Sometime in 1998, Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires took to the stage of Amsterdam Concertgebouw for an informal, lunchtime concert.

At the command of conductor Riccardo Chailly, the orchestra engaged Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466.

It is a stunning few bars and under any other circumstances would have been lost to all but those in attendance.

In this particular instance however, Pires, one of the world’s greatest pianists, was expecting to play something different.

Shock fails to adequately describe her reaction.

Captured by director Frank Scheffer in his documentary Attrazione d’amore, the salient moment can be seen on YouTube.

On first watch it is hard to see anything other than Pires as she visibly transforms from initial shock to school girl embarrassment to near panic to emergent resolution and finally to courageous action.

Close your eyes while listening and you’ll have no idea what is happening.

It is mesmerizing.

To hold confidence in others when they themselves are filled with doubt — along that path lies the possibility of greatness.

A second viewing however, affords an opportunity to focus on the conductor Riccardo Chailly.

Imagine how easy it would have been to stop the proceedings — a mere wave of the arm and the orchestra would have ceased, apologies would have been made, and a new piece would have shortly sounded forth. This was after all a rehearsal of sorts.

But he didn’t do that.

Rather he kept on, showing not a worry about Pires’ ability to recall and perform a piece she knew well though wasn’t prepared to play from memory alone.

Watch his face. He never flinches, never pauses, never stops smiling.

He simply keeps the moment alive. Encourages her to move forward and shows nothing but complete and utter confidence.

As she wades into the opening phrase, it almost appears that he himself is willing her to play.

And it is that moment which perfectly captures the essence of leadership — the ability to see, focus, and place into action the capabilities of others.

To serve simultaneously as an amplifier of talent and a beacon of clarity — that is the hallmark of a true leader.

It is to you to guide your team through the inevitable fog, doubt, and uncertainty that accompanies all endeavors.

To hold confidence in others when they themselves are filled with doubt — along that path lies the possibility of greatness.

You Can’t Bleed Over

So here’s the deal. Now that you’re running a team, you’re going to be in a lot of meetings. You’ve reached a point in your career where you can’t keep thinking of meetings as a distraction from your “real job” – they are your real job.

As a leader of Design your job is less about being in the chair and more about being at the table.

[Y]ou’re also going have to compartmentalize the demands of your day so that your mood, passions, and frustrations doesn’t bleed over from one activity to the next.

And what does that mean? It means you have to show up – mentally, physically, creatively – you have to show up with the full force of your abilities all the time, every time – engaged and ready to play.

So how are you going to do that?

Obviously you’re going to add white-space to your calendar – a tactic that’s necessary but insufficient – but you’re also going have to compartmentalize the demands of your day so that your mood, passions, and frustrations doesn’t bleed over from one activity to the next. The team you’re meeting at 3:00pm deserves a fresh you even when you are still coming down from the meeting at 2:00pm.

Because one of the biggest consumers of your mental energy is context switching – going from a group creative review to a 1-on-1 for example – you’re going to have to find a way to reduce the number of times you have to shift from one cognitive mode to another.

It’s not easy to coordinate, but if you can, dedicate each day of the week to a particular type of meeting, a certain type of activity, a particular cognitive context.

Everyone finds their own way but for me it goes something like this:

  • Monday ⎰ Team All-Hands, Manager’s Status, 1-on-1s
    All of these are about checking in on project status, coordinating activities, and removing roadblocks. They are necessary and important conversations and touch points, but they aren’t creatively demanding.
  • Tuesday ⎰ Cross-Functional Working Sessions
    These meetings require you to engage in intense levels of active listening with a broad group of people and perspectives, synthesizing it all to arrive at clear, actionable, useful next steps. This is very hard to do.
  • Wednesday ⎰ Internal & External Networking
    Breakfast meetings, lunch meetings, multiple 1-on-1s with people you only see once a month or maybe even once a quarter. A day filled with conversations but not necessarily ones you have to lead. It’s a day to question, learn, and think openly about the experiences and wisdom of others. It is a day to recharge.
  • Thursday ⎰ Internal Design Reviews
    Focusing on specific design deliverables and solutions, you are taking the input from the cross-functional groups on Tuesday and evaluating the quality of the solutions being presented. Where Tuesday had you asking questions such us, “What problem are we solving?” and “What’s our POV on this?”, Thursday has you asking questions like, “Does this solve the problem(s) we identified and if not, why not?”
  • Friday ⎰ Executive Product Review
    This is the critical meeting of the week, the one for which you have to harvest the team’s best work, determine what is ready for approval, and more importantly, what is stalled due to a lack of information, strategic clarity, or an executive decision point. It is a day for advocacy yes, but it is also a day for focused listening for it’s only by such careful and quiet listening that you can hear through the comments to truly understand the feedback and draw focus to the issues and themes which require additional exploration and consideration. It is a day to let the work speak for itself so that everyone can hear what it’s saying.

As you can tell, every day is different but every day is specific, and it is focused, and it is known.

As a leader, your calendar sets the tone and pace for the entire team. Use that opportunity to construct a cadence and rhythm that minimizes context switching, clarifies expectations, and drives towards decisions.

If you can pull it off, everyone will benefit.

Last month I had the opportunity to spend time with Cameron Moll, founder of Authentic Jobs and host of Hired.fm. We covered a lot of ground including, product design at Pinterest, sourcing talent in the Bay Area, portfolio reviews, unsolicited redesigns, work/life balance, and more.

You should go listen to it NOW.

Designing the machine…

My deepest thanks to Cameron for being not only a great interviewer but also a fantastic editor. During our time together we talked about how he should use Pinterest to find ideas for his son’s Pinewood Derby cars, why I can’t stand it when candidate’s blame the client, and how the world needs more designers.

We talked for over seventy-five minutes but he somehow managed to cull it down to a cogent twenty-eight. Sort of makes me wish he could do that for all my conversations.

And so there you are. Ten minutes late for a thirty minute interview. With a glance at your calendar you confirm once more that you have a hard stop on the half hour.

A handshake, a smile, you’re seated and you’re ready. Having already met the candidate on multiple occasions, witnessed the morning’s portfolio review, and heard the afternoon’s commentary by the other interviewers, you know that the person before you is someone the team wants and given the demand for talent, indeed someone the company needs.

But it’s your job to be sure, for you know from experience that a bad hire is far more costly than no hire at all.

With only a few minutes to evaluate, to process, to decide; you find yourself with time for only one meaningful question. And that question is this:

“Let’s imagine for a moment that you get this job and choose to join us.

The one thing I am absolutely certain you will do is the one thing that everyone in every job eventually does. You will quit.

So now imagine that you are back in this very room some three to five years from now only instead of an interview, you’re telling me that you’re leaving. We’ll be sad and we’ll be bummed but we’ll both know it was time and that everything will be okay.

At some point after that, you will sit down to update your LinkedIn profile with a handful of bullet points encapsulating your experiences and accomplishments here.

What are those bullet points going to say?”

What would yours say?

File → New

At some point I suppose, you simply have to start –– to start writing, start posting and stop worrying.

I have hung from the side of cliffs, jumped from airplanes, even engaged in public speaking and still, still nothing causes me quite so much stress as the blank page. Over the years I’ve learned to overcome it by working with pen and paper before engaging with modern technology but the anxiety remains and it is only motion, movement, and progress that appear capable of calming it.

It is such a trap to think about arriving when you’ve yet to even begin. Best to close your eyes, put aside your fears and expectations, and get on with the writing.

After all, nobody’s watching.