As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ani Manian.
Ani Manian is a performance coach and founder of Primal Six, a human potential and performance optimisation consultancy, helping leaders become limitless so they can experience extraordinary business success and personal wellbeing. Ani coaches the world’s top CEOs, leaders and changemakers into levels of consciousness that allow them to operate at their peak, even in the midst of extreme stress and uncertainty.
Ani has helped dozens of companies grow their revenues from $1M to $100M+, advised over 50 executive teams to expand their leadership capacity to work less, reduce stress and attain new levels of exceptional performance and, most crucially, 100% of his clients have gone on to create profound change in the world including lasting happiness and personal well-being.
He also hosts the You Are Limitless Podcast, helping entrepreneurs and executives transcend the limitations of their mind, see new possibilities in life and business and make an incredible impact.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I spent the first half of my career shaping the technology, marketing and business strategy for startups, helping them scale their products, processes and people. After 15 years advising high level CEOs across a dozen industries and helping them grow revenues exponentially, I started seeing certain patterns. The success of the company, the performance of the employees and the growth in revenue didn’t really seem to rely on market conditions, funding, strategy or even the quality of the product or service. Instead, there seemed to be a hidden variable impacting their potential for success. This variable seemed to be the difference maker in every single instance — from taking a fledgling startup to enjoying rapid growth to turning around a company which was facing extreme attrition, uncertainty and declines in its fortunes.
The common denominator across all these success stories was the level of consciousness from which the CEO and executive leaders operated. When a leader was operating from a higher level of consciousness, they seemed impervious to stress and unusually resilient — even in the face of extreme uncertainty. They were able to inspire, motivate and get the best out of their employees, as well as make bold, clear and insightful decisions.
Since I was a kid, I’ve always been fascinated by human behaviour and psychology, so when I started connecting the dots on this pattern playing out in elite business leaders, I was hooked. I started reverse engineering the attributes that made these executives so fearless and effective in the business world. As a result, I created a roadmap for the expansion of human consciousness and a process to shift ambitious, growth-seeking leaders into states of mind that allow them to operate sustainably in peak states — free of the drag caused by anxiety, stress, fear, doubt and overwhelm.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Many years ago, when I was young and zealous, I had put my heart and soul into a project that was digitizing curriculum for public schools and classroom trials had just gotten underway. I had led the development of the technology platform while the instructional material was being authored by a team led by a veteran of the education industry — who also happened to be best friends with the CEO. As I sat in the classroom and observed how the trials were progressing, I realized that the curriculum was poorly written and the students were having a very hard time learning. Charged with righteous indignation, I wrote a scathing critique of the curriculum design to the project lead and a couple of other members of the team and dispatched an email right from the classroom. By the time I got back, that email had been forwarded several times and most of the company had seen it, including the author of the education material who was in the CEO’s office demanding I be fired for daring to question her team’s work. Luckily for me, the CEO proved to be a lot more reasonable and I kept the job. This really showed me the importance of grounding myself when emotions are flying high, tempting me to be impulsive. Since then, not only have I always thought twice about communicating sensitive opinions over email, but I’ve made it a practice to not speak from a lower level of consciousness.
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?
My dad was my first reference point for what it means to be a people person. As a natural extrovert, he was — and still is in my memory — the most charismatic person I’ve ever met. Although, even until the day he passed away, we had a very combative relationship, I learned so much about people from watching him interact with a wide range of individuals. From billionaires to bathroom attendants, he treated everyone with the same depth of kindness and compassion. He was the most incredible model for humility, generosity and integrity. Unfortunately, he never developed the capacity to extend some of these attributes to himself. Despite being the architect of his own rags to riches story, supporting a half a dozen families financially, and always being the life of the party, he struggled to accept, appreciate and love himself. Ultimately, this led to him passing away well before his time. I saw first hand how his trance of ‘not enoughness’ kept him seeking, chasing and striving for success and wealth outside himself, numbing the pain with alcohol, food and work, until his body collapsed under the weight of his disconnection from his self loathing and uncomfortable emotions. If seeing him live was inspirational, seeing him die was transformational. I vowed to spend the rest of my life helping people reach levels of love and compassion within themselves, waking them up from the egoic trance of unworthiness, which is the cause of all our limitations and suffering.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
The vision for Primal Six is to help leaders and changemakers transcend the limitations of their mind so they can see new possibilities in life and business and make an extraordinary impact in the world. I believe that for us to thrive as individuals and as a species, we must shift to a higher level of consciousness. Most of the world lives within the constraints of the egoic self, a limited, fragmented entity that is rooted in fear and lack. It never feels worthy enough, ready enough, successful enough, or happy enough, and operates from the state of something always being missing. This causes us to spend our whole lives seeking something from the outside, and never actually finding it. Peace, clarity, wellbeing are all fleeting amidst a never-ending stream of anxiety and stress. The only way for the world to evolve is for influential leaders to operate from a higher level of consciousness where they can solve humanity’s greatest problems without sacrificing themselves at the altar of achievement.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
In a past role, I was managing a team of offshore developers in Asia who were working on building a product that was forecasted to be a major revenue driver. We primarily communicated via phone and email remotely, rarely meeting in person. While it allowed for maximum efficiency, it also created blind spots.
I started noticing that they kept missing milestones and kept pointing fingers at each other — the developers would blame the designers, and vice versa. When this persisted for some time, I discussed the delays one-on-one with their manager and asked what we needed to do to get back on track. Given their polite culture, he admitted to the issues, but didn’t really identify the bottleneck.
Not knowing what to do, I packed my bags and flew over to the other side of the world to spend a month sitting with the team to see if I could figure out what was going on, Very quickly I realized that the issue was a lack of communication. Not being native English speakers, they were having trouble understanding the requirements, but were too polite to ask for clarification. This resulted in them arguing amongst themselves while trying to figure out what we meant. We spent the next few weeks explaining and discussing everything in detail and, within a couple of weeks, we had gotten everyone on the same page and the project was back on track.
The lesson here was how improving communication, offering mentorship, and having compassion, empathy, and curiosity about someone’s experience can be absolutely pivotal when things break down suddenly.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’ve had many moments when my challenges felt insurmountable, the odds of success were low and weariness of the journey weighed heavy on me, but interestingly enough, giving up never seemed to appear as an option. The question I asked myself in those times was, “what do I need to do to stay in the game?” When I look back, I see that I’ve been deeply sustained by my purpose, which is much bigger than me.
While the impact I want to make in the world drives me to constantly push my limits in terms of my growth, motivation is overrated and ultimately unsustainable. Motivation and willpower are non-renewable sources of energy that get depleted over time. Relying on them leaves us exhausted and burnt out. What has gotten me through the most difficult times has been inspiration. While motivation and inspiration seem similar, there is a crucial difference in that inspiration is limitless. Even in the darkest of times, I’ve been able to find things to inspire me, and find that glimpse of hope to keep me going.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader during challenging times is to be the lightning rod into which the organization can ground its chaos, fear and anxiety, as well as helping them navigate to a desirable place. When everyone else is swimming in a sea of uncertainty, the leader must keep a calm and clear mind along with a regulated nervous system. This is absolutely critical, not just to make the right decisions and rationally evaluate risk, but also to inspire confidence, trust and loyalty from employees.
Leaders must hold the paradox of being clear and decisive in the midst of uncertainty. This requires them to embody a different kind of courage: the courage to be vulnerable. A leader who is in a state of denial or avoidance and unwilling to acknowledge the reality that the organization is experiencing, will quickly lose credibility, and more importantly, lose access to their own ability to think at the level required to effectively lead the company. Acknowledging the situation is critical to create psychological safety for open and honest conversation about the situation, which in turn is a requirement for employees to rise above the challenges.
Business challenges cause an immediate contraction in the minds and bodies of employees and leaders. This contraction occurs at a psychological, neurological and physical level, and manifests as stress in the body. This cumulative stress across teams creates organizational stress, which, if unmanaged, can have a devastating impact on performance, morale, attrition and culture. When a leader is able to expand their window of tolerance — their capacity to deal with this stress — they gain the ability to be calm, clear and present, allowing the organization to lean on them like a rock, absorbing the nervous energy and radiating conviction and stability.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
A leader must acknowledge what the organization and the employees are facing, feeling and dealing with. This is the gateway to empathy, presence and trust, and is often the hardest thing to do because many leaders operate in a state of denial and unconsciousness. Having difficult conversations has the potential to trigger some of their own insecurities, inadequacies and fears, and therefore they avoid, repress or distort reality, which ultimately leads to a rift between leadership and employees.
Teams perform at their best when they feel appreciated, are a valuable part of a larger mission that they can rally around, and that their contribution matters. Leaders must understand what motivates different employees and teams beyond financial compensation. Think of this as organizational love languages, and incentivize them accordingly.
Leaders must also chart a clear course to orient teams in a certain direction and communicate this plan with all stakeholders. Getting their input in the creation of the plan really drives engagement and creates significantly more buy-in from teams when it comes to executing it. Leaders who develop the capacity to be agile, adaptive and responsive to shifting conditions are able to coach teams into delivering consistent high performance — even in the most challenging times.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The challenge in communicating difficult news stems from the tug of war between the responsibility leaders feel for the company and their employees. The thought of delivering bad news can leave even seasoned executives with knots in their stomach. Leaders want to avoid the unpleasantness of being the villain or bearer of bad news and try to lead in with good news, small talk, or tangents. However well intentioned, this unconscious tendency that’s a byproduct of stress makes it difficult to deliver feedback effectively.
The best way to convey difficult news is to do so directly and compassionately. Make sure you do your research on the variables at play in the situation, the rationale behind the decision, other mitigating factors and other possibilities that might be available to the stakeholders, so you feel confident in your position. Leverage the concept of procedural fairness, which explains that people are more likely to accept bad news when they understand how the decision was made. This allows them to receive the news without taking it personally. Be as truthful as you can and take responsibility for your side of the equation. Allow them a space to share what comes up for them and listen emphatically. Notice where your need for their approval arises and be present with it. Say what happens next and what the person receiving the news can expect. Leaders can’t avoid having to deliver bad news, but doing so effectively is a huge factor in cultivating a culture of trust.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
- The first thing leaders must do is bring awareness to the level of uncertainty they are facing. The natural human instinct is to turn away from the unfamiliar and gravitate toward what is already known. Acknowledging uncertainty allows leaders to begin the process recognizing what is changing and start looking for solutions. Short term decision making becomes more important along with risk mitigation.
- Leaders must relinquish top-down control in favor of empowering decentralized teams to act quickly and decisively, allowing the organization to be more agile. They must set clear priorities for the organization and empower teams to discover and implement solutions that serve those priorities quickly.
- Communicating more frequently also helps increase collaboration and transparency across teams. In tense environments rife with uncertainty, leaders must promote psychological safety, as it is the single biggest factor that creates high performing teams, and encourages employees to openly discuss ideas, questions, and concerns without fear.
- Waiting for data and information to emerge before acting may not be a luxury that leaders have and consequently, they must use their intuition while continuing to collect information and pausing to evaluate how their responses work. This helps leaders maintain a state of calm and avoid overreacting.
- Finally, it is key that leaders not only demonstrate empathy for employees and stakeholders, but also receive support to process their mind and body’s reaction to the uncertainty and increased stress. Stress, fatigue, and uncertainty, unless processed, will diminish their abilities to process information, stay calm, and make good decisions.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
After working with CEOs across dozens of industries who run $1 million to $100 million companies, I’ve learned that the most consistent predictor of a company’s success is how emotionally and mentally resilient the leadership is, both individually and as a team. Particularly in turbulent times, resilience is crucial to inspiring and guiding the rest of the company to weather storms, achieve ambitious goals, or execute a turnaround in the face of a crisis. High-performance leadership is a consequence of this resilience, and it is a capability that can be cultivated at every level in the organization.
While every manager experiences stress and adversity, they must be able to bounce back in order to meet new challenges and thrive in times of uncertainty. Resilience is the capacity to meet adversity, challenges and trauma, and bounce back from them in order to be able to navigate out of the crisis. Leaders who have developed resilience have the capacity to absorb stress created by turbulence, stay calm, regulate their emotional responses, sustain their energy levels under pressure, cope with unforeseen disruptive changes and adapt quickly. They do all this without engaging in destructive or dysfunctional behavior. Resilience also helps them protect the energy of their teams who may not be able to deal with the complexity or uncertainty. The extent to which leaders cope with stress, determines how resilient they are, which in turn determines the fate of the company.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The decisions businesses make in difficult times can be make or break. Here are some common ones:
Mistake 1: Overreacting and making rash decisions
When a business is under threat, its leaders often go into a fight or flight state and make knee jerk decisions that cost them dearly. While a crisis may require the leader to adapt their business models, operations, overhead, staffing or strategy to stay afloat, overreacting from a place of fear can result in catastrophic outcomes.
A great example of this was one of my clients whose first response when COVID-19 hit was to cut marketing costs. After a session with me, he decided to increase his ad spend, as the cost of advertising had plummeted because many companies had the same idea that he did initially. As a result, the company doubled monthly recurring revenue over the next 60 days because they were able to acquire customers with less overhead. He even ended up hiring additional staff to serve the influx of customers.
Mistake 2: Going into a freeze response, disguised by blind optimism
When times get tough, an organization and its members experience stress and sometimes they lack the capacity to regulate their bodies, minds, strategy and operations as a result. This often comes off as optimism, a downplaying of risk and adverse consequences, and results in managers having their head in the sand in the hope that the crisis will just pass them by. Yet, leaders need to cultivate responsibility in order to respond effectively. Responding swiftly and calmly gives the business the space to turn a crisis into opportunity. If leaders haven’t developed the capacity to lead their own mental and emotional responses or self awareness, it can mean the difference between survival and extinction.
Mistake 3: Adding dysfunction, blocking flow of information and disrupting clear communication
During difficult times, leaders and their organizations experience various levels of physical contractions, which can result in dysfunctional relationships, control issues, hoarding of information and lack of clear communication. These are typical responses from the body to stress and uncertainty, but when they coincide with turmoil, they can have devastating consequences.
The most common forms of organizational dysfunction appear in the form of passing the buck, pointing fingers, blame, shame, scapegoating and down regulating the flow of information and communication through teams and individuals.
An executive I was working with recently was trapped in a classic example of this — a battle between the marketing and sales departments where neither team wanted to take responsibility for a sudden drop in new business. This is unfortunately all too common, especially when different departments are incentivized to protect their own interests and performance-related bonuses at all costs, rather than critically examine their own operations objectively in favor of the organization’s interests. Control issues are also common and the most common way this plays out is in the flow of information, which keeps individuals who can take corrective action based on this information out of the loop. Lack of communication and collaboration between managers can exacerbate this and the overall result of this is a fragmented organization that is unable to cohesively navigate out of crisis situations.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Even in the most challenging times, opportunities are always hiding in places we might not think to look. During market corrections and economic downturns, while many businesses go under, entirely new industries are created, new fortunes made and wealth transfers occur. Here’s what I advise my clients to do to keep forging ahead.
- Keep the focus on the customer. Ultimately, if you are solving a problem for people that is worth more than what you are charging, there will always be someone ready to pay you for your products and services. Continuing to understand the specific problems your customers need you to solve is key to staying relevant, and this has to be a constant process.
- Stay open to change. This could mean a change in pricing, product line, marketing, packaging, or even the kind of customer the company markets to. When companies are flexible, adaptable and responsive to changing conditions with a mindset of testing, iteration and data driven decision making, they are a lot more likely to capitalize on opportunities.
- Focus on cash flow: As long as you have cash flow, you have a shot at survival. Most companies fail to budget prudently and have less than a few months of operating expenses in the bank. If a crisis hits, suppliers need to be paid and the money owed isn’t coming in as expected, a company can quickly find itself in quicksand. Being prepared for a crisis is the best way to survive one.
In difficult circumstances, leaders need to remember that not all risks are bad, not all opportunities for growth disappear, and a broad, externally-focused perspective is more important than ever.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
The hallmark of a high performing leader’s mind is it’s capacity to endure uncertainty. Frederic Laloux in his book Reinventing Organizations explains that the level of an organization’s consciousness can’t exceed that of its leader, and this has been proven time and time again for every organization I’ve worked with.
At lower levels of consciousness, leaders are driven and constrained by their ego, operating in a contracted state in their mind-body and living in a constant storm of self referential thinking. This ensures that they are disconnected and alienated from their employees, potential solutions, game changing perspectives and the organization has a significantly lower chance of survival through crisis.
Here are 5 shifts leaders must make to operate in higher levels of consciousness, and gain the ability to effectively lead their organizations — and thrive both personally and collectively.
1.) Shift from control-based leadership to empowerment-based leadership
Great leaders aren’t measured by how many followers they have, but by how many leaders they create. While one person may not be able to shift the course of the company singlehandedly, an organization full of great leaders across it’s ranks is agile, adaptive and responsive even in the most challenging times.
2.) Become comfortable with the unknown
The ego seeks to live in what is familiar because it feels safe and comfortable, which in the business world can be fatal. When leaders cling to the safety of what they already know, they risk being disrupted. In my work, some of the most dangerous mindsets I’ve seen include thinking that you have all the answers, underestimating challenges or changing market conditions, and an over reliance on strategies that worked previously. The unknown might feel scary, but it also contains perspectives, ideas and solutions that might prove to be game changing.
One of my clients, the CEO of an alcohol and spirits company decided to shift to eCommerce when COVID shut down all traditional channels for alcohol sales. This was completely out of his comfort zone, but he decided to try it anyway and set up partnership with a beverage delivery service. Over the next couple of months, the company shifted all its focus to marketing directly to consumers instead of hospitality buyers and ended up doubling their monthly sales.
3.) Embrace empathy and vulnerability
Vulnerable leaders inspire their employees much more than leaders who are guarded and stoic. They are more authentic, and build deeper connections that directly result in increased employee trust and performance. I worked with a CEO of a major tech company who had a reputation for being extremely critical and unforgiving. Over the course of our work, he started becoming more aware of the effect he had on his leadership team and other employees, and how his father had been the same way to him his entire life. He decided to take a bold step after a particularly emotional coaching session and called an all-hands meeting to acknowledge his tendencies to his team, give them context from his childhood and ask for their support in helping him shift this pattern. Over the next two years since that meeting, the company has grown significantly in a declining market and the attrition rate has plummeted.
4.) Shift into communicating clearly, transparently and compassionately
According to a Gallup report, 74% of employees feel that they’re missing out on company information and news. That’s why clear communication is crucial during a crisis. A good rule of thumb is that the worse the crisis, the more you need to communicate to avoid poor decisions being made because your team is lacking the proper context or data. Uncertainty about the future or how the organization is going to be impacted generates anxiety and has a host of cascading effects including unwanted gossip and speculation. Gathering and disseminating information and changes in direction need to be communicated quickly and transparently to make sure the organization can course correct.
5.) Make creating clarity for your organization the #1 priority
The higher the level of uncertainty, the more important it is to establish clarity so teams know exactly what to do and in what order. During a crisis, one of the core responsibilities of a leader is to provide a clear roadmap, expectations and implications to navigate the situation with. Without this, teams may lack the perspective to make the right decisions or work on the most important priorities. When the ground is shifting, high performing leaders give their organizations clear, meaningful goals and translate chaos into actionable short and long term plans.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Your life and business is a direct reflection of your level of consciousness. Whenever I’m dissatisfied with something in my external world, I always turn inward and try to find what inside me is creating that circumstance on the outside. I’ve used this successfully in every area of my life — from business, and wealth to health and relationships.
How can our readers further follow your work?