People at all levels at work have at one point or another pondered, what makes a good leader? We’ve all had less than ideal bosses; the laissez-faire or micromanagers, the fit-throwers, the insecure, and incompetent. Some of us, however, have also had the privilege of having superiors who really helped to empower our very best at work. Whether it was the calm, rational types that listened well, or that CFO who looked past all your idiosyncrasies to focus more intently on, and hone your actual potential.
In this interview, I was privileged to speak with Rich Fernandez, a former Google Exec, and now CEO of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute to talk about his time at Google, as well as to get an inside view on an executive leadership workshop that he will be personally leading in Shanghai at the end of November. It’s thought-provoking, so go get your tea or coffee before you start folks.
Born at Google in 2007, the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute programs became the most highly rated and popular among the tech giant's employees. This leadership program spread to Ford, SAP, LinkedIn, American Express, Roche and other corporations in subsequent years, and is now available in Shanghai. This year, the institute's CEO, Rich Fernandez will be leading the two-day workshop for executive leaders, sharing the same tools and training that executives at hyper-growth companies have been receiving since the institute's inception. Tickets are available on SmartTicket here. Read more about the program right here.
SmSh: You’ve spent years at JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, eBay, and at Google in leadership positions all related to talent development. Tell us about your first year at Google as Director of Executive Development and what your mandate was there.
Rich Fernandez: When I joined Google, it was exactly when Eric Schmidt was handing leadership back to Larry Page. One of the main things that Google was focusing on at the time from a business perspective, was essentially integrating all products across the platform, from Youtube to Chrome, to Android, and others, into a form of seamless functionality. This created a whole new set of challenges for the organization, and that is exactly the time that I joined. Specifically, those challenges at Google had to do with collaboration, with being able to work effectively across product groups, and sometimes with people who had competing agendas.
What became really clear was that the capacity to collaborate, to communicate, to build trust, and to exert influence to get your piece of the organization/agenda done while also honoring the agendas of others to move the entire enterprise forward… this was a core, and complex challenge that Google was facing at the time. Part of my mandate was to help leaders break through these barriers of collaboration and cross-functional work.
That being said, the very problem, and complexity that I am talking about - that is, working cross-functionally in a vertically integrated organization that’s global, and that has a massive user base - these are problems that any global enterprise encounters. What was really interesting to me at the time was that, whether it was in financial services sector where I spent the first 10 years of my career, or the latter ten years in technology, these sets of complex [problems] were quite common. This is especially true when organizations experience a certain trajectory of hyper-growth and global expansion.
When that happens, of course, having the right strategy, and understanding the different markets in which you operate in, is absolutely foundational, but on the other side of that so are the leadership skills that enable you (as a leader) and your team to work effectively from a truly global perspective.
SmSh: And how did this start at Google lead you on your journey towards ending up at the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI)?
RF: Initially, Google offered training programs called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), but it was not very successful. The reason why it was not successful was because, in a company like Google (hyper-growth tech business) people either didn’t believe that they were stressed, or they felt that stress was a good thing because it helped push them to perform. When we offered MBSR, nobody came! Instead, what we started to experiment with was offering mindfulness-based emotional intelligence training.
From then, it became an intelligence that you could develop, it became about building optimal performance and leadership. At that point, this type of training became of interest to people and that was the real initial shift towards the basis of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, which became a vehicle for these training programs at Google to be offered, as well as at other companies to develop optimal business leaders outside of Google.
SmSh: How are these skills related to the brain and its development?
RF: It turns out, that the core skills that enable this type of leader (ones who can work in an increasingly complex, and increasingly demanding, and increasingly global environment), had a lot to do with emotional intelligence, mindfulness, empathy, and the capacity to build trust within your team, and across teams.
Often times, people like to describe these skills as “soft skills”, but I think that that does a disservice to the actual skillset because they are a set of capabilities which can actually be trained and developed. Just like any skill, they can be trained, they can grow. We also know that not only do these skills affect behavior, they actually affect changes in the brain, and so if you can pinpoint how to effect those changes in the brain (which is some of the work we did at Google) then you can start to train against those skills and deliver the types of experiences that will help people be great leaders who have a lot of effective influence.
These are not hypothetical constructs, these are literally established brain networks. The brain network that is responsible for linear forecasting, analytics thought, thinking about the past and trying to construct the future, this brain activity is located in the medial prefrontal cortex, it is called the default mode network, it is literally tasked with logical, rational, linear, analytical thought. And this is where most of our forecasting and analysis takes place, which are very important functions. Conversely, the area responsible for awareness or emotional intelligence is called the direct attention network. These are also critical qualities for leaders to have, and we help to develop them through a specific set of brain focused exercises, tools, and activities.
SmSh: How would you summarize an esoteric term like ‘mindfulness’ which has crept into Shanghai vocabulary recently?
RF: When you start looking again more specifically at mindfulness, it is really about an awareness of what’s happening right here, and right now. Which is much harder than one would think to develop that type of awareness. In fact, there is a research study out of Harvard, that found that our minds are actually not focused on the present moment roughly 50% of the time. So half the time our minds are focused on the future and what needs to happen, what might happen, what could happen, how we might preempt things, or address future possibilities that may or may not happen. Conversely, another part of that 50% we are in the past, analyzing, reconstructing, criticizing, and/or judging things that happened in the past.
One thing we know from neuroanatomy is that our brains are wired as human beings to think about the future, and to analyze the past. That has been a very important survival mechanism in our evolutionary biology. This is what distinguishes us in many ways from other species. We are able to be planful, we’re able to forecast and preview things, and we are able to learn from our mistakes. What happens, however, is that we get stuck in that default mode, and literally, the part of our brain that’s responsible for thinking forward and thinking back is overdeveloped in many ways and has been as long as human history has existed. We’ve always worried about the future, we’ve always thought about the past.
So much more rarely, are we actually in the present moment, developing a full awareness of our own experiences, of the experiences of others, and of our environment.
SmSh: Tell us a bit about the culture and ethos at Google that allowed this type of leadership training to flourish.
RF: The reason why it had such a fertile home in Google, is because frankly, people were drowning in information overload.
The famous science journalist Daniel Goleman said, “The wealth of information that we have today has created a poverty of attention."
So in many ways, the capacity to focus, the ability to stay efficient and productive, to be an effective manager and leader and team member, all started slipping because of the huge amount of overwhelming information and activity that Google engineers had to face every day. We were wanting people to sustain their focus and performance, and to go about their work activities with a calm, clear mental state, rather than a state of stress, burnout and mental anxiety.
A stressed, burnt out, anxious person cannot be a good leader. A good leader needs to develop the characteristics and character of being calm, of having mental clarity and being able to sustain focus, to foster trust within themes, and to build and create vision. It is hard to do all of those things when you are under duress from an overwhelming number of goals, priorities, activities, and information.
The other thing about Google is that there is a core cultural philosophy at the organization that is about investing in people to be their best and to do their best. Google has famously had a goal of creating the healthiest, happiest, and most productive workforce on the planet. That is literally one of their cultural principles, or a “people priority” at Google if you will. I know recently Jack Ma of Alibaba really emphasized that happiness, and I think he even said love is a critical thing to have in not only your life but also your work. That you had to be happy at work, in order to be your best. With that type of culture that is present at Google, the tools that we were offering at SIY were naturally popular because they really did help people feel happier, but also because of the measured business outcomes that came with it. We saw an average of 20% improvement across a number of factors including stress reduction, improved creativity, improved collaboration and communication, all 6 months after participants completed the two-day workshop.
SmSh: How does this sort of training fit in with China?
RF: I think what many organizations may experience in China could be similar to some of the complex problems we experienced especially in the Silicon Valley during our times of hyper-growth; tremendous challenges and demands upon the people who work within these types of organizations. With the growth of Chinese companies like Tencent, Alibaba, and others, I think these tools are more relevant than ever. Our visit to Shanghai will be hosted by a local organization. We are partnering with Octave, a great organization aligned with our mindset on integrating mindfulness within companies. With Octave, we have seen a real strong interest from Shanghai leaders across industries in our workshop as they seek to develop a culture of helping people to be their best. Shanghai is a leading center of industry and technology in the world. If we can have an impact on people’s leadership and happiness here, I believe we will have broad interest across China, and this is very exciting to us.
If you're interested to hear Rich speak at Octave at the two-day leadership workshop on November 30 and December 1, SmartTicket has a limited number of tickets available for the event right here.