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Empathy is finding echoes of another person in yourself

Empathy Project – my path to discovering empathy

Empathy is finding echoes of another person in yourselfIn a small room off the Google Sydney reception in 2015 I was called a jerk by a co-worker in New York. This isn’t a particularly strong word or anywhere near the worst abuse I had ever heard, but I was stunned given the context of a 1:1 in a very politically correct company. More than that, I was stunned because I was right in my opinion on the discussion subject and he was right in his opinion of me.

The possibility of two things being simultaneously true and contradicting wasn’t beyond me, but I fundamentally didn’t have the skills to break down why or how the relationship had reached this point. Out of a feeling of confusion and basic self-awareness of an issue, I setup a subsequent VC with the peer’s manager. His words still stick with me – “Don’t you think we know that you’re right? In a year’s time we won’t remember the results of the project, but we will remember how we felt working with you”. This was the gap, this was my empathy wakeup call.

It took me almost two years, an MBA and two children before I felt confident that I had developed even an average grasp on empathy. Looking back now, it’s fascinating to me to understand with hindsight why it took so long. My starting point wasn’t poor self-awareness, I’ve always had a decent hold on that. The starting roadblock was that somewhere deep in my past I had developed a belief that emotion had no place in a professional environment. Look at the data, find the objectively correct answer, launch and iterate. Change is hard, but in an environment of constant change you need to put the emotion aside and trust the data will reward you with a better opportunity.

The truth is that emotions are always present, whether you want them there or not. The question is how well do you not only control them, but use them as a force for good. This lead to a deep internal questioning process under the guise of authenticity. Neil Bearden gave me the simplest description of authenticity I’ve ever heard: “Smokers fundamentally want to smoke, they have an underlying and genuine addiction. They do however have first order control over that addiction, based on cancer education for example. Authenticity means you only expose genuine, underlying beliefs or needs – it doesn’t mean you don’t control when and how they are exposed in a sophisticated way.” I could safely explore who I was and what I genuinely wanted, while trusting that this wasn’t laying your soul bare on the table as a whole (although maybe in parts) and more importantly that it was a real tool that I could use both personally and professionally to add a new dimension to my relationships. This was something I wanted.

The final piece was getting the confidence to use my empathy in a real way. It was about a year of trial and error before I developed any confidence that I wasn’t a) full of shit or b) a bad person who was putting that on display. There was a distinct point at a company offsite that I was so internally conflicted about my ability that I literally wrote my fear on a piece of paper and threw it into the fire. It was time to commit to embracing empathy and there was no going back.

Frankly I still don’t use empathy as often as I should or would like to. I at least know that I enjoy the feeling of connecting with others, that it improves my life and theirs, and that there is plenty more opportunity to use it. That’s enough for me to feel confident, now it’s just a case of practicing and finding the next fault to develop.

GutTracker Logo

GutTracker Android App for tracking your stools released

GutTracker LogoAsianGut was always about learning more about the gut by applying the key method Google has honed in me – collecting and pivoting as much data as quickly as possible. While Asian and American Gut are deep on the science side with 16S DNA testing and profiling, I had a personal experience that wasn’t so deep. A quick business trip through off my bowels and left me feeling frankly like crap for months. This more immediate problem sparked a thought that perhaps the data I should be starting to collect isn’t necessarily so sophisticated.

So after about a month’s worth of pretending to be a Product Manager again, and then another month remembering Java from several years ago, I’ve launched the GutTracker Android App. To begin with, it simply allows you to track your bowel movements on a daily basis. The interesting part will be when I start collecting data around happiness, probiotic consumption and perhaps even diet. Of course I would love it to also link to your American/Asian Gut results at some stage too. It is really exciting to be using Big Data to dive into the correlation and causation of what’s going into your gut. I sincerely hope that this app is useful both for chronic and wellness purposes and can build to produce some insights that make people feel better over time.

Graduating from my INSEAD EMBA

insead mba infographic17 months, 52 days of full time study, 3 major assignments and 10 exams later I have finally graduated with my Global Executive MBA from INSEAD! Given I now have the benefit of hindsight, let me try and answer some of the big questions I had going into the program:

Should I do the MBA or EMBA?

The MBA has an average age around 28, and the EMBA 38. If you have minimal exposure to the basics of finance, marketing and operations for example and can afford a full year off then do the MBA. If however you just need to know enough to ask smart questions of your team, the cost of a year off is very high, and you have 8+ years experience then you should do the EMBA. Many people doing the EMBA are almost there in a mid-life crisis scenario – they have achieved a lot and are financially very comfortable, but have no idea what really makes them happy. The EMBA program is really set up to help you explore that.

Do the MBAs and EMBAs cover the same content?

Overall yes, however in a much shorter time. EMBA’s cover in 3 days what an MBA would cover in 12 days over 3 months. That means EMBA’s have more assumed knowledge, readings must be read and you never walk into an exam feeling really confident as you often have 12 hours post-lecture to prepare. The EMBA course is also more practical, it doesn’t go into the theory as deeply but is very strong on the implementation and case study side.

Why INSEAD over a US School?

INSEAD celebrates diversity in a big way. It’s a constant throughout teaching, participant selection, group selection and even social programs. I genuinely think part of the selection criteria is to maximise the number of participant countries more than pure test results. Group exams, simulations and projects are quite common. Traveling to electives is organised in groups, often with people sharing accommodation. Sharing summary sheets before exams is common. There is a real sense of shared destiny. One key observation I had was that in US programs the exam results are published to all members, and the bottom 5% given a warning – three warnings and you’re out. At INSEAD no results are published, and make-up exams are held quietly at a later date. Don’t get me wrong, people still fail and drop out, but everyone bonds together and that makes for a strong shared rather than individual experience. Networking is 50% of the reason people are here, so don’t underestimate the benefits of this culture. It’s also the #1 or #7 school in the world, depending on which program you take.

What was the hardest part?

The hardest part for me was the switching cost. By that I mean having a tough week at work, and then flying out to take a tough lecture on a totally different subject. I have learned that my brain loves to follow a long term focus and become great at it, so constantly disrupting that was at times even physically painful. I had to become comfortable with taking a day or two of constant effort to switch focus. If you don’t switch off work emails for example, then your brain never really internalises what you were meant to learn. You can’t look back at notes, it’s really experiential learning. By that I mean that the actual MBA content is pretty standard across all the programs I have seen. The exceptional part about INSEAD is the quality of lecturers – they are incredibly passionate, entertaining and challenging to listen to. As an introvert, I walked away from many lectures just needing and hour or so to sit and reflect on everything I had just heard.

Prioritising under pressure would be the second hardest part, but I feel that the program was structured in a way that it gradually made this harder rather than hitting you from day 1.

What was the best part?

The people. 95% of the participants were “just like me”, similar life stage and questions. It’s funny when you bring a group of highly successful people together and they all realise how lost each of us actually is. The first few modules are academic focused and people are still presenting a facade, but then one by one people open up and confess their flaws and insecurities. Some people have total breakdowns, some people quit their jobs and some get divorced. That’s not great in itself, but if people are actually facing issues that have bubbled under the surface then I do think that’s a great thing. Be warned though that taking the time to hold a mirror up to yourself can be dangerous! If you push through that phase though then you will have a more honest view of yourself and the world. You can address some things while in the program, but not all. I walk out of the program feeling more confident that I know myself and have the tools to make my life and the life of those around me genuinely better. I just hope I can hold onto this feeling.

How have I changed?

I don’t think I can objectively answer that. I filmed a before and after video, so maybe you can tell me?

Starting an INSEAD MBA

Tomorrow I am starting the Global Executive MBA Asia programme at INSEAD, Singapore. The decision was a huge one, and many months after doing the entrance exam I am finally ready to start. I wanted to capture my feelings before I start, because I truly hope that I see significant change upon reflecting at the end. We’ll see in 17 months.

 

front cover of book

How to Win Friends and Influence People : Book Review

front cover of bookContrary to the title, this book is not a study in “how to be popular” in a modern world. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The central theory that the book proposes is that simply by being an authentic and positive person you will receive what you are hoping for without even asking. Every one of the 30 lessons is indeed simple, however putting each  into practice in a consistent way, on a daily basis, is anything but simple.

How to Win Friends and Influence People was, for me, a complete revelation. Perhaps the fact that it is written by a male engineer helps, as it clearly lists the ideas and provides simple, but nuanced, examples of it being used in practice. Some of the examples are pretty weak, however at least half of the ideas in the book benefit from a simple real life situation that helps you visualise how it might be implemented. It’s probably the most enlightening book I have ever read.

So what’s the big secret of the book? I would argue that it’s probably different for every person. For me, I was in a professional situation that many engineers can probably sympathise with – I was a strong technical leader, but was insecure in my communications and relationships where technical knowledge wasn’t the defining factor. These interactions were necessary, rather than enjoyable. I remember doing a personality profiling course, where it was revealed that some sales people (extroverts) actually needed to talk to people to recharge – the concept of this seemed so foreign to me!

The lesson that this book taught me, was that you get as much out of a person as you invest into them. Be genuinely interested in them, share your ideas freely, focus on the positive, don’t publicly criticise, use their name and be humble. It all sounds so simple, but ingraining it into your personality so it is a fluid and natural reaction takes a lot of repetition of both reading the book and implementing the ideas. I guess this is why neuroscience has emerged in such a massive way lately! Anyway I am now reading it for the second time in a row, and I am still learning new things and finding things I do wrong on a daily basis. I recommend this book to anyone, but particularly “green” engineers who are self-aware enough to know they could interact with the world better.

My Better Man Project

I love a good self-improvement quest. For me, the most important part of self-improvement is having a goal. This is always easy with career or financial goals, but when examining a more personal area of self-improvement the goals become a little more intangible. I guess this is why I started on a search for a male role model, they make a more tangible personal goal.

Is Don Draper a good role model for me?

In the IT Industry there is really only one person who seemed like a modern role model, and that was Jack Dorsey (who I have mentioned before). His business success speaks for itself, however he is personally not one dimensional. Jack also has a diverse background, understated confidence and the communication skills to convey these dimensions of his personality. He’s a great place to start, but I feel uncomfortable modelling myself on one person. Emulating someone doesn’t add dimensions or make you more genuine, it does the opposite by making you a clone who isn’t true to themselves.

Perhaps what I needed was a maverick role model who gave me the confidence to communicate who I am. I’m looking for someone piercing, inspirational and grounded. Enter Steve McQueen. The guy pretty much personified the maverick – he was a racing car driver and A-list actor, yet his signature pose was the famous Le Mans Salute. There are plenty of people who seem to follow Steve’s fashion or other style guidelines even now. I don’t need to be this unique, but I do love his qualities of being genuine, multi-faceted and inspirational.

Perhaps I was searching for more than a role model, perhaps I was searching for an ideal. I decided (off the back of continual references in “How to win friends and influence people”) to read Benjamin Franklin’s auto-biography. His 13 vitues for life resonated with me, but really are quite dry. I will still try and follow these to make myself successful, but there is a difference between being successful and inspirational. Highly disciplined and intelligent people usually have great success, but there is a sense of loneliness that occurs when you are too one dimensional.

The next phase of my search was instigated by the series Mad Men.  Don Draper covers all my fundamental criteria; he is certainly piercing, intelligent and inspirational. But my God does he have some flaws, which this info-graph summarises beautifully. Then again, it’s these flaws that make him a more genuine and relatable character (person?). Perhaps the goal shouldn’t be to make ones self perfect, but perhaps the goal should focus entirely on communicating who you are? This involves not only being able to communicate your personality in an interesting and accessible way, but also to communicate your vulnerabilities so that people relate to rather than rebut against your views.

Finally, I found someone who writes on this topic in a far more fluent manner than myself. Chris has written a great blog on his Better Man Project. He even touched on my line of thought several times, including his very amusing dissection of Steve McQueen. I have a deep admiration for Chris’s communication ability and transparent self-examinations. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that the best way to become a genuinely inspirational person is to write about the struggles along your journey to becoming an inspirational person? This is becoming way too meta.

For now I am running with a Mad Men era hair style, a book of Steve McQueen pictures and quotes and following @Jack on Twitter. Next step is to work on improving my communication skills. Hopefully this blog post is a start.

Finishing my San Francisco Rotation

My 35 days of living in a corporate apartment in SOMA, San Francisco have come to an end! I decided to record my impressions in a video (of course) log from the YouTube headquarters in San Bruno.

Hills Bros Coffee on the Bay desktop background

Welcome to San Francisco

Hills Bros Coffee on the Bay desktop backgroundI’m in the land of the Start Up. The sky seems a little bluer and there is a cloud based business on every corner. Viral cloud engagement analytics seems to be whats buzzing here. Who is funding all these businesses? It can’t be entrepreneurs mortgaging their houses like in Australia, I thought it was impossible to get a loan in the US? I guess the Angel and VC markets really are all here.

The story of Hills Bros Coffee is a pretty good SF anecdote ironically. Wikipedia notes that the brand started as a great family company passed down the generations, surviving World War II and merging with another coffee company. Then the family sold out to the Swiss Nestle, who sold it to the US based Sara Lee, who then sold into the Italian Massimo Zannetti (aka Segafredo) mega-coffee group.

Regardless, this $1.2b 120,000 tonne completely vertically integrated Italian company has vacated this prime piece of real estate – but Mozilla is moving their 125 CA-based employees into the 15,000ft building. Their gross profit was $43 million and is based on freely available software. New World Order?

Real men pay salaries

“Real men don’t earn salaries, they pay salaries”. This quote from “A Sparrow Falls”, the Wilbur Smith book that I am currently reading, really struck me like a slap in the face. Why was it so painful? How do I get to the stage where I am paying the salaries?

Lately I have been trying to build my management and leadership skills. Amongst other things, this involved taking a Leadership training course at Google. It emphasised a number of pretty deep concepts, things like being an authentic person and this importance of bringing this authenticity to work with you (which is a fairly intimidating concept). There were of course articles from the Harvard Business Review to cover, including the four steps in the art of persuasion. These being:

  1. Establish Credibility – demonstrate you know your stuff
  2. Frame for Common Ground – find the stuff you both agree on
  3. Provide Evidence – demonstrate something new that builds on your common ground
  4. Connect Emotionally – expand the current ground with them at your side

Next steps? Find mentors. I loved watching an interview of Jack Dorsey, one of the founders of Twitter and now Squareup. He isn’t an amazing presenter, however I feel that I present in a similar way and have a similar view on the world. Reading his Vanity Fair interview and numerous Venture Beat articles, it paints an inspirational picture of a guy who throws every part of him into his goals and passions. Is this authentic leadership? He built everything himself form scratch, based on his passion and getting his hands dirty. The noble story of the engineer, putting the product first and that product now paying the salaries.

Or what about someone like Greg Ellis, the current CEO of REA? I watched his CEO Hub interview today on Business Spectator. He built his career like a pyramid. Rather than rising to the top with a single skillbase and being forced to add to it while riding product growth, he worked the other way around. Build marketing, sales, HR, legal and other skills at the best companies you can find, and then find or make one of your own. Is this any more or less a noble to be paying the salaries?

Or maybe it’s like Alan Noble explained this week. It’s not about mentors, it’s about surrounding yourself with great people and taking the opportunities when you see them. Meanwhile, where is that copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People

First impressions of Silicon Valley

Although it is actually my second time in San Francisco, it is my first time purely for business. I wanted to record a vlog on my first impressions of Silicon Valley and how I felt as an outsider looking in.

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