Suneel Gupta founded and led the wellness company Rise, served in leadership roles at many other business ventures, and is the author of the international bestselling book “Backable” (2020). His research reveals the mindsets and habits of people who are exceptional at pushing new ideas forward. As a visiting scholar at Harvard Medical School, Gupta researches and teaches the interconnection between inner well-being and outer leadership. He has partnered with The Second City comedy heatre to teach students and executives how to innovate “on-your-feet’’ during times of rapid change, and is currently the host of Business Class, a podcast produced by American Express, where he showcases leaders who embody struggle and resilience. His next book, which will unveil the habits of high-pressure performers, is slated to be released in 2023.
Jeffrey Shields: Let’s start with your most recent work, which focuses on connecting employee wellbeing with performance. After three years of pandemic management, many teachers and administrative staff at our schools are exhausted. Business officers may be looking for wellness resources for themselves and of course for the faculty, which delivers the mission of the school every day. What have you learned from your work in tech companies and your healthcare startup, Rise, about setting expectations and managing work within a rich and varied life — while also achieving bold organizational goals?
Suneel Gupta: Can I first just say that I have so much gratitude for teachers and school administrators, for everybody who’s been involved in keeping our schools operating during this time. I’m a father; I have two girls, a 10-year-old and a five-year-old. In the early days of the pandemic, my wife and I would constantly talk about how much stress everyone had, and then we would put ourselves in the shoes of people at the schools and say, “Can you imagine what they’re going through right now?” So I know it’s been an exhausting couple of years, and I know that that’s the tone that we entered this current school year with.
Shields: I want to emphasize that these years have generally been a wonderful success story for independent schools, which by and large truly rose to the occasion. They found the resources, they kept the classrooms open, they were flexible with families. But the point remains that there is burnout. So how do we support faculty and staff to keep our schools moving forward?
Gupta: I think you’re bringing up exactly the right point, Jeff, which is that success and burnout have in a lot of ways become intertwined. When you look at some of the characteristics that have been lionized over the past 10 years or so, of what it means to be a leader or what it means to be a contributor, you hear words like grit, like hustle, right? Grit it out and success will follow. That may be true to some extent, but if you look at some of the qualities that are associated with grit and hustle, like always being on, never resting, constantly pushing yourself to that next thing, those are also qualities that are scientifically associated with burnout. The formulas for success and for burnout look the same.
So I think we are in a place now where enough people have woken up to this fact and are interested in a new playbook, a new model.
Shields: What is a model that will ensure teachers and staff feel energy coming to work, to lead thriving communities? And that business leaders themselves can kind of produce that energy after what they’ve been through?
Gupta: I think the first thing is that we need to stop treating wellbeing as a benefit, as we’ve done traditionally. Maybe it’s a $40 per month stiped to use for a gym membership, for example. Then what you do with that benefit is up to you. What that says is that wellbeing is the employee’s territory, and work is the organization’s territory. We’ll partner together on the concept of work, but wellbeing is your call. If you want to squeeze in a run first thing in the morning, good for you. We need to start shifting to the idea that wellbeing is not a benefit, but rather a driver of performance.
It’s remarkable how sometimes simple things end up creating the big results. One small thing that has created enormous results in the corporate world is what I call the 55-5 model. For every 55 minutes of work, you take five minutes of recovery.
I can tell you that as a parent who has two children in school now, I don’t want the people who are teaching my kids to feel burnt out. If I had a choice as a parent to have fewer days of school but those days were high energy, high productivity, wholesome days, I would say, yeah, I would prefer that. If we push teachers too hard, the energy in the classroom fades. I don’t know how much schools can or should adjust their calendars, but there may be some other creative ways we can start thinking about wellbeing, and how the school can partner with employees.
It’s remarkable how sometimes simple things end up creating the big results. One small thing that has created enormous results in the corporate world is what I call the 55-5 model. For every 55 minutes of work, you take five minutes of recovery. You build that into your day. I’ve rolled this out to organizations that never sleep — they’re hard-charging, like skull-crushing organizations. Initially I always get pushback. People say, I don’t have time in the day to go to the bathroom. How am I going to take all these five-minute breaks? But the argument that I continue to make is that you might seem like you’re losing five minutes, but what ends up happening is that you’re making the other 55 minutes that much more productive if you use those five minutes wisely.
If you’re checking your phone during those five minutes, that’s five minutes lost. But if you’re taking that five minutes to take a walk, to breathe or do pushups or sit ups or whatever it is that brings you a little bit more energy, the effect is that you go into your next meeting, your next interaction, your next classroom with a higher level of energy than you had before. These resets end up making a huge difference.
In fact, when we study high performers, which is the focus of my forthcoming book, what we find is that they don’t rely as much on vacations as much as other folks. Vacations are great. But they’re a pretty weak instrument when it comes to preventing and dealing with burnout. In fact, most people actually report feeling more stressed out one week after returning from vacation than they did one week before vacation. That’s because the vacation fits this model of, I’m either in work mode or I’m in wellbeing mode. What we find amongst high performers is that they integrate wellbeing and work by taking rhythmic recoveries every single day. In fact, the average high performer that we studied takes somewhere around eight deliberate, focused breaks every single day. That sounds extraordinary given the world that we’re in, but if we can shift our mindset to understand that breaks aren’t just breaks, that they enhance performance, we can start putting ourselves in a place where this practice becomes a reality for everybody.
Shields: I also want to ask you about your 2021 book “Backable,” which I think speaks to business officers. NBOA’s primary member, the business officer, is not the face of the school, but they provide a critical perspective to the head of school and board of trustees. And they’re working in an educational institution, where they may be the only ones with a financial mindset or business acumen.
In your book, one of the many people you talk about is Bob Ebeling, the engineer who knew the Challenger space shuttle mission would fail, but couldn’t convince others to stop the launch. Can you say more about the importance of developing a strong communication style so that people listen to what you have to say, especially when it may be something that others don’t want to hear? Sometimes there’s a financial downside to all the options that a school is confronted with, and the business officer is more often than not the one to bring this forward. So how can someone in that position share their unique viewpoint, which is vital to the long-term sustainability of their school?
Gupta: I wrote “Backable” with people like your members in mind. It’s people who have influence, but not necessarily authority. And that’s stressful. My publisher and I chose the title “Backable” together, but one of my concerns with it from the start is that it sounds very startup-y. If you look inside established organizations, the job of making an idea backable, the job of convincing others, can be so much harder than it is inside small startups. Small startups have fewer stakeholders, whereas in established organizations, you’re constantly managing around you, you’re managing up, you’re managing down. It’s hard work.
One of the things that I’ve learned from people who have a communication style that works really well in these situations is that they share what could be, but not exactly how it has to be. In other words, they tend to fall in love with the problem, but they don’t always fall in love with the solution. We have been conditioned to walk into a room with an idea that is fully baked, right? Every single detail should be figured out. We present our conclusion, our recommendations and when we’re going to move forward. That’s how established organizations often set up meetings.
We found magic happened when leaders started to do the reverse. In an hour-long meeting, instead of presenting for 50 minutes and then leaving 10 minutes for Q and A, they were sharing for maybe 10 to 20 minutes, and then opening up discussion for creative possibilities. They were sharing what something could be and then allowing for the creative possibilities to come up inside the room. Now this is hard because it actually takes a lot more skill and preparation to facilitate a conversation than it does to give a presentation. Leaders are paid to make decisions.
Shields: Yes. The CFO ultimately has to make the best financial decision for the school, so that might be part of why they may be reluctant to present things in that way.
Gupta: The question is really about what happens after a decision. Sometimes a decision needs to be made, and needs to be made quickly. But what I found is that the vast majority of decisions aren’t the end. They’re actually the beginning.
So your school has decided to move down a path, take on an initiative. Then it’s up to the people who are inside the room. How many times have we been in situations where you have nods around the room, it seems like everybody’s on board with this new idea, and then we get to execution mode, and it all falls apart. It happens all the time, in every organization at every size. It’s one of the biggest frustrations that any executive will share with me.
There was a difference between agreement and alignment. Alignment is when people have really bought in. And I think the difference is when people feel like they have been told what to do, or they’ve been presented to, they agree because it’s easy.
In these scenarios, there was a difference between agreement and alignment. Alignment is when people have really bought in. And I think the difference is when people feel like they have been told what to do, or they’ve been presented to, they agree because it’s easy. Alignment is harder. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Ikea effect? A group out of Harvard showed that we place up to five times the amount of value on something that we help build, over something that we simply buy off the shelf.The people in this study were presented with the same piece of furniture.
I think that we are treating employees like buyers. When they leave the room, they don’t necessarily feel as invested as they would if they left the room like a builder and felt like they were part of that idea as well. When the energy is at a higher level, the creativity that people bring is at a higher level because they feel invested at a deeper level. When it comes to projects that we want to see succeed, not just in the short term, but to really change things, that requires builders. It requires people to feel like they’re insiders.
Shields: Thank you. I really enjoyed that back and forth with you, and I think our members will as well at Annual Meeting.
Gupta: Likewise. It’s a privilege to do this, and I’m really looking forward to the event next year.