Brain Activation for MBAs

August 14, 2018

Sonoma Executive MBA students leadership sailing training with America's A3 Cup veterans in San Diego bay.

By John Stayton
Executive Director of Graduate & Executive Programs
School of Business and Economics at Sonoma State University

If you read these columns, you may notice that I have been quite interested (maybe obsessed) this year with the relationship between the mind and performance. So imagine my delight when I found out that the Director's Program, part of the Executive MBA Council Conference in New Orleans in October, was comprised of an eight hour workshop with Scott Halford, author of the bestselling Activate Your Brain: How Understanding Your Brain Can Improve Your Work - and Your Life (2015, Greenleaf Book Group Press).

Halford covered a lot in eight hours over two days, so I will pass on a few highlights that may be especially relevant to our MBA community.

  • There is an optimal level of stress that brain researchers call "eustress". Less than that and you may not be motivated enough to perform at your best. More than that and you become less productive and head toward burnout.  In eustress, managers and leaders feel a compelling sense of purpose that is motivating and energizing. High levels of chronic stress lead to worsening performance, numerous health risks, and (most scary to me) actual shrinkage of the brain. Halford suggests taking a photo every day of something you like in order to stay inspired; the positive effect on the brain is amplified if you post it somewhere, like on Instagram or Facebook.
  • We need to re-set our brains regularly to continue to perform well. Five daily- mental re-setters include: 
    1) exercise (30 minutes per day), 
    2) sleep (7-9 hours depending on the individual), 
    3) meditation/mindfulness practice (three 10-minute intervals per day), 
    4) laughter (on a daily basis), and 
    5) connecting (sharing things that are intimate and/or make you proud).
  • Pulse your work. Research indicates that the brain performs best with 52 minutes of focus and 17 minutes off, but a more actionable ratio that will still provide good results is 50 minutes on and 10 minutes off.
  • Your brain needs lots of water and glucose. Feed it every 90-120 minutes. Drink plenty of water. Good brain foods include apples, eggs, avocados, dark leafy vegetables, berries, nuts, fish and seafood, dark chocolate, olive oil, caffeine and grass-fed beef.
  • Make your work group smarter by 1) having an even distribution of roles and participation, 2) learning about each other's lives outside of work, and 3) forming teams with a ratio of 60% women to 40% men. If you can't achieve that ratio (which is frequent), then it becomes more important to enforce the first two suggestions.

Leaders and managers need high-functioning brains at all times in order to perform well at work. Because neuroscientists know a lot more about how the human brain can thrive than they did a decade ago, we can develop habits and practices to ensure that our brains serve us throughout our long and productive careers. Our Graduate Programs Office staff discussed the workshop takeaways, including how we can apply them ourselves and how we can better serve our students. Get ready for apples at breaks Cohort 8 and Wine 4!