It’s Monday again and it’s time to start the week with a good energy!
Monday Productive is a weekly interview format, featuring peak-performers from my network, who share 5 ideas on how to boost your productivity and stay at the top of your game.
Today’s guest is Alexandra Almaral. Alexandra is a cross-cultural growth strategy and systems change consultant. With a life and career lived across borders, she is currently based in Amsterdam.
1. Alexandra, you’ve worked in a number of global positions across a number of continents. Today you have taken the leap to become an independent consultant and manage your own time. What made you take this step? Did it take a while before you had the guts to take the decision and move on?
▶ After many years working for design and innovation firms around the world – and being frustrated with the way some things were done and the kind of life I was living – I knew it was time for me to take the leap and have the courage to start all over again and do something I truly believed in.
Yes, it was hard to let go of the sense of security and status that came with it. No business cards, no salary, no job title, no idea of what I wanted to do next; and at one point, no fixed home, as I also decided to leave my apartment in London to explore where in the world I wanted to live next. I had to challenge deeply ingrained beliefs to seek an alternative path. My sense of identity was in flux – who am I without preconditioned labels that somehow represent me?
Trust me, being in mid-air was definitely not easy, however, I knew that I could never look at myself in the mirror later in life and say, what if I wouldn’t have tried something different? Did I settle for less because of fear of the unknown?
The important thing to remember is that, as human beings, we all very much go through a similar process when it comes down to change.
William Bridges, American author and organisational consultant, describes in his book Transitions, the stages we go through during the process of transition, “a place where boundaries begin to dissolve in the in-between areas and we stand there, getting ourselves ready to move across the limits of what we were into what we are to be”.
In this process he describes, the transition of letting go, where short of resistance, our attachments are challenged and and we straddle back and forth.
We then move into what he calls “the neutral zone.” Neutral being an understatement, because there is absolutely nothing neutral about what’s to come. A hanging thread between the old and the new. This in-between space is deeply uncomfortable, but it is here, in the middle of nowhere, where we are able to experiment and explore.
The reality is that, by allowing the chaos of this neutral zone, we give ourselves the opportunity to draw outside the limits of our imagination and create the kind of life we dream of. It is here where the magic of new beginnings takes place.
2. Many companies today struggle to sustain a thriving company culture, where people are engaged and motivated and deliver high-quality results. What’s your take on it? What can we do better? Can you share 3 practical ideas / pieces of advice from your experience about boosting company culture?
▶ Building trust with others and being honest with oneself is not always straightforward. But it is my belief that truthfulness and honesty are critical in building profound human relationships, trust and purposeful organisations. Many companies and personal relationships suffer because they don’t follow these principles. When we look to build healthy organisations for the long run, doing challenging work upfront does matter.
✅ Fair process: Include people in decisions and conversations, the more inclusivity there is, the more committed people tend to be.
✅ Build trust: As Manfred Kets de Vries, Clinical Professor of Leadership and Organisational Change at INSEAD points out, “The obvious formula for having people speak their mind is trust. Trust is the glue that holds all relationships together”.
✅ Treat everyone equally: If we start with this principle, we give everyone the chance to be their better selves, grow and expand. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that, “I am more than you, or I am less than you”. We all have something to contribute, and we can always learn from each other.
3. In a world of constant distractions, prioritisation is of high importance. Could you lead us through your systematic approach for strategic goal-setting and day-to-day planning?
▶ Whilst I don’t have a prescriptive formula or specific “methods and systems” per se, I do attempt to manage the input I receive from the outside world very carefully. I am aware of my limits. I try and vet what I allow into my space is as well curated as possible. I only allow in my life what I can properly digest. Less is more, has become my mantra.
8 years ago I gave away my TV, 2 years ago I quit most social media channels (only retaining LinkedIn and Facebook messenger to keep in touch with my global tribe). I have no notifications on my phone (apart from BBC alerts that I keep forgetting to turn off and make me jump every time the sound goes off!), I have limits on my iPhone on screen time and at 9pm my phone goes on to “do not disturb” until 8am the next day.
All of this helps helps me create more blank spaces for the important things in my life. Also, it means that I choose what I want and what I need, rather than be inundated with interruptions, which can scatter my mind.
Learning to create those blank spaces and doing nothing seems counterintuitive to productivity. However, I have found that by allowing ourselves space for reflection and introspection we can help develop the capacity to pause and reflect in order to connect the dots.
Manfred Kets de Vries points out in his paper, ‘The art of doing nothing’ that “Many people would be better off if they did less and reflected more. Perhaps the biggest problem we have today is not doing too little but trying to do too much. It isn’t difficult to get stuck in that rut. Contemporary society provides ample opportunities to be busy, but a lot of this busyness, if we take a closer look at it, has little substance. When it comes down to it, we are often prisoners of busyness rather than productively occupied”.
4. Do you ever feel down, low or not-good-enough? What do you do to bounce back to a higher, more productive state? Do you think we (especially women) should love ourselves more and give ourselves more credit and self-compassion?
Absolutely, many times. I have a very strong inner critic. I am what Brené Brown would describe as a “recovering perfectionist”. It’s taken me years to learn to go a little easier on myself, however I still fall back into some old patterns from time to time.
What I do to bounce back? I have the most amazing friends I could have ever asked for. They help me keep myself in-check and kindly challenge my inner critic. Having strong and meaningful relationships is crucial for me to thrive. Also, I make sure I get enough sleep, I meditate as much as I can and also try to nurture my body with good food. I see how much this influences my mental state.
I know that many women struggle with their confidence and self-worth. We tend to over apologise, and over perfect; we try really hard to make everything work, but can exhaust ourselves along the way. I actually had a phase where I had to write “stop it” on my wrist to prevent self-critical thoughts that came into my mind. I would remind myself to simply stop; and instead think of something else.
5. In the last 24 months – what habit or belief have you acquired, that helps you to be a more effective professional today?
▶ Boundaries. Understanding what’s my stuff and what’s not.
I am currently doing an Executive Masters in Change at INSEAD, which focuses on the basic drivers of human behaviour and the hidden dynamics of organisations. During our forth module we did an exercise which looked at the many roles we have played during our lives (some completely imposed by others and/or influenced by the environment). Suddenly I had this massive realisation and fully understood the importance of context.
Acknowledging how my environment affects me has made me make wiser decisions when it comes down to choosing the kind of work that I do and the type of individuals I want to work and surround myself with.
I am ultimately more effective, because I know what works for me and what doesn’t. I have learn to stop trying to make things work when they don’t; and also walk away when they don’t serve me well to build a more consistent alignment between who I am, what I want, and the kind of life I want to live.
This is still work in progress. But like everything in life, practice and patience are guiding my every step.
[BONUS] Name one to three books that helped you to become a better leader?
- Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, made me understand the ingrained biases we all live with and how we need to learn to challenge systems in order to create more justice in the world.
- The Art of Power by Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist teachings have been a guiding force since I first visited the monastery Plum Village back in 2009. It made me understand how we are all interconnected. Power is relative, everything goes up and down in life.
- Daring Greatly by Brené Brown, helped me define what I call my “breathable membrane”, the importance of trusting my instinct and knowing when to allow the membrane to breathe and when to allow it to close down. I also try to apply the same to others. We all need different things at different times, respecting what others need is vital too.
If you have any questions to Alexandra, please leave your comment below!
To connect with Alexandra get in touch on LinkedIn
Thank you for reading, and Happy Monday
Stoyan Yankov is a serial entrepreneur, productivity & performance coach, professional speaker and startup mentor. Stoyan is also a co-founder & managing director at Samodiva Masterminds, a company with a focus on high-end mastermind experiences and corporate offsites. Prior to that, Stoyan worked in film & video production, digital marketing and advertising.
Hundreds of startup teams around the world have applied successfully the #perform methodology, to boost their productivity and team cultures, which Stoyan co-developed with Cristobal Alonso (CEO, Startup Wise Guys). Today they are finishing their book: ‘#perform – The Unsexy Truth of (Startup) Success‘, including cases and examples from the founders of some of the most successful startup teams in Europe.
P.S. Tag someone in the comments, to nominate them to be my next guest!