You have to get your thinking back

Executive Coach Ben Nothnagel is Mr. Simple of leadership and self-development.

Photo: Touko Hujanen

Reetta Räty, 20.08.2014

Long forms

He possesses a simple solution to your complicated problems. Interview by Reetta Räty.

____

“The crazy lawyer from South Africa.”

Ben Nothnagel’s trainees and course participants recognize this as the slogan that Nothnagel uses to describe himself. And why shouldn’t he? He is a lawyer from South Africa, and yes, he may be slightly mad compared to many of his colleagues.

Yet there are other ways to describe him, too.

Ben Nothnagel (born in 1961) lives in Finland. He does not work as a lawyer but teaches self-development for executives at Aalto EE and countless companies. And the mad part? It is undeniably strange to move to a small, Nordic country and come up with a profession that aims to reduce the stress of executives. But once you listen to Ben, it also becomes evident that he tries to beat sense into those working like maniacs.

Ben himself is not guilty of that anymore. At the time of the interview he is in Málaga, Spain, having a relaxing time and reading.

”Trying to find new insights”, he describes the ”beach break” on terraces, far away from lecture halls. We settled a Skype date, and a happy face appeared on the screen at the agreed time.

The speakers convey the sound of chatter from the bar in addition to Ben’s voice.

”They have these nice little tapas things here, absolutely lovely”, Nothnagel says and his smile fills up the screen. We both move towards the screen in order to hear each other through the Spaniards’ loud words. The Skype connection remains intact. It appears as if we are sitting at the corner table of a vibrant bar.

Ben Nothnagel heads a self-development process for Aalto Executive MBA program, and teaches how to manage stress and the feelings of being too busy. In his teachings he may safely presume that almost every listener experiences stress and hurry. When Nothnagel conducted a survey targeted at executive-level participants, 60 per cent reported “chronic stress”. We have come to an important point of phrasing in Nothnagel’s world: there is a difference between feeling stressed or busy and actually being really stressed and too busy.

Nothnagel’s teachings could be summarized in two sentences: One cannot always change the circumstances in which work is done and decisions are made. But behavioral patterns in a stressful and pressurizing environment are something that can be influenced.

And observe, dear audience, this tapas-eating Sir on Skype is not a consultant on positivity. He does not point to the sun behind the clouds and say that there is no stress.

“I am not into the happiness business, no. And I do not try to manipulate your thinking, no!”

The goal is much more business-like: ”I want you to act clever.”

***

Nothnagel believes that stress is often more a feeling of stress than actual stress, much as being in a hurry.

His goal is to have people – a leader or expert – to tell the difference between these two.

“In our self-development process we focus on giving participants the insight and tools to identify chronic stress in themselves and others and to break their habit of being stressed.”

The coach has a seemingly simplistic approach to controlling the feeling of stress. It goes as follows:

You feel yourself being surrounded by a stressful situation. Before you allow the stress to flow over you, ask yourself: Should I be stressed? The answer could only be yes or no. And look, after taking a moment in most situations your answer is: No, I should not be stressed. You should be anything but stressed! You should act smart, clearly, wisely.

Nothnagel believes that if you recognize a stressful situation coming on, it is possible to affect your own behavior. It becomes premeditated and deliberate.

“Your mother told you to count to ten. It’s the same thing, basically.”

This sounds a little too simplistic. But let the mad lawyer proceed. He is, in fact, sane and has seen his method work in practice.

***

"The core of self-development program is simply to limit unthinking behavior and to promote thinking behavior in important moments of our lives.”

Nothnagel recites the core of his teachings like homework memorized off by heart.

Nothnagel has heard all the possible explanations that executives or those working in expert positions provide for being busy or stressed. Many probably think: Oh if you only knew my work! It cannot be changed by a minor mind game.

But it can. At least it can be attempted.

The self-development process begins from the notion that we can develop as decision-makers or leaders. Perhaps even as humans.

As Nothnagel is originally a lawyer, he is used to testifying. “I have to prove everything”, he says. So let him work as a defender of sorts for a moment. On the prosecutor’s side, i.e. in this Helsinki office someone through Skype is claiming that stress is stress, and nothing else.

Evidence:
The to-do list is endless, emails overflow, your superior insists on a better result with less personnel, acute crises take up all of your time, weekends must be put aside for work, days at the office simply constitute out fires, the competitor’s development process is advancing seamlessly…

All this is familiar to Nothnagel, from his own life as well. Yet as a defender he has a question: Do you want to develop as a human and as a leader? Or should we focus on simply being terribly stressed?

Nothnagel recounts his teachings from the tapas bar. “All of us have habits or patterns of behavior that we repeat in our lives”, he says. These habits and reactions are “unthinking” by definition. We repeat them when we are forced to make difficult decisions in a competitive environment or on a tight schedule. We also go on autopilot when we encounter so-called difficult people.

The habits are not easy to recognize, as we consider them natural. But we should.

“It is widely accepted that unthinking behavior or habit limits our ability to reach our potential, create solutions to solve complex challenges, and perform effectively over longer periods.”

When Nothnagel carried out preliminary research to survey stress on a group of 100 busy people, around 70 per cent answered “no, not really” after applying the “should I be stressed” question for three weeks in their lives.

The most essential factor in terms of business is this: when people are not chronically stressed, they make wiser decisions and do better at business.

Quite convincing, the prosecutor in Helsinki nods, but is still slightly doubtful. Personal experiences in executive tasks prove that at least occasionally stress is real. What if you answer the “should I” question with a yes? Yes, I am damn stressed, no matter which way I look at it.

“Stress can be real, of course”, says Ben. The point is that if you have to fight for your perspective or accomplish tough goals, it would be wonderful to have a clear mind. I.e. brain functions should operate as well as possible.

“That joy to be able to be as smart as you can brings a lot of happiness. That reduces stress. You can become a better lover, leader, friend.”

The defense in the tapas bar explains our behavior through neuroscience. A long-term state of stress leads to a person being “habitually stressed”. This affects the brain.

“Chronic stress increases the activation of adrenal hormones such as Cortisol in the brain and body.”

Cortisol is real  poison. Nothnagel presents a long list of its terrible outcomes: Slows down thinking; damages cells in the Hippocampus, resulting in impaired learning; lowers the immune system’s inflammatory response; increases stomach fat; disturbs sleeping patterns.

The list goes on, but the last point mentioned by Nothnagel is perhaps the most surprising one: It lowers libido.

***

Let us presume that Nothnagel is right. Being stressed differs from feeling stressed. Let’s presume that we can get rid of stress through the right mindset. Let us believe neuroscience and hope that we will obtain more information on how our brains operate in different social situations. Let us also allow a small miracle: Why do we downright boast ourselves with our hectic and stressful lives, if it is really so unhealthy, and even bad for business? How is it possible that executives go around telling people how busy they are while revealing that their thinking is mediocre at best? Not to mention their sexual desires.

“I know”, Nothnagel laughs on the screen.  He believes that the situation will change within a few years.The results of brain studies increasingly yield more information.

“We have not gotten the message yet. Working too much is not good for you. It is dangerous. It is as bad as smoking.”

Nothnagel says that habitual or chronic stress is particularly harmful for those who suffer from it the most, i.e. executives and managers.

“It triggers a vicious cycle of unthinking behavior that limits their performance and is triggered under performance.”

The executives’ stress levels also count, as these people have power over other people.

Occasionally Ben Nothnagel has to justify using these so-called soft issues, such as self-development in the context of economics or leadership course. This is when he pulls out another card: if we want to improve business, we have to improve leadership.

“Leaders affect other people.”

Bad leadership affects the entire organization. “It makes the organisation slow down and lose money.”

This is surely as ”hard” as economics classes should get.

I dare suspect that some of the people who have met Nothnagel have doubts about self-development. I mean, it sounds rather hip.

“Well, yes, people have prejudices against the terms of self-development, mindfulness and personal change”, he says.

In his gracious and humane style he considers this entirely understandable. He works a great deal with engineers, businessmen, lawyers and doctors. Self-development is not – yet – a subject taught at high schools or universities. Its terms and rules are still strange, which is why they may be shunned.

“Many of the roots of self-development and mindfulness lie in religion, meditation, yoga, psychology or self help, and people may be suspicious of it or not comfortable with it.”

Some are irritated by Nothnagel because the change he promotes is not at all simple. To change yourself and your behavior! It would be easiest to think that this is the kind of leader I am and that’s that…

“Some people think they have nothing to improve”, Nothnagel says.

If this is the case, a small, minor thing can be picked as the object of improvement. Yet everyone has to do something in the EMBA program. Also self-development is graded.

***

Crazy!

Again. This is the first thought to pop up when listening to Nothnagel’s story on how he ended up in Finland. No, it is not the most ordinary of stories.

In 1993, Nothnagel arrived in Finland on a ship from Stockholm. He had come up with the idea that Finland could be the place where he wants to spend his sabbatical year from working as a lawyer. Apartheid had ended in his native South Africa and the air seemed free to breathe. To some extent Ben’s infatuation with Finland was influenced by Nokia. Perhaps Finland would be refreshingly different, as it was the home of Nokia, he reasoned, even though he had never been to the country. Originally Nothnagel decided to have a sabbatical, as many of his colleagues in South Africa did the same.

So he took the opportunity presented to him. Life unveiled itself as it often does, when given the chance. Nothnagel met interesting people in Finland and decided to stay.

Or rather, he ended up staying.

“Staying on in Finland was not my plan, Finland just grew on me. I felt very comfortable in Finland, lots of people gave me opportunities, it was easy to do business and I returned often until I finally decided to make it a permanent base around 2002.”

“I consider Helsinki my home.”

At Aalto EE, Nothnagel originally coached employees who wished to learn how to face people from different cultures. He became a stress doctor as a result of his own experiences. Once business in Finland was going smoothly Nothnagel observed what so many others had: he was a busy, stressed out person who spent his time on planes and in hotel rooms.

He had previously been interested in neuroscience and understood what happens in the brain as a result of stress. Nothnagel caught himself. Now he consciously tries to cut back on his workload. It is not easy.

“I am terrible at time management! Terrible!” Because Nothnagel is not limited to one profession or job description, he is often asked to join different kinds of projects. And he gets excited, far too often. But he has an easy method for safe-guarding himself.

If someone calls about a new, exciting work opportunity, Nothnagel says: Sounds interesting, I will get back to you tomorrow. This way he gives himself time to work out whether he really has time for it. And is it really as interesting a job as it initially appeared to be?

“I am triggered by excitement. I ask myself a simple question: Should I be excited? I then ask the caller: Can I get back to you tomorrow?”

“This is simple but it saves me. I am not chronically stressed anymore.”

Nothnagel’s own self-development process has now reached a point of working three days a week face-to-face with the people he coaches. At other times he reads, meets interesting people and seeks new perspectives and thoughts. “And I joined in a tennis club. I enjoy hanging out at a tennis court, and a little GT after that!”

***

We are finishing up our Skype call. The sounds of the tapas bar are still pleasantly observable in Helsinki. Nothnagel plans on remaining in Málaga for a few days. After a brief visit to Helsinki, he will travel to Shanghai to teach.

Nothnagel’s self-development process is an important part of the Aalto EMBA. It involves one-on-one discussions with each student in addition to lectures. Ben is available to meet his students on a regular basis for the duration of the two-year EMBA program.

Nothnagel has a particular impact on his students. “Oh Ben, I know him!” is a regular comment from people he has taught. They feel like they know Ben. One claims to have incorporated his teachings to his leadership practices only after a couple of days. Another says she even got gym instructions from Ben. A third, busy and gaunt businessman received the nickname Mr. Mindfulness after Nothnagel’s self-development process. His life changed.

One could presume that Ben Nothnagel himself is Mr. Simple.

His students are people with complicated issues.

“Most of my work is done with leaders in companies  that  do  business  internationally  or  with individuals identified to have high potential by their organizations.”

So he teaches them simple truths.

“In short I tell people: You have to get your thinking back. You go back to work. You always have problems. You feel too stressed. Your ability to think is reduced. You are situationally less smart. Your performance slips. It can become a vicious circle. You are the last one to notice it. Do something!”

Let us try!

The Skype connection shuts down, the sounds from the bar disappear.

Goodbye, and thank you, Spain.

Currently reading: Aalto Leaders' Insight: You have to get your thinking back