Content People: Leadership, Emotional Labor and The Truth About Quitting


On Content People, host Meredith Farley interviews creative professionals and leaders to get a behind-the-scenes look at their career experiences and turn that into actionable advice for listeners. Tune in to hear from experts in various media, and get inspired to find contentment in your own creative career.

Episode #11 Summary

Dina Denham Smith, founder and CEO of Cognitas, is more than just a coach. She’s an author, speaker and a shining light for leaders looking to manage the weight of emotional labor. Chatting with host Meredith Farley, Dina discusses how to handle the ups and downs of leadership and why people are people (no matter the industry).

On this episode of Content People, I chat with Dina Denham Smith, the founder and CEO of Cognitas, a coaching organization. 

Dina has worked with clients from all kinds of industries — and she has plenty of profound insights to show for her experiences. 

Here are a few things we explore in our conversation:

  • The importance of executive presence (and how to pull it off).
  • How to turn feedback into a brainstorming session.
  • What a coach provides vs. what a boss or mentor provides.
  • How to delegate without feeling guilty.
  • The meaning of emotional labor and how to handle it.

View on Zencastr

Thanks for listening!

– Meredith Farley, Creator and Host of Content People

More Content for Content People

Executive and Team Coaching: Learn more about Dina’s company, Cognitas.

Dina’s HBR Article: The Emotional Labor of Being a Leader” was recently published by Harvard Business Review. 

Brafton: No emotional labor here — just sit back, relax and enjoy some great content from our digital marketing newsletter

Meredith’s newsletter: Check out Meredith’s newsletter (also called Content People).

Podcast Transcript:

Meredith: Hi everyone, and welcome to Content People, a podcast where we talk to creatives and leaders to uncover actionable advice. For our listeners, I’m the show’s creator and host Meredith Farley. I’m here alongside Ian Servin, a creative director of video and special projects at Brafton and the producer of this show.

Hey, Ian.

Ian: Hey Meredith.

Meredith: So for today’s episode, we talked to Dina Denham Smith. Dina is an author, coach, and speaker, and she’s the CEO and founder of Cognitas, a coaching organization. Dina is very professionally decorated. She has an MS in organizational psychology and an MBA from the University of Michigan.

Her clients include senior leaders and teams at brands like Adobe, Goldman Sachs, pwc, Netflix, Dropbox, DocuSign, Lyft, and. And she writes regularly for the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company and Forbes. Her HBR content was how I first found Dina. In particular, she wrote an article called The Emotional Labor of Being a Leader.

That really grabbed me.

Ian: Absolutely. I’m so glad that we got the chance to talk with her, and I feel like we covered so many different topics from giving and receiving effective feedback to what it actually means to be a good leader during periods of uncertainty and change, like the one that we’re definitely in right now.

Meredith: Yeah, I agree. She had some great insights and we also talked a little bit. About her creative process for her own writing. I think I said something to this effect in the conversation, but mentally I had put Dina in the management slash leadership bucket of our guests rather than creative. But we ended up talking a little bit about how she tries to work with her unconscious mind to support her own writing and creative processes.

I think she was just truly a great guest for content people.

Ian: So that any further ado here is our interview with Dina.

Meredith: Dina, thank you so much for agreeing to be on this episode. I am a really big fan of your writing and content. Your HBR articles are how I came to know you, and after doing a little Googling to learn more about you, I discovered that you’re so professionally decorated, from your degrees and experiences to your published work and coaching organization. I almost didn’t know where to start and how to structure this interview, but for folks who aren’t familiar with you or your work, can you tell us a little bit about that?

Dina: Yeah, I can. And thank you for the invitation. I really appreciate it. And a very kind introduction. But yeah, for those of you who don’t know me, which is probably most of you, I’m an executive coach. I am based just north of San Francisco in Marin County, and I really spend my time coaching senior leaders predominantly, as well as some teams.

Meredith: And what was your pre-coaching background? How did you get into this work?

Dina: Yeah, I honestly feel it as though this was always the direction I was moving without knowing. So really even as a little girl, there were just a couple things. As I look in the rearview mirror, I have always been deeply fascinated by people. When I was little, I was like, “I want to grow up and be a psychologist.” But then I had this really entrepreneurial bent. I was always opening up little businesses and trying to sell the most Girl Scout cookies. And I had a real commercial side to me that was just inherent.

And then those tracks really continued throughout my life, and both in terms of my undergrad and my graduate education, it was really a combination of organizational psychology and business. And then I had multiple chapters that were really either leaning more in one of those ways or the other. So I was an organizational consultant for some time. I had chapters as a leader. I jumped out of the foray of management consulting and led a really large team at a startup that was scaling quite quickly.

I moved into private equity and worked with a team there. And then I just got to a reflective place and was thinking, “These chapters have been amazing in one way or another, but I just want to pivot a little bit and get back to directly helping leaders and helping them lead.” And so that’s ultimately what took me into this latest chapter of executive coaching. And so it’s very much still this interplay of psychology and business, but focused really on helping this population that I care so deeply about, which is our leaders.

Meredith: So what type of clients are you working with and why are they generally coming to you? What problems or challenges are they looking for support or guidance on?

Dina: Yeah. So most of my leaders tend to be more senior leaders. And probably in part because of my background as well as geographical area, a lot of the clients I work with come from tech. So it can be old-school tech or it could be FinTech or biotech. But I work with a ton of tech leaders. I also work with a number of leaders who are more in financial services, so predominantly, private equity hedge funds. Different players in that space. And then I dabble in other industries as well.

But what’s interesting to me is I don’t actually have a preference. People are people. It doesn’t actually matter if you are in retail or if you are in tech. The issues that I see leaders having are industry-agnostic. So a lot of the things that I end up working with leaders on have to do with how they lead themselves, as well as how they lead others in this really chaotic, quickly changing, and uncertain world.

And so I might be working with a leader on how they’re managing their team, right? How they’re ensuring psychological safety and high performance, how they’re influencing across an organization. We’ll get into executive presence, right? Like how are they showing up in these high-stake moments?

And so it’s a lot within that interpersonal and interpersonal kind of space. There are coaches that will do that are more focused on “Let’s get down and dirty in your financials and I can find you cost savings.” That’s not the kind of coaching I do.

Meredith: That makes a lot of sense. I feel like from where you’re located in Marin, you, I feel like you are somewhat at the epicenter of a lot of things that are happening right now, and I imagine you’re having some interesting conversations and very important rooms, physical or virtual. So it’s funny you mentioned executive presence.

It makes a lot of sense. We also interviewed another wonderful guest who is also a coach, Ellen Gillis, and she brought up executive presence too. How do you define executive presence and what do you think it entails?

Dina: eah. I know it’s an interesting thing, right? Because it is this term that gets bantered about, and it’s but what does that actually mean? Other than that someone has this right. But it is an amalgamation of qualities that lead others to have confidence in and respect a person. And so it is the way that you communicate, right? It is, and that’s verbally and non-verbally. It is, especially when someone is meeting or having exposure to another, it’s, there is really like a large visual component to this. 

Most of our brain is like visual circuitry. And so when we talk about first impressions really mattering, it’s more than just a saying. We really notice how people carry themselves. And even the clothes they choose to wear. And that may be very superficial. But actually, it’s its perception. We’re in the world of perception, and sometimes, it doesn’t matter. So it’s really a kind of communication. It’s how you’re showing up visually. And really gets into credibility, right? Which is one part competence and one part relationship ability.

Meredith: If someone has, say someone is a manager and who’s trying to move into a director role or direct or working to move into a VP or exec role, if he or she has been given feedback that they need to work on their executive present, but they maybe haven’t been given the. Detailed info to what that means. Is there anything actionable they could do to somewhat quickly project or develop that confidence and confidence that you’re talking about?

Dina: Yeah, I, I think part of what you’re, what you mentioned then I wanna address first is most feedback. It’s really, Because people do get this generic feedback, right? You need to work on your executive presence, you need to work on your communication skills, like we need more out of you.

What does that all really mean? It could mean so many different things, and so someone who receives that feedback honestly is a little bit at a loss unless. Unless you, you follow up and ask these probing questions. And when I work with leaders, one of the things that we actually do at the front end is I tend to do a lot of stakeholder interviews so that they can actually get very specific and actionable, actionable feedback.

So we know when someone needs to work on their executive presence. It’s actually relates to a lot of sort of these like non-verbal behaviors they’re displaying in a meeting. For another person, maybe every time they speak, they finish their sentence with a question mark, right?

Like it can be your lack of executive presence could be so many different things.

And so when I work with people, I try to get this great feedback for them upfront. Let’s just say though that you are in an organization and you’re not working with a coach who can do that for you, and you receive that feedback. . Then the question is, what do you do with that? Let’s say it comes from your manager.

One possibility is you have a follow up conversation with your manager. Thanks so much for your thoughts on that. This would be a great area for me to develop. I’m really curious, what specifically should I be doing more of? And then conversely, what specifically should I be doing less?

You might also ask I’m curious, are there other people who you think could give me good insight into what I could do to have this increased presence? Yeah. So that’s one way. We can also get a good sense for our presence by soliciting from people sometimes anonymously, like a little easy Google survey or whatever.

What are three adjectives that you would choose to describe me? What comes into a room when I do? There are a lot of sort of very open-ended questions that might be able to help you just hone in on like, how are other people perceiving me? Yeah. And then soliciting their ideas for how you could just do better in the future.

The problem with feedback too is this is past, like what’s done is done, right? What we really need are ideas for how to do something better in the future. And when I’m working with clients who are in this position of soliciting their own feedback, I’m always orienting them to make sure you’re getting suggestions for the future.

Because in part, it takes that other person that you’re talking to out of the role of judge, which is very uncomfortable. Nobody likes giving harsh feedback. Yeah. But you would list them as like a partner, a brainstorming partner for what you could change or do differently. You’re gonna effectively get the same information, but it makes it a lot more comfortable for them to share it because they’re no longer judging you.

They’re providing.

Meredith: Such a fantastic tactic. Turn them into a brainstorm partner.

Dina: Yeah.

Meredith: Take the burden of the critical judge off of them. Thank you. I think those are fantastic tips. And I’m also thinking as you talk about the way that, I think a key point of managing up is making sure to clarify and understand the feedback that’s given to you.

And sometimes depending on a manager’s skillset there, managing up to them might require a lot of work in that direction. I imagine a coach is a fantastic tool because coaches can do that on your behalf if you’re being coached a little bit. Is that right?

Dina: The way I would enter into that is I think that, ultimately, I leave a situation, right? I’ll work with a client for however long, but I’m going to leave and they’re still going to have these relationships at work.

And so I never insert myself between my client and someone else. So I might lightly facilitate a conversation. I’ll certainly brainstorm with my client around how to approach different people or different things to try across multiple different situations. It’s interesting because just this morning I was providing detailed stakeholder feedback to a client of mine and she really took issue with her manager’s feedback.

And so we’re going to meet next week to strategize, like, how will she approach this person? What are ways that she can have a productive conversation when she actually fully disagrees with the feedback and feels as though her manager is not in a position to actually see most of the work she does? So I don’t insert myself, but I am my client’s advocate through and through.

Meredith: Along in that vein, what does a –there’s probably a lot of things…

I’m curious about what you think about, what does a coach provide that a boss or even a mentor cannot provide?

Dina: It’s a very different relationship than let’s say a relationship with your boss or a mentor for that matter. Relative to someone’s boss, the boss may be a great coach, right? Like there’s some leaders out there who are great coaches and care very much about that, hone that craft in themselves.

But at the end of the day, that person is also the performance manager. They’re also the decider of compensation and all that kind of good stuff. And so there’s a conflict in there a little bit and that does not exist for me and my clients, right? I am there to support them in the goals that they choose to provide my sort of objective and third party perspective and to be their advocate.

My only agenda for my clients is the agenda they choose for me. This is not the case really with almost any other relationship that someone might have. Your boss has an agenda for you. Coworkers have an agenda for you. Your team has an agenda for you. HR has an agenda for you. Your family has an agenda for you. And they may all love and appreciate you deeply, but they still have an agenda.

Relative to a mentor, it’s really much more of a teacher. A mentor is somebody who has walked your path before and can provide almost more guidance from that “been there, done that” perspective. As a coach, I feel as though I am wearing multiple hats. One is definitely coaching in its most pure form, which is like the art of asking powerful questions that lead people to their own insights.

I definitely wear this hat a lot, but then there are other times where I always just think about what’s in the most service of my client. There are other times where sharing a framework or saying, “here’s what I’m observing” or “I hear you saying this, but your body language is saying something else – what is going on for you?”

So there are lots of times where not just asking pure, clean, curious questions is gonna be in greater service to my client, but I’ll never say “you need to go do this.” Instead, I’ll provide lots of ideas, cast as an invitation.

Meredith: You’re guiding, not directing. That makes a lot of sense. When do, and it might be difficult to talk about in aggregate, but I’m curious about the themes that you might see in your work with clients and what you think in general are things that leaders or managers across the board are needing to focus on right now?

Dina: I think it actually goes back to some of what we talked about in the beginning, but I truly feel as though people are still healing from the pandemic. My work changed during the pandemic vis-a-vis the years beforehand. Where I just saw in my clients they were not as goal directed.

That was a perfectly natural response to a situation that was very traumatic and very trying. For leaders, it is hard to orient yourself around these higher level developed goals when you feel as though you can barely keep your head above water, and you are so tapped from the demands, not just the sheer hours of the day, but the emotional load on leaders throughout the pandemic and still continuing to this day is high.

And so there’s I think you’ll see I’ve got so much empathy for leaders, but there are these weird expectations on leaders that they’re some superhuman, right? That they’re made of something different. But at the end of the day, they’re people. And so leaders are challenged with burnout, and at the same time, they’re being asked to support their whole team who’s tapped out. There’s just a lot.

And so coaching is no therapy, right? Like we’re very much focused on creating a better tomorrow. But I have noticed that just overall, I feel like the overall themes, if I were to look in aggregate across all of my sessions, there’s more around being able to stay steady as the winds and the waves whip around you, so that you can show up and be there for your team.

Meredith: I think it’s interesting that you say that because I don’t think I’d wholly clocked this, but I think that what so much of your work that had resonated with me was like the emotional labor of being a leader. I loved that article.

Dina: Thank you.

Meredith: Speaking of not feeling guilty about delegating, I think there isn’t enough content out there that emphasizes the emotional side of leadership. Sometimes it feels like the conversation is reduced to simple memes like “people don’t quit jobs, they quit bad bosses.”

But there are many dynamics at play, and I think leaders often don’t get the empathy they need. That’s why I appreciate how you touch on the emotional burden and challenges of leadership in your content.

Dina: Thank you. And honestly, it’s my clients who provide me with insight. Whenever one of them is grappling with something, like feeling guilty about delegating tasks to their team, or working long hours to keep up with demands, I know they’re not alone in these struggles.

We all share the same humanity, and if one person is having a hard time with it, so are many others. My clients are the inspiration for much of what I write about, and I believe it resonates with others because it speaks to common experiences and challenges in leadership.

Meredith: One of the reasons I was so curious to talk to you is I thought that your writing has such exceptional insight into the more emotional side of management. And I think awareness and working on and dealing with that part of it, at least for me, has always been foundational to surviving and thriving in leadership.

And I think, in particular, the emotional labor of being a leader and stopping feeling guilty for delegating, those two HBR articles. I know for myself, developing and maturing my emotional awareness was really key to developing into a better leader and learning how to more meaningfully connect with and support my teams.

I was curious if that has, in any way, been part of your professional journey? And how, what role, like developing that emotional side of leadership has played in your success?

Dina: I truly believe that awareness is just the foundation to effectiveness and there are multiple kinds of awareness. Emotional awareness is what you just alluded to.

That awareness of our strengths and weaknesses, awareness of our personality tendencies. Awareness of what energizes us and what depletes us. Awareness of what we stand for, our values and what we will and won’t tolerate. So all of this, I think, is really important awareness for any person.

And it’s part of really just, I don’t think there’s a finish line. I think we can become more aware of ourselves throughout the course of our lives, throughout the course of our lifetime. And so yes, this is something that is part of how I think about how I need to continually develop my emotional intelligence and my ability to be effective as a leader.

Meredith: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think I, I think that one. That is not talked about too much, but that I sound to be true and I like to talk about it a bit, is that if you’re, it can be challenging and you really have to constantly be facing yourself, aware of yourself and aware of where you’re falling short. But I feel like leadership is such a pathway toward self-development and becoming a more intentional version of your own self.

While also helping others hopefully, and not making it wholly just a self-improvement exercise. And I’ve always really liked that about your work. I guess one thing I should maybe ask is, so to delve into the emotional labor of being a leader, could you maybe just define for our audience emotional labor from your perspective?

Dina: Yeah, absolutely. So emotional labor is central. It centrally involves producing, quote unquote, the right feelings for your job, okay? So it is evoking and suppressing emotions to meet the implicit or explicit expectations of your job. They are very often. For leaders in the business world, these are implicit expectations, right?

But all organizations have these feeling rules and they’re so deeply embedded that we don’t even notice them. But they exist. Some of the research around emotional labor actually started in the service sector. Oh, wow. It was first defined by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild.

Back in 1983, she wrote this seminal book called The Managed Heart. But she was really focused on the service sector, and most of the research was really focused there for years and years because you can think about it like service with a smile, right? Customers are always right, like it’s just rife for kind of research around emotional labor.

And it wasn’t until. I believe it’s 2008 that some of the first research on emotional labor and leaders occurred. So it’s really actually still in its nascency.

Meredith: Wow. Something that I did, but thank you for that. I just wrote down The Managed Heart. I’m gonna check that out. And as you’re talking, something occurred to me, which is that, so I come from an agency background of all marketing agencies.

One thing that we talk about a bit, and we’ve always found is that folks who maybe came from a service industry background like college or just outta school, were fantastic fits. And it was always like, all right, they can multitask, they can hustle. But I think there’s also the other element to it where clients can be complex, deadlines can be complex.

Agencies are unique beasts in their own way and it had clicked for me too, that there’s also just the ability to, I suppose in some ways the emotional labor is maybe repressing or saving for later your own feelings to be appropriate in the moment. Is that also a way to describe it?

Dina: Yeah. So sometimes you can engage in emotional labor and it’s genuine. It’s not a facade. So for example, You have someone on your team who’s gone through some hard, personal times, the expectation is you show up with some empathy. You might actually truly feel that. So that’s emotional labor, right?

Like you are showing up with empathy. It’s an expectation of your role, but it’s genuine. It’s a facade. There’s other times though, and this is really where the dilemma comes in, where how you. And what you’re expected to display. Are incongruent. So for example I was a management consultant much earlier in my career and I’ll never forget this one client who is just so offensive and I’m like steaming inside.

And at the same time I know that I need to show up professional, I need to show up. Respectful, regardless of the fact that I am not receiving that in return. And so I understand these expectations. No one has said them to me, but they are there, they are. I’ve read the tea leaves.

I know exactly what I need to be doing. I shove my emotions down. I show up the way I should. And I do it because I know this is not gonna end well for me if I tell this person, what a jerk they are. And I took solace in the fact that consulting projects end, right?

Like I knew I would be leaving at some point. The problem with emotional labor, when we are faking our martians, it really comes in when we need to do it repeatedly. That is when we see some really negative outcomes for both individuals as well as organizations where this is a more frequent thing that people need to be doing.

Meredith: So when one is required to have that disparity between how they feel and how they’re showing up. If you have to do too much of that, what are the outcomes? What happens?

Dina: Yeah. There’s a lot of spillover to people’s home lives. I’ll start there. So we end up seeing more conflict at home.

There’s insomnia, aches, pains, illness, heavier drinking, and then within the workplace, what we see are. Really two primary outcomes from when there’s a large amount of emotional labor. One is burnout, higher incidence of burnout. And on the flip side of that right, emotional labor, right?

It is labor, it is work. And when we, it is work that taps into our self-control. Okay. When we deplete our self-control, yeah. We have less resources left and so we’re also more likely to lash out at others. So at work it’s like burnout or lash. By maybe saying a disparaging or belittling comment to a coworker that, if we weren’t so tapped right, we would’ve had the self control to keep those thoughts to ourselves.

So significant outcomes for individuals, and these in turn of course, have negative outcomes for the organization in terms of engagement, turnover, productivity, financial performance. And that’s why, this article or that article was really an argument that, organization is, you need to recognize this work that your leaders are doing and support it because it’s very real.

And it’s hard.

Meredith: Yes. So much of what you’re saying is resonating with me. For, so in the article you do give some actionable advice and suggestions around what organizations can do to support their teams. Could you talk a little bit about what those tips and tricks are?

Dina: Yes. So from an organizational perspective, and I’ll just cue up too, my next HBR article, assuming they accept it, is all about what individuals can do until the organizations catch up.

But so from an organizational perspective, what I would love to see is, one, they just recognize. Like you don’t see, if you look at any job description or performance kind of form, you don’t see it as performing emotional labor, right?

So it starts with just recognizing that this is very much a part of the work of leaders and it matters so much. Leaders have an outsized impact on group moods, the emotional state of the team. And this in turn affects financial performance and other key metrics for an organization. So start by just recognizing that this is something that leaders are doing and their work on this front is actually very important.

Secondly, I would love to see more training and opportunities for leaders. To fine tune some of these emotional competencies. So if you think I went to business school there, there was nothing at my business school, and it was a great business school. That was really about the emotional aspects of leadership and how do you handle these? I don’t see them in leadership development programs in organizations. And so some training and workshops around developing some of these higher emotional competencies would be great. And I’m not talking about just generic eq, right?

This is really important of course. More around some of these like specific emotional demands. And then, one of the other things that I touch on in that article is really encouraging leaders to embrace self-compassion. So what I have found in my work with leaders is that many hesitate to embrace self-compassion.

There’s a concern that, oh, if I quote unquote get soft. I won’t succeed. This is actually what’s gotten me to this place this drive. And we see from the research is, sure you can be driven but treating yourself with the kindness you would extend a friend.

It blocks so much more. It unlocks a sort of a kinder day for yourself. It also really unlocks a lot of performance benefits. 

Meredith: That is really interesting. I think I definitely have, I’ve found that true for myself. I can have a really strong inner critic, and I think that in the early stages of my career, first few years as a manager, that I drove really strong results, but as critical as I was to myself, I was also sometimes hypercritical of the teams I was managing and I wanted perfection.

I started to learn more and embrace some self-compassion. I was able to more naturally extend grace to my teams and then was able to actually develop these really fulfilling and more, much more meaningful and also impactful relationships I think. I think it is really powerful.

Also I understand why people are like, it’s like you’re afraid. I was afraid to lose my edge in a way.

Dina: Exactly. That’s exactly it. But you’re not alone with that. That sort of recognition like, gosh, the more compassionate I am to myself, the more compassion I can extend others, and I now have this improved relationship with my.

It. It is. It works both ways. These two things are linked.

Meredith: Yeah. And I’m I don’t wanna get too far down the rabbit hole or ramble, but as talking, I’m there’s one thing I’m thinking about, which is that I think at a certain point as a leader, it, you have to choose, you mentioned psychological safety much earlier in the conversation.

Yes. Saying that managers need to be able to create and be part of an executive competent executive presence. And I think that at times managers are holding the tension between having self-compassion, though high standards for themself, creating a psychologically safe environment for their teams, but then also knowing.

They are ultimately responsible for the end result and like it’s on them if there is a mistake and they need to own their team’s mistakes. Yeah. As opposed to making their teams worry about making mistakes. Yeah. Not totally articulate, but there’s the gap there. And I feel like that risk is the tension of leadership sometimes.

Dina: Yes, I agree.

Meredith: Well so they like me, if anyone has not read the emotional labor of being a leader, especially if you’re a manager, we will link to it in the show notes and I really highly recommend it. One thing I’m curious about, Dina, is that in our current environment, you mentioned things have changed so much since Covid.

What do you think leaders need to be mindful of right now for themselves, for their teams, and what do they need to be bringing to the table that wasn’t necessary five years ago?

Dina: Oh boy. Yes. I think the workplace has gone through some profound shifts in the last few years in terms of what leaders need to be bringing to the table.

The expectations on them now for demonstrating empathy and compassion, offering so much flexibility. Those are higher and I don’t disagree with that, but the ask on those fronts is higher for leaders now than it was a number of years ago. And like you were just mentioning, the expectation they deliver results has not changed at all.

And in fact, oftentimes they’re being asked to deliver these results with even less resources. So there is a real squeeze. 

Meredith: You said you’ve got another article that might be coming out, which I will immediately read if it gets published. Maybe this is a little inside our baseball, but I’m really curious about what is HBR’s process?

What is it like to write a piece of content for them? What from start picture assignment to collaboration, editing publication, what is that process like for you as a writer?

Dina: So the process for me as a writer is I come, hi, I have an idea and I’ve written enough now that honestly I just spot articles.

Like I, I don’t need to stop and think, what can I really write about? I just spot upcoming opportunities for articles that I think could be interesting. HBR wants to make sure, of course, that the content. Not just that you have standing in the content, but that it’s fresh. And so when I have an idea for an article, one of the first things I do is I make sure that nothing’s been published on it in HBR in the last few years, because if it has, there’s no reason for me to spend time writing a pitch.

So then assuming it has not been published on, and I have a unique angle into a topic, for example, “Stop feeling Guilty about Delegating”. If you go and look at HBR, there are tons of articles about delegating and letting go and all that kind of good stuff.

But there wasn’t an article on guilt as an obstacle, right? That made it a unique piece. So then I’ll write up a pitch where I’m presenting the frame. Some, maybe some key points I’ll flesh out in my article and why I think it’s compelling. So it’s almost like any other pitch you might make in your work, right?

Like you’re trying to sell someone on your idea. And I’ll send my pitch off to the editor that I work with. There, there’s a team of people at HBR who will consider these pitches. And then I’ll receive some feedback that yeah, looks really interesting. Would love to see a draft or interesting.

But, have you thought about A, B, or C? Or thank you very much, but no, thanks. So it tends to be one of these three responses. And then I will work on crafting my draft. And, for me I give myself a good week to write an article because I really like to let it breathe.

And I’m a big fan of letting my own unconscious do a lot of work for me. Yes. And so I’ll write for a little bit and I’ll put it away, and then things just come to me. Maybe I’m taking a walk or I’m in the shower driving or whatever. I’m like, and I didn’t have to expect, I didn’t have to use any effort to get to that new idea or way to think about something.

And I’ll come back to it and work on it for a couple more hours and just fine tune it. I really try to get it to, as good of a place as I can before I send it off to my editor. And then I’ll typically receive a little bit of. I might make some changes if they’re requested.

And then it ends up going into sort of the, it goes through another round of editing at, on the HBR level and gets into the queue.

Meredith: Thank you for that. Yeah, it demystifies it. I am such a nerd about their content. I’m really happy to know that. But it’s so funny you mentioned your unconscious because I think I slightly compartmentalize guests for the show.

I’ll be like, Dina, we’re gonna talk about business and leadership. And then they’ll be like, all right, you’re talking about the creative process. But I think one of the toughest things about tight deadlines is you cannot give your unconscious enough space to help you out there. Could you just say a little bit more about what you mean by that and how you let your unconscious kind of guide your work?

Dina: Yeah. Actually, there’s a lot of science that supports this. This is not just like my weird little hack but we tend to, if you even just think about it like when you have those aha moments, I, you are not actively focused on trying to solve the problem, right? They come out of nowhere and it.

I’ve got it right. Yeah. And it’s because you’re no longer, when we actively focus on trying to solve a problem we get tunnel vision. Yeah. We get tunnel vision on that. We’re engaging certain networks in our brain that are very task oriented and for an insight to bubble up real basically what’s happening.

His things are like and I’m not a, I’m not a neuroscientist, you have all of these neurons, right? And things are like connecting in different ways. And when you finally allow your prefrontal cortex to to quiet down by not actively focusing, right? Like you’re taking a walk, you’re in the shower, you’re driving, it allows these insights to bubble up.

Like they can actually break through. And if you tend to be in a slightly positive mood, This further promotes it, right? I love taking walks. I feel great when I’m out there with my dog. Like it’s just nice. And so I actually find a lot of ideas come to me then.

And so I’ll whip out my iPhone and leave myself like whatever, like a little voice message Yeah. To capture my thoughts so I can weave ’em in the next time I’m back at it. So that. That’s really like the way I think about it. So I really do try to give myself space so that some of these interesting connections that maybe I wouldn’t have been able to make can come through.

Meredith: Are you working on any other projects outside of that upcoming article?

Dina: Yes. I’m actually super excited because I’m about to sign a book contract. Yes. And so this is going to be actually with my co-author from the article around the emotional labor of being a leader, which thank you for all your kind comments on that.

Yeah, so we’ve got a larger project that we’re about to undertake together and I’m really excited for this adventure.

Meredith: That is awesome. And also news for me as a reader. I’m so excited for that. Good luck. Not that you need it, but I’ll take it. Have you ever written a book before, a long form piece of content or is this your first foray into that?

Dina: No, this is my first go. But I’ve gotta have been around enough authors at this point to know one, I feel confident I can do it. But two, I know it is not gonna be easy at all. So I’m getting myself ready for it.

Meredith: Oh, congratulations. I’m so happy to hear that.

Dina: Oh, thank you.

Meredith: And, but if in our last few minutes together, I guess one question I have, which I also asked of Ellen, a previous leadership coach guest, would be, are there ever times where you think an individual is considering coaching, but actually that is not the solution to the problem they’re trying to solve?

Dina: Yeah. I do. I tend to think that coaching can be helpful really for anyone, for people to have dedicated white space to think out loud, get their thoughts clear, be able to focus on things that maybe otherwise get always pushed to the back burner. I think coaching will be helpful for.

But when I’m meeting with people to assess whether we might be a good fit to work together, they’re of course assessing me. I’m also assessing them to see would this person be a good fit for me and my coaching. And when I’m thinking about that, when I’m looking for is this person are they willing to look inside, are they willing to own their side of the situation, right? Or are they just choosing to adopt somewhat of a victim mentality and just blame other people for the circumstances? 

So I’m looking at that because a willingness to accept that we are partially at least responsible. For our lives and our circumstances and the futures we create it’s fundamentally important to getting something out of coaching as well as an open-mindedness to trying things differently.

We all exist predominantly in our habits and sometimes those habits were really effective and at a time, and now they have, they no longer serve. And so I’m also really trying to observe if this person open to trying different things, doing things differently, because that’s also important.

It’s that proverbial if you wanna get different results, you need to do things differently. 

Meredith: So to effectively engage with coaching, you have to be willing to be coached and be coachable essentially.

Dina: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And I also, and then finally, I look for people who are very committed to their excellence but also hold themselves lightly. Like I think it’s so possible to shoot for the moon and have a good laugh at yourself all at the same time because we all make mistakes, we all fall down and it’s just part of being inhuman.

Meredith: That makes a lot of sense. I find it’s just really good life advice too, so thank you.

Is there anything, Dina, that you think I maybe should have asked that would be interesting for listeners about coaching or some of the topics we touched on that you’d wanna share before we wrap up?

Dina: Question? No, I would just say if people out there are considering coaching, talk to a few coaches. Because each coach is gonna have their own unique style, they’re gonna bring different things to the table. and ultimately you wanna find someone that you really like working with and who you feel like has the kind of capacity and is equipped to help you in the things that you care about shifting the most.

Meredith: Thank you. So if someone wanted to get in touch with you and reach out, what would be the best places

Dina: To do. I would love it if people wanted to connect on LinkedIn, so it would be easy to find me there. Dina Denham Smith. And then similarly online, my website actually has two, they’re two different ways of finding me, but you can just do, that’ll take you there.

And those are really the best ways on my website. If you like what and you wanna get in touch, there’s a contact form and there’s a number of also free resources there for leaders. So you can just get on and download some stuff that maybe would be helpful too.

Meredith: All right. We can put all those in the show notes and I cannot, I’m gonna wait for your book to come out. It’s gonna be a way for me to vicariously spend more time with you, and I like you so much .

Dina: Oh, you’re welcome. Thank you. I have one more article recommendation for you. Just. Yes, based on the one that you seem to orient yourselves to.

I wrote an article last year and it was for HBR Ascend, but it’s about compassion fatigue and I think you’ll love it.

Meredith: All right, I’m gonna check it out and we can throw that one in the show notes too. Thank you so much.

Alright. Okay, good. Thank you.

Meredith: Alright everyone. Hope you enjoyed our chat with Dina.

Ian: We’ll be coming to you next week with an interview with Liv Albert, creator of the hit podcast, Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby!.

Meredith: Ooh, I like it, Ian. To support the show, you can rate, review, and subscribe. Those things make a huge difference. And if you liked today’s conversation, you’ll probably like the content people newsletter. Subscribe at the link in the show notes.

Ian: And that’s it folks. Thanks so much for listening. If you wanna get in touch, you can always email us at


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