Webinar Recap: Embracing Uncertainty: How to Thrive as a Leader in an Unpredictable World


Posted: 4/3/2019
Presenter: Ravi Raman [RR]
Moderator: Kyle [Kyle]


Please find below a transcription of the audio portion of Ravi Raman’s Embracing Uncertainty: How to Thrive as a Leader in an Unpredictable World webinar being provided by MPUG for the convenience of our members. You may wish to use this transcript for the purposes of self-paced learning, searching for specific information, and/or performing a quick review of webinar content. There may be exclusions, such as those steps included in product demonstrations. You may watch the live recording of this webinar at your convenience.


[RR]- I hope in this talk you learn some things that help you personally in your career to continue your climb your own growth curve in your career as well as to be a better leader for your own company if you’re a CEO, for your own teams if you have a team you work with or simply for your clients to serve them better and help your clients if you are a service provider lead themselves through uncertain. There are three things that I hope you walk away with.


One is simply a felt understanding, a deep understanding that—look, life is uncertain. There’s a ton of things we can’t predict. And a lot of the world is inherently unpredictable. And, number two, that that has implications. It has implications for any company, for all of our teams but also for us as individuals. Because if we can learn to relate to uncertainty in a productive way, our careers truly have no limits and I’ll share plenty of data in this talk that underscore that point.

Now, of course number 3 is, you’re all probably wondering, “Well what do I do about it?” If I can’t predict the future, if there’s a lot of uncertainty in life and if that impacts my career and my team, what do I do about it? Well, don’t worry. I’m gonna share plenty of ways that you can relate to uncertainty in a productive way. Those are really three things that I hope you’re gonna get out of today.

I also want to say that I decided, and my preference in these talks is to keep them, keep the slides pretty light and to share as many stories as I can. And I’ll be sharing some research and depth behind what I’m saying but if you want to know more about any of the things that I’m talking about, I have pulled together a resource guide.

At the end of the talk, I’ll share a simple URL where you can get, you just enter your email and you’ll get a resource guide with research citations, some book ideas and some blog posts I’ve written on this topic if you want to go deeper.


The Shocking Truth


[RR]- Alright. Let’s dive in. Perhaps there’s no better way to emphasize just how important this topic is than to talk about pain. Why do I say that? Well, I say that because humans will do almost anything to avoid physical pain. Wouldn’t you agree? I mean is there anything worse than physical pain? Well it turns out, there actually is. Because people will go to almost any lengths to avoid uncertainty, to the extent that most people would rather undergo painful electric shocks than deal with an uncertain future. Sounds crazy, but it’s true.

In an experiment that was actually published by the journal Nature, they had 45 volunteers involved in playing a sadistic sort of computer game. [laughs] I mean, it’s really a crazy computer game. And it involved people turning over rocks in a virtual world. Here’s the kicker. Some of the rocks had snakes under them and others didn’t. Now when the volunteers turned over a rock with a snake, they received a painful electric shock.

All of these subjects were wired up so that they could have their biofeedback measured, their pupil dilation measured, their perspiration measured—and what all of this showed was that when subjects knew with certainty that there would be a snake under a rock (because in some cases, you could see the snake’s tail), they were far less stressed than when it was all left to chance.

So in other words, and this is a specific quote by the people who conducted the research, “It turns out that it’s much worse not knowing you are going to get a shock than knowing you definitely will or won’t.” What this means is that as a rule, humans really do prefer certainty to uncertainty. They would rather get a guaranteed painful electric shock than deal with the uncertainty of not knowing if they would get zapped or not.

Leadership Paradox


[RR]- Now, if you’re thinking further about this, you’re probably making a connection in your mind around what you’re going through in your own leadership journey because this really does explain a lot. At the center of it is a paradox we’re faced with when we’re called into any kind of leadership. As a leader, we’re fundamentally tasked with pointing not only ourselves but our teams in a direction. A direction that’s inspiring, that’s meaningful and that’s full of all kinds of possibility. And we also, if we’re going to consider ourselves a leader of any sort, we really need to have some followers around us, right?

Last year, I went into this topic in-depth so you can check out, if you’re an MPUG member and I’m hoping you all are, go check out the archives. Last, early 2018, I gave a talk on leadership so I go into depth about what it means to be a leader and how to improve your leadership game. Now, as a leader with followers, it’s natural for people to look to you for direction, support and certainty.

I mean, just imagine a leader who, if you ask them, “How confident are you in your vision?” Imagine if that person just shrugged their shoulders and said, “Hey look. I have no idea what’s gonna happen. This might be a train wreck.” I mean, that would be totally crazy. And this is the paradox. As a leader, we have to lead into an uncertain future and yet, people look to us as leaders for reassurance.

So what do we do when we’re faced with such a predicament? Well, if you’re like me, you probably rely on your intellect, the quality of your planning skill—you know, the quality of, applying all the stuff you’ve learned here on, through the MPUG community and you’re using your analytical skill as well to try to ensure predictable outcomes, try to ensure the future is going to go according to plan. But, the truth is, it’s really, really hard to predict things.

It’s Hard To Predict Things (Even for experts!!!!)

[RR]- So, over the next five to ten minutes, I just want to share why this is really the case. So we all expect certain things to happen. We expect the sun to rise, we expect our job to be there tomorrow, we expect our budgets to be intact. But can we be really sure? The more complex our projects are, the more uncertain things become.

Even if you deal with just one other human being, I mean humans are—is there anything more complex than another human being? Most people think that being an expert in their field is the only way to fix this problem and that if they put in 10,000 hours of work, spend a decade in their craft, and really master their field— that will be all set. However, turns out, that’s not really enough. It turns out that experts are actually no better at predicting things than many other people.

I just want to run through some examples here and then I’ll share beyond expertise, what we can look to, because if just being an expert isn’t enough, the question is, “What then do we do?” Don’t worry. I’ll share some tips around that. Here are just a few experts that turned out not to be correct in their predictions.

Paul Samuelson

[RR]- Paul Samuelson was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Economics and he famously said in 1961 that, “The Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command to control economy can function and even thrive.” That was 1960. Now of course, we all know just how wrong that point of view was and is to this day.

Irving Fisher

[RR]- Now we can go on. I can keep picking on economists here. Irving Fisher made this specific quote in October of 1929. Just go ahead and read this. He believed that equity stocks have reached a permanently high plateau. Now of course, this was October 1929. What happened shortly after that? Well, just a few weeks later, stocks crashed. We fell into a depression and they didn’t actually recover for 25 years. And this is coming from one of America’s greatest economists ever.


[RR]- If you have followed financial news for any period of time, you’ve probably heard about the Monkeydex. This is a famous case of Raven, a 6 year old chimp who during the height of the dot.com boom became the 22nd most successful money manager in the USA after just throwing darts at a list of stocks to create her own index which, they called Monkeydex. She outperformed 6,000 professional brokers, and more broadly, there’s been plenty of stories written about how, even over the last 15 years, over 90 percent of professional money managers lag a simply SMP 500 index fund.

I know I’m picking a lot on financiers here but they’re sort of easy targets because they make a lot of predictions and have supreme confidence in their predictions, and yet we know they just usually don’t go as planned. But we could go more broadly.

Now this particular quote stings as a Microsoft alumni, this was a hard one to swallow. But I was there at the time and this quote, “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share,” was uttered by Steve Ballmer in 2007, with utmost confidence and of course we all know what’s happened since then.


But we don’t have to look very far into the world to see just how hard prediction is. Our inaccuracy, it goes way beyond just dollars and cents. We struggle with even simple predictions, often. Let’s take the simple case of what’s for dinner. I mean, how accurately, just think personally for a second, how accurately can you predict what you would like to eat for dinner today.

I don’t know what time it is in your time zone. For me right now, it’s 10 o’clock. Pizza sounds pretty good for me but my guess is, by the time 2 o’clock rolls around I’ll change my mind. As the evening comes closer, my wife probably will have a better idea that I might go for instead. Now that’s just me predicting what I want for dinner tonight, let alone tomorrow or a week from now or a month from now.

Is Uncertainty Good?

[RR]- Predicting the future is hard because frankly, it’s just uncertain. There’s a lot of uncertainty around it. And the question really then becomes, “Is this good or is this bad?” I’ve shared a whole bunch of examples of predictions gone wrong and that might lead you to think that uncertainty is bad. But I want to suggest that it’s very, very good that things don’t work as expected. It’s good, assuming we can relate to uncertainty in the right way. The reason why is, well, exemplified by the companies you’re looking on this slide right now because, through uncertainty, there’s a tremendous power.

Sure, when we don’t know what’s going to happen next, it can create all kinds of trouble. We can get stressed, feel anxiety, confusion and fear. All those things can arise in uncertainty. However, it’s also true that remarkable things happen through the unplanned and serendipitous way in which life just seems to work. In fact, the story behind any great company looks nothing like a, sort of a straight line up and to the right on a curve. I mean, I’m sure you’d agree with that.

In fact, each of the companies on this slide have an origin story. Each of those stories are full of twists and turns, full of unpredictable outcomes and full of plenty of opportunities that were lost and totally missed as well as many that were actually seized. I mean we all know the stories of Apple and Google. If you’ve read the book “Shoedog,” by Phil Knight, you learn just how crazy and unpredictable the twists and turns of Nike’s origin story were.

In the case of one of these companies, Starbucks, I want to just share a few more details in it. In the book, there’s actually a great book called “The Click Moment,” by Franz Johansenn, in which he tells the story of Howard Schultz who, back in the spring of 1983 as the Director of Retail Ops for Starbucks and—yeah, that’s right, he was actually an employee, he didn’t found the company—who, he traveled to Milan back in the spring of 1983 for a trade show because back then, Starbucks didn’t sell coffee by the cup. They just sold bulk bags of beans and high end brewing coffee equipment.

So he was going to this trade show, which was sort of a commercial kitchen equipment trade show and the trade show was sort of boring. And so he spent a lot of time wandering around Milan. As he wandered around Milan, he noticed just how many little cafes there were and he noticed just how busy they were. But his ah-ha moment came when he tried a latte for the first time and it was, and this is a quote from Howard Schultz, “a perfect drink.” “It was like an epiphany. It was so immediate and physical that I was shaking,” so that’s a quote from Howard Schultz.

Now, no doubt, some of the shaking might have been due to all the caffeine he was consuming at the time but what the Schultz, what Howard Schultz did with his insight is history. All of this points back to the unplanned nature of that event, the serendipitous running into the cafes, the trying of the latte and having the epiphany that radically changed the course of the company forever.

And so all this points back to, not only the origin stories of great companies but, each and every one of us. I mean, think for yourself. How many times has an unplanned event impacted your life or your work? How many times were you able to seize an opportunity amidst the uncertainty and conversely, how many times did you let those opportunities or the insights just slip away? I mean these are all very important questions.


R.I.P.E. for Life

How to Thrive As a Leader in an Unpredictable World


[RR]- What all of these stories tell us is something that’s very crucial, that it’s not crucial that we are certain about our future. It’s not certain that we know exactly how things are going to go. What’s more crucial is that we’re in the right state of mind to be able to capitalize on and fully engage with whatever happens, even if it’s totally unexpected. Now I call it being “R.I.P.E. for life,” and what we’re talking about applies equally to our work and also our personal careers and our lives.

You know, like any good presenter, I’d love for you to remember at least a few things we’re talking about. So I created this little acronym just as a way to structure four different ways we can be ready and really deal with uncertainty in a productive way.

By “RIPE,” I mean having the presence of mind to relate to the world in a reflective [R], imagine-filled [I], playful [P] and present or embracing [E] kind of way. Each of these four dimensions, they’re vital in helping both you and your teams to face the future well and to not be overwhelmed by it.

So over the next half-hour or so, I’m going to step through what exactly I mean by these words. What does it mean to reflect, to use our imagination well, to be playful and to embrace the moment? What do I mean by these and how can you actually apply these in your work starting today and really apply it for yourself first and then also bring it to your teams.

Reflect (“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” John Dewey)


[RR]- So let’s take a second and dive in by talking about the first part, which is what I mean by reflection. I’m sharing a quote here by John Dewey. John Dewey is quite famous in the world of psychology and philosophy. He had a big impact in how educational systems happen globally as he was an educational reformer. He was a staunch believer that we actually don’t learn from what actually happens, we learn from the power of reflecting on what happens.

And this, combined with the fact that we seem to be unique creatures as human beings in that we do have a capacity to stop and think, we get to ask ourselves some questions like “Why do things happen? Why do they happen the way they happen and what am I learning from this experience? And of course, how can I take what I’m learning and make things even better in the future?”

And our plans rarely equal reality. I mean, we all end up getting somewhere but it’s only in hindsight that we can look back, reflect, as if we are connecting the dots and have a true understanding of just how we were able to accomplish our goals and if our goals ended up not getting accomplished, how we were able to rebound, recover, adapt and continue moving forward. And another word of saying this is “Success leaves clues,” and it’s up for us to stop for long enough to notice what those clues are and to take those lessons learned into our work in our lives going forward.


[RR]- What is reflecting actually mean? Is there something we can go do about it? Well, there’s a lot we can go do about it and here’s something very practical. Take some time, maybe an hour, maybe twenty minutes—you can do this individually and then even do it with a team, and just commit to doing a simple reflective exercise. You can call this a retrospective. A more somber term would be post-mortem. I prefer retrospective. And simply ask yourself about a handful of questions about a specific project you’ve had to deal with.

Perhaps one that was full of twists and turns, ones where you had to overcome challenges or maybe where the challenges overcame you. Ask questions like, “What uncertainties have I had to deal with in this situation? How did I actually deal with them and what was the outcome, both near term and long term? What did I learn from this entire experience? And lastly, what does this actually mean for me and my team going forward?” Reflective exercises are not just about being mindful and connecting with your feelings and your thoughts. It’s actually proving to make a massive difference.

WiPro Study on Power of Reflection

[RR]- Now I found a working paper published by Harvard, highlighting the power of reflection. A study was done on learning and accelerated learning at WiPro. If you’re familiar—I’m sure many of you are familiar with WiPro, a global business process outsourcing company—here’s what they did. They took a call center and they split two cohorts of trainees into two groups. These are trainees going through a boot camp to become call center agents. Now the training routines for each of the two cohorts was identical. Here’s the catch: one cohort was given fifteen minutes of reflective time at the end of each and every day.

What that means is at the conclusion of each day, the reflective cohort was simply asked to write down what did they learn today and how will they carry it forward in their training going forward. That’s it. Now at the conclusion of the training period, all the trainees were given a knowledge assessment. The cohort that was given fifteen minutes to reflect on what they learned each day scored 23 percent higher than the control group. That’s interesting.

I think what’s even more interesting is after graduating, they were put into real live field service roles. The reflection cohort was found to have 19 percent higher likelihood of getting a top rating for customers. 15 minutes a day for a 20 percent in customer service—I don’t know about you but that seems like a no-brainer tradeoff. Here’s what’s more interesting. These are call center roles that are very structured, with learning curves that might be steep but then they plateau.

Now imagine, for most of us, we’re in roles that are highly unstructured. Yes, we might run a project but we have a lot more factors. We have to influence executive teams, we have to relate to all kinds of clients, we have to pitch deals, we have to actually run projects too, and we have to build our teams. My hypothesis is that the more unbounded and unstructured our work is and the steeper the learning curve, the higher and more impactful reflection will be on our work.


[RR]- We’ve talked about reflection as a powerful tool. Next we can talk about imagination. Imagination is very powerful. The problem is our imagination can be like a runaway train. In fact, when our imagination runs away from us, this is what we call worry and anxiety. The flipside of this is we can be proactive, we can actually harness our imagination to help deal with blind spots and assumptions that will get us into trouble. Here’s the catch.

We can’t predict the future. Hopefully you agree with me on that one. However, there’s sort of a way you can—because while you don’t know the specific content of the future, you can sort of understand the nature of it. There are only four general outcomes that are possible for anything we’re trying to do. Let me share what those are.

The first outcome, and you can even think about a project you’re leading right now, the first outcome is things go as planned. If you’re like me, you tend to set goals that are meaningful and you’re happy if things go as planned, right? That’s one outcome. However, how often does that happen? I’ve found in experience that very rarely do things go exactly as planned. There are three other ways that things can go.

One way is they can go better. I mean how often are we pleasantly surprised, in the way that Howard Schultz—maybe not in the degree to which Howard Schultz was surprised in his ventures through Milan—but we often do things and we have pleasant surprises. In our imagination, that’s a possibility. There’s also, of course, the possibility that things go worse than planned and there’s a last possibility which is things simply turning out differently.

So while we can’t predict the specifics of the future, we do know that things can move in any of these four directions and turn out “as expected,” “better than expected,” “worse than expected” or “simply different.”

Here is where it comes down to in thinking about your own projects. What are the possibilities and can you take some time to think it through, and think through these four directions in which the future can go. And what would it be like if things did turn out this way, really spend some time stretching your mind to be more open minded in thinking about these four different directions in which things can go.

The truth is this is important because contemplating alternatives and the ways things can go in the future is key to cultivating open mindedness. Open mindedness really matters when we’re dealing with uncertainty because—well, let me just share some of the research from Wharton’s Philip Tetlock who has spent twenty or close to thirty years now studying prediction and forecasting. What Tetlock has found is that there are some people that are just way better than everyone else at making predictions. He calls these people “super forecasters.”

Now Tetlock concluded that the super forecasters are not necessarily geniuses, which is good news. They’re not math whizzes, they’re not news junkies, though they’re pretty intelligent and competent. Here’s what separates the super forecasters from everyone else.

It’s, they have certain ways of thinking and reasoning that, frankly, anyone with decent intelligence can learn if they’re willing to put in the work. One of those traits of super forecasters is that they have open minded attitudes. That is to say they’re not beholden and fixed on their current ways of thinking.

I encourage you to check out Tetlock’s book if you’d like to learn more. Suffice it to say, simply taking the time to contemplate alternatives is a major, major lever you have to break your mind out of the blindness that can occur when we just stay in our prevailing assumptions and train of thought.


[RR]- We can reflect properly on the past, use that to accelerate learning. We can harness imagination so it’s not stoking fear but instead actually channeling energy to create open mindedness. The next thing we can do is we can actually plan, and planning for uncertainty sort of sounds like an oxymoron, right? It’s true, we can. If we were a handyman, for example, we can plan by getting our tools ready. If we were a doctor, we could plan by doing the right training and getting our clinic in order. It is possible to plan for the unplannable. It really is.

Now, the way I want to talk about planning is to break it down into three different zones in which we can plan, each of which can help us be, just more ready to deal with whatever life throws at us. Those three elements are planning around the people involved, the processes we use to run a project and the product itself that we’re building, whether it’s a product or a service offering, whatever the thing is that’s the object of our work.


Now, let’s talk about people first. How do we plan around people to help us deal and thrive in uncertainty. There’s another idea that Philip Tetlock uncovered and this was the distinction between hedgehogs and foxes when it comes to making forecasts. I’m not referring to the animals themselves. I’m actually referring to an ancient Greek saying that says something like, “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing. So what the heck does this mean?

Well, this saying has been—I believe it’s a Greek saying and it’s been around for thousands of years, people have pondered it and debated what it means—but here’s what it might mean. There’s a difference in perspective when we’re coming at a problem as an expert as opposed to someone who has many areas of knowledge.

Now what did Philip Tetlock discover: is it the hedgehogs who are better or the foxes. What he found is that while you can be a good forecaster as a hedgehog, the best were much more fox-like. In other words, they had diverse knowledge and slightly varied interests but more importantly, some open minded awareness around what they know and what they don’t know.

Diverse POVs

[RR]- Another way of saying is you think about the people involved in your efforts, is that if we want to improve the quality and robustness of our plans to be more future proof, it really does pay to have diverse point of views as part of the mix. We don’t all need to go out and get new degrees. We don’t need to go out and read ten books a week. Instead, we can seek out a wide variety of cultures, backgrounds, skillsets and perspectives to be part of our projects. Or simply seek out a brain trust of varied background people to poke some holes in our plans, to help us think around the corners we’re not seeing.

The research on the connections between diversity of backgrounds and innovation is very, very robust. Culturally and ethnically, diverse skill oriented teams hold a distinct advantage over homogenous teams. They’re shown to be smarter, they tend to focus more on facts. These teams tend to make decisions more carefully. They also tend to be more innovative.

There was a study of almost 8,000 companies in London that were analyzed to reveal that businesses that were run by diverse leadership teams were far more likely to develop new, innovative products than leadership teams who were pretty homogenous. And there are many other studies to support this. I mean just think about it for yourself.

In running a project, how many times have you found that maybe a group of, let’s say engineers, might have a blind spot that the marketer might catch or a group of financiers who have a blind spot that the HR lead might catch. This has big implications for how we think about staffing our teams and seeking input from people who have different and complementary skillsets, or frankly just different skillsets even if we can’t quite see the connection at the start.


[RR]- We’ve talked about people as a way to plan. Now let’s talk about processes. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this because I’m sort of preaching to the choir here. Any good plan also has some baked in affordances to allow for flexibility inherent in the process. I mean how do you currently manage shocks to your system, meaning changes in market dynamics, entry of a competitor, changing budgets, changing customer needs—any good project has a way of affording some way of making decisions midstream, adapting and reacting to those decisions and improving the project, not just at the start but throughout the process.

As you think about your processes and project plans, ask yourself: “Do I have enough break and buffer to allow for changes that might come about? Do I have time for reflection and retrospectives as I wrap up one cycle so that the next cycle of the project can be better? Do I have spare resources to accommodate any change or at minimum, do I have a sense of how to prioritize my resources?”



[RR]- That really points to the last area of planning, which is we can’t predict the future but we can be ready to engage and respond to what it gives us. With whatever you are managing, let’s say you are managing a product delivery, are you clear on the priorities within your product? Are you clear on where to scale up if you have more resources appear or cut back and refine if you have budget cuts or resource constraints?

For example, right now, just look around your desk. You probably got a computer in front of you, probably your phone, maybe your watch, maybe your monitor or even a cool piece of furniture. I want you, in your mind’s eye, just to pick something, maybe your phone. I want you to ask yourself what are the most essential components of that product. Really think about it, you know, look at your phone, what’s really most essential.

Now imagine yourself as the producer, as the manufacturer of that product. If you could wave your magic wand and add a few bonus features to that product, what would it be? Conversely, if you had your magic wand taken away and as the manufacturer, you had to cut some features or cut costs—what might you do? It’s that type of flexible thinking, understanding priorities and how they can be adjusted to face, to deal with market changes that is crucial to enable us all to thrive as the uncertain world just shows up.

And frankly when we think about flexible, diverse people, diverse points of view, flexibility and sort of adaptive learning baked into our processes and how we would expand or contract our products around that—something interesting starts to happen. Not only are we able to react more quickly to whatever market changes happen, but generally we feel better about it. We have less stress, less anxiety. We’re ready for change in a pretty profound way. We’re not afraid of it. And this points to the last point.


[RR]- I’ll say—you know, I’ve been talking for about forty minutes now and if you’re multitasking, looking at email right now, this might be a time to come back because if you forget everything else I talk about, this is the one thing you really need to know.

When it comes to thriving as a leader in unpredictability, being able to embrace what’s really happening—not resist it, not sugarcoat it, not rely on positive thinking but actually see objectively what’s happening and sit with it and embrace it is the superpower that is at the core of high level leadership. I could talk a lot about what it means to embrace what’s happening but the feeling is really what matters and it goes far beyond the words. So let me talk a little bit about surfing to give you, I hope, the feeling of what this might be like.

One way to feel it is to imagine what it would be like to be out there in the waves as a surfer. As a surfer, what do you want? You expect waves, you want change, and you want movement. In fact, you don’t fear every wave coming up on the horizon. Instead, each wave brings with it an opportunity to ride, to surf and to see where things might lead.

Now on the contrary, imagine if you’re out in the ocean and you’re someone who not only doesn’t like surfing but you don’t even understand the nature of the ocean. You think it should be flat like a lake or a pond. Maybe you resist every wave, you tell yourself “Why are there waves out here? I just want the water to be flat. Why is the water so salty? I want it to be fresh.” Well in such a case, not only will every wave be surprising but every wave will bring with it unwanted fear, anxiety and nervousness. Reacting to fear, anxiety and nervousness are the opposite of what being a leader is all about.

Exec Presence Data

[RR]- I mean think about a leader in your own world who you feel exudes leadership at a high level. What are their hallmark characteristics? Are they fidgety, flighty, anxious, constantly paranoid that things are going to go wrong or are they calm, relaxed and confident, that even under high pressure, high stakes situations, that solutions are inevitable. Well, look, a leader who is able to stand tall and not crumble under the mental pressure of conflict or of things just not going their way—this is a rare but powerful individual. They exhibit what’s called grace under fire.

One of the better studies I’ve seen on executive presence was written by, was conducted by Sylvia Anne Hewlett who has a book by the same name [Transcription Note- Presumably “Executive Presence” is the title of the book].

She calls out three dimensions to executive presence and appearance matters, how they communicate matters but she actually found that gravitas, that mythical quality we’ve all heard about was by far the most important. Now what is gravitas? Well, it means a lot of things. One of the most important aspects of gravitas is the capacity to have confidence and grace under fire.

Miracle on the Hudson

[RR]- Perhaps one of the most striking examples of this is the real life story of the Miracle on the Hudson. If you haven’t heard about this, this is the story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s emergency landing of US Air Flight 1549 on the Hudson River with all lives saved. There was a movie a few years ago where Tom Hanks played Captain Sully. If you watch the movie, what will strike you, what struck me was just how calm and present Captain Sully was in what seemed like an impossible situation, where for the first time ever, with life or death consequences, Captain Sully was able to find his way through a double engine failure, thinking quickly on his feet with only a couple minutes to do something. And it’s something neither he nor his crew had ever trained for.

If you watch the movie, you get a feel for what actually happened. It turns out to be a pretty accurate depiction because according to Sully himself, he reacted as you would expect anyone to react. His blood pressure and his pulse spiked, he perspired, he wasn’t stoic, he wasn’t emotionless, he actually felt the fear but here is the key distinction. He had the presence of mind to also have an intense commitment to focus on the task at hand. He sought to create an oasis of calm for himself and the situation in spite of the uncertainty of the circumstance.

Here’s the thing. Could it be that our best way of navigating uncertainty and chaos is actually through embracing the present moment and what is needed now in spite of how your body’s reacting? It seems to be the answer is yes. In the world of athletics, this is exactly the lesson we learn.



[RR]- It’s called being in the flow or being in the zone. Flow states are characterized by attention in the present moment. When there’s attention in the present, worries and concerns, which are all based on future projection and imagination or rumination on the past—all of those things just fade away.

Flow is the mental state in which a person performing an activity is just immersed. They’re feeling energized. They’re feeling focused and they’re enjoying the process. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what you’re doing and sort of a loss of even space and time. You’re just totally present. So the question really is does this actually make a difference?

% of Subjects Solving Creative Puzzle

[RR]- I found an intriguing study. Now this study has a small sample size so bear with me here. But I think it’s just fascinating and there’s actually more research being done if you’re familiar with Steven Cotler’s work on flow and flow states and creativity. He’s doing more research in this domain.

In this particular study in Australia, they took 40 people and they gave them a super hard brain teaser. You know, those kinds that you might stare at in the back of a New York Times and just, you’re wondering who on earth could ever solve these. It was a tricky brain teaser. It was the kind that requires some kind of a deep insight to solve. No surprise, nobody solved the brain teaser but then they did something very interesting.

They actually used magnets to stimulate parts of the brain that are associated with flow. After the stimulation, they gave them back the brain teasers and they found that 23 out of the 40 not only got the right answers, they did it in record time. In other words, 57.5 percent solved the problem in flow, 0 percent not.


This has nothing to do with positive thinking. It has everything to do with how we can be in our best state of mind to respond to uncertainty, which is about being present, being in flow which has a direct impact on the quality of insight and our creative capacities.

Emotional Intelligence


[RR]- Everything we’re talking about is also referred to as emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is said to be, in some ways, superior to and distinct from raw, cognitive intellect or IQ. Now Daniel Goleman, the originator of the term emotional intelligence, has long argued that EQ (or emotional intelligence) matter way more, at least just as much, perhaps more than IQ.

In fact, when emotional intelligence surveys and assessments came onto the scene back in the 90s, it actually helped to explain a very interesting finding where in numerous studies, people with average IQs seemed to outperform those with the highest IQs 70 percent of the time. In fact, there’s some research by TalentSmart, an emotional intelligence company that looked at 33 different workplace skills. What they found was that emotional intelligence, they call it EQ, it’s referred to as various things but they found that the essence of this is the strongest predictor of performance at work.

In fact, it explained a full 58 percent of success in all types of jobs. What this means is that we don’t need to be geniuses at work, we don’t need to be off the charts intellectually smart to do great at our work. But we do need to be emotionally smart and reasonably competent. I think that’s good news.


[RR]- Of course, all this is just theory. It’s just concept until you put it into practice. So here’s how you do it. The next time you see a big project going sideways and your mind is racing through all the ways things can get worse, try something out. Instead of going right into problem solving mode, give yourself the gift of five, ten or twenty minutes of space. Let your mind settle. Go for a walk. Notice your breathing. Heck, if you feel like surfing, go surf. Don’t think about your problem.

Allow your mind to relax, then come back to the problem and simply make your job to just be as present as possible and allow whatever ideas come to mind to come into your mind and see how as you stay in the game and allow your mind to settle, you can stay present and in that present awareness, you’re bound to be able to best deal with whatever situation comes your way and you’ll probably find that you’ll be more insightful, more creative as a result.


So we’ve gone on a wide journey here and we’ve talked about a whole bunch of things. We’ve talked about how life is inherently uncertain, none of us have a crystal ball and while that might pose problems and have implications for what it can do to us and our teams, it’s actually a good thing. There’s tons of possibility that comes out of uncertainty.

And that while even experts are wrong in prediction, there is something we can do about it. We can properly apply our energy to accelerating our own learning, by reflecting on the past, by harnessing our imagination, not to dwell on what might go wrong but to think about all the possibilities for the future: better, worse, same or different.

We can be smart about our planning and I hope some of you are inspired right now to go back and think about your projects and ask yourself, “How can I think about the people, the planning structure and the product itself in ways that allow me to be more open minded, more flexible?”

And lastly, we can work on that ever important quality that’s behind executive presence, that’s behind emotional intelligence, that’s behind creativity at work which is embracing the situation, not resisting it, feeling what you feel but staying in the game as best you can and not letting your mind take you to some different place.

Frankly, if all you did was practice embracing the present in the midst of uncertainty, you’ll start seeing profound impact not only for your own state of mind but also for the type of capacity that we all have to seize opportunity and not get tumbled over by it.


Slides & More (https://RaviRaman.com/MPUG2019)

[RR]- I hope you found this talk perhaps inspiring, perhaps interesting and maybe your curiosity is piqued. Perhaps you want to go deeper into some of the research. What I’ve done is provide a resource pack for MPUG members. All you have to do is go to this, my website. It’s my name. R-A-V-I-R-A-M-A-N dot com, forward slash MPUG2019. What you’ll see is an entry to enter your email and then you’ll get an auto response back from me.

It’ll have a few things. It’ll have the slides from today, it’ll have a list of references that I think are pretty neat, a few research studies, a few books as well as a few blog posts I wrote that I think you might enjoy. Also, as I love to do each year is offer just a handful of complimentary coaching sessions for those of you who are—you don’t have to necessarily want to hire me as a coach but what I am looking for is those of you who want to further the conversation we had today and have a conversation about how you can embrace uncertainty to a higher degree in your own personal career or perhaps with the teams you’re working with.

I’m happy to hop on a call for an hour and I have just five or six of those slots open over the next two months. There’s an application. If you put in your email, you’ll get a link to the application. Fill that out and then we’ll try to coordinate a time that works for you. So I hope you found that interesting. Again, thank you for taking the time and please do…go ahead and put some aspect of this into action and I hope it really makes a difference in your work.

With that, I’ll end and ask if there are any, either questions or maybe you just have a comment. If something I said sparked something in you, if there’s something you found interesting or notable, if there’s some action you’re inspired to take, I’d also love to hear that as well.

[Kyle]- Thanks so much, Ravi. We appreciate your time and covering the material with us today in the MPUG community. As far as questions go, the floor is open so if anyone does has questions, feel free to chat those over. We still have a few minutes here while we close out where Ravi can answer any questions you may have.

In the meantime—perfect. So the URL that Ravi shared is on the screen now. There’s a screenshot button at the top of the viewer window so if you’d like to just take a quick snapshot of this and it’ll save the image to your computer so you don’t have to jot that down. And—

[RR]- Yeah, I—and Kyle, just interrupt me if a question comes. Otherwise, I can maybe speak to a couple common questions I get from clients that come up.

[Kyle]- Oh yeah, that’d be great. Ravi, we’re getting a lot of thank you’s and people that are appreciative of the session. Don’t see any questions that have come in yet so yeah, if you’d like to do that, that’d be great.

[RR]- Yeah. A common one is, “Where do I start?” This is a really big topic and I sort of crammed ten pounds worth of content into a five pound bag in a way. [laughs]. There’s a lot here and so sometimes people get overwhelmed a bit. “How do I start? How do I bring this to my teams?” Some people might think, “Oh wow. I’m not a coach (meaning they’re not a coach)? How do I do this?” The most important thing is to see and witness a shift in yourself by trying any of the things that we talked about. So let’s just take something as simple as reflection.

Maybe you’re inspired, as a result of the conversation today, to start a fifteen minute reflective habit every day or every week, where you just journal “Hey what did I learn this week about my project? What insights am I getting? How might next week go even better? How might my next project be future proof based on a struggle I’m going through now?” Maybe you just do that for yourself and after a month, see the difference it makes. Because what you witness for yourself will then make it a no-brainer to figure out, “How do I then do it for my teams?”

The other thing is if you just want to start with the team thing, it’s very powerful to reflect with a team, you know—to pull a team together, again timing matters. So maybe at the end of a project, book some time—I used to do this for two or three hours with my team after we wrapped up a big project—and we used to have a conversation, you know, let’s look back over the past three months.

What are we really proud of accomplishing? Where do we have room for improvement, what were some of the roadblocks that we stumbled through? Based on that, going forward, what are some improvements to how we work together, to the people we put on projects, to the way we work, that might make things different. You’d be amazed, you have even a few people putting their minds together, what they can come up with.

Just pick anywhere to start that feels low stress for you and then as you see the results, it’ll be easy to do some of the other things I talked about today.

So, any other questions coming in?


[Kyle]- Nope. No questions today. We’ve got a quiet crowd today. A lot of thank you’s and people really enjoyed the session. So, thanks to you Ravi.


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Written by Ravi Raman
Ravi Raman is an executive career coach and long-time veteran of Microsoft, where he led product management and marketing teams for several global software products and services. As a coach, Ravi has helped countless clients-- including management consultants, technology startups and Fortune 500 company leaders -- unlock higher performance and build careers they can be proud of. Stay in touch with Ravi via Facebook, LinkedIn, his website and @YogiRavi.

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