“How to be honest.” With Akhila Satish

Pick your battles. We absorb only so much feedback at once; it’s important to isolate the most important piece of feedback you have and lead with that! Too much feedback can flood the other person or feel more like a character attack. As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without […]

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Pick your battles. We absorb only so much feedback at once; it’s important to isolate the most important piece of feedback you have and lead with that! Too much feedback can flood the other person or feel more like a character attack.

As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Akhila Satish.

Akhila Satish is Founder and CEO of Meseekna, which offers metacognitive assessments designed to assess human decision making and its impact on job performance and productivity. It is a premier tool for Fortune 500 companies to assess and train across their organizations. Akhila also received her Bachelor of Science in neuroscience with honors from the University of Michigan, her graduate degree in biotechnology from the University of Pennsylvania, and her MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I think the most interesting story in my career is actually how early I knew I wanted to be a scientist. I fell in love with science when I was eight years old and learning about bacteria that could only thrive in the Arctic Tundra. I spent the next three months of school carefully collecting bugs, leaves, and pinecones in my desk- trying to create my very own ecosystem! I would go on to spend the next fourteen years of my life studying science formally, as an undergraduate student at Michigan, a post-baccalaureate scholar at the NIH, and a graduate student at UPenn.

Through serendipity and a few twists and turns, I became an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and advisor. My love of science has continued to inspire and fuel me, especially today, running a science-backed company. I feel lucky to have found my passion so early in life, and am so grateful I’ve been able to make a career around it!

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?

Hours before one of my first product launches, our engineering team hit a snafu. It was a high pressure moment, I was at a conference about to present the product live, and was frantically trying to reach our lead engineer. In my stress, I tapped the wrong name in my contacts, and the person who answered sounded exactly like our engineer. I launched into a lengthy description of our bug, my concerns, and the need to find a creative solution quickly. The line went strangely silent, and then the person said “I think you might have dialed the wrong number…” and started to chuckle. In that moment, I went through stages of confusion, shock, and embarrassment. To the wrong person, my lengthy ramble must have seemed completely crazy! It makes me chuckle to remember now, but there’s still that faint sense of “I can’t believe I did that…how stressed out was I?!

I learned one very important lesson- always always always take a moment to gather your thoughts before you call anyone or reach out via mobile devices and have a game plan- starting with who you’re trying to contact!

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Love what you do, love the tough and painstaking work most of all, and work with people you respect.

When I started my career in life sciences, I learned to love tough, painstaking work. Laboratory research is full of methodical, step by step tasks that must be repeated every day. There are no shortcuts, no “optimizing’ your way around it. I really struggled with it until I learned to truly recognize that it was hard, but I had to keep going. Those long hours would add up into success over the long term. Active recognition of the importance of difficult or tedious tasks is important to achieving goals. It also can be incredibly freeing! And as a society, we struggle deeply with delayed feedback, waiting for those tiny bits of effort on a project to pay off! Surely there must be an app or shortcut! The search for those shortcuts and quick wins is something I believe leads heavily to fatigue, stress, and burnout.

It’s also tremendously easier to love your job and thrive when you work with people you respect. It’s said often, but I’ll say it again- never be the smartest person in the room. If you are, find a new room. You need to be constantly challenged and inspired by those around you. And I think that is even more important as a CEO or leader- I always look to hire people who make me think in new ways or challenge my views thoughtfully. It definitely may take a beat longer to make a decision- but that diversity of thought is hugely valuable!

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define leadership as the capacity to organize a group of individuals around a common goal, with a clear, sustainable, and strategic agenda. That last bit is key- leadership is not merely gathering individuals together around a common goal- it’s also about the strategic agenda you set to meet that goal.

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?

At Meseekna, we work on understanding and responding to five components of stress- VUCAD (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, delayed feedback). This is not merely something we package and sell- it’s a framework we use internally to help ourselves get through difficult and stressful moments! When I’m faced with a difficult situation, I try to piece out which VUCAD element is really bothering me and why, and then choose from my toolkit of mitigation strategies. If the volatility of a situation is causing me anxiety, I work to find a consistent point to tether myself to. If the uncertainty of a situation is overwhelming me, I sit down and write out the possible outcomes. There are time tested approaches to VUCAD that you can harness to help you- this isn’t something you need to invent from scratch or figure out on your own. We have a free VUCAD planner available online right now that can be used online or over Facebook messenger- and I actually use it personally to help me out!

The COVID-19 pandemic has made everyday life universally stressful in a variety of ways! My personal VUCAD plan during the pandemic revolves around answering the volatility through routines that I create and have control over (my morning cup of tea, a daily meditation), handling uncertainty and ambiguity through contingency planning and scenario analysis, tackling complexity by maintaining a curious outlook, and embracing delayed feedback by creating weekly moments of joy that minimize the impact of waiting.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?

I have managed teams since running my first company at nineteen years old. There is a steep learning curve to management, and one that never seems to necessarily end! I have certainly improved in many ways since my first managerial experiences, and yet always find that managing teams is a challenging and intellectual experience. For me, business school was a hugely valuable and rewarding experience. Being in a place where I could learn and grow from the collective experiences of others was incredible! It helped me better understand my own managerial skills and tendencies, while finding new ways to manage others and give feedback.

We think often that the designated manager is the person directing a team- but the person with the most influence may be another person or group of people who have soft power within an organization. One of my biggest lessons in management has been understanding that dynamic, finding those people at the right moments, and empowering them to move forward in the direction that I need. Managing a team is an exercise in gathering points of influence; feedback is about how you can transform that influence into action.

This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?

Feedback helps employees know where to go and how to reach their goal- as a leader, getting a team to a goal is your entire job! There is no leading without feedback! You’re actually doing a disservice to your employees when you’re not facilitating their growth by sharing areas of improvement because they will never know what needs to change. It’s equally critical to share positive feedback and recognize when work is well done. When employees feel that you’re appreciating and recognizing their work, they feel empowered to do more, and to achieve in a way that exceeds your expectations.

One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.

In my career, I have seen that managing teams remotely forces you to be more tactical and observant as a manager. In order to know how my employees are doing, I rely heavily on progress reports and daily checklists that I can monitor over time to see where issues may be arising and choose how I address them. There is less focus on daily interpersonal interactions and more focus on productivity and empowerment.

Pick your battles. We absorb only so much feedback at once; it’s important to isolate the most important piece of feedback you have and lead with that! Too much feedback can flood the other person or feel more like a character attack.

Look at an employee’s intention before looking at the execution of a task, always. Think through what may be driving the behavior that the other person is exhibiting. Is it driven by a lack of knowledge, malice, laziness, carelessness or something else? Each has its own potential path forward.

1) Find patterns. Very often, there are recurring patterns of behavior that separately may seem unrelated, but are merely parts of the same intention. This will also help in picking your battles as it helps you consolidate your moments of feedback with any employee.

2) Find a receptive moment. In reality, we are all hungry for feedback. We want to know how others see us and perceive our abilities. However, it’s not always easy to hear the not so positive feedback, especially when you’re not in the right headspace. Before giving an employee feedback, take a moment to check in and see how they are doing mentally. If they’re having a bad day, it’s not the time.

3) Remember the goal of feedback is to improve your team and your organization! In order for employee feedback to work, it needs to come from a place of true good will human place- but not necessarily a personal one.

Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote.

I would never ever do this. It’s tempting, especially when giving feedback is such a difficult conversation- but never. Feedback should be a conversation, and a phone call is always better than an email or Slack.

How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

Never use emails! 🙂 Everything is easier as a conversation, particularly when employees are remote. You need to include the other person in the feedback in order to check in and make sure that it is landing in the right way to be effective. When you don’t have that back and forth, it’s more tempting to create a feedback sandwich of “positive/negative/positive” that can take away from the impact of the positive feedback and cause the negative feedback to be overlooked.

In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?

Feedback should be delivered at the time of an incident, and in monthly/quarterly progress check-ins. However, as mentioned earlier, it should be delivered at a receptive moment! If tensions are running high, it may be best to address feedback later on when you and the employee have taken a moment to gather your thoughts.

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

I define being a “great boss” as the ability to nurture the talent of my employees to do great things that benefit each employee and our organization as a whole. I have been so fortunate to work for incredibly thoughtful bosses throughout much of my career. They have all helped me grow into the person I am today- in large part because they were thoughtful for me. They considered what would be best for me going forward and what skills would help me the most to learn and excel at.

When you bring an employee onto your team, I believe you have a responsibility to think about what the employee wants to do after they work for you- because most people do change jobs! Is your team going to be the right place for the employee to grow into that next role? If it is, and you’re clear about how meeting your expectations can help the employee reach that next role, you’ll be impressed by the work ethic, motivation, and loyalty employees show up with. It is vital for employees to find meaning and purpose in their work- for the organization, but also for themselves and their futures.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The greatest threat to our liberty is an unspoken and insidious truth: the majority of the American population is not scientifically literate. We are far more susceptible as a nation to misinformation, manipulation, and bias when our population struggles to understand the fundamental differences between antibodies, antibiotics and viruses.

In a free country, we all have to have the liberty to make our own choices. As part of that liberty, we need to be demanding education to understand the consequences to our choices. We’re seeing that right now with the COVID-19 pandemic. For the hardworking individual who doesn’t understand what good a tiny piece of cloth can do to protect them from an invisible enemy that has taken away their job and turned their life upside down- the only fair and right explanation to offer is the scientific one.

It’s the explanation that we all should be able to understand, that we can prove over and over again in laboratory and real world settings. Despite what we believe, a deeply moving personal narrative from someone across the country, or an impassioned plea from a leader will not have the same impact as scientific education. We need to remind people of the awe and magic of science, the stunning moment every scientist knows when an experiment leads to a clear and logical conclusion we can fully understand. We don’t spend time debating if gravity exists because we can all test it out, anytime, we don’t spend time arguing if blue and yellow really make green because again, we can all test it out, anytime. In the present, science is clear and undeniable.

In 2013, as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, I studied the reasons for a low scientific literacy rate from the scientist’s point of view, and in 2016, at Stanford, I studied the economic costs of low scientific literacy. I’ll keep the synopsis brief: this is a very, very big problem and it’s only getting worse. We have to find ways to educate our population on science now.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The calendar does not lie”- this constantly inspires me to make the most of every day and opportunity I have!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I am on Twitter (@akhilasatish) and Medium (https://medium.com/@akhilasatish)

Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.

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