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Sara Mathew

President & CEO

Warren, NJ

I wish I could say I did everything right—I did not. I wish I could say there is a proven formula— there is not.

I started my career as a clerk at Procter and Gamble. I had no American university degree or work experience when I moved from India to Cincinnati about 30 years ago. In the early eighties, very little was known about the quality and competitiveness of an Indian education.  I was shy, diffident and rarely spoke up. A lot has changed since then and I have achieved success far beyond my wildest dreams. Looking back, I realize how much is possible if you just let go of your inner fears and step out of your comfort zone. This is easier said than done, as there is science behind our motivation and what ultimately drives our decision to lean in or lean back.

Very simply, we are not wired to lean in to discomfort, even though we know it is critical to our success. The field of neuroscience has rapidly advanced in recent years and the findings are fascinating. Our brain automatically categorizes every event into a “threat” or a “reward.” A threat is something we will “lean back” from, and a reward is something we will “lean in” to. The threat/reward tradeoff is constant and sub-conscious. We are not even aware that these tradeoffs are being made, and this subtly drives our behavior. Bottom line, even the remote possibility of an unfavorable outcome triggers a threat response and causes us to lean back.

As I reflect on my career of 30 years, there were three factors that helped me lean in to discomfort. The first is to focus on the possibilities and move forward with a solution. There is nothing more therapeutic than developing a vision for what must be accomplished and executing a plan to deliver on it. This helps the “reward” side of your brain. In contrast, it is mentally depleting to dwell on a problem, which triggers the threat response. By making a conscious decision to learn from mistakes and turning your attention to the possibilities ahead, the discomfort of failure can become a great growth experience.

The second is to become a learning leader. This was a personal decision I made five years ago, and today, I reflect on my behavior every day, particularly in stressful situations. I actively seek feedback from others and while the input may not be what I want to hear, I force myself to listen and learn. This has helped my self-awareness, so I can make the critical behavioral modifications needed at work.

Finally, make sure you have trusted partners in your corner. I’ve had the support of an amazing husband and a long list of mentors, who helped me for reasons I still don’t fully comprehend.  Nurture and invest in the trusted connections and great relationships you have developed. They are a rare and special gift and can be especially useful during the tough times.

I wish I could say I did everything right—I did not. I wish I could say there is a proven formula— there is not. I have been extraordinarily lucky and blessed, and if in some small way I can make a difference in someone else’s life, I will. There were so many people who personally invested in my development and I intend to pay it forward.