Tara Swart is a doctor and neuroscientist, designing and running the neuroscience and leadership course at MIT Sloan School of Management and guest lecturing at Stanford Graduate School of Business and the University of Oxford Saïd Business School.
Dr Swart grew up in London and studied medicine at Oxford university. She subsequently studied for a PhD in neuroscience at King’s College London and worked in psychiatry for seven years before moving into consultancy work. She now runs her own company, The Unlimited Mind, working with banks, hedge funds and chief executives, as well as business schools.
In her spare time, Dr Swart practices yoga and mindfulness. She also enjoys theatre, ballet, art galleries and reading sci-fi or historical novels.
1. What is an average day at work like?
When I decided to change career I knew that I wanted balance and variety in my life so it is rather difficult to describe an average day. I always do some reading and writing and am often seeing coaching clients — although I only have a handful of chief executives and chief financial officers now as I am spending most of my time running sustainable performance programmes at banks and hedge funds.
The programmes are based on applied neuroscience so I might be doing stress and resilience monitoring with wearable technology, looking at nutrition and hydration diaries, coaching on meaning and purpose or finding the right mindfulness technique for busy executives. Up to half the time, I will find myself in London, New York, Boston, Palo Alto, Oxford, Oslo, Stockholm or Bratislava, speaking at seminars or conferences on how neuroscience can improve your brain and your business.
2. Which three top tips would you highlight from your book Neuroscience for Leadership: Harnessing the Brain Gain Advantage?
Neuroplasticity — find ways to stimulate your brain to keep it flexible and growing from age 25 — 65, eg learn a new language or musical instrument.
Brain agility — hone the parts of the brain you use less frequently, utilising your technical skills. Try listening to your intuition more, using creative methods or empathy for the context of a situation.
Resilience — the brain and the body are intimately connected. Everyone knows that what you eat and drink, how well you sleep and whether you exercise affects your physical health, but it is a little more of a leap to notice how directly these factors affect your workplace productivity and capability.
3. What would you do if you were dean of a business school for the day?
I would revise the catering, introduce treadmill desks, sleep pods and a yoga/meditation room because the effect of nutrition, hydration, exercise, napping and mindfulness on learning are massively underrated.
4. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?
When I had completed my PhD research and was struggling to start the process of writing, the professor of neuro-anatomy at King’s College London said “write something!” and I have never forgotten that, especially when it came to writing my books. Starting always feels like the most difficult part. Baroness Susan Greenfield, my tutor at Oxford, told me more recently: “Don’t try to write a book . . . when you find something that you have no choice but to write about, it will happen”.
5. What is your biggest lesson learnt?
Follow your passion and you will be successful. You hear high-profile people say this a lot and the human tendency is to think that it must have been easy for them. Leaving medicine and starting again at the bottom of the pile in my mid-thirties was a huge decision for me but it made total sense after a few years, compared with a lifetime of doing what was expected of me and what seemed to be the right next step in the natural order of things. What seemed like a big risk was not really a risk at all. Not doing it would have been the real risk.
6. What advice would you give to women graduating this year from business school?
Find sponsors, a mentor and a coach. On top of never forgetting to nurture your friendships and close personal relationships, don’t underestimate the power of having as many good people around you professionally, to hold you accountable to being at your best.
7. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?
I don’t make a big deal about it. I know who I am and I enjoy maintaining my femininity in all aspects of my life. I give great importance to all relationships being based on mutual respect regardless of gender. But at the age of 16, I did go to a school that had 60 girls and 600 boys so that probably helped.
8. What is the last book you read?
I read several books simultaneously. I am part of a Skype neuroscience and business book club where I last read Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley. I intersperse my business reading with a novel and something to do with personal or spiritual development. My last big novel was The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, which is about a missionary family in the Belgian Congo. I am also reading a book of selected poems by Rumi, the Persian philosopher.
9. What is your favourite business book?
My personal favourite is Leadership Without Easy Answers by Ronald Heifetz but the one I recommend most to clients is What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith. Marshall very kindly gave me a signed a copy for a former client of mine who told me this book changed his life.
10. What are your future plans?
My mission is to disseminate simple, pragmatic neuroscience-based messages that change the way people work and that translate to tangible financial improvements in business. As well as launching the neuroscience and leadership programme at MIT and my book, I am looking into co-creating an app with KPMG, to help people with brain agility and resilience and designing a range of products that boost brain function with Imbibery London, a detox juice company.
Further reading: Heads of business need neuroscience