The people I work with have HUGE jobs and, oftentimes, very strong family commitments and values that they want to honor with their time and presence.  With the publication of  Anne Marie Slaughter’s new book and the concomitant debate it has sparked, we are all well-served to ask how we might set up systems and business environments that don’t make these decisions so fraught.

In the meantime, while more systematic changes are pondered and pursued, I have clients answer the following: even if nothing changes with your work demands, what is possible right now to better connect with your children? I include below some of the incredibly practical and wonderful systems I have seen them set up, with the hopes that it inspires:

  • Parent of teens has “amnesty” Tuesday when he takes one of his three teenagers out for coffee. On those evenings, they can “confess” or tell him anything on their mind. His commitment is to problem solve/mentor only and promises no hyper reactivity. (Note: This structure is particularly genius because he can get in the right frame of mind in advance to listen). After doing this for some time, he’s noted that he can now tell when something major is going on when his kids start to switch their weeks.
  • Saturday “Bagels and Talk” ritual; each of three kids has a turn; they get full attention during that time
  • Movie/dinner night with family every Friday, when they’re beat anyway and can’t muster up energy for much else. If there are no new movies, they do Netflix/order in.
  • Another started gifting an activity for birthdays and holidays (long bike ride, race, kayaking in city, etc)
  • Another signed up for theater series with daughter to ensures it’s on calendar far in advance (sports tickets, opera/symphony tickets, etc do the same)
  • Using the school year as a marker, each child gets a solo dinner out at the beginning, middle, and end of school
  • One chooses LONG books to read to young children and does so by iChat even when away from home (they’re loaded on Kindle)
  • Another has “world cooking” every other week with pre-determined location from kids. If wiped out, they simply dine at restaurant from the region
  • Family works out together at health club once during the week (a two-fer!) then eats dinner there

None of these solve the ultimate problem of competing commitments in our cultural/work system. But they do start the process of getting better at creating the time, space and rituals that we, as human beings respond so well to.


Every day, leaders encounter a wide range of negative emotions—their own and the emotions of those they lead. Impatience. Anger. Jealousy. Uncertainty. Insecurity. Defensiveness. Frustration. The list goes on. Learning to be agile and resourceful in the face of these emotions is a rich and complex area of coaching (and our third and final installment in the “round up” of 2014 coaching themes). We can only scratch the surface here in blog form, but it’s well worth scratching.

I take the term “emotional agility” from Susan David and Christina Congleton’s excellent 2013 Harvard Business Review article.  When you possess high levels of emotional agility, it simply means that you have a well-developed capacity to recognize and “unhook” from negative emotions. You can respond to difficulties in alignment with your values—rather than simply react impulsively from a “hot” state. You have grace under fire.

Here are three distinct ways you can work to improve your emotional agility as a leader:

1. Know Your Triggers

Understand well the people, scenarios, and topics that can trigger and tweak you. What you’re going for is an external map of situations; one that alerts you to tread carefully and to set your intentions in advance, e.g. “I’m here to listen and understand her perspective only.” Then, schedule yourself wisely—know your limits to ensure that you are as ‘on game’ as you can be when you will face difficult people/situations. People face stressful situations with much more grace when they’re rested, not decision fatigued, and when they have food in their systems. These are trite observations, but the research bears them out in a compelling manner.

2. Know Your Signs: Become a Sommelier of your Senses

What happens to you physically when you’re emotionally hooked? Does your jaw clench, chest tighten, ears redden, heart rate accelerate? Do you start to speak more loudly or become more clipped? Do you lightly clutch the table, roll your eyes, collapse your chest in a passive aggressive “who cares” or defeated posture? Do you adopt a look of mild disgust, furrow your brow? The finer your understanding here, the more likely you are to catch yourself before you react in a way that you’re less than proud of later.

3. Develop a Process to Unhook

Effective strategies to manage difficult emotions vary widely. Exercise is an excellent “go to.” A good night’s sleep. A walk outside. Taking ten deep breaths.  It is ideal if we “unhook” in the moment, but if we cannot, the cost of staying in the conversations often outweighs the small hit of saying something like this, “This is important information—I need some time to digest for just a moment. Let’s take a five minute break” (if heavily time pressured) or, “let’s get back together at xxyy time,” (if not).

My favorite strategies for neutralizing strong emotions are from the mindfulness-based stress reduction traditions.  For example, from Thich Nhat Hahn: simply taking deep, slow breaths and on the inhale/exhale saying the following: “Breathing in, I relax my body; breathing out, I smile.”  From Tara Brach, consider her stepwise process of “Working with Difficulties.” I have seen many executives learn and master this process with great effect.

If you lose your cool (or if those you lead do) the best strategy is to face it and learn from it. As bad as it may seem in the moment, if you handle your recovery with grace, you can work to strengthen your relationships. Consider these basic strategies for managing others and yourself after the fact:

What to Do When an Employee Cries at Work (June 2013)

Recovering from an Emotional Outburst at Work (May 2015)

Developing your emotional agility is hard work–it takes tons of practice, always involves slip-ups, and then recommitting to practice again. This skill (like developing patience or listening well) is one that can be refined for a lifetime. This said, like most things that require intensive work, committing yourself to recognizing and mastering your emotions also has rich rewards–in life and leadership.

The second topic in this year’s roundup is “Attentional Overwhelm.” Like executive presence, almost everyone I work with has to wrestle, in some way, shape or form, with the completely overwhelming stream of requests  and information coming his or her way on a daily basis.

Much of this can be attributed to omnipresent technology wreaking havoc on our brains. (For excellent coverage on this phenomenon, see Ed Hallowell’s 2005 article on “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform.”)

In addition to endemic technology overwhelm, there is also a stealthy transition point in a career hallmarked by success. This largely goes unnoticed until individuals are held captive by the very thing that made them successful—saying yes. (Or, “Yes, please,” in the words of Amy Poehler).  In other words, success comes when one has been willing to stretch—to say yes—early and often. Successful individuals typically leaned in early in their careers and leaned in strong. For this, they were amply rewarded.

And then things change. And the very trait that made them successful becomes their undoing. As a result of saying yes too much, either their work or leadership suffers; or, their life as a whole starts to drain and punish rather than fuel and fulfill. When this happens, it’s critical to master two skills that assist in creating a career that is both a professionally rewarding and personally sustainable: saying ‘no’ and creating rock-solid work processes.

Mastering the No

Determining what is worthy of one’s time (your yesses) and what is not (your noes) requires fine discernment. Many struggle with saying no simply because they have very high levels of interest and enthusiasm. Some others still fear the well-known boogeyman named FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) or his evil twin sister FOBFO (Fear of Being Found Out). From fear, they say “yes” reflexively.

There is no better resource to mastering one’s noes than William Ury’s Art of a Positive No (Note: Ury is co-founder of Harvard’s Negotiation project and author of the better-known book Getting to Yes).

I won’t tax your attention spans by rehashing his points. Get the book. I use Ury’s frameworks all the time with clients as they first define their “yes” (e.g. what they are seeking to protect or change by saying no) and then create concrete strategies for saying “no.”

My single favorite strategy of Ury’s: “I have a policy.” As he so well describes, this flavor of “no” frames the limits you’re setting in terms of a broader policy of which your “no” is just one instance. It lets the requestor know this is an ongoing practice that you’ve thought through carefully and that your “no” is nothing personal. Let me give you an example of how I use this one (to protect clients’ innocence):

“Thank you so much for asking, but I currently only do volunteer work that can also involve my family.”

See how that works? I’m not turning you down when you request my time, I’m simply affirming a commitment that I’ve made to volunteerism within the context of family.  It’s a “positive no.”

Mastering Process  

Once one practices (again and again) the art of saying no, personal work processes must be mastered. Life becomes increasingly complicated as we age—i.e. if we are lucky, not only do our careers and opportunities expand, but so do our interests and commitments outside of work (to a family, for example; or to a “virtual baby”—as one of my clients brilliantly calls it—which may be a deep passion and interest outside of work that should also be honored). Simply hoping that things will fall into place or fit together doesn’t work.

David Allen, of Getting Things Done fame, is the undisputed master of systems that support executives and knowledge workers. In his work, he spells these systems out well and offers a wide range of  supports, including online webinars and in-person seminars. Highly recommended.

A dramatically simplified version of David Allen’s work, which I recommend to most of my clients (given their patience levels for a full-length book or webinars) is a very short e-book called Zen-to-Done (ZTD). ZTD was created by Leo Babauta through his Zen Habits Blog. Get it. Read it. Then apply one principle at a time and practice that single principle for a month before moving to the next. This single intervention will significantly upgrade your work processes.

Learning to say “no” with grace and ease and developing work processes are worthy goals, essential even, for the reasons described above. But, they do not happen overnight. I routinely tell people to plan on at least a year before things feel smooth and habitual for them. Once mastered, however, the rewards are great.

Next up? Final chapter in 2014 Round Up: Emotional Agility.

At the end of every year, I do a personal and professional step-back. Part of this process is hardwired, as I routinely do an “annual review” with clients and have led a half-day reflection retreat every December for the past five years. In order to prepare and to do those activities with integrity, I evaluate my own life and business as well.

From a business perspective, part of this process is identifying themes that have popped up again and again with clients. These, in turn, help me to see shifts in the workplace and how they are impacting the lives of executives. The topics then represent areas of additional research and teaching so I can best serve my clients.

For 2014, client engagements touched on a wide variety of topics, but three top themes appeared again and again:

1)   Executive Presence

2)   Time Management and Dealing with Overwhelm/Overload

3)   Emotional Agility

In the coming weeks, I will address each of these areas, sharing resources that my clients found helpful as they made progress in these arenas.  My hope is that this series will be helpful to you as you do your own “step back” and development planning this year.

Although my coaching practice is skewed fairly heavily “male,” I feel privileged to work with the women I do. Their backgrounds and careers vary widely, but I find many encounter consistent issues with managing their career: negotiating as fiercely for themselves as they do for others; managing “the balance” of life/work; and imagining a more creative career path that suits their talents and interests—which can mean embracing (gasp!) deviance.

Here’s this year’s round up on my recommendations for women on these issues:

  • Creative Career Planning Specifically for Women: Tara Mohr’s work is something I stumbled upon this year. She is from a new generation of young women boldly designing the lives they want to lead. As a Stanford MBA, Tara specifically focuses on women’s leadership and offers virtual Women’s Leadership Programs that come from a creative, poetic and artistic place (reflecting her own leadership style). For her work more generally, see her website. Also see her excellent, pithy blog entry on HBR on the “good student habits” women should drop immediately.

All of this is not to say that men don’t also struggle with similar issues of speaking up for themselves (or speaking up at all!), balancing their lives, and designing their career paths. They do. It’s just that the particular mental patterns that keep them from doing so can be slightly different, reflecting, for example, behavioral styles (introversion), technical knowledge and assumptions about its dominance over relationship building and political savvy, cultural values, or the fear of being vulnerable (see post below), perceived as weak, or not providing well for those they love. These issues may also haunt women, but there’s something particular about gender that also comes into play for them as they wrestle their way to a fulfilling career–these resources address those gender-based issues head on.