As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Elina Teboul.
Elina Teboul is the founder of The LightUp Lab and an executive coach with The Preston Associates. Her mission is to inspire her clients to realize their full potential and generate superior business results–in effect, becoming “positive” leaders in every sense.
Elina began her career as an investment management attorney at the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, LLP and the Global Markets Department of Credit Suisse, where she worked with large clients on complex financial and corporate issues, with a focus on structuring and compliance of hedge funds and private equity funds.
Elina is avidly working to change the culture of the legal profession and is a frequent writer and speaker on personal and professional development for lawyers. She is an adjunct Professor of Law at Fordham Law School, where she teaches a course in “Positive Lawyering,” an innovative new curriculum focused on how developments in positive psychology, resilience and emotional intelligence can be leveraged to produce positive and peak-performance lawyering. She is also a frequent guest lecturer at other leading academic institutions, such as Penn Law and Columbia Law.
Elina is passionate about philanthropy and social entrepreneurship and previously served as the global philanthropic project adviser for the Allan & Gill Gray Foundation.
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?
After graduating from Columbia Law School, I became a corporate lawyer in New York City and quickly realized that the industry culture was quite toxic — and the personal wellbeing of individual lawyers was under chronic neglect. There was a stark lack of positive leadership, and companies solely valued profit maximization, as opposed to purpose and fulfillment. So, I left the industry to work at the non-profit founded by the businessman and philanthropist Allan Gray. There, the culture was all about fostering a sense of purpose — and not just through the philanthropic endeavors, but also at the investment management firms that Allan created. I realized that business doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. We don’t need to choose between profits and purpose. I left that job feeling truly inspired and empowered to take on a new role. I earned an M.A. in Psychology from Columbia University’s Teachers College and completed the Columbia University Executive Coaching Certification Program, and today, I pursue my own personal mission as an executive coach, consultant and speaker.
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?
When I switched careers to become an executive coach, I knew that I was embracing a big challenge, both professionally and personally. At first, I assumed that everyone was a potential client, but that’s not necessarily the case. As with all businesses, it’s important to find your customers and speak to them directly. I quickly realized that, while coaching can be life-changing for so many people, not everyone is the right audience. I once attempted to coach a client who was truly stuck in his ways, only caring about the bottom line and completely uninterested in learning how to evolve and lead with purpose. (According to him, “happiness doesn’t sell.”) I learned that it’s important to find those clients who are eager to learn and grow — the people who do care about their own personal happiness, as well as the happiness of their larger teams. When someone is motivated to work with a coach, achieving that happiness and success is truly possible.
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?
As I mentioned earlier, I found my experience working alongside Allan Gray to be particularly inspiring. He opened up my worldview and served as a wonderful role model. During my first week on the job, Allan asked me to work on the organization’s mission statement, and it helped me realize that work should not just be focused on the financial results. Allan also helped establish several graduate school programs dedicated specifically to exploring new styles of leadership that are based in purpose, values and sustainability — as opposed to the sole objective of increasing the value for shareholders.
I once asked Allan how he was able to establish such a strong sense of purpose back when he was working in asset management, before launching his foundation, and his answer has always stayed with me. He said that while he was managing pension plans, he realized that he was actually helping the teachers, firefighters, police officers and others who depended upon those pensions. It was about people, not just profits. His perspective allowed me to view my own former work as a corporate lawyer in the same light. I had helped people make smart decisions with their hard-earned savings, as opposed to simply creating convenient corporate structures. That conversation with Allan was one of my earliest encounters with “cognitive crafting” — something that would later become one of the defining principles of my own work.
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?
Somewhat ironically, the purpose of my company was to help other people find and achieve their own sense of purpose. As an executive coach, I often rely upon the process of “cognitive crafting,” which involves shaping a person’s perception of his or her job. Most commonly associated with the research of Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor at the Yale School of Management, cognitive crafting calls upon us to change the way we think about our tasks, relationships, or overall job, allowing us to find the sense of deeper meaning and purpose that fuels our daily actions. One of the most powerful examples of cognitive crafting comes from a study conducted by Wrzesniewski and her colleagues. They found that the custodians at a hospital tended to approach their work with two different mindsets: They either viewed their jobs simply as work to pay the rent, or they saw themselves as valuable members of a purposeful organization with a broader mission of healing the sick. Unsurprisingly, those custodians with a more purposeful vision felt more engaged and satisfied at work. No matter what we do, finding that sense of purpose in our work makes us more productive, inspired and fulfilled.
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?
As a coach, I often lead executives and their teams through difficult or uncertain times, and I have benefited from my personal experience shepherding my company, The LightUp Lab, through our own challenging times. Before 2020, I coached clients in-person. When the pandemic hit, and I was no longer able to meet people face-to-face, I worried that my business would suffer — until I remembered that my business is not just about services and profits, it’s about the greater purpose behind my work. That purpose is connecting with people and helping them unlock their potential as positive leaders. I didn’t need to work in-person in order to do that! Like so many other leaders during this pandemic, I learned how to adapt and be creative.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I often work with clients who are struggling with a particular issue, or set of issues, at work. Some of them even considered quitting, or giving up, before seeking help from a coach. For anyone facing this challenge, it’s my goal to reframe their limiting and pessimistic mindset, give them confidence, and provide them with an objective framework to address their issues. Instead of limited thinking, such as “I’ll never be successful,” it’s much more empowering to think, “I could be successful if I had X, Y, and Z.” Be specific about what is holding you back — your fears, your obstacles at work, etc. Once you know exactly what is blocking you from achieving your goals, then it’s possible to come up with specific solutions to those problems. It’s important to move out of an emotional headspace (the defeatist attitude of “I’ll never be successful”) and transition into a more rational headspace where you can push forward with a specific, objective, actionable game plan to conquer your challenges. (And a coach can help hold you accountable as you work toward those goals.)
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader at any time — and especially during challenging times — is to motivate and inspire their teams with a sense of purpose. An authentic purpose can show your workforce how they are making a difference and instill a greater sense of meaning in their daily work. A strong leader knows how to place purpose ahead of profit, because ultimately, both employees and potential customers or clients are drawn to purposeful companies.
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 can help employees connect with the company’s purpose on a deeper level. An awareness of the company’s purpose should be woven into every element of the job, from initial orientation to company materials to teambuilding exercises to top-level decisions. The more that employees feel connected to that purpose, the more engaged they will be with their work and the more motivated they will feel — just like the custodians who felt connected to their hospital’s larger purpose in healing the sick.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
It’s important for leaders to understand that everyone has different communication styles and thinking preferences. At The Preston Associates, we have been working with top leaders at major organizations for nearly two decades, so we have seen every type of communicator and thinker. In coaching engagements, I use the NBI, or Neethling Brain Instruments, to determine an individual’s thinking profile based on four different quadrants of the brain (L1, L2, R1, R2). For example, do they have a higher preference for accuracy and facts (L1), for planning and practical application (L2), for empathy and social interaction (R2), or for big ideas and experimentation (R1)?
A strong communicator is able to speak all four of these languages, tailoring their speech to the particular preferences of the listener. They are self-aware, understanding that everyone’s brain is different, and they can appeal to these different listeners by reshaping the delivery style and the content of their speech to fit these unique preferences. This allows your listeners to understand and act upon the information most effectively.
Most people are not aware of their particular thinking preference — or the thinking preferences of their teammates — so my work with clients often involved helping them identify these preferences and apply them to their communication style.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Being a good leader requires you to differentiate between the short-term and the long-term. Your company’s purpose and vision are long-term objectives. They’re the forces that drive you every day and will continue to do so, year after year. If you are committed to that long-term sense of purpose, then you will be in a stronger position to handle uncertainties in the short-term. As I mentioned earlier, my own business faced a huge challenge during the pandemic, when I could no longer render my services in-person. However, instead of focusing solely on this short-term challenge, I reframed my perspective to focus on the long-term: my overarching mission to create purpose-driven, successful, positive leaders. I realized that it doesn’t matter how my service is delivered in the short-term. It matters why I am providing this service in the first place. I needed to reconnect to my purpose. A strong leader shouldn’t get stuck in the short-term how. They should focus on the long-term why. A true sense of purpose can transcend any temporary roadblocks.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Don’t rush into any decisions. When we encounter an obstacle or a challenge, our bodies are primed to enter fight-or-flight mode. Sometimes, we simply freeze up. None of those reactions create the right headspace for making serious decisions. It’s important to be able to pause and consider any long-term consequences of our choices. How might the company’s reputation be affected? Who are all the stakeholders involved, and how will they all be impacted? Helping clients think through these tough decisions is one of my favorite parts of being a coach. Our team can help people slow down and thoroughly examine each step of the process, rather than making a hurried mistake.
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?
- Leaders making decisions from the top-down, rather than the bottom-up. It’s so important to consult your teams and make sure that everyone feels seen and heard. Giving everyone a voice and fostering an inclusive decision-making process is key to inspiring and empowering your team to produce their best work.
- Misunderstanding what motivates people. How can you expect to inspire and lead your team if you don’t understand what brings them to work each day?
- Prioritizing profits as opposed to people. This is an easy way to end up with a team that feels overworked, disrespected and unmotivated — in other words, employees who will consider quitting!
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?
We’ve already talked about the importance of perception when it comes to your individual job. But perception is just as important at a company-wide level. Organizations can take advantage of turbulent times by perceiving them instead as opportunities. Challenges force us to be more creative, innovative and flexible, which are all important values to maintain. During successful times, very few people think to question their ongoing processes. They may not even realize that there are better ways of doing things. But times of difficulty force us to reevaluate our existing models. For example, the pandemic allowed many companies to reframe their focus and determine what was working or not working for them. It became a chance to improve their technologies, invest in more future-oriented lines of business, and get rid of outdated or inefficient processes that nobody ever thought to question before.
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.
During uncertain and turbulent times, there should be a focus on “positive leadership.” For me, positive leadership leans on concepts from positive psychology, which is the scientific study of what makes individuals thrive. Positive psychology has now expanded beyond the individual into the field of positive organizational scholarship, which concerns itself with the factors that create positive work experiences and, by extension, positive institutions. A “positive leader” should:
- Connect with Purpose
Finding a purpose that you believe in can bring meaning, happiness and fulfillment to any aspect of your life, particularly your professional work. As Daniel Pink states in Drive, his book explaining intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, corporate management is “finally realizing that we’re full-fledged human beings, not single-minded economic-robots,” and he argues that most employees are actually looking for “purpose maximizing” work.
For companies, a sense of purpose moves beyond a simple mission statement or set of goals that tend to prioritize purely financial motives. An authentic purpose connects a company to the world outside the office, and it connects everyone to each other — bosses, teammates, clients, and customers. It keeps employees engaged, enthusiastic and inspired, enabling them to perform their best work and be their best selves.
Positive leaders actively work to weave this purpose into every aspect of the company’s culture, from orientation training to C-suite decision-making. Leaders that connect with their purpose lead with both their head and heart. They aren’t sidelined by short-term challenges, because they maintain their long-term focus on the broader mission.
Uncertain and turbulent times can actually encourage critical reflection. This provides leaders with an opportunity to shift their perspectives and discover new purposes and values for their organizations — and for themselves as leaders.
2. Cultivate Positive Relationships
Positive psychology scholars have identified that relationships and social connections are crucial to our wellbeing at work. Our biology and history as a species support that we are social animals who are hardwired to bond and depend on each other. We thrive on positive personal and professional connections. In fact, organizational psychology scholarship has found that one of the biggest predictors of our wellbeing at work is our relationship with our colleagues. It is no surprise that one of the pivotal questions of Gallup’s employee engagement survey asks whether respondents have a best friend at work. A large body of research has found that having a friend at work significantly increases our wellbeing and productivity.
As a coach, I help leaders foster a more cohesive and collegial work environment. Often, my work requires expanding leaders’ emotional and social awareness and building their emotional vocabulary. This requires helping them to tap into the emotions of others and effectively manage their relationships by exhibiting empathy. This is especially true during uncertain and turbulent times, when emotions are running high for everyone and employees need to feel supported.
3. Cultivate Positivity and Optimism
Leaders must learn to be positive and optimistic, focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses. The foundation of this approach is the belief that there is good in every person and every organization, and by focusing on that “good,” you can engage and inspire your teams and customers, as well as discover and expand upon business strengths and strategic advantages. (This is similar to the perspective shared by my former boss, Allan Gray, when he told me how he reframed his view of his work managing pension plans to focus on the “good,” or the positive impact on people’s everyday lives.) By focusing on a shared positive image, leaders can guide their organization out of uncertainty and turbulence.
4. Let Go of Perfectionism
Perfectionism has been associated with a fear of failure and can lead to an inability to take action or diverge from commonly established ways of doing things. During uncertain times, leaders can get sucked into a rigid intolerance for failure. It can be so extreme that it disables them from being capable of sound decision-making. If leaders can let go of their perfectionist tendencies and adopt a new perspective, they will be able to expand their worldview, transform their perceptions and reframe their level of understanding, enabling them to see solutions they might not have seen before.
5. Be Flexible and Inclusive
Leaders need to understand that their organization is comprised of distinct individuals, each with their own perspectives and personalities. Similar to the way that effective communication requires an awareness of people’s different styles of listening and interpretation, successful leadership adopts an inclusive approach to the diversity of viewpoints within a company. In order to enact meaningful change, a leader needs buy-in from all of these different stakeholders, and the only way that everyone will eagerly jump on board is if they all feel heard and included in the decision-making process.
When an organization is in crisis, employees are particularly anxious and likely to be dealing with their own personal challenges. (Think about the pandemic, which was an uncertain and turbulent time for companies, but was an even more difficult time for the people dealing with children suddenly at home, sick relatives, loss of income, etc.) A strong leader engages and supports their team through empathy, knowing that people need to feel like their best selves in order to produce their best work.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” — Ghandi
This was the quote that I picked for my high school yearbook, and I am still picking it today! This quote reminds us to approach our lives and our work with a positive, purposeful mindset. For leaders looking to transform their companies by adopting a greater sense of purpose, it is important to do so with intention. Understand why you are making this change, and then commit to weaving that purpose throughout the entire fabric of your organization — be the change.
On a more personal level, I witnessed firsthand the damage caused by negative work environments — employee burnout, low retention rates, stagnant productivity and overall unhappiness — and I want to prevent future employees from suffering in the same way. I work with high-achieving and mission-driven clients, so many of them can feel overwhelmed and exhausted at times. My job is to remind them of their purpose and to help them refocus on their mission. I believe that people have to be respected, inspired and included. I believe self-awareness and communication skills are critical to creating positive organizations. I believe we can live and work in a kinder and more impactful way. It is my wish to see a world filled with more positive, inspiring, productive workplaces, and I became a coach in order to be that change — and to help others become that change, too.
How can our readers further follow your work?