How I work and lead my team differently after surviving critical illnesses.
by Komal Minhas
I was 26 when I was diagnosed with a rare form of skin cancer. Two surgeries and many months later, I was cancer free—but the emotional scars of what I endured lingered, and impacted my work and relationships within the start-up I co-founded in New York.
The stress of that time compounded and I was hit with a neurological illness a few months later that led me to leave my start-up, move back home to Canada, and begin a healing journey that took me to places I never would have imagined.
In the months that followed, I had a lot of time to reflect on my experiences in the workplace while facing the greatest personal challenges of my life. I reflected deeply on how I could create a company culture that truly allows people to thrive through the highs and lows of life. I would think about the future company I would build while I was in recovery as a way to convince myself there was another side to my illness—it became a light for me. I promised myself that if I had the privilege to lead others again in my life, I would figure out how to make their time working with me the best experience possible. One that would make them feel seen, respected, supported, and set them up for success in their roles and lives.
What I realized during this time was that to do this I had to be solid. I couldn’t allow my insecurities to seep into how I would lead, and I would need to respect and separate what I needed personally from what I was doing professionally. I truly had to learn and understand that I am not what I do. That my work is not what defines me, that my value in the world is related to more than what I produce. I had to decouple my productivity from my self-worth, and model this for my team.
I actually had to learn this out of necessity—my brain was not functioning properly. I wasn’t sure how long my symptoms would stick around (including vertigo, sound and light sensitivity, an inability to converse with more than 1-2 people at a time, partial blindness in my left eye), and I had to learn another way to live and be. This retraining proved critical for me and is still something I have to be mindful of everyday as I break decades old habits and limiting beliefs about my own self-worth.
It took over a year to get to be well, to feel ready to work full-time again, and to create the concept of kaur. space. When I was ready to rebuild my team, I did so very intentionally and with an abstract (at the time) framework in mind for how we would work differently.
Here are four key aspects to how I work and lead today:
Creating healthy boundaries with work and my colleagues.
When you live and breathe what you are building, you can get lost in what is healthy and what is detrimental when it comes to your working relationships. In the past, I was all or nothing. If we were working together you had all of me. I would clear the deck in my life to ensure that I was all in, in every way.
The issues that arose with working and leading in this way was that I could never properly ‘turn off.’ It left little room for me to understand how I could ‘fill my cup’ back up so I could be of better service to my team and our customers. It depleted me, and I realized in the harshest way possible that if I am not well, nourished, whole, content, and steady, I’m no good to anyone, including myself.
Ways I was able to do this over the last year include being okay with my flexible work style and communicating that to my team (more about this in point four), creating habits that serve and nourish my body and soul (daily nature walks for 20-mins, consistent work-outs, daily breathwork and meditation, frequent vacations), digging deeper with the relationships with the people I love and who love me, and realizing that if timelines/deadlines shift, no one is going to die.
This last one might seem obvious, but what I find extremely detrimental in many workplaces is the rigidity with which work plans, timelines, and expectations are managed and maintained. The thing is, life happens, and if members of my team need to shift a release timeline for a product, or take a hiatus for a week for the magazine, I am going to support them fully in making it happen. For our company to succeed in the long term, their health and wellbeing are a critical priority. I can hear naysayers who might say ‘but shit needs to get done.’ Of course it does! Timelines don’t shift all the time, but adding some flex here will give you and your team more sanity and less anxiety overall.
Being more critical of ‘marathon’ work sessions and sprints
Hands up if you’ve caught yourself looking at your computer screen with dry or bloodshot eyes after endless hours of ‘work’ and you’ve realized you haven’t eaten recently, drank water, walked, gotten up, and feel generally ‘game over.’ Yeah, that was me after many marathon editing sessions, or work sessions that went until 2 or 3 am. Sometimes this would happen a few days at a time back to back. By the end of it, I would be emotionally drained, dehydrated, cranky, and facing a mini-burnout.
Since launching kaur. space, this has only happened one time. It was prior to our presale in November and I cranked out a 13-hour day. By the end of it, I was overstimulated and felt my addiction to overwork kicking in full force. With the help of my health coach, the next day I dove into the behaviour and realized a few things.
When it comes to these work sessions, they aren’t inherently bad—for many of you reading you might have had days and nights like this that are joyful and where the work has felt rejuvenating and inspired. You’re led by an inner energy to create, build and do. It may have even nourished you. I’ve had a few of these experiences myself. I love it when work feels this way and I want to keep going.
On the other hand, and what I experience more often, was overworking because of a deeply rooted shame I couldn’t name. I am a daughter of immigrants. The way I work is much less physically daunting that what my parents had to do (and currently do) for 8-12 hour shifts. Working multiple jobs, and managing multiple businesses, it was rare to see my parents not working whether in their career work, or unpaid labour at home. So when I get into the inertia of an ‘endless’ work session, I now have to check myself. Am I not stopping because I am abusing myself? Is what I am working on really worth the mini-burnout and self loathing to come? What would happen if I got up right now, and called it after seven or eight hours? What if I had dinner with Mitch? What if I went for a walk? Would the negative self-talk I am buying into be even more true? Or do I have an opportunity to retrain my brain that work can be pleasurable, consistent, and nourishing?
We do not have to be martyrs to our work, and our careers. Our careers can compliment a full and whole life that actually makes us feel good. When I come from this space, I find I don’t have many days or nights where I do these mini-marathons/sprints because they aren’t necessary. When I am coming from a calm, consistent, organized, and healthy space the timelines my team and I have created generally reflect a workload we can manage within an eight hour day, five days a week. Even when launching, we have been so good about preparing in advance and being able to take those days off. It takes emotional work, and a lot of inner unwinding, but asking yourself, ‘Why am I being so brutal to myself?’ when it comes to how you work is unbelievably helpful.
Engaging with my team from an empathy-first framework
The single most helpful piece of content I consumed during my recovery in 2017 was a section in Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Option B. She wrote the book following the sudden and tragic loss of her husband and her subsequent experience with living after the unimaginable. She discussed how when people return to work following a major loss, illness, or tragedy, their confidence is shot. As they are remaking their own identity in light of what they’ve faced, they are also struggling to remember who they were before whatever happened, happened.
When Sandberg went back to work at Facebook, she’d sit in her office, or in meetings half there, half elsewhere—thinking about her kids and their new reality, her new reality, the devastation of what happened. She felt she wasn’t good enough to be there. She felt like a shadow of who she was. What she shared was critically helpful was the support she received from her boss, Mark Zuckerberg. He would call on her in meetings and remind her in real time of how valuable her perspective was. He would sit with her as they figured out what her work style needed to be. Even if what she was sharing or presenting wasn’t where it once was, he wouldn’t criticize or call out, he would support and help her walk towards who she could now become. This new version of herself that would never be fully healed, but who would be living Option B to the best of her abilities.
When I went back to work after recovering from my surgeries, I wish my team and I had this framework and understanding of what I was facing, how I saw myself, and how I really wasn’t ‘the same.’ Those two words haunted me at that time. I was reminded day in and day out of how I had changed, how my commitment to the work was different, or how my boundless enthusiasm from days past had now been tampered. The thing was, all of this was true. I thought I was going to die. I had undergone a surgery that left me traumatized and haunted. Showing up for work the first few weeks was a feat of strength and courage for me, but to those around me the cycle of not-enoughness had begun.
Having this experience seared onto my heart and mind, I now lead with empathy-first. I encourage my team to be very candid with me. About their personal lives, health, and overall stress. I have physically been through so much and I know first-hand what would have helped me succeed in the worst of times, and so I pay that knowledge forward now. Flexible time off after loss, work schedules that work for the individual and the team simultaneously, encouragement for proactive health management (therapy, massage, etc.), and more. I am learning as I go, but thus far I am so grateful to my team for being upfront with me and trusting me with so much of their lives. But I figure, they spend more time working on helping build this business and movement than they do with their loved ones, so I owe it to them to support them fully and to show up for their lives as much as they show up for our work.
Creating meaningful structures to enable trust-based flexible work.
To continue on the note of flexible work and building trust in the workplace, structure is so key to enabling this. This is something I have been actively working on. To work the way I love to work, I need to have consistent structure in place for my remote team to succeed.
I work wherever I am, whenever I can. And I don’t feel guilty about it. Guided by my ethos in part two above, I set myself free of any forced beliefs around work. I go into the office when I want to, I work wherever in the world I am, I sometimes like to do a few hours of work before bed and into the late night hours because it’s my time of creative flow. I take the mornings off to implement a morning routine that fully supports not only my days, but my life, including breath work, meditation, workouts, walks, and journaling, and I give my team the flex to choose what works best for them as well.
One of my team members thrives on structure and having an office space to show up to on a similar schedule each day with the flexibility to work from home when they want and to take half-day Friday’s (something we are working to make happen). Another spends a lot of their time travelling to Bali, Italy, California and the like, working in sprints. Another loves the work from home life and works with me and other clients throughout the week but has non-negotiable days that are needed for their health and wellbeing. All of this is okay in our ‘workplace.’
The way we can do this is through weekly team meetings, weekly one-on-ones with me, an ongoing spreadsheet with our annual, quarterly, and monthly targets that we reiterate weekly alongside a transparent place where we can see and better understand what each other is working on. G-Suite and Slack are our best friends, and we know deeply that we can fully rely on one another to succeed.
What I’ve found is that with every employee I’ve encountered in my career, excellence is their baseline. There are very few people who come into a job planning to underperform. Everyone wants to win; everyone wants to feel great and know they’re doing a great job. Most of the time what’s missing is enough empathy and structure to allow them to thrive. We are often too tired to manage, too tired to care, too disconnected to think it’s our problem. But in my experience, the more you go all in with your team and yourself, the more you all trust one another to be there in work and in life, the more you deliver together and the more you crush.
Writing this piece was a wonderful exercise for me in seeing how far I’ve come personally in my work, and in my life. I realize that what I’ve shared is applicable to my team of six, and might be more challenging in larger structures and organizations. That being said, the baseline in each part is basic: boundaries, resisting overwork, empathy, trust.
Get critical about what you do and why, and really dive into the crevices of yourself you’ve been avoiding—get out of your own way. We can so often project our insecurities on those we work with and those we lead, and that is wildly irresponsible. Remember that every person you engage with on a daily has their own world, their own life, their own battles. We must lead responsibly and with integrity. When you do, together with your team, you can take on and build anything. It’s truly awe-inspiring.