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In a 2015 PwC survey of a thousand CEOs globally, ‘curiosity’ and ‘open-mindedness’ were identified as increasingly critical leadership traits in these complex and challenging times. My own experience with c-suite executives supports this thesis and shows every leader and their organisations will benefit by investing in learning to become more curious. Better answers to today’s complex challenges and groundbreaking ways of grasping big opportunities come from asking the right questions. And the ability to ask probing, out-of-the-box questions comes from being deeply imaginative, and from having the courage and insight to ask penetrating ‘Why’ questions, as well as speculative ‘What if ’ and ‘How’ questions? In other words, to be curious.

Your effectiveness and satisfaction will be enhanced if you recognise there are two sides to everything. Two sides to everything creates paradoxes in our personal and professional lives and if you learn to manage the tensions posed by these paradoxes they become game changers for yourself, your team and your organisation.

Harvard’s Amy Cuddy has written a book on presence showing how to bring your boldest self to your biggest challenges. It is full of wisdom and ideas relevant to executives, so I have written this post to share some of these with you.

The nature of executive presence

Your knowledge and command of your content are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for having executive presence. Too few understand executive presence is much more than this. It is a multi-facetted, mental and physical state in which you are attuned to your true thoughts and feelings and able to spontaneously express them comfortably and convincingly. Other words for executive presence include poise, a word derived from the early French meaning composure and elegant bearing, gravitas, and charisma in a professional business sense.

The November 2015 Mindfulness Leadership Summit explained mindful leadership as “an alternative to just leading from the top down, mindful leadership is leading from the inside out”. To understand how becoming a mindful leader will benefit you, those who follow you, and your organisation, let’s start with a recap of what it means to be mindful. With its origins in Theravada Buddhism, mindfulness is the ability to be aware of the moment. You are totally present in the now, not the past, or the future. Now, the present.

Are you an expendable or an indispensable member of your organisation? Do you know how to become indispensable? Do you realise you can? There’s no need to ask if you know the difference between being indispensable and expendable! Of course, you understand the consequences of being expendable. In This Side of Paradise, Scott Fitzgerald’s romantic and witty novel, he captures what he learned from his father ‘…although no one is truly indispensable, the pursuit of wisdom enriched by knowledge and skill with a sense of giving back (emphasis added) may allow oneself to become nearly indispensable’. Fitzgerald expressed his idea thus:

At this time of year we need to remember William Bridges’ rule #2: “Every transition begins with an ending”. We have to let go of the old – the pain, baggage and disappointments of 2015 – before we can truly benefit from and enjoy the promise and plenty of the New Year. In the enduring wisdom of Transitions – Making Sense of Life’s Changes Bridges wrote about how to cope with ‘that difficult process of letting go of an old situation, suffering the confusion of nowhere in-betweenness, and launching forth in a new situation’. He helps us understand the underlying process of personal transition and gives us insights into how it affects us at work and in our personal relationships.

Isn’t saying ‘Don't be afraid to fail’ just a cliché, I hear you ask? It may be, but more importantly there is excellent research evidence to show if you actually embrace failure, you are more likely to be more successful than those who succumb to being afraid to fail. ‘The Right Mindset for Success’ is an an interview with Harvard Business Review with Carol Dweck, a leading organisational psychologist, explains why no executive should be afraid to fail or make mistakes. The key message in Carol’s research is understanding why some people reach their potential while others who are just as talented don’t. Her work shows us that talented people who find success have a growth mindset, in contrast with a fixed mindset.

After writing Diminishing returns, a post about how executives can work less and produce more, I came across a brilliant exposition on the same topic. From Spain the prolific Jesus Gill Hernandez, wrote The Law of Diminishing Returns in January 2014. Jesus captures the essence of the insight this way "The ability to recognize the point of diminishing returns and cut off further activity from that point onwards can result in a huge benefits. These benefits can manifest in the form of increased productivity, fulfillment, happiness and vitality, depending on what area you are using it in."

The law of diminishing returns was distressingly evident in an interview with a young lawyer on the ABC's 7.30 report last week. Jerome Doraisamy, the subject of the interview and author of a book on his experience, was sharing his journey and recovery from debilitating depression. In doing so he was talking to every one of us. Being a high achiever is all very well, but not when the cost exceeds the returns. Being proud of being a workaholic may impress some colleagues. Badges of honour for being the last to leave the office are still prized. But the evidence is clear. As Harvard University researchers put it 'Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies'. In the language of this post: Long hours cause diminishing returns.

My clients and I have learned the key to managing up successfully comes from using the ladder of inference to influence what someone crucial to your career believes about you. And therefore how that person makes decisions about your progress in the organisation. In the Fifth Discipline Peter Senge wrote about the importance of basing decisions on considered reasoning and reflection – and not acting on assumptions or in haste. Senge used the ‘ladder of inference’ as the theoretical underpinning of his prescription for making wise executive and other decisions. In today’s fast-paced world there is always pressure to act now. Making quick decisions often seems more virtuous than taking the time to gather and test the relevant facts and form a measured view before acting. In other words it’s all too easy to run up the ladder of inference, form erroneous beliefs, and make poor decisions.

Whatever type of job you hold, in today’s times you have to run ‘You & Co’ as a business. Whether you feel secure as a senior executive (this not always an oxymoron), a middle manager climbing the shaky rungs of a corporate ladder, a SMB owner-manager, a partner in a professional services firm, or a freelance consultant, all the evidence points to the importance of doing your job as though you are in business for yourself. Put another way, you need to run ‘You & Co’ as a business. Bridges spine onlyAs William Bridges so aptly put in his great book JobShift, “Today the idea that You’ve got to look after your own career prospects, nobody else is going to has to be taken a step further, You had better be not only taking care of your own future, but also looking after yourself as though you were self-employed.” Writing in 1994, Bridges emphasised his own analysis with a blunt statement by an out-placement consultant: “You have to see yourself as a business”.

The common stereotype of senior executives working 60 hour weeks, not taking holidays, and enduring unhealthy levels of stress is well founded. Those fuelling this stereotype do indeed invest huge and unrelenting hours in being top performers. If you recognise yourself in this caricature, the personal price you are paying is very high. Executive life is widely and rightly regarded as tough. Witness the shortening tenures of CEOs in major corporations, the prevalence of stress and burnout, and the constant refrain “I never have enough time”. Ironically, you would be an even better performer if you invested your energy, not your time. In researching how to help a seriously stressed corporate executive, I recently dipped back into ‘The Power of Full Engagement’ by Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr. Their research reveals that the old paradigm of being a better time manager is less helpful than a new way of thinking, namely managing your energy.

On 5 May the ABC 7.30 Report screened an inspiring interview that spoke volumes about being resilient and adaptable. Leigh Sales' interview with George Miller – the Australian creator of Max Max* – is worth watching to reflect on the merits of being resilient and adaptable in life and career. As an aide-memoire, I have picked out some of George Miller's observations from the interview.

Not so long ago white and blue collar workers alike enjoyed a contract with their employers that was rarely written. It was a tacit ‘social contract’ that offered both parties security and comfort. The social contract is dead – well and truly buried. Here’s what its demise means to you.

When I first heard ‘You are no longer a person; you are a brand.’ I was struck by the pith and pathos of the expression, which Tom Peters attributes to Martha Stewart in his very useful book  the brand you. Rhetorically saying to someone ‘You are no longer a person; you are a brand’ certainly grabs their attention. And for your career, so it should. It epitomises the notion of thinking about yourself and your career in contemporary marketing way.

How often has someone said to you ‘Trust your gut’? Do you? Or do you go though a logical analysis of the pros and cons of every major decision you make? Being urged to trust your gut is the same as being urged to listen to your inner voice, act on your hunch, let your intuition decide, and follow your sixth sense. These interchangeable colloquialisms refer to allowing your heart to rule your head in making decisions. I often advise my clients to do just this. Here’s why.

Happy holidays to all my clients and followers of Letting go. Stepping up; it 's a time to reflect and recharge. Have a restful and reflective break and return in 2015 to focus on those aspects of your life and career that are most important to you. In doing so, please browse some of my favourite posts of the past year.

Late yesterday Bob, one of my high-flying clients in a listed corporation, called me in a perplexed state. He was wondering about how he could influence others when making decisions. During the day he had landed in a near shouting match with his favourite direct report, and later with his boss, the chief executive, he had enjoyed ‘one of the best one-on-ones we have ever had’. In both conversations substantial decisions were scheduled for immediate action. Driving home, he couldn’t for the life of him understand why they felt so different, so he called me.

I'll call her Jess and through her story show how when one door closes you can open the next one. Jess was making her rise through the corporate ranks look easy. Her company promoted Jess ahead of her peers. Making her sales budget was a breeze for Jess who worked extraordinarily hard, often sacrificing her private life for the job. Overall, life felt good. Abruptly, all this changed.

Last month my post titled ‘It is possible to be happier, but not for the reasons you may think’ generated a good deal of interest. So much so in fact that I searched for more practical guidance on what you can do to be happier. Here's some key things we've learning about happiness through science, courtesy of Mindful newsletter columnist Stephany Tlalka (whose helpful synopsis of current research I quote and gratefully acknowledge).