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Why Khan Academy's Sal Khan finds walking meetings engaging

The founder and CEO of the non-profit edutech organisation Khan Academy, believes that to grow, one needs to have interests outside of work  

Salman Khan prefers to slot creative bits of his work in the mornings 
Salman Khan prefers to slot creative bits of his work in the mornings  (Khan Academy)

Salman ‘Sal’ Khan started Khan Academy, a non-profit education organisation, in Mountain View, California, in 2008. The organisation set up their office in India in 2016. The Academy has over 64 million registered users and provides free lessons in various subjects in regional languages across 190 countries. An alumnus of MIT and Harvard Business School, Khan received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Harvard University earlier this year. In this interview, he talks about the mentors he had in his career and how walking the talk is the best way of mentoring. Edited excerpts:

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Whom do you consider your mentor? 

There are three mentors who were instrumental in my career development and helped me become a better person. My first boss, Thomas Kurian, was a great mentor to me when I started working at Oracle right after college. He always said that no matter how hard things might get or how cynical you might get, try to make the world a little bit better and make the people around you feel better every day. 

My second boss, Dan Wohl, founder of the hedge fund Wohl Capital Management, taught me the importance of a balanced life. I had assumed that I would be working long hours at a hedge fund. But he said that our job as investors should not be exhausting because it would lead to making some bad decisions that may harm our clients. Instead, we should see things that other people can't, avoid bad decisions and make a few good decisions every year.  

Ann Doerr, one of our board members and chair of Khan Academy, has been a great mentor almost since the beginning of 2010. She is an incredible thought-partner and somebody I can confide in when I am unsure about something. 


What significant change did you implement that you learnt from your mentor? 

Dan Wohl’s advice on making time to do other things; not only will that balance your life, but it's going to make you a better investor. This was not apparent when we worked together, but I formed Khan Academy only because I took an interest in tutoring my cousins, besides my corporate job. 

Even at the Khan Academy board, they recognize that when I am intrigued by a tangential area of starting a passion project, it doesn't necessarily take away from what I am already doing. It becomes a much more creative process and broadens my horizon. And many of these things have a way of converging and reinforcing each other. 

What does being a mentor mean to you? How do you mentor your colleagues at work?

Mentoring is first and foremost becoming a role model and imparting your good qualities with others. Many people will say, do this or do that, but they don't do it themselves. 

Having a broader perspective and long term view is essential as well. Many leaders don't do what's in their best interest or even in their organization's best interest because they think it's not the most conventional approach. They believe they will be judged in a certain way. But that's where becoming a role model can be really powerful. 

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For instance, when I am invited to some event in the evening, I say no to it because I need to be with my kids, or do an important thing for my family. Earlier, people would say I wasn’t fully committed to work. Now that I'm in a position where I can balance my life and work better, they say, [he is] very productive at work, has interesting ideas, and [is] continuing to push the envelope without neglecting his personal life. It gives out a message that if I prioritise, then it’s not a zero-sum game, and they too can do that. 

What time do you wake up, and what's the first thing you do after waking? Basically, what's your morning schedule after waking up,

I wake up at 6.30 or 7 am, and on most days, I do a 30 minute meditation. I make my bed after that, and I am very serious about that. I make my bed very well; in fact, it looks better than any hotel bed. I would like to have that first win. Then I do some exercise in the garage followed by a cold shower, which I started doing three years ago, as I find it stimulating and puts me in a good mood. I like to keep the mornings pretty free-flowing, doing some creative work like creating new videos and thinking about making them better. 

What's the one positive work routine you have developed during the pandemic? 

Walking during virtual meetings. I find I am more engaged in the meetings when I'm walking around, I am looking at nature, my eyes are focusing on different depths, my heart is beating a little bit faster, and I am more engaged. I think this practice is one thing that has kept me feeling good during the pandemic.

Monday Motivation is a series featuring founders, business leaders and creative individuals who tell us about the people they look up to and their work ethics.

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