With the MIT Executive MBA, “time is now”

Navigating the MIT EMBA journey

How the MIT Executive MBA sparked a new inflection point

MIT Executive MBA

Finding your flow with the MIT EMBA

By Ellen Handly, EMBA '22

I do some of my best thinking from the comfort of my living room couch, and that's exactly where I was when a thought popped into my head.  

Clear as day, a simple statement: I love my job.  

Ellen Handly, EMBA '22

It wasn't news to me, but the certainty of it made me pause. I knew for sure I loved my job, but did that somehow just mean I wasn't working hard enough at it? Is it truly possible to find both professional joy and success in equal measure? 

Perhaps, I thought, this is what they call "the state of flow." But instead of an energized focus on a task, it was a State of Flow about a multitude of tasks, the total complexity of a role. How did I get here? I was eager to map the path to find it again should I ever cross the border into the unwelcome State of Ebb.  

If you've seen The Hangover, what followed was my personal Zach Galifanakis card-counting moment, with the various lessons and anecdotes from EMBA professors and lecturers swirling around over my head, coming together to make sense in a single picture. It's a bit "meta"—a causal loop of firefighting, the 4 Capabilities of Effective Leaders (4-CAP), and system dynamics itself—with many other frameworks and concepts that would require actual Vensim diagrams, so I'll keep it to these three.  

I share this reflection because while easily understandable, it's elusive, and for talented leaders to change the world they need to love what they do while doing it well. 

First and foremost, I do almost zero firefighting. I have a great team who embraces new things and has collectively crossed the innovation threshold in the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety (Timothy R. Clark). There’s no substitute or shortcut for great people—you just have to hire great people. They rely heavily on defined processes and systems (more on that later), and because we channel unforeseen issues through established processes, we waste very little conscious processing energy.  

Professor Nelson Repenning talks to his MIT EMBA students on (often before) day one about conscious and autonomous processing and how mentally expensive the former is. There are upsides and downsides to each, but there's a limit to how much conscious processing can be done in a day.  

And if your team is wasting it simply getting through the decisions of the day, putting out fire after fire, there's none left for new ideas or improvement. It's a reinforcing feedback loop for burnout. 

Because my team pockets a lot of that precious conscious processing capacity, we have time to invest in ourselves both as a team and as individuals—and much of that investment is in the form of 4-CAP. Professor Deborah Ancona teaches about these four essential capabilities of effective leaders: relating, sense making, visioning, and inventing. This also happens to be a highly effective way to build skillful managers of change, which allows you to reduce the firefighting that often accompanies change (walk the loop!).  

If leaders know how to first relate to their team on a real level and give them psychological safety, then make sense of the "state of the state"— what is it today and what needs to change, co-create a compelling vision of the future, and then invent an actual path to achieve it, not only have they successfully launched a single change, but they’ve also gained a framework that enables them to be a more effective leader for a lifetime. They see the power of systems: both as an end user and a designer. 

Finally, I teach my team how each part of the system enables them to achieve their desired outcome and become a more effective leader. It's addicting. They’ll seek out more defined processes and systems to drive more improved outcomes while enhancing their own abilities. A defined performance management system not only clarifies expectations and can improve performance, but it enhances the skill of the leader in being able to have challenging conversations and effectively manage their team's performance. As more benefits are made visible, the desire to enhance more systems rises, reducing the need to firefight, which then increases available "high value" conscious processing energy to invest where desired.  

The downside to all this loop walking is there's no good offramp, with the exception of a stock—and in this case my stock of words and wisdom has been exhausted.  

So, I'll leave you with this: the MIT EMBA gives us data, frameworks, and formulas. It’s up to us to put together the perfect flow equation. I’ve found mine in using systems to avoid firefighting, then reinvesting that time where it allows me to create the ideal leadership development feedback loop. Your equation may be different, but the factors are already there. Build your loop and find your flow. 

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