Photo courtesy of Alyeska Pipeline Service Company
Lead People, Not Projects
By Michelle Egan

needed to do something completely removed from my professional life. For 25 years I had focused intently on raising my children and building a career in public relations. Life was about balancing family and professional priorities. While the kids were young, I attended countless close-to-home leadership seminars, read management and business material from the bleachers at sports practices and completed a Master’s degree, studying while my teenagers did homework at the kitchen table. In 2016, with the kids off at college and my career established as a chief communications officer, I finally had time to immerse myself in something just for me. Only something intense and challenging would take my mind off work.

Yoga teacher training in Costa Rica fit the bill. Completing a 200-hour yoga certification in two weeks with Marianne Wells Yoga School was intense. From 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. we studied philosophy, learned anatomy, read everything from ancient texts to kinesiology articles and practiced asana, the physical part of yoga. I was out of my element and far from my corporate comfort zone. I didn’t know any of the other students, who came from every imaginable background. They knew nothing about me, my family, work or accomplishments. On the class continuum, I was older, less strong and flexible and less interested in a career teaching yoga. While I hoped to offer the occasional non-profit or workplace class, my real goal was to earn a certification in an area unrelated to my career.

It turns out my yoga immersion was not at all separate from my professional life. Like any effective instructor, my teacher repeated favorite phrases continually throughout two weeks, which planted them firmly in my psyche. Were they chants or mantras or yoga cues? No. They were universal leadership lessons.

Lead People, Not Projects
My teacher, Marianne Wells, would say, “Teach people, not postures.” This means you focus on the whole person in class, not on the physical posture you want them to achieve. What is their experience? Their current mindset? Their physical capability? This advice to connect with and guide the student first got me through my first class when a blind woman unexpectedly joined the session. It has also served me through daily leadership challenges.

At work this translates to “lead people, not projects.” It’s easy to look at a mountain of work and just start assigning tasks. But the to-do list doesn’t complete projects; people do. Each person on a team brings their own strengths, perspective and personal story. These factors can conflict with or enhance their work. I have to understand and connect with my team so they help shape the vision and get the right work assignments, with the right support at the right time. Do I do this perfectly? No, but just like my yoga practice, I keep coming back to try again. Tom Barrett, my boss and president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, calls this “performance through people.” People are the priority.

Cultivate a Beginner’s Mind
Shoshin is a word from Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind.” I’m not Buddhist, but I have seen the value of this concept in my life. My yoga teacher first taught me to “cultivate a beginner’s mind” on the mat. When I approach a familiar yoga pose as if I’m doing it for the first time, my senses heighten and I can tune in to all of the physical and mental components and benefit from them. I’m a better guide for students when I see yoga through the eyes of a beginner.
Lead People, Not Projects; Yoga Wheel Pose Image
Old Fangak market. Photo by Todd Hardesty
Photos by Julie Broyles
We practice having a beginner’s mind at Alyeska, where we work tirelessly to improve already strong worker and process safety performance. A big part of our effort is improving employee mindfulness. This means each task gets executed with clear focus on every step. It’s easy to perform routine tasks mindlessly, assuming they are simple and overlooking serious risks. But when workers approach each job as a beginner, they can avoid hazards and see opportunities to improve the process.
Lead People, Not Projects Image; Photo courtesy of Michelle Egan
Photo courtesy of Michelle Egan
Leaders who cultivate a beginner’s mind see things as others see them and develop empathy and understanding. When I bring a beginner’s mind to work, I’m more curious, I learn more and I’m more creative. How does a leader get a beginner’s mind? By slowing down. Occasionally, take on the mundane tasks you ask others to do. Put yourself in unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations like I did in Costa Rica. I didn’t set out to discover the value of novelty, discomfort and the unfamiliar, but it made me a better leader.
Thoughts, Words, Action
When Marianne spoke in the yoga shala about “thoughts, words, action,” I critically thought we were talking about visualizing something so intently that it is manifested into reality. I have enough experience to know that thinking long enough about a BMW doesn’t make it materialize in my driveway. The lesson is far more practical than that. My teacher pushed me to explore the value of linking thoughts, words and action. In yoga, “thoughts, words, action” can mean you mindfully prepare to teach your class, then you effectively communicate with students, and model or demonstrate so your behavior matches your words. More importantly, what you practice on your yoga mat, you take into the world.
Business leaders work to align our thoughts, words and actions. The result is known as “authenticity.” As a leader, what I think, say and do expresses volumes to my team and coworkers. Like most people, I struggle to keep these in perfect alignment. Sometimes I say the words but I don’t follow through, or I speak without thinking.

One way to fix misalignment is to “begin with the end in mind” as Steven Covey suggests. Not long ago, I recognized I was bringing a cynical mindset to work which led to a sarcastic tone and lower productivity. I wanted to turn this around. It had been a while since I started my day on my yoga mat, but I unrolled it and spent five quiet, thoughtful moments focused on optimism. This simple act of pausing and thinking before rushing headlong into my day increased my energy. I found myself taking a positive tone with my team and colleagues and I completed work that had been on the procrastination list for far too long. It wasn’t a perfect day, but when my thoughts, words and actions wandered, I returned to the intention that started the day.

Leadership is a Practice
On the yoga mat, there’s always something new to learn: a more challenging pose, deeper relaxation, a stronger mind-body connection. When I fall or stray or get distracted, I come back and begin again. That’s why we call it a yoga “practice.” It’s the same with leadership. We have countless opportunities to come back and try again to lead people not projects, cultivate a beginner’s mind, and align our thoughts, words and actions. Enjoy the practice!
Michelle Egan Headshot

Michelle Egan is Chief Communications Officer for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, a mother of two millennials and a yoga student. She earned her yoga teacher certification at Marianne Wells Yoga School and occasionally teaches yoga at Special Olympics Alaska and in the workplace.

Michelle Egan is Chief Communications Officer for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, a mother of two millennials and a yoga student. She earned her yoga teacher certification at Marianne Wells Yoga School and occasionally teaches yoga at Special Olympics Alaska and in the workplace.