The “Big Rock, Pebble, Sand” Analogy – and Other Tips for Success

27 MAY 2020

In an edition of the Glass Hammer, an online community designed for women executives in financial services, law and business, three colleagues at Goldman Sachs share their best practices for success – ranging from thinking strategically and helping to further their teams' goals to balancing competing priorities, considering mobility opportunities and "managing up."

Meet the interviewees and hear their take – including the Big Rock, Pebble and Sand analogy, which serves as a helpful reminder on managing significant demands on one’s time during this challenging period.

What actions do you take throughout your day to ensure you’re best helping your team and furthering its mission and strategy?

Holly Batchelor is a vice president in the Global Markets Division, based in Hong Kong.

Holly: I try to share as much information as possible with my team and keep everyone in the loop. Work is more enjoyable and fulfilling when you know why you’re working on a task, and are aware of the strategy you’re helping to implement.

Meyanna: When I introduce a new project or task for my team, I aim to provide sufficient context by explaining how this deliverable supports our firmwide or divisional strategy.

How do you allocate time for both strategic thinking and execution in your role?

Holly: Knowledge is power. Having a sense of what the market looks like and what our competitors are doing allows me to develop a strategy for my team and our plan for execution.

Meyanna: I like to think of this as “zooming in” and “zooming out.” If the CEO stopped by your desk while you were in the middle of analyzing millions of rows of data and asked, “What are you working on?” how would you respond in a sentence or two? This exercise helps me think strategically.

What recommendations do you have for balancing competing priorities?

Meyanna Jiang is a vice president in the Controllers Division, based in New York.

Holly: To-do lists! It’s important to stay on top of priority projects, even as things pop up that require immediate attention. I often use the “big rock, pebble, sand” analogy when thinking about what I need to set aside time for: the big rocks are my major tasks and strategic initiatives, the pebbles are shorter-term tasks of lesser importance, and the sand is minor tasks that aren't essential to my success.

Meyanna: Stay organized, whether it’s adding calendar reminders, writing to-do lists, or color-coding emails to help you stay on track. I also remind my team that it’s ok to push back on requests or to say “no” when needed. Unless you speak up, no one will know that you need help.

Anisha: It’s important to remember that having a fulfilling life outside of work helps your career and your work product. It might seem unrelated, but I think you can bring a more positive energy to the office when you have personal interests that also motivate you.

Given the current environment, what advice do you have for others who are adjusting to working from home while balancing the stress of a pandemic? 

Anisha George is an associate in the Consumer and Investment Management Division, based in Dublin.

Anisha: I made a list of daily and weekly goals. I’ve stayed busy by calling up my family and friends, cooking something new, reading for a little bit, playing board games with my partner and cleaning the house. Keeping busy is the way I keep the stress of what’s happening in the world at bay.

Holly: Take the time to set up your new “office” to ensure that you have what you need to work comfortably from home. I hadn’t realized how comfortable the chairs at our GS offices were until I learned this the hard way sitting in a dining chair all day! In addition, we can use this time as an opportunity to try things in our new working environments that wouldn’t be possible in our normal offices – something simple like lighting a scented candle or listening to music can help to bring some calm to an otherwise stressful situation.

Meyanna: Try to set a boundary for when you are at work or off work. This could mean creating a daily morning routine before you log in, such as doing a virtual workout or brewing yourself a cup of coffee, or an after-work routine of checking in with loved ones, perfecting a recipe, or picking up a new hobby. I also try to limit my exposure to news and social media to just what I need to stay informed, and I remind myself that, like other crises, this too shall pass.

Any lessons learned on the importance of delegating?

Meyanna: I’ve learned that the worst thing you can do as a manager is to delegate a task and then take it back, because this demotivates the team and makes them feel like their work is not valued. I’ve also learned that I need to provide “air cover” and give enough space for my team members to fail safely.

Anisha: I used to dislike delegating because it required me to put in extra time and effort, but over time I realized that I would not be half as successful as I am today if every leader who invested in me had felt the same way about delegating. You can’t lead if no one is following.

Holly: Delegation gives you the capacity to stretch further to build your business, and it allows you to effectively train and coach the colleagues whom you are delegating work to. Delegating work to others also allows for greater diversity of thought and experience, which often leads to better solutions.

How do you “manage up” with senior stakeholders?

Anisha: Before meeting senior stakeholders I make sure to always prepare – people want to feel that their time is being valued, and adequate preparation helps shape and inform your conversation. When you have a strong agenda and follow-up plan when connecting with stakeholders, “managing up” just happens.

Holly: First, you need to identify who your stakeholders are and what is important for them. Then, determine how they like to be kept up to date – do they prefer face-to-face catch ups, e-mail summaries, a full business plan? Adapting your style to match theirs will have much more of an impact.

Do you have a mentor or sponsor? If so, how do you make the most of your conversations with them?

Holly: I have mentors within and outside of the firm that I often reach out to for advice. I put notes  in my calendar to schedule catch-ups with them in order to nurture the relationship, just as you would with a client or stakeholder in your business.

Meyanna: I have relationships with both mentors and sponsors, and many of these connections have formed organically. Managers can be a great resource, too – they have introduced me to contacts in their networks. Prior to each conversation with them, I write down a few topics for discussion, such as challenges in my day job or planning for the next step in my career.

Anisha: I have more than one mentor because I value receiving guidance from different stakeholders. My mentors have diverse perspectives and push me to evaluate situations in different ways.

Have you participated in internal mobility? Do you have any advice for colleagues interested in either switching roles or offices?

Meyanna: If you are exploring a role switch, raise your hand. Mention to your manager or mentor that you are interested in learning more about a certain business or working in a different location. It is easier for them to help you if they know your interests. In the meantime, continue being a rock star in your current role and look for ways to give yourself exposure to areas you are interested in.

Anisha: I relocated from Bengaluru to Dublin in January. The best advice I received when I was considering mobility was to focus on “What?” and “Why?” – meaning, “What do you want to do long-term?” and “Why do you want to move?” Once you have answered these questions, your options will become more clear.

Do you have a personal development plan to keep yourself accountable?

Meyanna: I recommend writing down your goals. My last set of short- and long-term goals were written on a post-it note stuck to a bar of chocolate. (My team knows I always keep chocolate at my desk.) As I slowly finished the chocolate bar, I found that I was able to complete my goals over time. In addition, I find that it is helpful to share your goals with a buddy, who can help hold you accountable.

Holly: In the early stages of my career I didn’t have any plan other to absorb as much information as possible. That hasn’t changed, but I now also set career goals with deadlines based on discussions I have with my mentors and stakeholders – incorporating their input is important in order to set realistic goals.

Anisha: I think about where I want to be in one year and in 10 years, and develop my short- and long-term plans to achieve those goals. It’s necessary to also be nimble and update your goals as your world evolves.

Reflecting on your career at Goldman Sachs to date, what advice would you share with individuals just starting out?

Meyanna: Be curious in your work, and look for ways to keep yourself challenged. I try to do one thing that scares me each week, whether it be public speaking, or volunteering for a project that I might not know much about.

Holly: The ability to grow and nurture your network is invaluable – you might not realize it now, but the people you work with and get to know at the beginning of your career can be hugely influential and helpful later on.

Anisha: I have found that projects others were not interested in working on ultimately had the biggest impact on my career. In addition, I would remind others that each individual has a unique journey – everyone’s path to success is different. I have learned to find joy and meaning in my own journey by setting personal goals and working to achieve them.


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