This is one of a series of blog posts where we share some of the key takeaways from our interviews with engineering leaders for our upcoming book, The Engineering Leader Within. Get notified as we release more interviews.
“The more I become conscious of the effect on me, the more I wonder why this super successful thing in the sports world is not more commonly applied to all these other situations.” — Ben Kamens, on visualization
Ben Kamens was the VP of Engineering at Khan Academy, an organization dedicated to building a world-class education for everyone, and now the CEO of Spring Discovery, a company dedicated to discovering therapies for age-related diseases.
Ben had many stories and lessons to share during our interview, but perhaps the most intriguing practice he shared that we haven't yet heard about from other engineering leaders was his practice of visualization. When we heard about the big impact that visualization has had on his leadership, we knew that more people had to learn about it.
For Ben, visualization started in college. “I played some sports in college. I was a rower, and visualization is a super common thing in the sports world. All day long, athletes before the game will think, 'I'm going to visualize succeeding.'” Ben says.
He's carried that practice over to his leadership roles and applied it to a wide variety of situations, with impressive results.
Authentically Recruit People to Your Cause
Ben's proudest accomplishment at Khan Academy was the investment he put into recruiting people who wound up having a transformational impact on the company.
This was a hard challenge, often requiring six or more months of relationship building. It was particularly hard because unlike other Silicon Valley companies, Khan Academy — as a non-profit — offered no equity.
When people go into recruiting, Ben says, they often take one of two approaches.
The first approach is to be super aggressive. “Everybody should join my company. This company is great and here's why.”
The second approach is to be almost apologetic. “I'm sorry to take up your time, I know this is annoying because you get reached out to by so many recruiters, but I want to tell you about my company.”
Ben takes a third approach. “I close my eyes and I think, 'What would this company be like in five years if we were really successful?' I think about how valuable for the world that could be and realize, 'I just gotta convince these people that when they join they can help shape this world,' and then you feel that.”
By seeing both how someone joining Khan Academy would be productive for the world and also make the person really happy, he was able to recruit more authentically. “You can pursue that relationship and that conversation in this totally authentic way.”
Through his approach, he was able to connect with candidates and make the offers competitive in creative ways, often by showing them that their interests and hobbies in both life and work were supported and aligned at the organization.
Take Responsibility for Your Unintended Impact on People
Ben described himself as an introverted and fairly level-headed guy, one who doesn't show that much emotion. When he first transitioned into leadership and started spending long periods of time interacting with people — an area where he didn't naturally get his energy — he was perceived as grumpy and tired, even when he was internally very excited about his company's mission.
It got so bad that his teammates actually made a website called IsBenGrumpy.com — the page just says “no.” It was a way to introduce new team members to Ben's default demeanor.
“You will have an effect on people in all these subtle ways as a leader that you're not deliberately choosing to, but your demeanor and how you hold yourself is going to have a big effect.” Ben says. “You need to find a way to somehow connect how you actually feel with how you're presenting yourself.”
Some people force themselves to smile, but that's always felt unnatural and a bit fake to Ben. For him, it felt more authentic to just connect with the positivity and optimism that he actually felt inside:
“I'll think of where the meeting is, like Blue Bottle Coffee," says Ben. "And I'll picture if this conversation went really well, and this partner was really excited to partner with us, what will I feel like and what will I be walking away feeling like. I just let myself think about that for ten seconds. And it changes the way I greet them.”
That ten-second exercise changes everything for Ben because it shifts him from a mental space of being annoyed at going to a meeting to what's actually possible.
It's now become a habit for him at every meeting. “I started to feel the power of thinking about that end result before actually going to the meeting,” says Ben.
A mentor once advised him, “When you're in a meeting, when you're interacting with people, picture a video camera on you, and then think about what you will look like when you watch that tape back.”
Ground Yourself by Zooming Out from the Day-to-Day
As a leader, you often get mired down in the day-to-day. And it's important to remind yourself to zoom out and remind yourself why you're doing what you're doing.
“That's where the whole closing your eyes comes in.” Ben says. Visualization lets him remind himself, “Actually, I am really optimistic. I actually do think things are going great if I let myself zoom out from the last 24 hours. It's not my job to react to every small thing — it's my job to see the long-term vision.”
One of the more visceral reminders of the need to zoom out comes from Ben's own personal struggle with type 1 diabetes. Left unmanaged, type 1 diabetes can lead to life-threatening complications like heart and blood vessel disease, nerve damage, kidney failure, blindness, and more.
Ben has to constantly monitor his blood sugar levels — the disease is actually one of his core motivations for starting Spring Discovery.
And so when it comes to work, Ben says, “There's nothing that could happen over the next 24 hours that's even remotely close to the challenges I've dealt with over 20 years of dealing with the disease.”
When you shift out of the struggles of the moment into more long-term thinking, you're able to give appropriate significance to what's happening in the grand scheme of things.
Ben adds, “There are very few things which happen day-to-day which I think can hold a candle to the importance of how you manage yourself over the very long-term.”
Think about different ways that you can apply visualization to intentionally shift the impact of your leadership.
- Before an important meeting, visualize what you'd like the meeting attendees to walk away feeling — confident? excited? serious? accountable?
- When you feel mired and unmotivated in the day-to-day, stop and remind yourself: why are you doing what you're doing?
- When you're recruiting a candidate for your organization — particularly if you work at a mission-driven company — visualize why it would be valuable for the world for this individual to join your organization.
- When you're making a hard decision, particularly around an individual, visualize and internalize the impact of your decision on other people on the team as well.
Visualization is a powerful tool that helps you shift your perspective. And as a leader, getting access to more perspectives gives you more influence over your impact and lets you make better decisions.