On Friday July 2nd, 2021, Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & founder of Cosmic Centaurs, held a LinkedIn Live session where she hosted two true team captains: David Munir Nabti, CEO & GM of Bloom EMEA, and Nitin Pratap, Director of Events at Airmeet. The reason behind the label of “captain”, was their ability to successfully lead their teams even during the most challenging of times.
The session was a warm up to the Future Of Teams conference happening July 6, 7, and 8, where 15 incredible speakers will be joining Marilyn at one of four panels, a debate, and a keynote presentation, as well as two team workshops on Thursday July 8th.
Lessons learned from unprecedented times
Marilyn kicked off the session by asking the speakers what were the pits and peaks they went through, and what advice do they give themselves now to help maintain their own balance.
Munir said that being based in Lebanon, the past year and half posed a series of challenges, in addition to the pandemic. “One thing I thought about a lot, especially after the explosion of August 4th, was how to balance the aspect of being a positive and inspiring person, meaning sometimes not being fully transparent or vulnerable about what I am going through”, he noted. As a leader, he just feels like bringing up the energy of the team, so he would hide many of his feelings. “Through the whole pandemic, collapse, explosion, I didn't have the capacity not to share. So it was much more valuable for me as a person on the team to show vulnerability. We have to be positive, but also have safe spaces to share”, he elaborated. Munir also explained that this process can only work if he's part of it, since he is the team leader.
Marilyn agreed, “it is because you give permission”. And mentioned how that idea was at the origin behind creating Aion, a tool which helps teammates share their daily moods. “Bad emotions shouldn’t have a red label”, she stated.
Nitin shared his thoughts on the topic by saying that the pandemic turned sympathy into empathy. “In the past, I would talk to team members about being sympathetic, but since the pandemic touched everyone, and we were all going through that low point at the same time, it became empathy”. The high point was when he started building teams, such as for Airmeet. The fact that this team was built on empathy and a mutual understanding of loss (some folks experienced loss of loved ones because of the pandemic), helped in cultivating trust, he said. “The problem with trust is that it can’t be built, you have to do actions everyday, and communicate everyday, to maintain it in a team. That worked very well in my team, as we have a beautiful culture where teammates feel safe to work”.
How do you learn as a person?
Marilyn then mentioned that she was recently asked on a podcast with Iulia Istrate about her learning process, and she would love hearing the guests answer the same question.
Munir responded that when things are moving so fast, he loves learning, podcasts, reading, audiobooks. “I think there has been so much content coming out lately, but it’s less important now to read everything, than knowing what are the things you want to learn overtime. What is that balance? There is new content, but what am I absorbing from it? How do we learn as a team?” He goes to many workshops to always touch the tip of what he should be doing.
Nitin, on the other hand, said that he’s old school, and can't concentrate on audiobooks. However, he reads a lot because he’s been writing for ten years now. “I think great learning experiences come from context. If what I’m reading helps me clear my mind, I will have a better memory of it”.
Marilyn commented, “engaging with others reinforces what we learn, as talking about it really helps reinforce the knowledge”.
Munir agreed. “This is awesome, we emphasize mentoring a lot. Startups in our programs have done less internally, but we try to build momentum on that”. “Regularity is very valuable”, he adds. “You don't have to call mentor mentors, but it has to do with regularity and discussing things.”
Nitin noted that mentorship reinforces learning also to the mentors themselves. “When people ask me difficult questions, and I try to answer, it helps me build my own story. It neurologically helps me understand more.”, he says. “Asking somebody a question is doing them a favor.”
Marilyn agreed, the best teachers are the best learners “My best interviews are with people who ask more questions than I do”.
Adapting to change
Marilyn talks about having to make decisions as a leader during challenging times especially when the circumstances make it harder, like the situation in Lebanon right now.
Munir said that there's definetely a lot of challenges these days. “Even when times are difficult, it's important to have reminders about gratitude, things we feel fortunate for, for the last couple of years people would say it can't get any worse. But it definitely can”. He elaborated, “Don't feel grateful by looking at other people’s miseries, but think about how you have loved ones around, and have some opportunities. Even if you lose your job, you can volunteer.” “I always feel grateful about the ability to choose how to respond and not how to react.” “You choose to remain positive and optimistic. Choose to be caring and passionate.” He advised that you can do practical things: cycles, repetitions, celebration of birthdays. “Think of different ways of bringing lightness and sense of humor, positive psychology and beneficial times of crisis and trauma. Humor helps maintain a sense of agency.”
Munir said that another aspect of resilience is adaptability; since Lebanon has increasing electricity problems, we can help businesses with having more reliable energy sources for their basic needs instead of solely relying on electricity. “The aspect of wellbeing is ever presence and regular ongoing things. It's part of the culture, how we regularly share and keep.” He noted that with his team, they share meditations, even on calls if it feels appropriate. They have documents where they keep how they are going through challenges.
Nitin stated that it's not just about reacting, but the actions that decide the journey in a pandemic. When he started the Remote Life Program, lots of things were restarted. “Then people wanted to keep working remotely even after the pandemic for other reasons. All these factors kept on coming. “ He continued, “You should not just get stuck there. Take some action. Keep doing something everyday. Sometimes you'll be entering new markets, adding new team members for diversity, and new ideas.” What he truly believes in is asking yourself “what action can I take now?”. “Looking back and realizing things could've been different won't change anything. It's about how you react”, he explained.
Marilyn then asked the speakers about “how do they get everyone to stay connected?”
Munir responded that it’s about looking for opportunities for fun. “We all work a lot, we’re all passionate oriented people, but there's other aspects: connecting with people and having fun, talking about stuff other than work.” He went on to explain that his team has been remote for four years, so the pandemic was easier on them, but they had to do work with teams that were not used to it. “What’s really important is the aspect of repetition. Regular consistent things. We have a team call at 11 am where we sometimes talk about work but sometimes about favorite book things. And they have regular lunches as well. Everything worth doing in life or organization is worth building a regular habit connected to it.”
Marilyn agreed. “One of the theories from the book Sapiens is the reason why humans survived, is their ability to collaborate with big groups. The way we were able to do that, is by believing the same common myths, but also creating rituals to reinforce that common myth. Companies depend on these common myths. We reinforce the way we believe in them through rituals.” It’s about the community, she adds, and inventing whatever ritual you want around it.
She then asked Nitin if he has any rituals with his team.
Nitin answered that he does, as they have rituals such as lunch or “freaky fridays”, he also does not not have to jump on call to see his teammates. “I bomb meetings unexpectedly, unless it is marked as DND (Do Not Disturb)”. He continues, “we do a lot of pranks, I change my name sometimes and go to the table, talk to random teammates and tell them nothing is working with me as a joke”.
Marilyn shared her team’s ritual. “If someone is lonely on a team, we work together on zoom.”
Marilyn then moved on to a different challenge of remote work. She stated that the same things can mean different things to different people. “We know the concepts of race and gender from the US, we experience these things, but not in the same way. Even though we are a diverse population in Lebanon, the diversity we have is not the same as the one we learn about.” She then asked Nitin, “Can you give us a perspective of what it's like in India? How do you approach it?”
Nitin answered that It starts at home. People are different with the languages they speak or the areas they come from, they think differently. “When I was first introduced to the idea of diversity and inclusion, I was convinced in a flash”, he says. “I am sure it has a positive effect, on all levels of the organization. Teams are good because of their diversity, they have a common goal despite their differences.
In India, the most important issue is that of gender diversity. Call HR about these requirements, and some things come off as wrong. They might think you have a secret agenda for wanting to hire more women. There HAS to be diversity, you have to push for that idea because lots of people don't understand it. “ He concluded that having a requirement for diversity will help your organization positively, as well as from a marketing perspective.
Munir’s response was that diversity is definitely a strength, not a challenge, it's a benefit that can bring a lot of value. “In many contexts we have to celebrate diversity. In Lebanon, people think the reason we have so many problems is because we have eighteen official sects, but it's not, it’s because of our mindset. We have to appreciate what each of those communities has to offer”. He says that in his team, they think about how they can embrace diversity, another element is actively seeking it. They make sure people go to different places and communities, and many women on teams have different positions. “We look at recruiting with balanced diversity. When we saw lots of people wondering why the entrepreneur scene does not have enough women, we realized that people engaging with us is a reflection of what we’re doing. So here we have to think what's our outreach? What's our marketing? All those things reflect.” He says that women participate less in the entrepreneurial scene because of social constraints, about mobility (in Lebanon), where public transportation is problematic especially for women. “They often have more responsibilities. Flexible work reflected that. Aspects of culture are important , when we hire people we make sure they have the right cultural fit. But sometimes someone says something that someone else might be uncomfortable with. Instead of letting that stuff slide and accumulate, we talk to that person about it. We ask if they're ok with it. Most of the time people are unaware, usually if they say something that discomforts others, it is almost never on purpose. So catch that stuff early to build positivity.”
Marilyn agreed. “Yes, how we move forward from these situations is a big discussion thing, and knowing space is available to discuss these instances helps in creating psychological safety instead of acting like police. There should be a process to explore why mistakes were made.”
The panel concluded with a series of rapid questions - its answers will be shared in another insights post. If you want to learn more about team dynamics in an increasingly flexible environment, register to our Future of Teams Conference happening July 6,7, and 8 through our website - https://www.cosmiccentaurs.com/the-future-of-teams-cosmic-conf
We’ll be having 15 incredible speakers joining us at one of four panels, a debate, a keynote presentation, and two team workshops. The workshops are a first for the Cosmic Conference series. We’re hosting one on team identity, and are co-hosting another with Shayne Smart all about rituals.