346: Seizing Career Opportunities with AstroLabs’ Muhammed Mekki

By September 17, 2018Podcasts

 

 

Muhammed Mekki says: "If I just... really try to put... all that I have into the next step, then the next door will open."

Muhammed Mekki lays out how to optimize your career opportunities.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why NOT to over-plan your career
  2. How to identify and capitalize on each career opportunity
  3. The nobility of management

About Muhammed

Muhammed is a Founding Partner at AstroLabs, a startup hub and training academy for tech entrepreneurs in the Middle East. AstroLabs Dubai is a specialized coworking space that hosts high potential digital technology companies, assisting founders to establish their startups and providing them with a platform to scale globally. AstroLabs Academy delivers a variety of practical training courses on topics related to digital business.

Prior to AstroLabs, Muhammed co-founded Dubai-based Namshi, now one of the largest ecommerce companies in the MENA region. He built and led the operations teams and helped raise venture capital funding to fuel the company’s growth. Muhammed is a former McKinsey & Company strategy consultant with clients across the GCC.

Muhammed received an MBA from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. He was selected for a full academic scholarship as a Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Fellow based on professional achievements as well as a demonstrated commitment to the development of the Arab World. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Economics from the Wharton School and a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies and Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania as a member of the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Muhammed Mekki Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Muhammed, thanks so much for joining up here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Muhammed Mekki
Thanks for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s so fun. We’re doing this in person, which happens very rarely, but it’s awesome to have you here.

Muhammed Mekki
It’s great to be here and see where it all happens.

Pete Mockaitis
The magic enclosed porch in Chicago. It’s really fun because, so we’ve known each other for a good long time. I think you’ve known me longer than almost every other guest, maybe Kate Roche is in the running as I also knew her in high school. But if I can put you on the spot a bit, can you share a fun Muhammed/Pete memory or anecdote.

Muhammed Mekki
Yes, so many. I guess we’ve been through quite a bit. You’re right, since high school I’ve had the pleasure of knowing you. Pete’s the kind of guy, when he puts his mind to something, he just makes it happen. That’s one of the things that I really admire about Pete.

Let me think back actually one that’s not too far away. It’s a road trip that we took together down to Olney, Illinois. We packed our car and took a four and a half hour trip/drive down to southern Illinois in pursuit of a business that we were trying to get off the ground together in tutoring. We found a first potential customer. We were excited.

We got in the car, drove all the way down for a meeting basically, to sit down with that school and figure things out, and then drove all the way back all in one day. We spent over, I think it was about nine hours in the car that day.

During that time we had a lot of fun. We were joking about things. But in the end it was about both of our passion for getting that company off the ground and trying to make things happen. In the end we weren’t really able to.

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Muhammed Mekki
We learned a lot from the experience I think. Both of us have started different ventures and tried things ourselves and this is one that we can chalk up in the category of experiences that we learned a lot from, where we just didn’t – we didn’t understand our target market enough. We didn’t understand how the product that we were building connected to the consumer.

But I’ll always remember that trip and our passion to kind of go out there and find a customer and get the thing going and what that took and rolling up our sleeves to do it.

Pete Mockaitis
That was fun. I was thinking, man, I remember telling people, “Yeah, I think we’re going to sort of eliminate the Tutor Trail,” it was called, “business after all.” And they said, “Oh, why is that?” I said, “Well, we didn’t get any revenue.”

Muhammed Mekki
Yes, exactly. Oops.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Oh, you mean profits?” Like, “No, I mean revenue.”

Muhammed Mekki
No. But we tried really hard. We even drove all the way down to the other side of the state to try to find a paying customer, but in the end it was a sign I guess. Yeah. We were smart enough at least at that point to just heed that sign and move on.

Pete Mockaitis
One of my favorite moments from that trip actually was when you were driving. It was getting kind of toasty and you wanted to take off your jacket. I don’t know if you remember this. It cracked me up. I still think about this sometimes.

You’re like, “Okay, could you hold the steering wheel?” I was like, “Okay,” so I’m in the passenger seat kind of reaching over for the steering wheel. I’m kind of uncomfortable. It’s sort of 65-ish miles per hour and a little bit of curviness. I was like, “I don’t really feel like I’ve got the best angle or control here,” and so I’m sweating a little and I think you perceived that. After you finished removing your jacket, you just said to me, “Continue.”

Muhammed Mekki
This was before the days of driverless cars. Yeah, I was on that-

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s right. It’s going to be dated in five years.

Muhammed Mekki
Indeed. Indeed.

Pete Mockaitis
They were driving themselves, huh? I think one of the first things that drew me to you was that when we were in high school and I was kind of a weird kid who read business books and all of that stuff.

Then when I encountered you, I was like whoa, here’s a guy who’s putting some proactive thought into his life, his career, his goals right up front. You were like the only person who I think I knew who was doing that as much as I was. I was like, I like him and I’m just going to clamp on to him.

Maybe you could give us some perspective in terms of how do you think about just general goal setting or life and career planning because it seems like it’s worked out for you in terms of your path here?

Muhammed Mekki
I think one of the things that I’ve learned over time from my own personal experience has been trying actually not to over plan. I see that coming up with people that I talk to all the time like try to lay out a five-, six-step path and trying to follow that path.

For me at least, I’ve always tried to optimize for the next step. If I think back on all of the steps that I’ve taken, never have I been able to see two steps ahead. Always the next step had just a core affect on what would happen in the step that followed.

Let me give you some examples. When I – for instance, in thinking about where I wanted to go to college and what I wanted to study, I had a feeling that something called business and international business, specifically, was something that really was interesting to me. This was before the day I even knew what consulting was or what being an entrepreneur really was, back in the days of high school.

But I just decided to take that leap and just went and tried to find what’s the best international business program that I can find and just put all my effort toward applying for that and trying to get into the program. While there, I was able to figure out a lot of things that kind of led to me setting the next step, setting the next goal.

In fact, it wasn’t even jumping into the job market. I ended up learning about something called the Fulbright, which is a research fellowship that I had no idea existed at the time that I did the step prior, but once I learned about that, I thought wow, it’s a great opportunity to spend a year off of the career track and actually just doing research in another country and expanding my skillsets in ways that I never thought about.

I suddenly made that into my passion, my next goal. In that kind of a way I found that even in a career standpoint, now if you fast forward, in making some of the steps that I did, I would have never imagined for instance, jumping out to the – I jumped out to the Middle East. I started consulting there. I never thought that that would then lead to me going into an entrepreneurial venture.

But one step always led to the other in ways that I could have never predicted is my point. Trying to think too much about two steps ahead, has never been useful for me. It’s always, if I just channel that energy into the next step and just really try to put everything, my presence, and all that I have into the next step, then the next door will open.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a pretty cool reframe there or distinction. If you’re thinking just about the very next step, what are kind of the criteria or rules of thumb or values you’re using to kind of evaluate a given opportunity and say, “Yup, that is good stuff?”

Muhammed Mekki
Yeah, I think that’s changed over time. I used to be optimizing for what’s the most outside perceived highest-

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you’ve done that well. It’s your impressive looking resume bio.

Muhammed Mekki
Well, that used to be an obsession, so I’m trying to figure out what’s the – how can I place myself in a position to be successful and try to get the right stamps, if you will, on the resume. That does have its benefits in terms of opening up some doors and maybe even in retrospect, most importantly, just giving myself confidence to just eventually step out.

But eventually, okay, so you go to a great school and then you get a great first job and then you get these accolades and you do all this stuff and you get promoted and you do all the right things, but then what? There comes a point at which there’s no next most impressive step to take unless you’re just going up a corporate ladder specifically within the same company going up one step after the other, after the other.

In our day and age a lot of people are shifting around to different jobs, different paths, all these types of things. At a certain point you’re like well, should I – when do I jump, when do I actually say, “I’m just going to try to think about what will make me happy and what I’d like to just do given all this stuff from before.”

Yeah, there was phase one, which yes, I was definitely unabashedly chasing after a lot of those stamps, if you will, which gave me the cushion and the background and the experience. Then phase two I would say started from when I cofounded an ecommerce company, was when I jumped off of a very stable and reputable job as a consultant at McKinsey. It was a fantastic job actually. I was enjoying it.

But at a certain point I decided, you know what, I’m going to go ahead and jump off and just take a big risk and try to start something.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a really cool perspective there in terms of stopping to think okay, so rather than perusing the next cool big prestigious thing, at some point you’re going to run out of it. It’s like, “I guess I’m going to run for Senate. Is that what I should do next? I guess that would be about-“ You sort of say it’s cool in terms of being pro-active, like, “Well, now is the time I’m going to choose to prioritize this.”

I think I even experienced that in college a bit in terms of I was always trying to do the impressive thing and then once I got my job offer, early on in senior year for a great job at Bain, I was like “Okay, well, now I’ve got this time here. I guess I’ll just do what I want to do.” I wrote a book just because I wanted to write a book. That was really fun.

Muhammed Mekki
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool to think about when to jump. We had an author who wrote that book called When to Jump.

Muhammed Mekki
When to Jump. Yeah, I mean it’s not even just about going off and doing an entrepreneurial adventure or whatever the case might be, but it’s jumping off of the tried and trodden path of just going from one step to the next step to the next step. Say okay, I’m going to take a left turn and it’s going to be a risk, but let’s see what happens.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. Well, if we could just stop for a moment at the stamps collection phase. I’m curious to hear, you’ve done a fine job with your stamp collecting. We talk about Penn Huntsman, Stanford, McKinsey, Fulbright. That is all the things a VC or a hiring manager might like to see in a compact little presentation.

Any pro tips when it comes to the applications or the interviews or how you manage to nail those again and again?

Muhammed Mekki
I think that for a lot of different prestigious programs or schools, they’re blessed with actually having way more applicants that actually qualify than they have space for. The challenge always is that even if you are qualified for a particular program or for entry into an opportunity, differentiating yourself and distinguishing yourself from the rest of the applicant pool is the challenge.

I think the aspect of these applications that I spent a lot of time on and almost obsessed about was actually the essays and the story behind why I wanted to do something. It comes back to your first question about kind of taking the step – how to decide on what is the next step.

Once I had decided, for instance, that I really wanted to after university go and do some research as a Fulbright fellow, I spent a lot of time in introspection actually and thinking about why is that and how will I apply it. I channeled a lot of that into the application and into the process. I think the challenge is differentiating yourself from the pool based on your personal story.

Similarly, when I was applying for an MBA, there are a lot of very well qualified consultants that apply to go to the top MBA programs. You risk being just put into the pool of, “Oh, another consultant that’s applying to go to a top MBA program.”

I tried to choose my stories based on one, my own personal experience and background of what can I bring to the table given my background that’s a bit different from everybody else. Kind of thinking about what distinguishes you outside of work.

For me, I have my cultural and religious background that kind of played a role as well in how I think about and how I interact with the world. I wasn’t shy in bringing that kind of stuff up in the application saying, “Yes, I am a Muslim and I have these – this is how it informs who I am. This is how I can make the class actually a richer class,” and bringing in examples of that.

Whereas some people might shy away from some of these types of topics, I feel like why not bring them to the table and show what makes you a full person that’s going to really distinguish you from just the pool of everybody else that’s there. I think that’s probably if I were to extract one learning from these different applications, that’s what I’ve tried to make happen throughout.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool, but it’s funny. I’m looking at the study Quran that you recommend that I get and it is ample with its notations. This is maybe sort of random, but I remember you had an award for reciting or having memorized is it the whole Quran or large portions of it?

Muhammed Mekki
Yeah, that was something that I did when I was actually out in – on the Fulbright. It was again, something I would have never predicted would have happened, but while I was out there I found a classical teacher. I was able to explore this other side and learn things that I hadn’t expected I would do when I first went out there.

But I just – if you keep yourself open to what you might – who you might intersect with. That was an example where I started something. I’m like, “I’m going to take this all the way to the conclusion,” and actually try to get basically a – what’s equivalent to kind of a diploma or certification actually the recitation. It became something really important to me. I did take that on.

Pete Mockaitis
How does one – those are huge chunks-

Muhammed Mekki
It’s not memorization. It’s actually recitation of the – yeah, yeah, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, so it’s sort of like pronouncing it perfectly.

Muhammed Mekki
Yeah, exactly, exactly. Much easier, much easier.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well now I’m clear there. Thank you.

Muhammed Mekki
No worries.

Pete Mockaitis
I have so much I want to hear from you in terms of generally, it seems that you kind of think and operate a little bit differently than others, in the best possible way. Not that you’re a freak or a weirdo.

I think that a couple of things that come to mind there is at one point I recall you were at a workplace and you earned a triple bump, not a single or double bump as one might get at the end of year or a review cycle, but a triple bump, which happens I guess maybe never or super rarely there. How is that done?

Muhammed Mekki
It was actually the context was that – it was early on in my career. I decided to just really just pour myself into this job and try to find – what was a slower start basically in the first projects that I was doing, I ended up finding an opportunity where I’d be working on a really small team.

The exposure – it was a combination, as a lot of things are in life, between luck and being prepared and rolling up your sleeves. The luck element of this experience was actually getting assigned to a project where I did have a chance to shine in front of a senior client.

I think as a very junior member kind of out of under grad, you don’t usually get the opportunity to be the client-facing person on the ground, but just because our team was – it was smaller than perhaps it should have been, and there was just too much work to get done, and I had built up some rapport and trust with the partner. He just sent me off. It was kind of scary, but also exciting.

I was like “Oh wow, I’m the one who’s representing this firm in front of the client in a couple of the different locations or the offices.” Once I had that – I think that’s the luck element. You have that sort of window or that opportunity.

Then it’s like “Okay, well, if I hit this one out of the park and I really show that I’m able to do much more, this is my chance.”

I think this one experience was actually what led to – it was probably the most important factor in that review cycle when we’re looking back at how I perform is actually the fact that the feedback from the client being that “Wow, Muhammed was somebody that I felt like I could – that was really adding a lot of value and was representing the firm.”

I got a lot of good feedback from the client side, so that made the partners happy. We were able to actually make a demonstrative positive impact on their business.

These things I think when you see those openings, that’s – a lot of times you’re just in a job and you’re just kind of doing the day-to-day, but every once in a while you get that chance. When that chance comes, you’ve just got to have your eagle eyes open and just read to just jump on it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah. I love that – see here we go talking about you thinking differently. I hope you’d find some gold here of perusing this line of inquiry.

Yeah, when it comes to the opportunity because you might view that opportunity in a completely different mindset in terms of “Oh my gosh, I’m already overworked. There’s no way I can take on this extra thing. I’m exhausted,” or it’s like, “Oh crap, I’m in over my head. I’m just going to try to not screw anything up, so what are the key things that could go very badly. I’m just going to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

As opposed to “How can I just super knock it out of the park?” and identifying that opportunity when it emerges. This … is I remember I guess it was – again, hey, I’ve known you since high school, so high school memories are coming back.

Muhammed Mekki
That was a long time ago.

Pete Mockaitis
I remember I was in National Honor Society. We did very little in National Honor Society because we were being honored. We were at a meeting. They said, “Okay, so, oh yeah, a clothing drive is a great service idea. Yeah.” There was a little bit of agreement behind that, like, “Yeah, yeah, that should be the thing we should do.”

Muhammed Mekki
Somebody should do that. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Then the advisor asked, “Okay, so who would like to head up the clothing drive?” I thought, well, I’m just a sophomore or junior. I don’t know. It seemed like it should be something a senior does, but I was like a sophomore or maybe a junior. There was a pause for a couple seconds and then no one raised their hand.

I thought that was really funny because what I heard her say was, “Who wants to be the National Honor Society president next year?”

Muhammed Mekki
Exactly. It’s like-

Pete Mockaitis
We do just about nothing, so if this is the one thing we do and you do it-

Muhammed Mekki
That’s basically-

Pete Mockaitis
Then we say who should lead us, it should be that person.

Muhammed Mekki
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Again, I guess I was in some of that prestige stamp collecting phase myself in high school and in college a bit. But yeah, I think that’s cool. It’s like how do you view that in terms of “Oh, that seems like a burden and exhausting,” versus “Oh, this is my window to really make some things happen.”

Muhammed Mekki
And I think the point that you brought up about risk limiting is also an important one. It’s not just the burden, it’s also like “Oh wow, I’m – things could go wrong. What if I just do the – cover the basics, I’ll be okay.” Versus going in there, what I tried to do consciously in this example, I was like, “Let’s just go and just try to just go with this. Let’s see what we can do here.”

Going in and having senior meetings with people and sitting down and really trying to uncover, we’re trying to figure out in this particular project how to really optimize a loan process, how to make it much more efficient and how to remove a lot of the problems out of the process. It involved a lot of interviewing and figuring out what people are currently doing and really doing some research into best practices.

But I took all of that on and just said I’m going to talk to everybody and really kind of uncovered a lot. Then just went into a cave and just kind of wrote a lot of that stuff out, did a lot of research, came back, presented, got the blessing of the partner, and then went to some senior people on the client side and gave them my recommendations. They liked them and they were interested and they started implementing them.

Even that was an example of just saying, you got that chance, so just go for – go all in. What’s the worst case scenario what’s going to happen? Something might go wrong. You’re a junior anyway, whatever. It’s not going to be the end of the world. I think that’s the end of the story is that it will be a learning experience. It’s fine. It’s not a big deal. But the upside is potentially really big because you’re proving yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. That’s good. Well, hey, let’s keep going in terms of you thinking differently and digging into some of your early career moments.

You were at another workplace and you spotted some inappropriate behavior, kind of just really meanness on the part of a somewhat senior leader. Tell us a little bit about what was going on and trying to preserve as much confidentiality and integrity as possible. Kind of what was going on and how were people reacting? How did you react a little bit differently?

Muhammed Mekki
Yeah, it’s surprising sometimes you find yourself in an environment that purports to be a really positive one and of high caliber and you still have these bad apples that are inside. They’ve somehow survived and even thrived within this environment. You just don’t know how that happened.

For me it was stark because I started on day one on this team that had just been assembled and it was like from the very beginning I felt something was off of this manager and the team dynamic. Something was a bit off. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was, but it didn’t take very long.

It was within that same day, hours later, you had a manager basically hurling personal insults, kind of telling this more junior member of the team that they’re just – they’re not worth as much as he is, this is why they pay him less. Things that you just – really horrible things to say, especially to a junior person. It wasn’t done in a jest or joking kind of way. This was kind of like I’m trying to get you.

It was – I remember the feeling – I remember feeling awful that I didn’t immediately stand up to this person as it happened. But then I was playing back excuses in my – oh, I just started that day and it kind of took me by surprise and blah, blah, blah. I would hope that now if that happened and I was around I would just take that person to task immediately, but I was a bit junior and it was a bit just jarring and sort of surprising.

I kind of just was – I just sort of took that in. I thought about it and decided after seeing more behavior from him in a similar way, I think none of it was directed directly at me, but I saw it happening. I decided somebody’s got to say something, so I just said, okay, I’m just going to go in and report this guy to HR, to the senior manager.

I started with a trusted senior manager within the company, telling him the story, being like, “Listen, this is what’s happening and I don’t feel comfortable working in that environment, so I’d either like to get off of this project or to figure what can we do basically.”

He opened up the door then to an inquiry that ended up happening, HR-led. It turned out the really sad thing about it was that – and this was just a lesson to learn – is that this person – they interviewed a bunch of people he had managed over the last couple of years and the stories came out at that stage where he was just repeatedly doing this over – and abusing basically his people on his team.

Nobody had stood up to him. Nobody had said anything. He had just kind of continued. That’s how people like that just kind of continue along. But I think the conclusion was a very – actually it ended on a positive note. I think I gained a lot of respect for this company because based on these findings, even though this was a very strategic project with a – and one that he was leading.

Pete Mockaitis
Plenty of dollars.

Muhammed Mekki
Exactly. That they pulled him off the project. He was basically reprimanded. They reconfigured the team very soon thereafter. I think it also shows that even a junior member of the team can have that kind of an impact and somebody’s got to stand up.

That was kind of a scary moment for me because it was just like – even though I hadn’t done anything wrong or anything, but it’s just always difficult to be the person kind of the whistleblower if you will to kind of stand up and say, “This shouldn’t be happening here. This is against our values. This is not the kind of place that I want to be working in.”

Pete Mockaitis
You see it on the news all the time, these scandals, whether it’s molestation or harassment or verbal abuse. It can persist for many, many victims and many years. It does take some courage to go there.

I think it’s awesome that you did do that and a cool reminder that the first step doesn’t necessarily need to be crazy, “I’m going to get on CNN and I’m going to shout to the mountain tops,” like, “This seems pretty off to me. I’m going to see if there’s a leader that I trust. I’m going to run it by him and we’re going to see how that goes.”

Muhammed Mekki
That’s exactly it. I didn’t know what to do, so I said let’s start there and then test that out and then when it really – thankfully, for that person it really resonated and said “Okay, we need to do something.” That support from a senior manager I think makes all the difference in the world. Had he shut it down, I think it would have been really hard for me to go and escalate. It reinforced the fact that this off. This is not the way things should be.

Pete Mockaitis
Think a little bit now in terms of how things should be. You’ve learned some lessons and now you’re co-owning a business and managing folks and being all grown up. What are some of the best practices that you’re seeing and implementing when you get to run things your way?

Muhammed Mekki
It’s interesting because I come from a family – my parents are both physicians. We have a lot of doctors in the family. There’s a lot of – maybe that immigrant generation coming in with high degrees and have a passion for doing good also, really wanting to – you can’t argue with a doctor healing people. That’s just good.

Sometimes when you look at – you look at somebody who’s in management or somebody’s who’s in business. It’s like, okay, this guy’s – person’s out to kind of make more money or it’s – it doesn’t seem like-

Pete Mockaitis
Cash is king. Greed is good.

Muhammed Mekki
Exactly. It’s not the most noble of callings on the surface when you look at it. I think this is something that I’ve thought about. What I found over time is that actually management can be quite a noble calling. It depends a lot about how the perspective that you bring to the table.

This is particularly for those who are embarking on the path of managing your first employee or starting on a small team or later on when you have a bunch of people that report into you, to think about just the impact that you can have as a manager on that person, not just their career, but their life.

It really puts a different perspective on the table because the small things that you do to develop and to help push and develop your team really can have a huge impact.

I was managing a team in a previous role and then seeing some of the team members actually go off and get amazing opportunities in other jobs and really upgrading and going –

We pulled in somebody from a completely different industry who took a leap of faith and jumped into tech and ecommerce. Then she ended up kind of continuing along that path and jumping into a couple of other companies that are well-regarded and continuing to improve her position and getting a lot more opportunities.

You kind of think like wow, that interview and convincing her to kind of actually jump off from the hospitality industry into sort of the tech and ecommerce industry actually did have a big impact on her life in the end because that ended up changing the way – changing her path.

That’s a responsibility for sure, but also it’s exciting because then it opened up a lot more doors and hopefully the skills and lessons learned from the experience being on the team. It will be something to be able to take with you for the rest of your life. That’s something I – that’s the element of management that is I think something which makes it a really important and meaningful path.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. I’m curious then – that’s a great reframe in terms of its – your responsibility is big in terms of where you kind of end up leading people in the lives that they get to have as well as sort of the day in/day out sort of skills development, and coaching, and growing that can either happen or not happen based upon your willingness to invest time and candor into your relationship.

Any other kind of things that you swear by in terms of effective teaming or productivity or making it happen?

Muhammed Mekki
Yeah, that was big picture stuff. Then if we get down into the more smaller details, I think a few things that we at AstroLabs now, the company that I’m currently managing, are quite passionate about.

I think one is always closing the loop. We’re always – whether – if you’ve opened up something with somebody or somebody’s expecting something from you to make sure that you’re getting back to that person as quickly and as kind of comprehensively as possible. It makes a big difference.

I think whether that’s within your own team or with outside partners or people that you’re dealing with, I think that’s something that distinguishes our organization.

We on a very tactical path, we’re big proponents of inbox zero, zero inbox basically, which is to make sure that you’re on top of everything that’s coming into your email, into your inbox. Once you’ve cleared something out, once you’ve dealt with it, you’re archiving it, you’re getting it out of your inbox.

The things that are in your inbox, and now even in Gmail there’s a new snooze feature, which used to be something that was a plugin called Boomerang. But you could just say “I don’t need to deal with this right now. I’m going to get back to it in another couple weeks or in another week or so.”

You can have it leave your inbox and have it come back in after a week just to make sure you’re not letting things fall off of your radar. We – that’s one of the things that we’re quite – we value a lot within the context of our company.

At the same time we’re against face time and just being there for the sake of being there and doing things – but I think there is an importance to actually making sure that you’re following through on your commitments and you’re closing the loop with people and you’re on top and not letting things just fall through the cracks and being proactive. These are some of the ways in which we achieve that.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. It’s funny. We’ve had some guests who say, “Don’t look at your email first thing in the morning. You’re being reactive. Are you really productive if you just answered all of your emails? Is that what it’s about?” How do you kind of balance the perspective associated with, “Oh, you’ve got to have that deep work, that quiet focused time, the maker time,” versus crushing every email.

Muhammed Mekki
It’s a really good point. I think you can get into this trap of just letting other people put a bunch of stuff on your to-do list if you’re just reactive and that’s all you do.

I think closing the loop only applies, in my perspective, on things that you’ve started or where there is already a relationship. I’m not saying that any message that comes into your inbox you have to reply to or deal with. You get inbound that you just decide I never asked for this. This person reached out to me out of nowhere. I’m just going to archive it.

That was a change for me because I’m so – I need to deal with everything. It’s like, well no, actually I don’t need to deal with this because I don’t have time and this person’s taking my time. But if it’s something where I’ve opened up that thread or there is an expectation of getting back, I sure make sure – I do make sure that I do that.

What balances it out is making sure that there is a weekly and maybe longer term sort of goals for juicy things to achieve and actually blocking off some time on a calendar to say “I’m going to go dive deep into drafting X, Y, or Z,” or “I’m going to make sure that I’m getting the brain time in order to structure this project that I want to do” versus just being on the email and just replying to everything in lightning speed.

I think it – yes, there is a balance. I’m just passionate about making sure that you are – that things don’t fall through the cracks as my – that’s a pet peeve of mine, if you will.

But the way we balance it out is saying, “Okay, as a team what is everybody planning to achieve besides the day-to-day stuff?” Everybody knows, okay, you’ve got to do your day-to-day job, but what are the bigger, juicier things that as a team we want to achieve this week. When we set those – we have those discussions. From there we can see if there’s ways that the team can collaborate and work together on some of the points.

Then we can keep each other honest, like “Okay, which of these bigger projects have we gotten done? If we haven’t, why? If we have, what else can we do?” That’s a good mechanism that we use internally to make sure that we’re not just running through the hamster wheel of answering emails.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. As we discuss this, it reminded me that I owe you an email about the lead generation thing we talked about, so I’m ashamed.

Muhammed Mekki
It’s good brainstorming and working together. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell me anything else you want to make sure to mention or highlight before we shift gears into talk about some of your favorite things?

Muhammed Mekki
Yeah, I think the – I’d say that one of the things that I try to do – took the opportunity in a transition point, which was business school, was to really shift things up a bit. In my case I wanted to jump into the tech sector and I wanted to jump to a new geography.

I decided that I couldn’t do both at one time so that was one thing that I thought about. I was like well, I tried but I couldn’t really figure out this new sector that I never worked in and all this and in a new geography.

I went ahead and just decided to – that actually going to business school is a great chance to do – to change something big and it’s a good post or sign post. I went ahead and jumped out to Dubai, to the Middle East, and continued doing the kind of work that I was doing in the past.

That wasn’t as big of a change, but I had my eye open to the new sector that I was hoping to get into and eventually was able to make that jump.

Didn’t know exactly how it was going to happen, so, again, going back to the earlier point about not over planning. I did have an idea of where I wanted to go, but I let that opportunity kind of emerge as I had kind of – as I was settling in as I was understanding the landscape. Then the chance to be able to get some funding and actually start a company happened in a way that I couldn’t have predicted.

I think that’s one of the other learnings that I’ve had is just taking that risk and jumping out, whether it’s an international assignment within company or a chance just to experience something different. Earlier on in the career, it’s a lot easier to do. You kind of just jump on those opportunities would be a piece of advice is just whatever sounds a little bit crazy, a little bit different, just try it.

It will just – a) it will give you those stories that we talked about it in the past. We go back to the applications and being able to distinguish yourself. If you’re just in the same job, doing the same thing, kind of going up, it’s harder to distinguish yourself. You’re going to have to dig deeper.

But if you really had a – even a short term experience that’s a bit different, but you kind of took a leap, took a risk, it’s something that you can anchor a really cool story about and really distinguish yourself when you’re trying to get to the next step or the step after that.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, thank you. Now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Muhammed Mekki
The one that I use often is “You don’t get what you don’t ask for.” I think it’s something that I’ve learned that it doesn’t hurt to ask in any context. It just doesn’t hurt to ask. Nobody’s going to give you something unless you’re going to ask for it.

If – whether it’s in a professional environment and you’re thinking about taking on more responsibility or you want to do something a bit different or you want to stretch yourself, yes, an excellent manager will say – will see the potential and place you perfectly, but a lot of times you’re not going to get that chance without asking for it.

Or even in a much more mundane situation. If you’re travelling somewhere and you’re trying to get an extra perk or you’re trying to – you just – nobody’s going to give you something unless you actually make that request.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome, thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or a bit of research?

Muhammed Mekki
I think Clay Christensen from Harvard Business School did – there was a study – it’s like an article on how will you measure your life basically. It kind of comes back to the point that we talked about earlier about management being a higher calling.

You’re not going to measure your life based on how many widgets you sell. “I’m going to sell 5% more widgets, then I’ve got 15% week-on-week growth” or “I was able to get this project approved by senior management.”

These are not the things that you’re going to remember or that will make an impact on your life long term, but making an impact on people and the people around you, your team, and all these types, … and they’re more meaningful. He delves into that. I believe it even turned into a book. But that’s an interesting one to kind of take a look at.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, thank you. How about a favorite book?

Muhammed Mekki
In this theme, in this spirit, I think, there’s a book called Rework. It’s a little bit more entrepreneurial sort of focused, but it does have lessons across the board on just how to be efficient and productive in a work environment. They kind of challenge some of the traditional assumptions about what is an effective work environment.

It’s done by founders of 37signals, which is a distributed tech company that everybody was working at a different environment, wherever they wanted to work from, that they bootstrapped, they didn’t take funding. It was kind of a unique context and had some really interesting juicy insights to take you there.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. How about a favorite tool?

Muhammed Mekki
Probably LinkedIn. I find myself using LinkedIn a lot. I think it’s – as I’ve used social media less and less, I think the utility of and the power of that tool in a business context has been quite powerful.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Muhammed Mekki
I don’t know if it’s a habit, but it’s something that my wife and I have been talking more purposefully about. Being out in Dubai, I think making a habit out of – it’s not easy with two little kids now – but spending some quality time out in – out here in the US or making sure that we are staying connected with our friends and our family and everything.

I think – we just spent a couple weeks out actually in the Bay Area, where I went to school and have a lot of classmates and everything. Keeping in touch in a face-to-face kind of a way, beyond the emails, beyond this, but actually just meeting up, seeing the kids and keeping those relationships.

Even though we’re a 16-hour plane ride away from San Francisco and it does take an extra effort, I think it’s something that’s well worth it and it’s something that is important to us.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Speaking of kids, Jonathan has probably woken up since we’ve been speaking.

Muhammed Mekki
I can’t wait.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell me, is there a particular nugget that you find that you share it often and people kind of quote it back to you, like, “Oh yeah, Muhammed says this.”

Muhammed Mekki
I don’t know if I’ve reached this kind of level of – but I think probably the joke internally at AstroLabs is definitely – even this – the quote that I mentioned is “You don’t get what you don’t ask for,” is sometimes “You don’t get,” dot, dot, dot. You kind of – that’s probably the one that I would bring up.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Muhammed Mekki
They can reach out on LinkedIn actually. I’d be happy to connect. Just drop me a little note and connect.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Muhammed Mekki
Yeah, I think if we just tie together a few of the things we were talking about. Keep your eye open for these opportunities to outperform and to do something fantastic. That’s kind of like your lucky opening. Just jump on it and outperform and go above and beyond.

Look for chances to distinguish yourself from the rest of the pack. That might mean taking an international assignment or jumping on – doing something a bit different with your career that’s outside – taking that left turn as opposed to everybody else going up a ladder.

Think about chances to be able to do that, which will position you really well whether you’re trying to apply for something or you’re looking for your next opportunity. You have something a little bit different and deeper to be able to talk about and to show that you’re willing to take a risk and willing to do something new and different.

Then yeah, I would love to connect and challenge people to come on over to Dubai and see what’s happening in the tech sector. We’ve got lots of companies now that are from all over the world actually setting up their presence in Dubai and scaling up there to emerging markets around the region. Happy to connect with your listeners who might be passing through and are interested in technology and in the region.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome. That’s a fun – I would just encourage folks to take Muhammed up on that. He’s a gracious host, sliced watermelon and more, often-

Muhammed Mekki
Watermelon is key. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Muhammed, I’m glad we finally got to do this. It’s been a blast.

Muhammed Mekki
Thanks for having me. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Keep on rocking.

Muhammed Mekki
This was great.

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