Many years ago, when I was a manager, I spent at least fourteen hours per week in one-on-one meetings with the people who reported to me. As a problem-solver and an optimizer, I sought to understand as deeply as possible what motivated these people, and to unlock their full potential. I discovered that employees are usually dealing with great complexity in their lives, complexity that is both inside them and in the world they inhabit, complexity that can interfere with their ability to perform optimally at work. I also discovered that adaptive interpersonal dynamics play an enormous part in the effective functioning of an organization. Later, as an executive coach and consultant on company culture, I learned that unlocking all of this potential requires masterful facilitation.
I realized that, while it’s common in Silicon Valley to relentlessly hammer away at technical problems until they are solved, without optimally functioning people, the resulting productive and creative efficiency can be extraordinarily low, and the quality produced can be much less than optimal. I estimated that overall bottom-line results from engineering organizations was at around 10% of what they could be, leaving a 900% potential upside on the table. I believed that this was an opportunity in all companies, not only those in Silicon Valley. I felt so strongly about this that I left my job so that I could focus on getting a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. I wanted to go deeper into understanding what motivates people, and how to unlock their full potential.
I recently watched a video of Elon Musk talking about his efforts to improve productivity and quality at Tesla. He described how, by applying his signature approach to thinking about problems from first principles, he was able to estimate that by perfecting the machine that builds the machines—the factory—he could achieve a 10x increase in vehicle throughput. This approach deeply resonates with me, because I believe that, for sustainable and repeatable success, it’s usually more effective to focus on improving the process rather than the product itself.
Even though Tesla is currently producing thousands of Model 3s per week, because each car is 15.5 feet long, the average speed of the vehicles leaving the production line is less than one inch per second, which is literally a snail’s pace. Elon suggests that Tesla might reasonably be able to produce cars at walking speed, which means a Model 3 every four seconds, or over 150,000 vehicles per week. This kind of first-principles thinking has also been applied and promoted by Jensen Huang, the CEO of NVIDIA (where I now work), since at least the 1990s. When developing the fastest computer processors in the world, NVIDIA goes back to first principles to find the “speed of light” (SOL) for the operations to be carried out.
The ability of Elon to go back to first principles and question industry-wide assumptions, such as the speed that a factory could produce cars or the economic feasibility of reusing rockets that launch payloads into Earth orbit, is a testament to his ability to overcome limiting beliefs. We’re all swimming in limiting beliefs, some unique and personal, some adopted from our families, and some societal. Being able to observe, question, and transcend these limiting beliefs—to jump out of the water that we swim in—is a significant part of the human potential that I noticed over a decade ago.
One of the reasons that immigrants like Elon Musk (from South Africa) and Jensen Huang (from Taiwan) are able to succeed where others fail is that they bring with them, into the host culture, a very different set of limiting beliefs. Because of this, while they do have blind spots (as we all do), they’re not blind to many opportunities that have been, thus far, unrealized in the host culture. The power of different perspectives to shine a light of awareness into corners of reality that would usually be hidden in the shadows of shared limiting beliefs is one of the reasons that diversity is such an important aspect of organizations that thrive.
However, Elon Musk seems to rely almost exclusively on cognitive reasoning, and I think that this is a limitation for him. For example, he often mentions conversations that he has (commonly in hot tubs) about the idea that we are living inside a simulation of reality. He uses a form of inductive reasoning to conclude that it’s highly probable that what we experience as reality is actually a simulation inside a recursive nest of simulations. Somewhere, way up in the hierarchy of simulations, say 10,000 levels up, is the root reality. This root reality is the one in which, long ago, a civilization was able to create a virtual reality system so realistic and engrossing that its users became completely immersed inside it and lost connection with their true reality. Inside that virtual reality, they went on to create technology similar to that which entrapped them. This process then repeated recursively, again and again, until we arrived at our current reality. This idea is based on the observation that our own civilization seems to be moving towards such technology, and it’s highly unlikely that this civilization is the first to do so.
Let’s assume that we are not artificial consciousnesses, completely simulated inside any level of the simulation, but instead let’s assume (as Elon seems to believe) that we are the consciousnesses of beings in the root reality peering through layers and layers of simulation: A “natural” consciousness, instantiated in a real brain looking into a virtual world in which it looks into a virtual world, and so on. In this case, what we bring to this deeply nested virtual world is our consciousness, which is aware. As a longterm and hardcore meditator, I know from personal experience that it’s possible to guide the focus of awareness away from the feed from the senses—whether they are real or simulated—and direct it towards itself. By doing this, it’s possible to draw the consciousness up through those nested layers of simulation all the way back up through the root reality and into the underlying fundamental nature of reality, which is consciousness itself. In this case, it doesn’t matter whether we are in a deep nest of simulations, or if were are in the root reality. We can experience the thing that’s doing the experiencing, and it’s something that the brain in the root reality cannot even comprehend with cognition.
Knowing the fundamental nature of reality experientially is infinitely more satisfying and empowering than being lost in a dry and dead hypothesis about how manifest reality may or may not be configured, no matter how geeky it might be. Not surprisingly, it appears that Elon doesn’t meditate. According to a tweet he posted in February of 2017, he doesn’t even practice transcendental meditation, which is a form of meditation that, although it calms and focuses the mind, does not focus awareness back on itself.
All of this is to say that I suspect that there is an opportunity for Elon to couple his powerful cognitive abilities with enhanced intuitive abilities honed through clear awareness of his own (our own) consciousness. This would lead to a more balanced life, more satisfying relationships, and more sustainable and effortless success. Cognition grounded in self-awareness is always much less complex and much more effective that ungrounded thought. As with the nested simulation example above, I imagine that, at both Tesla and SpaceX, there are many simple and effective solutions that cut through all the complexity Elon must have introduced with his relatively ungrounded cognition.
A decade ago, I thought that a large part of unlocking the human potential that lies untapped in companies was to provide active and continuous coaching for all staff. I imagined that at any time, when an employee was stuck or struggling with anything, they could grab one of the coaches and go for a quick session in a meeting room. The coach would support the employee in removing the internal blockages getting in the way of them achieving effortless success and enable them to step out of the way of the solution. This has been modeled in the HBO series Billions, were the hedge fund has an in-house performance coach. However, I have now come to realize that the most important aspect of management is actually to coach. Great management is indistinguishable from great coaching. Instead of having separate coaches, I think that managers should be trained as coaches.
Great coaching is a process where the full potential of the client is unlocked. A great coach is highly skillful at building rapport with people, and listening to them deeply. The coach has psychological tools to support the client in uncovering the real reasons for the tension between how things are and how they want them to be. The coach also knows how to ask key questions to facilitate the discovery of the client’s own innate resources. An excellent coach can then enable their client to utilize the resources that the client already possesses in order to transmute the underlying blockages into additional resources for success.
Technology companies have various leadership needs. There is technical leadership in the form of architectural planning, feature selection, and planning for process enhancements. This kind of leadership is very important and is sometimes carried out by technical leads or architects. There is also a need for project management functions, which include scheduling and assignment of people and other resources to functional units or well-circumscribed functionalities. Then there is what is sometimes called “people management,” which involves helping employees to remove (usually external) obstacles to their progress, assessing and improving performance, motivating, and resolving conflict.
In some companies, the people management function is handled by completely different employees from the technical leadership and project management functions. In other companies, some or all of the three disciplines are carried out by the same person. When I was a manager, I was responsible for all three at the same time.
Because of the subjective nature of people management, and because it requires a set of skills so different from that of the individual contributor, when it’s blended with the other functions, it often gets overlooked, or is considered a “nice-to-have” that a manager either has or doesn’t have. Often, leaders believe that every manager has their own style, and that a manager’s effectiveness with managing people is just part of their style. I argue that while every manager will have their own style, there are specific and critical skills that a person who has been tasked with managing people should possess. Here are some examples of those skills and competencies:
- Active listening
- Rapport building
- Process orientation (vs outcome orientation)
- Relational intelligence
- Emotional intelligence
- Social intelligence
- Self-awareness (so that the manager can avoid making it about themselves)
- Ability to notice and question meta-models
All of these skills (and more) can be developed, over time, through an immersive, experiential, practice-based training, such as NLP Core Competencies of Communication and Change from NLP Marin. I have completed this course, and been certified by NLP Marin as an NLP practitioner. I have studied and experienced a lot of trainings like this, and I believe that this is the best of its kind in the world. I have no financial interest in promoting NLP Marin. On the other hand, these skills absolutely cannot be taught in a seminar using powerpoint slides, or by reading books.
As leaders, we can’t mandate competency in these skills, and we may not want to require the above training, but we can measure performance related to the skills, and we can compensate and promote managers based on how they perform. Below are some survey questions, asked of the employees who report to the manager, to measure example metrics. Each of the questions would be answered on the following scale:
- (-2) strongly disagree
- (-1) disagree
- (0) neither disagree nor agree
- (+1) agree
- (+2) strongly agree
Here are the questions:
- I feel safe communicating about anything with my immediate supervisor, including personal problems
- I trust that my immediate supervisor evaluates my performance fairly
- My immediate supervisor knows about about and understands what I am working on
- My immediate supervisor is working with me to unlock my full potential
- My immediate supervisor understands me deeply
- My immediate supervisor trusts my ability to choose what to focus on
- My immediate supervisor empowers me
- My immediate supervisor recognizes and appreciates good work
- I frequently receive recognition at work
- My immediate supervisor communicates openly
- I trust my immediate supervisor
- My immediate supervisor encourages me to suggest new ideas and methods for doing things
The last five questions are adapted from a white paper from Towers Watson on turbocharging employee engagement through management recognition. With the skills developed in the NLP Marin training, it would be effortless to score very highly on the above metrics. And by scoring highly on those metrics, it would then be possible to hone a 10x corporate culture.
Perhaps one day product pipelines that would normally have 10x throughput due to being designed from first-principles will be designed by teams operating at 10x productivity and creativity, leading to 100x companies. Perhaps one day, cars will leave factories not at walking speed (3.1 mph), but at driving speed (31 mph).
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