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Executive Coach Linda Curtis on Success, Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence

We chat with one of the facilitators at the 'Born at Google: Search Inside Yourself' workshop about emotional intelligence, suffering in the corporate world, and bringing your fully brilliant self to work.
2018-03-27 17:38:53
This May, Shanghai will see its fourth Born at Google: Search Inside Yourself (SIY) workshop, organized by Living Octave, wherein wildly successful executive coaches with wildly impressive resumes lay a bit of knowledge on Shanghai's own executive types. One of the coaches is Linda Curtis, who has spent 20 years in the corporate world, 16 years as a coach to corporate leaders, and the last six teaching for SIY. She's also the first women to teach the program in Shanghai.


SmSh: You spent 20 years as an executive before leaving to become an executive coach in 2003. What inspired the shift?

Linda Curtis: I'm deeply grateful for the time I spent as an executive, almost all of it in financial services. But it's a very numbers-driven industry. When you're dealing in transactions, personal interactions can become very transactional. You can be efficient with transactions, but there’s no such thing as being efficient with people.

I would sit in these meetings with these bright, intelligent people, the best in the industry, and I would notice these moments where people felt challenged, demeaned or criticized. I realized that many people encounter unnecessary suffering in their work because of unskillful ways of being, speaking and living. They just didn't know a better way, and miscommunicating, overcommunicating and undercommunicating could even hurt the bottom line. I wanted a way to bring emotional intelligence to the corporate world, as a path to effective leadership.

How can we show empathy and care when we need to have a difficult conversation or fire someone? How do we stand up to power when we're talking to our bosses, in a way that won't get us fired, but honors us and what we're being asked to do?


Linda Curtis teaching at the SIY course in Toronto in 2016

Now I work with executives and teams to cultivate mindfulness and emotional intelligence, so we can show up as human beings in our full brilliance, in a way that helps the business. And I think we all teach what we most want to learn, so, for me, I'm teaching to keep it alive for me too.

SmSh: You left a pretty comfortable job at Visa to start your own consultancy. That seems like a big, scary step, what was it like?

LC: It wasn't easy! My boss thought I was joking. Honestly, we were given quarterly bonus cheques and lots of incentives to stay. It took me probably 18 months from the decision to actually leaving. But I realized Visa was never going to make it easy for me to go, so I took that leap of faith, gave notice, and I've never looked back.

It was a huge adjustment at first. I was lucky to find a great project in the first six months, but in that first month, I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Someone later told me I was probably having a panic attack, like, "what have I done?!"

"I wanted a way to bring emotional intelligence to the corporate world, as a path to effective leadership."

When making big career transitions (or any life transition for that matter), it is essential to know your ‘big why,’ the motivator driving you, so you can come back to that in moments of doubt and fear. So I would ground myself in those moments, and remember the contribution I wished to make.

One project led to the next and things grew over time, but I didn’t leave Visa knowing how it was going to turn out. There's planning, saving, balancing risk and networking, all those smart things that you need to do in a thoughtful way. But there's always uncertainty, and that's why you have to be clear of your convictions, so you can move in that direction with trust, one foot in front of the other. And it gradually unfolds year after year.


SmSh: Back in the early 2000s, mindfulness wasn't quite as popular as it is now. Were you taking a big risk hoping people were interested in learning about this?

LC: Perhaps! My experience was, as you point out, that these ideas weren't well-known. What was clear then was that people wanted to feel healthy, creative and connected.

In the 6 or 7 years that Search Inside Yourself has been available, I’ve seen a willingness to consider mindfulness as a key to achieving those things. All the ways we’re bombarded with information has opened people to finding ways to cope. Mindfulness isn't mysterious or difficult, it just takes practice, and it seems like an idea whose time has come.

SmSh: How did you come to embrace the idea of mindfulness in the first place?

LC: Kicking and screaming.

The one-year coaching course I took, much to my dismay, recommended that we develop a daily sitting practice, starting with five minutes a day and building up over 12 months to 20 minutes.

I found that very annoying. "Who has the time," I thought. I was learning about emotional intelligence, but mindfulness? Eh. Couldn't be bothered. I didn’t see the connection-you can't be emotionally intelligent without mindfulness.


Over the course of the year, my other classmates were talking about what a profound impact it was having on their lives. I made a deal with myself; I'd do the sitting practice, but when the year was over, I could stop, confident I'd done the coursework. That was 18 years ago, and I’ve never stopped. It wasn't always easy, but it was simple, and the result was a calm and settled mind.

The irony of these practices is that it does take, you know, five minutes, ten minutes, but you get back so much time by virtue of a calm and settled mind. It could come from 20 minutes or three minutes a day, along with what we at the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute call "micropractices."

SmSh: What's a micropractice?

LC: A micropractice is a chance to land in the moment, using cues that are already part of your day. Like walking to the elevator, entering a meeting room, washing dishes or walking the dog. For example, before this interview began, I brought attention to my breath, my feet on the ground, and the chair I’m sitting in. In this way, I settled my mind at the outset for our interaction, and it only took 30 seconds.

That kind of awareness leads to responsiveness, as opposed to acting on compulsions. An executive, for example, can take in more information, not just about the transactional, strategic needs of a business, but about the people that make a team and a business run effectively.

The biggest learning I hope participants will take away from the 2-day Search Inside Yourself course is that mindfulness can be practiced in big and small ways, all the time. Sitting for 20 minutes is a great practice, but mindfulness can also take 30 seconds.


SmSh: Assuming it's even possible summarize 20 years in two paragraphs, what's been your experience as a woman in the predominantly male corporate world?

LC: I've always been treated with respect in the corporate world, and I've been blessed with incredible mentors, both men and women. But women often feel the need to arm themselves with a protective confidence. It's understandable, considering the prevalence of inequality and sexual harassment in the workplace. Self-awareness can help us see the subtle ways women are discounted, either by cultural norms or unexamined biases.

"It's very good for business to have a balance of all voices, including the voices of women that have been traditionally diminished, ignored or absent. The more that companies do that, the better they do."

All of us, men and women, have to steel ourselves a bit for the work. But when we're self-aware and know our strengths and challenges, we can develop our true gifts and talents. At the same time, we can know what our limits are and when to ask for help. The best leaders aren’t shy about asking for help and are adept at making powerful, specific requests of others.

SmSh: Some executives revel in the sort of embattled, gladiatorial element of the corporate life. Have you faced any resistance to this "softer" approach of mindfulness and emotional intelligence?

LC: I think it's interesting you use the term 'soft.' A lot of people consider empathy and compassion to be 'soft' skills. I'd suggest these are actually very challenging qualities to have. It’s not an either/or situation; you can be focused, empathetic and savvy all at the same time. It leaves plenty of room for competitiveness, room to have strong opinions and to voice them in a strong way.


SmSh: What do you think a future corporate world looks like where the gender imbalance has been addressed?

LC: I agree when Jack Ma said, "if you want your company to be successful, if you want your company to operate with wisdom and care, then hire women." So what you're really asking is "what would it be like to work in an organization where there is wisdom and care?"

It's been documented in the States that when women are onboard and in positions of leadership, there's a positive impact on the bottom line. It's very good for business to have a balance of all voices, including the voices of women that have been traditionally diminished, ignored or absent. The more that companies do that, the better they do. Jack Ma knows it, that's why 37% of their management team are women. That’s why he calls women a part of their "secret sauce."


SmSh: So, you now teach the Search Inside Yourself Program. Can you explain what the course entails?

LC: We explore what it means to be mindful and emotionally intelligent, in practical terms. What does the cutting edge of neuroscience tell us about the impact of mindful practices, and how, through neuroplasticity, can we positively impact the way our brains function? How does it support us in being skillful leaders, parents, sons and daughters, citizens?

SmSh: This will be the fourth program in Shanghai. What do you think these practices are bringing to the business community in China?

LC: China, like the world, is experiencing astounding changes thanks to tech and innovation, and an explosion of wealth and affluence. You have a fascinating culture that's facing incredible pressures and challenges.

This is all really good news, but those business challenges can best be met by emotionally intelligent, connected people, mindful of the impact they're having on the environment, on their teams, on their boards, on their constituencies. We need people who are skillful in the way they deal with conflict, in bringing out the best in themselves and the people they work with. These practices allow for all of that.


The Search Inside Yourself course will take place May 11-12 at the Living Room by Octave. If you're interested in taking part, tickets are available on SmartTicket.

All pictures provided by Search Inside Yourself.