To succeed when it counts, closely mimic “game day” conditions. It’s not enough to practice; you must practice under the same conditions under which you’ll be expected to perform. You might say, “Oh, I’ve got this information.” Maybe you’ve read through your notes in the parking lot or lobby before a big pitch or presentation or you’ve practiced shooting free throws when no one’s watching. But what my research and others’ has shown is that you have to mimic as much as possible the kinds of conditions you’re going to perform under because that gets you used to what happens in these situations. Practice in front of someone else — or at least in front of a mirror. Purposefully making yourself nervous during practice sessions helps ensure the “big day” doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sian Leah Beilock.
Sian Leah Beilock began her tenure as Barnard College president in July 2017 after spending 12 years at the University of Chicago, where she served on the faculty as the Stella M. Rowley Professor of Psychology, executive vice provost, and an officer of the university. Her work as a cognitive scientist revolves around performance anxiety and reveals simple psychological strategies that can be used to ensure success in everything from test-taking and public speaking to athletics and job interviews. In 2010, she wrote the critically acclaimed book Choke, and in 2015, How the Body Knows Its Mind. In 2017, she won the Troland Award from the National Academy of Sciences, and her recent TED talk has been viewed more than 2 million times.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Sian! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I didn’t always plan on becoming a cognitive scientist. In fact, I was preparing to be a lawyer. Then I heard a biologist talk about how her career had been one set of failures after another, in terms of doing experiments where she didn’t get the answer she expected. And I thought, “Wow, you can actually have a career testing ideas, and it’s OK not to get it right all the time.” After hearing that, I was determined to pursue a career in science. This just goes to show that our paths are not linear.
Ever since then, my primary scientific focus has been to study why people choke under pressure and how to fix it. My book Choke is all about performing in stressful situations and my TED Talk is titled “Why we choke under pressure — and how to avoid it.”
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The most interesting thing to have happened since I became president in 2017 is that I’ve been able to begin expanding on Barnard College’s long and illustrious history of excellence in the liberal arts to make it a hub for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and hear from countless alums who are now employed in rewarding careers and making the world a better place.
Many of our graduates are on the front lines of the pandemic, including Kamini Doobay ’10, an emergency medicine resident physician at NYU Langone and Bellevue Hospital.
I’m so proud that Barnard is producing exactly the kinds of problem solvers that today’s biggest challenges need — especially in the sciences. In the past 10 years, the percentage of Barnard graduates in the sciences has increased from 25% to 34%, providing a greater pool of women with liberal arts backgrounds who can think critically, communicate effectively, and solve STEM-related problems.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My biggest — or at least my most humiliating — early career mistake was when I tripped and fell while going for a run with someone who was interviewing me for a job. At the time, I was being considered for a faculty position at a top school and my running partner was part of the search committee. The night I flew into town, and before my first big day of interviews, he’d asked if I wanted to join him for a high-speed run through a nature preserve near campus. I was nervous and not thrilled with the idea of spending any more time than necessary with someone who was deciding if he wanted to offer me a job. After all, I thought he was going to be carefully scrutinizing my every move. I accepted anyway.
What I learned from this experience is that we tend to be the harshest judges of our own mistakes. He later told me he barely noticed that I’d had trouble keeping pace with him on our run and hadn’t even realized that I’d fallen down in the woods!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m grateful to my mother for showing me that sometimes the rules can be changed.
As a child, I loved playing soccer. I was a goalkeeper, and I enjoyed the challenge of correctly anticipating how to protect the net when facing down a fast-approaching striker.
When I told my mom how much I wanted to play on the boys’ soccer team, but that girls weren’t allowed to do so, she responded “There’s not a single good reason why girls shouldn’t be able to play soccer with the boys. Let’s take care of this right now.”
We went straight to the gym and I stood beside her at the registration table as she exclaimed “What do you mean she can’t play with the boys? Who do I need to talk to to fix this? Just because that’s how it has been doesn’t mean that is how it should be!”
They relented, rewrote the rules, and allowed me to play on what became a co-ed team. My mom, a real firebrand and trailblazer, showed me how to be brave and fight for what I wanted. She taught me a valuable lesson — about our ability to affect change — that has helped me become the person I am today.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
My go-to strategy for releasing tension and relieving stress is to go for a run outdoors. It really helps me relax.
And science backs this up: Many studies show that worrying about the outcome of high-stakes events is counterproductive and engaging in something that distracts you from worrying is helpful. Exercising is the perfect solution because it disrupts rumination. It also stimulates the release of mood-enhancing hormones like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
And connecting with nature by exercising outside is even better. We humans evolved in natural environments, and we thrive in them — it’s where we tend to feel most relaxed and do our best thinking.
Research shows that spending time in nature not only provides a wide range of mental health benefits, it can even boost our thinking and concentration skills. Taking a break to connect with the natural world — “greening the brain” — is restorative.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over the last several years. Not many people know that research clearly demonstrates a major benefit of having diverse teams: they consistently produce better outcomes.
We all have different lived experiences and, therefore, approach problems in slightly different ways. Different perspectives are valuable because when you tackle an issue from many different angles at once, you’re able to get a fuller picture of what’s happening.
Also, even if you start out on the right track, being in a position where you need to explain your thinking and justify why this is the best course of action allows you to see weak points in your argument and identify factors you might have overlooked. Having folks on a team who challenge you to justify your viewpoints or think about a problem a bit differently helps with this.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
My goal with my senior team is to create an atmosphere in which they feel comfortable pushing back with each other and with me, which is absolutely essential for ensuring an organization is inclusive, representative, and equitable.
I strive to create an atmosphere where people can speak their minds. One way I do that is by letting my team know that I’m open to altering our course. I regularly bring up situations in which I wanted a particular outcome, but they got me to change my mind with fantastic results. My way isn’t the only way, and I try to make sure that’s known — sometimes I make a joke out of it. Doing so allows my trusted advisors to question our strategy and we’re able to avoid dreaded “group think.”
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
When you hold the highest-level position in your organization — wherever that’s CEO of a company or president of a college — the buck always stops with you, even if something isn’t strictly your responsibility. In lower-level leadership positions, there’s someone above you to provide guidance and protection. While it can be lonely at the top, it’s also rewarding when you can use your position of power to make important and worthwhile changes.
But those ideas aren’t usually mine alone. My strategy has always been to help put other people’s good ideas into motion. Executives are only as good as the teams they employ, and I rarely ever do anything entirely on my own.
As the leader of an organization, it’s critical that you recognize when to ask others for their insights and expertise. I often turn to people inside or outside of my organization for help solving problems. I’m good at asking other people what they think and capitalizing on others’ strengths.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One myth is that you can do it all alone, that CEOs and executives single handedly make or break their organizations. This is rarely, if ever, true. Even the best leaders with the most well-thought-out and carefully considered plans can’t refine, troubleshoot, and implement their ideas alone — they need the help of a great team.
Another myth is that some people are born leaders. That’s just not the case. No one enters the world knowing how to lead. We develop these skills over time, and always have the opportunity to improve upon them.
Finally, there’s a pervasive myth that the best leaders are intimidating. Nothing could be further from the truth. If your team is intimidated by you, it’s unlikely you’ll hear what they really think and they’ll be afraid to present you with information that might disappoint you or conflicts with your vision. And if you don’t have access to the unvarnished facts, you can’t steer your organization in the right direction.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
In my opinion, the biggest challenge that women executives face is that they are consistently underestimated.
There’s a longstanding stereotype that men are better suited to take charge, but I think we’re in the process of dismantling it. Highly effective women leaders are proving their worth each and every day.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I didn’t fully understand the implications of being a public figure before I became president.
Being president of a college is different than being a provost and it’s very unlike being a professor. Though I’d worked in academia for many years — and thought I knew it inside and out — nothing could have prepared me for being in the public eye all the time.
Everything I say or do is now open for discussion, debate, critique, or praise.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Truly great leaders engender trust — especially during a crisis. And the best ways to gain your team’s trust is by being transparent and forthright — by admitting you don’t have all the answers. You must also be open to changing course when needed. If you’re too stubborn to change your mind in the light of new information, then you might not be well suited for a job in the C-suite.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Rumination hurts performance, and women are prone to worrying about how they will be perceived in professional settings — worrying before and after important talks, meetings or presentations about how they will do or how they did. I do it, and I know others do too.
Nearly everyone has blurted out the wrong answer during a staff meeting, quickly fired off an email without catching a typo, or struggled through awkward elevator small talk with the boss. But it’s women, more than men, who tend to replay these moments in our minds for days, if not weeks, on end. In making mistakes, it’s normal to worry your every flaw is being highlighted, but you have to be able to quiet down those worries and move on. There’s a psychological term for this rumination: the spotlight effect. As its name suggests, the spotlight effect (or spotlighting) is the phenomenon in which we believe those around us are paying more attention to us than they really are.
When you start to ruminate about something, try to remind yourself about the spotlight effect. It helps to remember that not everyone is as focused on you as you are. Also try talking to yourself in the third person. Build yourself up in the way that you’d speak to a good friend. Don’t tear yourself down. Positive self-talk and journaling can be really helpful. Also, start imagining yourself succeeding. You’ve got this. Remind yourself of why you should succeed (not why you’re going to fail). If you’ve done the work and are the expert in the room, there’s every reason to believe you will do well.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
- My career as a cognitive scientist, and now as the president of a college, has been dedicated to educating and empowering people to perform at their best. Early on, I recognized that success in life depends not just on knowledge or skills in a particular area, but on having the psychological tools to put your best foot forward when it matters most. I hope that I am helping people do that.
- I’ve always been motivated to understand the psychological barriers that keep people from achieving their potential, especially women and girls. Research shows that role models are important in this regard. When girls see women in leadership roles, they are more optimistic about their own chances to succeed in those pursuits. In my role as president of Barnard College, I hope to show young people, including my 9-year-old daughter, that women are capable and effective leaders who can balance being in positions of power with having a family, friends, and other interests in life.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Failing is OK. It isn’t a sign that you’re not good enough, it’s a sign that you’re pushing yourself and haven’t figured out the right way to succeed — yet.
- To succeed when it counts, closely mimic “game day” conditions. It’s not enough to practice; you must practice under the same conditions under which you’ll be expected to perform. You might say, “Oh, I’ve got this information.” Maybe you’ve read through your notes in the parking lot or lobby before a big pitch or presentation or you’ve practiced shooting free throws when no one’s watching. But what my research and others’ has shown is that you have to mimic as much as possible the kinds of conditions you’re going to perform under because that gets you used to what happens in these situations. Practice in front of someone else — or at least in front of a mirror. Purposefully making yourself nervous during practice sessions helps ensure the “big day” doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
- Have compassion for yourself. Others are less focused on your mistakes than you are. When you’re tempted to ruminate and give yourself a hard time about screw-ups, remember that you deserve and will benefit from a little self-compassion. We’re typically much harder on ourselves than we are on those around us. You’d never berate a co-worker for giving the wrong answer during a meeting, so why dwell on your own mistakes? It’s inevitable that you’ll embarrass yourself in front of your colleagues now and again. Fortunately, most people are occupied with their own concerns and not paying much attention to us. When we accept that, we’ll be able to shake off this negative self talk.
- When you take a new job or make a career move, it’s OK to ask lots of people the same questions. That’s how you get to know a new field or institution. Answers from lots of different folks tend to converge on similar ideas and next steps.
- It’s important to be happy. It doesn’t make sense to continue down paths that make you miserable when happiness has been linked to better decision-making and improved creativity. I wish I had prioritized happiness earlier in my life. It could very well be the key to success.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
- If I could inspire a movement, the central underlying thesis would be this: Practice being uncomfortable. We can only grow and learn if we leave the safety of our comfort zones. I do that every single day. If you regularly seek out and work under a high degree of pressure, nothing can rattle you — and you end up being more comfortable when you have to change course.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
- My favorite quote is from American professional baseball catcher Yogi Berra: “You can’t think and hit at the same time.” Much of my work as a cognitive scientist shows that you can’t perform as well when you’re hyper-focused on what you’re doing.
- It’s critical that you let your brain get out of your way. For example, if you’re running down the stairs and I ask what you’re doing with your knee, there’s a good chance that you’ll fall — not because you aren’t good at running down stairs, but because you’re consciously focusing too much on processes that are better done on autopilot.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
- I’d love to meet up with the hosts of the Mom Brain podcast. I’m a big fan of the show — Hilaria Baldwin and Daphne Oz are so real, funny, and entertaining.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.