My New Year Wish for You
Our journey to being better CEOs begins when we stop hoping for others to fix our pain, stop hoping for things to be different, and instead commit to facing reality as it is.
As we’re all taking a moment to reflect on the year gone by and prepare for the one ahead, I wanted to share some thoughts on what has been showing up in my coaching work.
Founders reach out to me hoping to become better CEOs, improve gross margins, get closer to their co-founders, or make big decisions. 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 secret “better CEO” tips, which would magically improve gross margins, reduce stress and make investors send term sheets.
My experience as a founder, a CEO, a coach, and just a human being taught me that we begin becoming better CEOs the moment we stop hoping for others to fix our pain, stop hoping for things to be different and instead commit to facing reality as it is, taking 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 was not ok in some fundamental way. The pain behind feeling that we’re not okay often prompts us to engage in a never-ending process of self-improvement.
The deceitful promise is that things will finally be okay if we take another course, find the right coach, make a slicker investment pitch, or implement the latest version of the OKR process. Eventually, we notice that the promise is false. While we constantly feel we’re making progress, we never quite arrive at that magical destination where we perform well and always feel good about ourselves.
Often, the first step in the coaching process is to acknowledge that there’s nothing wrong with us as we are, with all our imperfections and dirty secrets. You are okay, I am okay, we are okay, unconditionally. You are unconditionally human. And you don’t need to make a billion bucks or gain a million followers to be ok. You are already okay, but you sometimes forget it.
Acknowledging there’s nothing wrong with us can also help with the next step: looking honestly at what’s happening in our businesses and our minds. It takes courage. As we separate facts from stories that our minds tell us, 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 and practice, but a mark of a mature human being or a great CEO is the ability to know 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. “How are you?” is a powerful coaching question if you're ready to feel how you are right now. Not yesterday, not just before the coaching session, not tonight, but right now.
Acknowledging and deeply feeling there's nothing wrong with you and learning to look with equanimity and compassion at whatever is arising in your experience can help us explore another deceptively simple coaching question: “What do you really want?”
It’s important to answer it honestly. Inquiring into what we really want can help us realise that we didn’t really want what we said we wanted. Sometimes, we want something else but can't admit it to ourselves. Then, we pick a more acceptable goal, like building a unicorn, instead of recognising we want our father to love us at last.
In this process, we inevitably discover that we have many different parts inside ourselves that want different things. They tend to fight with each other. One wants to sign up for the gym on the 1st of January; another wants never to lift anything heavier than a laptop. We tend to identify with these parts and experience this conflict personally as if we were hurt.
Seeing 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, profound change tends to happen when we see and accept what’s happening without any agenda to change it.
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 and a more mature adult. It may also help us realise that we want 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. It’s better to discover what we’re meant to be doing and do it well than to spend 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 the water, but the subjective experience of each is entirely different. Similarly, we can learn to navigate our thoughts, feelings, and emotions without feeling overwhelmed. The problem is not having thoughts or feelings. It’s how we relate to them that matters.
Ultimately, all this work of learning to see and accept what's going on, being friendly with different parts of ourselves, discovering what we really want and remembering, deep down, that we are okay as we are is what helps us take our seat as a CEO.
By then, we will be ready to figure out how to improve gross margins, get closer to our co-founders, or make that significant change we were afraid to make, 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 the new year, I wish you always to remember that you are okay as you are and 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 have the clarity to know what you want and who you are.
May you be truly happy. Happy New Year.