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S2 EP7: Mindfulness Practices for 21st-Century Leaders

This episode features guest Coach Lai Meng, a renowned corporate trainer and business coach with over 23 years of experience. Listen in as she shares her insights on the importance of mindfulness in modern leadership, and how it can help tackle common workplace challenges, manage stress, and sharpen focus. Learn from Lai Meng’s experience working with corporate leaders and business owners as she shares practical tips on enhancing your leadership style by taking small, consistent breaks to cultivate your mindfulness skills.

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Victoria: Welcome to season two of Hello CoachCast. I’m Victoria Mills, and in today’s episode, we are diving into why mindfulness is essential for 21st-century leaders. As a leader, you need to be adaptable, focused, and resilient, and that’s where mindfulness comes in. It’s the key to helping you manage stress, sharpen your focus, and boost your overall wellbeing.

So today my guest coach Lai Meng and I are going to dive into how mindfulness can help you tackle common workplace challenges and help elevate your leadership game. What a fantastic topic. I’m absolutely delighted to welcome you here today, Coach Lai Meng.

Lai Meng: Hello

Victoria: You have 23 years of experience as a corporate trainer and a business coach, and I know that you’ve worked with numerous corporate leaders and business owners helping them really expand their thinking and their leadership style. So, I am very excited to hear your take and your experience on the art of mindfulness and how this can enhance our leadership capability with a little bit of Zen. So, welcome.

Lai Meng: Thank you, Victoria. Thank you. Oops. That 23 years just revealed my age.

Victoria: You and me both. All good! There is wisdom that comes with that age. Let me tell you, wisdom and grace.

Lai Meng: Ah.

Victoria: So, tell me, I’d love to hear your experience from signs and symptoms when you have your coaching hat on when you go into organisations and you are coaching their managers, that you can tell very clearly that they are missing zen in their lives. I’d love you just to walk us through, for our listeners, what are the signs and symptoms that we need some more zen in our lives?

Lai Meng: I think one of the very obvious ones would be people saying that I just can’t switch off. Even after work, I’m thinking about work, on my weekends, playing with my kids, I’m not really playing with my kids. I’m still thinking about work before I sleep. I still think about work. So that’s like to me, ding ding, ding, ding, ding.

Victoria: That’s a very big warning bell and a red flag right there. And I think every second person that you would run into on the street or at work would put their hands up to say, I am dealing with this and help me. I think it’s become a lot more prevalent in COVID/post-COVID work-life balance, working from home; Zoom and video calls have infiltrated the bedrooms and lounge rooms of people who, don’t have the luxury of having a separate office.

So, it can be very difficult from that front to have boundaries. And I guess this is probably one topic that we could start with around how can we switch off? How can we create greater disconnection from the busyness of whatever we have in our lives? And obviously, we all have different demands, family, children, friends, job colleagues, all of that.

That I’d love to hear, with your 23 years as a coach, how do you help encourage disconnection and more awareness around the signs and symptoms?

Lai Meng: I think the first thing is there’s a myth, like if I switch off, I need to hide somewhere in the mountains or go for a long holiday or retreat. That’s when I switch off. I think that’s a myth. That’s when like your body can’t take it anymore. You’re like, yeah, I’m dying to go for that one. But actually it’s the little small breaks in between and I’m talking about mind breaks not just the actions break, but really how do you actually cultivate that habit? To be consciously taking those mind breaks. And that’s the habit that I constantly work with leaders because they think, ‘Oh I, unless I have this chunk of time, and where do I find it?’

And so it’s always that year-end holiday or something. But by the time you get there, your body is so exhausted that your mind is so exhausted you can’t quite enjoy it, actually. So, I encourage people to then start to look at what are some small practices that you can start to do on a daily basis. It’s like you can’t just accumulate – it’s like brushing teeth. That’s why I think about it. I started meditating in 1998. Again, very old. I see it as just like how I brushed my teeth every morning. I wouldn’t just step out of the house or go about my daily stuff without brushing my teeth, and I can’t just wait until two weeks later or a month later when I have time, I’ll just do a big clean.

But that’s what we tend to do. I think as leaders, as human beings, we tend to think that we have so much on our plate… let me just get that one more task done and one more meeting done, one more conversation, one more email done before I take my next break – which is not going to happen unless you actually schedule it in.

So that’s the first thing that I notice is to demystify that thing about, oh, when I get there, I will take that break. But it is how do you actually schedule in, or cultivate that habit of consistent small mind breaks?

Victoria: So they’re fabulous tips on some structure that I’m hearing and certainly being a coach for 20 years myself, yes, there is commitment and motivation that needs to happen behind that before we even put scheduled breaks into our diary. So this is probably a deeper conversation around what are some of the negative drivers. That can impact and prevent us from taking those mental breaks and disconnection, because if we knew that it was good for us, yes, we would probably do it more often. But often we have such habitual behaviours going on that isn’t good for us, that overrides any rational or logical focus to go, ‘Yes, I know I need to be doing this’.

So, I’d love to know what are some of your experiences as a coach of the ideal structure in a day that has worked for you as a coach that you’ve shared with your clients, that gives you mental clarity structure and disconnection and little mental breaks as you were talking about. What is a daily structure?

And I’m happy to share what I’ve been using for many, many years. I think everyone’s different, but I do know that you need to find your own rhythm around what works for you and your day. But I’d love to hear from you because this is an area that you specialise in. So, what is the ideal structure in someone’s day that promotes mental wellbeing and some disconnection just to have more breaths in their day?

Lai Meng: I think the first thing is, again, I wanna just come back to, is the small things that we need to do. Example, when we wake up, how many of us reach to our phone, check our messages, check out emails, all the social medias, right? The first thing when we wake up, and that’s actually, that’s like the habits of so many people. But instead, if you don’t do that, if you don’t reach out to our phone, but instead we just sit quietly and just take a breath and just observe what’s happening, what’s going on today, what’s the weather like? What do I, how do I feel? Even just that little simple thing that you do, just being in that moment instead of reaching out to the phone, gives you the break.

Victoria: I love that and I have to share a personal habit of mine that I stopped doing a number of years ago, and that was I removed my phone from my bedside table to actually keeping it in the kitchen. I do not see it because the first thing that I was doing was waking up – wasn’t even doing my mindfulness because you know, I’m very, I love my mindful practices and meditation and all of that – but I found that we’ve got this lure.

It’s almost an addictive behaviour of always being on. And literally, the moment that we wake up, the moment that our eyes are open, the first thing that we go for is we’re on, grab the phone, scroll through emails without even taking a breath for the morning and. I know it’s a simple example, but it had a profound impact on my day because I was far more present and it’s, it was setting that intention just to have the space of what is it that I wanna achieve today? How do I wanna approach my day? Where do I wanna end my day? And to have those mindful conversations just from a small thing such as removing my phone so I can totally share and promote that is an awesome thing to do.

So anyway, that worked for me. And many others I know, but it’s, it is creating new habits around creating more space in our lives. So I’d love you to continue on. I just had to share that example because it was very relevant.

Lai Meng: Wonderful. As you said, because you have tasted it and then it becomes part of your life. It’s like, it works. You see the result and you just keep going. And you said something earlier on about, it’s good to understand what’s good for us, but how do we start? Like the mind is thinking, yes, I know this is good for me, but how do I actually begin?

Where do I stop? Like I have people who just a simple thing of removing the habit of checking emails first thing, instead replacing that with, ‘What are my top three things that I need to get to first for today?’ and replace that with that email-checking habit. It’s difficult at first, but then once you actually tasted the benefit of yes, because your mind is fresh.

If you get the top three priorities that you need to be accomplished first, you’ll find that you free up your energy, your mind-energy in terms of, doesn’t matter if you’re checking the email, or you’re talking to somebody, or you’re in a meeting, your mind is still ‘away’. Thinking about the top three things, you have to get done today.

So, I know it all sounds really ideal, but again and again, I’ve witnessed that managers or leaders, when they tried it, they cannot go back because they say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve become so much more efficient’ because the action of checking email doesn’t just take you to answering that email. It takes you to all sorts of directions and by that time your energy’s already depleted somewhat.

And then when you want to start to focus on the most important one for the day, you are already half tankful, if I…

Victoria: You are, I call it, ‘switching costs. Every time you actually move from a task, it just takes you down a rabbit hole and you then end up focusing on 1600 things and don’t do anything very well. And practice that I have done personally and still continue to do in my day. I actually have, I know this, for some people it might be way too much structure.

But when you’ve got a team and you’re running a really busy business, I have structured times in my day where I’m actually checking my emails and I have a very structured day. It works for me. I actually get more space mentally because of the structure that I have in my world from obviously moment of waking scheduled planning time to my top priority, things that I need to get done to then doing meetings and very specific times that I check emails, allow some time to respond, have more meetings, lunch break, make sure all of that is in. And look, I have the 80% rule. 80% I hit the target, 20%. There’s always gonna be a blowout, but the intention is that let’s start with a structure, because a lot of our motivation comes with, Lei Meng, and I know that you’ve had deep experience with this training.

So it’s training our brains to embrace structure, stay committed to a structure, stay motivated to try new things, and I would love to hear about your experience when you’ve been coaching leaders. How do you encourage them and what insights can you share to help them be motivated to try to plan their day differently and to encourage mindfulness?

I think this is where I’m landing. What are your tips and insights? How do you encourage mindfulness? What have you personally embraced on your own journey as a coach for 23 years? Because we’ve all got different experiences that we bring. And I’d love to know what is your secret ingredient that you share with your clients?

Lai Meng: Oh, okay. I, you’ve asked a question that’s how do you get someone to, want to do something that they think it’s, it’s almost impossible. Because every time when you talk to someone who is at a point where they feel like they’re overwhelmed or they’re, it’s like a machine. They can’t turn it off. Then they’re like, all this sounds good, but how do I do that? And, the thing is, the way I look at it is this, either we can do it when we literally don’t have a choice, which is as either we have a mental breakdown or physically we have a breakdown or something, unfortunately like an avalanche, right?

And that automatically forces us to stop. We can either do it that way, or we can do it at a time when we have that awareness that this is not working. So, to answer your question I often find that people will arrive at a point to make a choice when they say it is enough. And the tricky part of that question would be when is it enough?

Because a lot of times people. Still want to push that limit or, thinking that, it’s working so far I’m coping, the roof hasn’t fallen down yet, and they’ll push the limit. So unfortunately, there is really no point where you can say, it’s like okay. This is how you will say yes. The more I’ve seen, the more I’ve actually witnessed is when people come to a point when they say, this isn’t working anymore. And I think there must be a better way and they are willing to do something about it. Doesn’t matter whether they know how yet, but they really have to arrive at a point when it is enough.

I’m not sure if I’ve actually answered your question really.

Victoria: No. Look it’s all great conversation and great tips. We are sadly motivated often with the level of discomfort, and we can determine on what our level of discomfort is and how much that drives our motivation towards change. I think that’s it, right? And it’s being aware of how much physical fatigue we have going on, how much we are feeling a lack of motivation, or diminishing stamina, or lack of concentration or mental overload, overwhelm…

It’s being aware of that to be able to say, ‘This isn’t okay’. And let’s just take a pause for a moment and start to unpack why we think that it’s okay and what is another possibility – going on, probably a deeper tangent – I often believe that just comes down to showing compassion and kindness for ourselves.

And I believe that we’ve actually lost the art of kindness to who we are and how we’re operating our lives in how we take care of our bodies, our mental bodies, our cognitive abilities, our physical selves, our spiritual self, our emotional selves. And eventually, when we stay in cognitive overload and distress, we know that it erodes eventually all of who we are to where we get a physical breakdown.

Lai Meng: Yeah.

Victoria: Get a physical disease, or the anxiety will increase, depression will increase, and, you know, yes – sometimes that can lead to having a, literally a mental/nervous breakdown where your body is literally at a point to say, ‘I cannot keep this up anymore’.

Lai Meng: Yep.

Victoria: And what we’re trying to do with leaders is if you have a little amount of these symptoms and signs going on, that’s your warning sign. I do believe the body is so clever it will show us where we’re out of balance, and it will give us, I believe, many opportunities to get on the bandwagon.

But being human beings, we often override that and think and say, oh, it’s fine. I can do another day like this, or I can do another month like this or another year, and then all of a sudden you crash.

Lai Meng: Exactly. And I think also often people do not realize that they are paying that price along the way too unless they really sit and have a conversation and really look at, I think that’s the role of a coach, right? To really reveal those blind spots for people. They just don’t know that that’s the path that they’re heading towards a train wreck, but they just didn’t realize it. So it’s sometimes it’s also helping leaders to see what they can’t see. The prizes that they’re actually paying along the way. It’s just blinded to it.

Victoria: What are some of your magic mindfulness techniques that you have used in your personal life so, As an example I, I’m religious. I always do a, I always start my day with a meditation. It can be a guided meditation. Some days my brain is busy. It’s not quiet. But it’s, again, it’s the art of the commitment to starting their day with the right intention.

It could be yoga practice, or walk or walking meditation. I have my own things that help me get the best out of my day. What have been some of the mindfulness techniques that you have used over the years of you being a coach that have had a profound impact on you that you can share?

Lai Meng: In fact, you’ve named quite a number of them already.

Victoria: Okay.

Lai Meng: So, I often find that one of the struggles when people say, okay, let me just start with that meditation, I often say, just start with 10, 15 minutes of whether you wanna call it a meditation or mindfulness training. It is about just. Helping your mind to quiet down and focus on something that it’s quite boring, doesn’t really stimulate your mind. For example, your breath or just a sound that is not quite uh, that won’t assign any meaning to.

For example, I have a leader who somehow found that he was really able to focus when he was just listening to the sound of the air conditioning. Boring enough. Like you will not want to compare, oh, I have listened to this better. Like, he often travels, right? So in a different hotel, he will notice this air conditioning sound, but he won’t compare, oh, this is different from the one in my house.

So you won’t assign meaning, and that will help you to just stay focused. And then the other thing I notice is that people will sometimes say, ‘But when I sit, my mind still wonders’. And I find that after that I feel like if I sit there and then I just, my mind just keeps wandering.

Then when I come out of it, I still feel very confused, or, still my mind is still not rested. Then, in fact, in those moments, I would, I encourage the person to just stop. Because if you sit there and just keep on going round and round in your thoughts, that’s actually not going to help.

So instead, if that’s the case, walk – do a different thing, go for a walk in nature or even have a cup of coffee. It’s actually better than just sitting down there and doing that mind-wandering. So, I find that wherever we find ourselves comfortable, whether it’s a 10-minute breath watching in the morning, or like you said, some guided meditation that gives you some music or some sort of hypnotic suggestion that works for you.

Go for it. The thing is, like you said, some days your mind’s going to be more busy. Yeah. And some days you’ll find that, hey, this is good. So just like the waves in the ocean, right? You have the high tide, you have the low tide. So that’s just the way of life. But we are so blessed these days we have like a, I would call it a buffet of mindfulness techniques from yoga, meditation, to walking meditation, to guided meditation, to just silent meditation, all kinds. I started with cold Turkey. I’m not recommending everyone to do that, but I did. It was like a 10-day silent retreat and I was in my early twenties.

I was like screaming. I was like, what is going on? But then I’ve also witnessed how my mind and nature of my mind, and slowly it actually comes down and quiet. And then get to a place where you just simply. Recharge. I have to say that’s just, for lack of a better word, I’ll just say it. It’s a time, it’s a state where you find that you’re recharging and coming back to, why is this so relevant to leaders?

Because I’m, as leaders, you’re constantly utilizing so much energy of your mind, and this mindfulness practice or meditation that you’re doing simply is a time for you to recharge. So if you do that constantly, consistently then it’s no different than when you are switching off your computer, right?

Because it’s like you have a thousand tabs open all the time. Let’s just imagine how much energy you’re taking every day. You’ll notice that if you have so many, tabs open your computer is less efficient. It’s the same logic when you actually turn, switch that off, turn that off. You’re basically conserving your energy.

Victoria: I love that analogy. I, and I’m looking at all my tabs that are open right now, Lai Meng, but I love that analogy. It is true, right? You’ve got all these leaking areas going on and we could use our brain as that beautiful analogy that you’ve just shared on the amount of tabs that we have open.

So alright, listeners, there’s some great tips there. Lai Meng, thank you so much for coming on and sharing. Your mindfulness expertise I know that you are one of our business and wellbeing coaches on Hello Coach, and we have seen on average roughly around an 80% increase in people wanting to work with wellbeing coaches and it just shows that this topic and area of life is not going to go away anywhere and nor should it.

I think what has happened during COVID, I do believe there’s been lots of silver linings in that grey cloud is our mental wellbeing is so critical for our health and our mental health and our physical health and our spiritual health. And my advice is to start with something small. It can be trying one new thing, but stick to it for a couple of weeks.

You’re not going to get a magic pill. None of this is magic. But together with commitment, motivation, and structure. Just choose one thing a day and pop it in your diary. And Lai Meng, I’ve heard that’s what you were saying today. And encouraging. Do one thing. It might be a little meditation, might be sitting outside with a cup of tea for 10 minutes.

It’s just putting some new structure in your day where you can actually get more breath time. I don’t mean necessarily physical breath, but yes, that is part of it. But just space, in your life. So, thank you very much for joining me here today. It’s been absolutely lovely to have you on our show.

Lai: Thank you.

Victoria: Thank you for tuning into today’s episode of Hello CoachCast. Now, if you’ve enjoyed the content we’d love for you to subscribe like, share or leave a review on your favourite podcast platform. Also, if you’d like the opportunity to become a more mindful leader and work on your mindfulness, or if there’s something else that you’d like support with, you can absolutely find Lai Meng on Hello-Coach.com. Thanks for listening, and we hope that you’ll join us again next week.

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