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Human Skills 019 - Making Choices Explicit
with Eric Nehrlich
Note: This was originally sent with a bad thumbnail mistakenly showing Eric with a different name. This has been fixed, and I’m very sorry Eric. And substack’s caching is driving me nuts.
Not many people can put "Chief of Staff at Google" on their resume. But Eric Nehrlich can. He held the role for almost seven years, reporting up to the product VP of Google's Search Ads team. Knowing only that about him, you might assume our conversation would be about productivity, career success, and effectiveness in a high-powered leadership role.
But this conversation is much more human than that. Eric, like many of us, worked himself almost to death because he assumed that was what success looked like, and almost convinced himself there was no other choice. Until his own body forced him to reconsider, and the realizations he had set him on the path to his role today, as an executive coach.
Choice was the theme that kept coming up. The ways we overconstrain ourselves, lose track of the choices we are making, and how that traps us in cycles that are not only painful but also reduce our impact. Eric shared compelling stories of himself and others, continually highlighting our ability to make choices that align with our values, get comfortable not making everybody happy, and dramatically increase our impact.
Please enjoy this conversation with Eric Nehrlich
Do you have practices you recommend to identify what is important to you?
Yeah. Oh boy, there's a bunch I could go with, but I'll start with two that come to mind. One is just tracking energy. And that may seem like a very internal metric, but I find that when people are in the flow and they feel energized by what they're doing, they get more done. They're more excited by what they do, and they're more effective at what they do.
And so... people who are doing work they find energizing all day get more done, because they have more energy. And so that's kind of an internal metric that can be very effective to help understand the types of activities that maybe one is drawn to.
And then a more external metric is, a question I often ask is, "who do you want to serve?" And here's the thing, especially as you become a leader, you can't keep everybody happy.
This is something that drives a lot of my clients crazy. Because they're used to being able to excel and get the gold star from everybody. And everybody gets some give us an A plus and they exceed expectations for everybody. Then you reach a certain scope as a leader, and you have people that want different things under you. You can't keep them both happy.
It's like, "well, what do I do? How do I keep them both happy?" I'm like, "you can't, you have to choose." They're like, "But then somebody's gonna be unhappy with me." Like, yeah? What do I do? You choose. There's no secret here. There's no magic trick I have to give you that keeps everybody happy.
The best you can do is articulate, "this is what I'm doing, this is how I'm serving, this is the principle I'm using to make this decision." And some people will be unhappy, but at least they'll understand.
So to circle back to your point about impact, if I've chosen that I'm going to prioritize the team under me.. Great. You have a metric. I can get them promoted. I can increase their scope, so forth and so on.
If you're saying I'm going to prioritize the company, which is what you kind of should be doing as an executive, then the company metrics are a good proxy. Or if you're working in a nonprofit, you could say, it's the community we want to help. How are they benefiting from what we do? Whatever it is, you can find the people you want to help and some measure of their success and use that as a proxy.
How do you get comfortable with not being able to make everyone happy?
It starts by trying it.
I mean, there's really no answer here. So I guess I have two stories I'll share here. One was... I worked at Google for many years. And early into my time at Google, I was working way too much, like 8 AM to midnight every day. Sometimes I would take Saturday afternoons off. It was brutal.
And the really annoying part was I was not actually being that effective or impactful. I'm like, "this is not working for me." And my director at the time, a guy named Sanjay Dutta, who is now the CFO of Upstart.
He was very effective, very impactful, people up to and including Eric Schmidt, the CEO and Patrick Pichette, the CFO would listen to him. And he left work at 6 PM each day.
I'm like, "how the hell do you do that?" He's like, "Well. I come to work and I work on the most important thing first. If I don't get to the next thing, that's okay. It's not as important."
And you're like, that can't be that easy. But the secret of what he did was he chose what was most important. People would send him email... He would never respond to emails. People would put meetings on his calendar. He would never show up. The only thing he would work on is the thing he was doing for the CEO and CFO. And everybody else could wait.
And they would be annoyed with him... they'd be like, "you're not responding. Why aren't you boing to my meeting? I set this meeting up with you." He was like, "I'm working on something more important."
And the contrast between what he did and what I was doing was I would show up, I'd spend two hours on email when I get to work. I'd go to six hours of meetings with anybody who put time on my calendar. I'd do another round of email at 5 p.m. and then at 6 p.m... there's one thing I had to get done that day and I hadn't started on it. Which is why I was working until midnight every night.
And he just didn't do any of that. He just started on that thing at 9 a.m. when he got to work. And then whatever time he had left over, then he would spend on emails and meetings.
I think, to answer your question, how do you learn to do it? Seeing the difference in impact that he had by being willing to just tell people no and say this is more important was really critical for me.
On choosing your work for impact
Here's the thing about high performers: they could do a lot of things and they could do a lot of things well. So just because you can do something and even that you can do it well does not mean it's a good use of your time.
This is where we introduce the idea of opportunity cost. What else could you be doing with your time that could be doing more, it could be more valuable?
An advisor I heard about once asked the question, "are you doing $80 an hour work when you could be doing $8,000 an hour work?" And I just love that because it's like $80 an hour work is valuable. That's an important work. It's not just something you get somebody off the street to do. It's important.
But if you're the CEO of your startup and you're not setting the strategic direction and you're not doing fundraising and you're not figuring out the culture and the things that are holding your team back, that is millions in opportunities you're missing. And if you're filling out your expense reports instead of doing that, it's like, what the hell are you doing? So I think that idea of opportunity cost is really another kind of key concept here.
How do you help people realize they have more choices than they believe?
I'd like to believe that I help people see that as a coach. And I've helped a few people through to understand the options that are more available to them than they think by asking them to talk me through. Like, okay, so what happens if you don't make your manager happy? If you don't get that promotion, if you don't, whatever.
And talking it through and then sharing my own story often helps them go, oh, wait. Maybe there's a possibility.
This is where I often use the framework of experiments to help people kind of realize they have a choice. Like, I'm not saying like quit your job tomorrow and go do something else. I'm saying "what happens if you push back on this one thing in a small, safe way?"
"Oh, they'd never accept that."
I'm like, "can we try it? "And they try it and like, "huh, that didn't go as I expected." And then we can kind of extend a little further and a little further. And that's how you can realize there's more choice available.
One exercise I actually run people through is to think of somebody that they know who has what they want. It could be executive presence, it could be influence, it could be lots of things.
Okay, look at that person. Watch what they do. And then look at what you do. What's different? They're like, "oh, well, that person has these conversations, that person does this," whatever it is. There's your first experiment. Can you try being more like that? And they try it.
And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but it's like, okay, now at least we're in a different loop. It's not "I can't do it". It's like, "oh, what's a different thing I could try?"
I think that's the hardest step is realizing I could try something different and coming up with something to try that is not just the default reaction that I've learned over the previous decades of my life that's been very effective for me, that got me to where I am.
Because that's why it's so hard. to change because it means letting go of something that works. Like I have this tool that works great. And you're asking me to put it down and pick up something that I don't know how to use. I don't like that. Understandably so. And that's why I'm talking to you. I want to share it. You can try something different.
On how we overconstrain ourselves
I work with a lot of engineering leaders. So I often put this in terms of loosening constraints. Your problem is over constrained. That's why you're stuck.
Cause you have this rule that says you can only do this and this rule that says you can only do this and this rule that says you can only do this. And there's no room at the middle that allows you to move. And that's why you're stuck.
So how can we loosen one of those constraints? I once saw at a workshop, this guy worked with a client, basically live coaching them. And the rule they had was "I can never ask for help."
And that was kind of a good rule as an engineer in a lot of ways, because it's like, I'm going to figure this out. I'm going to solve the problem. I'm going to show that I can be independent and learn it myself.
But there's times when it holds you back. There's times... I mean this was many years ago. This is before like Stack Overflow and things like that. It's like, no, of course you just look it up on Stack Overflow. But this guy worked with this person around "I can never ask for help."
Well, let's invert that. "I never want to ask for help". Or "I can ask for help if these conditions apply."
Like there's an expert I know, or I'm physically limited for some reason or whatever. And you start realizing, oh, there's exceptions. I can create exceptions for myself around this and then loosen that constraint a little bit.
And if you do that for a number of constraints, you're like, "oh wait, now there's some room to move." But when you put these mental models or these rules in terms of absolutes, "I must always," "I can never," that's when you get really stuck.
On how you can start loosening the constraints you have placed on yourself
A thought experiment that can help there is, you mentioned different domains, and it's like when you impose a different domain, how this changes. "Oh, I could never take time off work."
Okay, what if your mom or your spouse or your kid gets sick and you take them to the hospital? Well, of course I would leave work for that. Okay, we've now shown that is not an inviolable rule. So what is important enough to you that you would take away, step away from work for? And then it becomes a matter of a trade-off.
I remember one client I worked with, he had this important strategic vision document he was working on and he hadn't made progress literally in four months. He's like, "I just need four hours to concentrate."
And I'm like, "and you haven't made progress?"
He's like, "yeah." I'm like, "is it important?"
He's like, "it's really important. This is going to set the direction of what we're doing for the next year."
What the hell are you doing, first of all? And secondly. you're going to be sick on Friday.
He's like, "what do you mean you're sick?"
I'm like, "you are taking a sick day on Friday. Because if you were sick, you would stay home and be in bed and your team would figure out how to get along without you. So you're going to do that, except instead of being sick, you're going to actually get this document done with one day of uninterrupted time."
He's like, "can I do that?"
I'm like, "I dunno, maybe let's try it and see what happens."
And he did it. Actually, he didn't have to do it. Once I told him that, he's like, "I could actually just clear my schedule on Friday afternoon and do this without taking a sick day." Great.
And then having given himself that permission, it was like, "oh, I can do this whenever I think something's important enough to do this." But he had been so fixated on the idea that a good leader in his head was responsive, always available on Slack and email. able to get back to you right away, unblock you so quickly that he was like, "I can't walk away. I can't. People are always picking me for stuff."
They're picking you for stuff because you're always available.
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