“The main thing is to make sure the main thing is always the main thing.” I heard this in an interview with Ravi Gupta, a partner at the VC firm Sequoia Capital, on the The Knowledge Project podcast. He was speaking about it both in terms of leadership, and in particular, family. They were talking about how Gupta, a former CEO of InstaCart and VC investor, manages the relationship between his work, which is clearly demanding, and his personal life, and the role of the above quote in helping him make sure he’s making the right choices.
While I loved the whole interview, there were a few things that really stuck with me that I think about a lot in my own life and leadership journey.
The first was Gupta’s reflection that where he has struggled in his marriage is not so much about being physically present for his wife and family, but his cognitive and emotional presence. Work, especially demanding leadership work, is incredibly consuming emotionally and psychologically. Even when we make the right decision with our time (i.e. being home at 6 for dinner with the family), it doesn’t mean our mind follows. Where he’s struggled is when his wife has him in the room, but doesn’t have his mind in their conversation or interaction. I think part of learning to manage this is about creating boundaries in one’s mind, as well as practical hacks (e.g. put your phone on the shelf when you come home so it doesn’t distract you; use your calendar to block important time, etc.), but it’s not simple, and it’s not a challenge that entirely goes away.
The second was about quality vs. quantity, which Gupta thinks is a false dichotomy. Some people, he says, believe that if you can target those powerful moments, like a trip to Disney World or an NBA basketball game with the kids, and that that is good enough. Gupta reflects that you never know when your kids are going to open up, when they are going to need to lean on you or ask for your presence. These moments in life can’t be planned, and are part of a more consistent, not targeted presence with kids. He says for him they most often happen in the car on the way to one soccer practice or another – hardly a powerful moment. This doesn’t mean that the former will leave people with terrible relationships, but he often finds that people who take this approach end up feeling that something is missing in the relationship as time passes.
The last idea I want to re-share relates to the practice of making the main thing the main thing in a leadership context. It begins by recognizing how easy and pleasant it is to say yes (no one gets mad at you!), and how necessary it is to say no – a no that allows you to say yes to what’s most important (even if people will often be disappointed and upset). Part of what makes it hard is psychological, because it’s more pleasant to say yes. We’re good at justifying why what we should really say no to, becomes, in our mind, something that deserves a ‘yes’ as part of the ‘main thing’. As an example he gave (and I can think of many in my context): a company wants to find great engineers. The same company has a lot of pressure to have a position on climate change. The leader’s response: let’s put resources towards that climate change initiative, because the environment is a priority for many engineers, and it will help us get great staff! So – the policy is really in service of the main thing! But – it’s not, or at least now it’s not. Saying so will certainly disappoint some, even as it’s in service of the company’s broader goals.
Anyone who’s come to a recent Coffee and Conversation, or the Portrait of a Graduate Parent Night, knows that there are a lot of very different goals, needs, and desires in our school community, and learning to identify the main thing isn’t an easy task (though it is why we’ve done a great deal of strategic planning work, which you can learn a little about here). It’s something that the strategic plan helps a lot with, but more importantly, that our strategic thinking and process reflects.
Making sure that the main thing is really the main thing isn’t a one-time activity, but an ongoing process of evaluating one’s goals, and re-aligning towards them. This is true in both leadership and life.