“No one wants to feel like a lemming. Especially not high performers. They want to be empowered, trusted and free to run. For too long, I was trying to work the hardest of anyone on my team and hope they would be inspired to keep up. That is not sustainable and can lead to burnout. Instead I have finally learned to hire well, train thoroughly, empower people with the information they need then get out of the way.”
Emily Fletcher is the founder of Ziva Meditation, creator of The Ziva Technique and author of the bestselling book, Stress Less, Accomplish More: Meditation for Extraordinary Performance published by HarperCollins. Emily has taught 20,000 people to meditate, including Oscar, Grammy, Tony, and Emmy award winners, NBA players, Navy SEALs, CEOs, full-time parents and social entrepreneurs. She has also taught at innovative global corporations such as Google, Barclays Bank, and Viacom in order to help their employees improve focus and increase productivity. Emily has been featured in The New York Times, Vogue, Forbes, and The Atlantic and has spoken at conferences and corporations around the world. She is on a mission to re-brand meditation as the performance tool that it is and to help end unnecessary suffering in the world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory?”
Before I was a meditation teacher, I was on Broadway for ten years. My last show was A Chorus Line where I was understudying three of the lead roles. This means you have no idea what character you’re going to play when you show up to the theatre. Some people are great at this — I was not one of them. I was living my life in a constant state of fight or flight which lead to eighteen months of insomnia, going gray at 26, plus getting sick and injured all the time. A colleague who was understudying five lead roles (and nailing it) said her secret was meditation. After I rolled my eyes, I signed up for a four day course out of desperation, and on my first day meditating, I slept through the night for the first time in eighteen months. That was eleven years ago.
I became so inspired to share this practice that I left Broadway and went to Rishikesh, India to start teacher training. Over the next three years I trained by transcribing books by hand in Sanskrit, did thousands of hours of apprenticing and eighteen hours a week of meditation. Once I graduated, I opened Ziva and now we’re 8 years in and I’ve taught over 20,000 people to meditate and created the world’s first online meditation training.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
As I was preparing to go on vacation over New Year’s Eve, I got a call from the manager of a pretty well-known NBA player saying he needed meditation and he needed it NOW. So, my husband and I cancelled the vacation and I headed to a less than glamorous city to teach him.
A few months later, he was featured in a publication where he shared how “a powerful woman” had taught him to meditate and it really changed his life for the better. He never mentioned my name or Ziva.
What was your biggest challenge to date either personally or professionally and how did you overcome it?
When I was 24, my dad got diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer. I was still performing at the time so I took ten weeks off from my show to come home and help take care of him. By the time I got home, he was basically in a coma. He could barely speak or walk. The western doctors wouldn’t treat him because it was so advanced. If you have ever had a close family member sent home to die, it is not easy to accept. You want to try everything you can to heal.
Within 48 hrs, I became a makeshift nutritionist and learned as much as I could about alternative cancer treatments (as he was too far gone for western medicine). Within a few days, he was walking and talking and up and down stairs and in the backyard. It was so inspiring to see what could happen when you start feeding the body and stop feeding the cancer. He still died four weeks after his diagnosis, but the time he had left on the planet was so much better. We were able to say our goodbyes and he was in less pain so he could make the most out of those precious days.
That was really the first time I knew I would go into the healing arts. I wasn’t sure exactly when or how but I was profoundly impacted by that experience. It awakened the healer in me.
What does leadership mean to you and how do you best inspire others to lead?
I was invited to speak at the Transformational Leadership Council a few years ago, which is a gathering of some of the OG folks in the self-help space. People who literally wrote the modern books on meditation and manifesting. In addition to what I learned from the humans there (how important it is to have a community of peers, the responsibility we have to the planet and humanity to lift others up, empowering the next generation), I also got to do a workshop on leadership with horses.
To be honest, I thought I was going to be very good at it. With eleven years of meditation under my belt, animals are quite drawn to me. I was wrong. They put me in a circular pen with a horse with no bridle, saddle or whip and said, ”OK, now see if you can get it to walk in a certain direction, then run, stop, change directions and run the other way.” The mission was do this with your voice, your body and your mind.
“No problem,” I thought.
An hour later, I was still in the pen and the horse was NOT interested in taking my lead, but then something clicked. I realized that what I was doing with the horse is exactly what I had been doing with my team. I was trying to get the horse to follow me. I would run out in front of the horse and encourage it to follow. Finally, I realized I had to lead from behind. The trainer helped us to realize that you have to stand back in your power and put your attention on the hindquarters of the horse and inspire it to move while you are behind it.
It is the same with leading humans. No one wants to feel like a lemming. Especially not high performers. They want to be empowered, trusted and free to run. For too long, I was trying to work the hardest of anyone on my team and hope they would be inspired to keep up. That is not sustainable and can lead to burnout. Instead I have finally learned (thanks to the horses) to hire well, train thoroughly, empower people with the information they need then get out of the way.
We run Ziva with an upside down triangle. It is not top down leadership. Everyone is in charge of their own department and their managers are there to support them, not micromanage them.
The last thing I will share is that you can’t pour from an empty cup. If you are exhausted and stressed you are not helping your team, your family or your friends. So take time to fill yourself up from the source with meditation, rest and exercise.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Having a BFA in musical theatre and no official business training there is little to no chance that Ziva would have become as successful as it is without my amazing husband, Jason Lynn. While we made a deliberate choice years ago to keep Ziva and our relationship separate as to protect our marriage, I have learned so much from him along the way.
He is a brilliant strategist, consultant and product executive. Listening to him share how he runs his teams, how he prioritizes and the importance of systematizing things has really influenced how I run Ziva. He also saves me from the “shiny train syndrome,” which is when entrepreneurs get all too excited about the ‘next hot thing’ and think they should pivot because eight of their friends are doing the new thing. Jason helps me to come back to my core strategic objectives and what we can do that no one else can.
Was it difficult to fit your life into your business/career and how did you do that?
I have a six month old son, which really flips your personal and professional priorities. I had been working for the past two years to get Ziva to a place where I could take maternity leave. But having a baby, writing a book and running a company at the same time makes you get super diligent with your schedule and your priorities.
Because I love what I do, who I work with and our students, it is easy for me to work all the time. Now with my son, Jasper, I protect my time off much more. Strangely, having a son has helped my work and life to feel more balanced, which I am grateful for.
Did you find that as your success grew it became more difficult to focus on the other areas of your life?
The pro of running your own company is that you can go and take a workout class in the middle of the day if you want to. The con of it being your company is that there is an infinite amount of work to be done at all times which makes it trickier to go and take that class.
Because I teach on ‘off hours’ when most other people have down time, it is a little challenging to find times to hang out with my friends.
Can you share five pieces of advice to other leaders about how to achieve the best balance between work and personal life?
3. Relentlessly prioritize your tasks
4. Schedule in down time
5. Protect that time with your life
What gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment and pride?
My son, Jasper. It is cliché but true. Birthing him and making it through postpartum alive is the accomplishment of my life. Making it to six months of breastfeeding while running Ziva and preparing for the launch of Stress Less, Accomplish More has been a Herculean feat and worth every second.
The day I came back from maternity leave my team gathered around the table and shared with me everything they accomplished in my absence. They crushed two launches and organized a whole campaign without me. I felt so thankful, proud and relieved.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
This is easy. Meditation. Imagine a world where all 7.4 billion of us woke up each morning, brushed our teeth and then sat down to meditate before coffee or poisoning our minds with the fear-inducing news. I guarantee this planet would be a lot more enjoyable place to live.