses and our minds. It takes courage and yet, as we look at what’s really going on, separating facts from stories that our minds tell us, learning to see clearly how our feelings are different from our interpretations of them, we inevitably discover that however difficult things are, our capacity to hold them in our awareness and meet them with compassion is always greater.
It may take time, it may take practice, but a mark of a mature human being or a great CEO is the ability to see what’s going on clearly and not get lost in the projections of our minds.
An inherent part of this process is learning to work with our body, feeling our feelings and thus getting a much richer awareness of what’s happening. This is why “how are you?” is a powerful coaching question if you’re ready to really answer it, really feel how you are in this very moment. Not yesterday, not just before the coaching session, not tonight, but right now.
Acknowledging and deeply feeling that there’s nothing wrong with you and learning to look with equanimity and compassion at whatever’s arising in your experience can help us explore another deceptively simple coaching question: “What do you really want”?
It’s important to really answer this question because it can help us clarify what we want and build a plan to make it happen. Just as often, it can help us realise that we didn’t really want what we said we wanted. Sometimes we want something else, but we can’t admit it to ourselves, so we pick a more acceptable goal, like building a unicorn instead of admitting we want our father to love us, at last.
In this process we inevitably discover that we have plenty of different parts inside of ourselves that want different things. They tend to fight with each other. One wants to sign up for the gym on 1st of January, another wants to never lift anything heavier than a laptop. We tend to identify with these parts and experience this conflict very personally, not making progress and suffering in the process.
Being able to see what’s going on with clarity, compassion and a firm feeling that nothing’s wrong to begin with is where things can start to change. Paradoxically, when we see and accept what’s happening without any agenda to change it, deep change tends to happen.
That’s where clarity on what we want, acceptance of what’s happening and skilful action to change the situation start to work together to help us become a better CEO. Alternatively, it may also help us realise that we would like to do something else instead of running this business.
That’s also fine. We do our best work when we’re aligned with what we’re meant to be doing, and it’s better to discover what we’re meant to be doing and do it well instead of spending a decade forcing ourselves to do something we are not.
Sometimes our coaching work prompts founders to explore their identity and ask themselves "Who am I?". For some people, this is a question with an obvious answer, while for others it is a way to gain freedom from being controlled by their thoughts and emotions. As meditation teacher Sam Harris has said, both swimming and drowning involve moving your arms in water, but the subjective experience of each is completely different. Similarly, we can learn to navigate our thoughts, feelings, and emotions rather than feeling overwhelmed by them.
In the end, all this work of learning to see and accept what’s going on clearly, being friendly with different parts of ourselves, discovering what we really want and remembering, deep down, that we are ok as we are, is what helps us take our seat as a CEO.
And by that point, we are ready to figure out how to improve gross margins, get closer to our co-founders or make that big change, being fully confident in our ability to make good decisions and face the future. And that’s how we become better CEOs.
As we prepare to enter 2023, I wish you to always remember that you are ok as you are, that you are unconditionally human. May you have the courage to meet this moment as it is, be curious about how you are feeling in the moment and the clarity to know what you want and who you are.
May you be truly happy. Happy New Year.
Evgeny Shadchnev Newsletter
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