Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003.  Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” is what clients value most.  Grace writes a regular column for WRAL TechWire. 


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – This is my twentieth column! How time flies when you are having fun. Thank you for being a part of our Leadership & Happiness community.  Given the importance of time, I share more thoughts on time and the power of slowing down.

Night of Improv

Last Wednesday, I hosted a night of improv for a group of ten women. We’re all members of International Women’s Forum, a global organization committed to advancing women’s leadership and championing equality. I thought improv would be fun, bring us closer together, and provide meaningful learning which we could immediately apply – at work and home.

Exercise: “Machine”

One of the exercises our teacher had us do was called “Machine.” She asked each person to step on the stage to create a component of a big machine.  Each of us was asked to make a gesture and sound that we could repeat for quite awhile.  As each of us joined one by one, we  built upon each other to create an amazingly well oiled machine that was humming along. The improv teacher then asked us to speed up the machine and then asked us to slow it down, and finally to slow down to a gradual halt. 

This exercise showed that paying attention to each other’s ideas, building on each other’s ideas with something connected and really working well together as a team.  

One thing that intrigued me was how elegantly we synchronized when she asked us to slow down, and finally to slow down to a halt.  It was beautiful!  We were much more in sync than when she asked us to speed up which sounded quite chaotic.  I asked the group what they thought this meant.  I left the meeting without a clear answer.

Accident: Slo-mo

The next day, I attended my weekly lecture with my Happiness teacher, Tal Ben-Shahar, the creator of Harvard’s most popular course ever on Happiness and co-founder of the Happiness Studies Academy, where I study. 

He started the class by sharing an incident from nearly two decades earlier, that he replayed with great clarity.  His wife was eight months pregnant, and they were driving back to Boston from visiting family in the evening and the weather was a bit foggy.  Suddenly a truck swerved into the picture….everything started to be in slow motion.  He thought to himself of the 3 options he could take and the outcomes of each.  Then he knew to take option C which resulted in safety with just a few scrapes.

He emphasized the importance of slowing down during a crisis in order to carefully decide which way to turn.

That evening, I listened to a podcast where the hosts spoke very fast and realized that it was hard to follow their points. If they spoke more slowly, they would have had more impact.  

Sometimes, it is easier to move forward when those around you speak more slowly to you.

Coaching Client: Ready, fire, aim

Then, the next day, I had a coaching session with an executive who oversees a big chunk of his company’s revenues. 

This leader reports to a CEO whose top strength is activation. He said he felt like he can not keep up fast enough in leadership team meetings when the CEO activates and makes one suggestion after another with lighting speed. 

It was then and there I had the a-ha about the learning from the improv machine exercise. The ability to slow down together, as a team, in order to have a beautiful ending, is a good thing. When this CEO activates, the team freezes for a second in fear and then they often redirect what they had been doing.  Which does not lead necessarily to the optimal outcome. 

CEOs are often successful and become CEOs because of their activation strengths.  However, when their teams immediately redirect efforts in response to their CEO’s activation, this often leads to suboptimal outcomes.  What should a team do instead?

I shared the stories from Improv “Machine” and Tal’s slo-mo accident story with my client.  I asked him what might happen next time his CEO activated, which made him feel nervous and anxious, if instead he slowed down, if just for a few minutes, to think? And ideally, alongside his colleagues to think through together?

Often our bias for action causes us to ready, fire, aim. What if everyone in the leadership could slow down together to think together? 

That might lead to a better outcome. 

The Power of the Pause

Recently I restarted piano lessons after a four decade hiatus.  I decided to study again in honor of the memory of my mother, my first teacher. When I practice piano, I can be completely in the flow.

I was struck by the narrative in a recent mediation entitled “the sound of silence.”  

Our leader suggested that we compare the silence between breaths to the silence between notes in music.  She shared that in music, the silence we hear is not just a waiting period.  Silence contributes to the music, it is a part of it.  It adds emphasis and emotion. It creates clarity, anticipation, and removes the clutter.  

We want to create silence in our minds for the same reason. A busy mind without periods of silence feels scattered and cluttered.  We only see and hear part of the story and there’s no room to anticipate what’s next. 

“Silence is not an absence, but a presence.”

-Anne D. LaClaire, author

Make time for it in all your leadership team meetings!

Slowing Down 

This executive has since become self aware that he talks very fast, often with no pauses, as there are always urgent issues to handle.  In doing so, his team often can’t keep up with him or understand his intentions.  They may not hear what he is trying to say. 

We discussed the power of his slowing down. 

Can you slow down?  I know that I can. When I get excited, I tend to talk very fast. I did so just yesterday when a friend at church asked me about how a talk I gave went.  Next time, I will take pauses to get his input on my situation.  His thoughts are valuable to me.  But I have to open up the power of the pause to hear it.

About Grace Ueng

Grace is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003.  Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” are what clients value most.  

Grace’s core offerings are one on one coaching for CEOs and their leadership teams, facilitating workshops on Personal Branding, Happiness and Vulnerability, and Speaking Success, and conducting strategic reviews for companies at a critical juncture. A TED speaker, she is hired to give keynotes and workshops on Happiness and Mental Wellness.

A marketing strategist, Grace held leadership roles at five high growth technology ventures that successfully exited through acquisition or IPO. She started her career at Bain & Company and then worked in brand management at Clorox and General Mills. She is a graduate of MIT and Harvard Business School and holds a positive coaching certification from the Whole Being Institute.

Grace and her partner, Rich Chleboski, a cleantech veteran, develop and implement strategies to support the growth of impact focused companies and then coach their leaders in carrying out their strategic plans. Their expertise spans all phases of the business from evaluation through growth and liquidity.