Globalisation, managing a business in a VUCA environment, and an increased feeling of isolation have made being a CEO more difficult than ever. In fact, two-thirds of CEOs are currently struggling with stress and exhaustion. But they don’t have to be. CEOs need to work harder to rise above it, identify the cause of their stress, and proactively manage it.
As a leader, stress can impact both your mental and physical health. It can also lead to poor decision-making and inefficient work. If you want to be the best that you can be, you need to control your stress effectively and ensure that it doesn’t control you.
This process begins with a better understanding of stress, how it originates, and how you can mitigate it. There are four major types of stress: time stress, anticipatory stress, situational stress, and encounter stress. Each of these has its own nuances, drawbacks, and even benefits.
1. Time stress
The clock is ticking and there’s no way you’re going to be able to accomplish everything that you need to do. As deadlines loom ahead, you start to wonder whether you’re even capable of fulfilling the duties of your position.
Time stress involves the pervasive feeling that there’s never enough time in the day. This type of stress tends to occur as deadlines approach. CEOs are responsible for a tremendous number of deadlines, and realistically they can’t all be met. A CEO may find that they simply cannot achieve all their goals, and this can lead to feelings of failure.
But time stress is also one of the easiest types of stress to handle as it’s related to something tangible and immutable. Though you can change your habits, there’s nothing you can do about time itself. Because of this, being realistic about your goals is one of the most critical aspects of relieving time stress.
- Brush up on your time management skills. You may not have enough time because time is simply slipping away unnoticed. Pay attention to how you’re spending your time and work to optimise it.
- Delegate your tasks intelligently. You may actually not have enough time in the day, especially if you have been trying to handle everything yourself. If a task can be handed off, it should be.
- Be realistic about what you can and can’t do. Don’t take on too much. Part of being a leader is ensuring that you aren’t put in the position of over-promising and under-delivering.
The more control you have over your time, the less stress you’ll experience. After all, you’ll already know what you can and can’t do, and you’ll be able to avoid over-booking yourself. Here is an article on how to effectively delegate tasks in order to free up time in your day.
2. Anticipatory stress
The new expansion seems to be going great, but there’s no way of really knowing until the doors open. Are you going to be prepared?
CEOs may begin to experience stress before a major event, especially if the results are uncertain. This is natural; it’s that fight-or-flight instinct kicking in before an upcoming ‘battle’.
Since you don’t know what you should prepare for, all you can do is wait and worry — and that, in itself, can become damaging. Anticipatory stress is one of the most insidious forms of stress because it can be constant. After all, there’s almost always something new around the corner. Anticipatory stress also conveys no true benefit: worrying about a situation that you can’t change doesn’t help.
- Prepare yourself. The better prepared you are for upcoming events, the less you will have to worry about.
- Be confident in your decisions. Though you may not always be able to make the right decision, you should be able to make the best-informed decision. You are, after all, still human.
- Focus on tangible actions. Rather than worrying, look for something that you can investigate or improve. This allows you to take control over the situation in a functional way.
3. Situational stress
All the data is gone, and the backups are nowhere to be found. Could this spell the end for your business?
Even the best-prepared leaders will occasionally face an emergency. The emergency above — data loss — has happened to nearly a third of all organisations at one point or another. This type of stress is generally blended with panic, and that can lead to exceptionally poor decision-making. Emergency situations often require immediate action, and they can have devastating consequences. CEOs will often feel under pressure to quickly make the right decisions to steer their business out of danger.
- Take a breather. Even in an emergency, you need to take the time to think things through; otherwise, you could simply compound your problems.
- Seek out advice. A knowledgeable mentor or experienced business partner may be able to reframe your perspective and give you some useful tips.
- Remove yourself from the situation. If it’s a specific environment that is triggering your stress, remove yourself from it to fully consider your options.
4. Encounter stress
It’s that time again — downsizing. You know that it’s part of running a business, but that doesn’t make the meetings any easier.
CEOs need to deal with people, and not all of those dealings are pleasant. From employee reviews to firings, there can be many social encounters that are less than pleasant.
CEOs may feel stress when approaching negotiations, dealing with angry customers, or having to censure their own employees. Encounter stress can also simply arise from having to be in constant contact with many individuals, as having to be social and ‘on’ all the time can be exhausting. This can lead to a feeling of brain drain and impact a CEO’s ability to work.
- Remember to make time for yourself. It’s important to get some alone time in every day so you don’t always feel as though you’re performing your duties as a CEO.
- Develop your emotional intelligence. Learning more about why people feel a certain way and how you can have positive interactions with them can help put you back in control.
- Don’t take it personally. You can’t please all the people all the time; learn to accept the fact that sometimes people will walk away unhappy.
Ultimately, you aren’t going to be able to eliminate all the stressors in your life — but you can turn them to your advantage. CEOs need to be extremely mindful when managing their stress levels, as stress can come from all four corners at once. A little bit of stress is motivating, but a lot of stress can lead to poor decisions and negative social interactions. As long as you can identify why you’re feeling stressed, you can work to alleviate that stress.
A supportive network of peers and mentors can help a great deal. For the most part, stress is unnecessary; it only serves to cloud the mind. Through TEC, you can access a supportive CEO peer-to-peer network where you can learn stress management techniques from other leaders. Sign up for TEC today to begin building a path to better decisions.
It’s 5:30 p.m., and you’re just about to leave the office — but are you actually leaving?
Let’s unpack this.
Work is technically over, but has your mind stopped thinking about it? Are you still coming up with solutions to your work problems as you’re commuting home?
This kind of ‘grit’ is what a lot of people equate to ‘resilience’. But is this what resilience is? Is this what we should all strive for?
The first image that springs to mind when we think about resilience is quite militant. It’s this idea of a soldier with grit — someone who can stand tall and endure through rough, stressful times. This stems from the ubiquitous belief that the tougher we are, the more successful we will be.
However, this form of ‘endurance’ is costing companies over 63.2 billion dollars in lost productivity. Evidence demonstrates that there’s a correlation between a lack of recovery from stress and cognitive overload and an increase in health and safety issues.
What does this mean? Poor health means a decrease in the quality of our brain functionality and a decrease in our quality of work. In other words, when ‘we sacrifice sleep in the name of productivity… despite the extra hours we spend at work… [it] adds up to 11 days of lost productivity per year per worker’.
Where did the resilience misconception come from?
As a society, we have always been amazed by peoples’ abilities to push themselves to their limits. Why else do we celebrate the 100-hour work week of Elon Musk?
We praise people who don’t have a healthy work-life balance and often fall into the trap of attributing their successes to their ‘resilience’ or ability to carry through the tough times and do what appears impossible to the average human.
So what is resilience?
It’s about pushing yourself to excel, to focus, to grow, and to achieve — and then stopping to recover before giving again.
The science behind it? Homeostasis.
When work, stress, and outside pressures put us out of alignment, we end up using a lot more mental and physical resources to restore our bodies back in balance before we are able to recuperate and move forward.
Being resilient means being strong enough to not fall prey to cognitive overload. It’s being able to relax and unwind and be present in the current moment. It’s taking time for yourself so you can give more back.
Why? Well, if you’re cognitively overloaded and stressed, and if work has been on your mind in the past few days, not only are you a danger to drive with on the road, you have less emotional control and a decreased ability to rationalise situations.
It means you are at a higher risk of internalising issues and taking things personally, which may hurt your psyche and self esteem.
Resilience is about not overworking yourself to the point of exhaustion and stress. That kind of endurance is a ticking time bomb that hurts you first and then begins to ripple and hurt those around you.
How do we build up resilience?
Have internal recovery through short breaks taken throughout the workday. Schedule in short breaks during your work hours designed to shift your attention away from the task at hand. This can be a quick walk outside, a coffee break, or just stretching in your seat.
Resilience as a corporate value
A few months ago, at Step Change, we unveiled our new 1,000-day plan where we turned our company inside out and really questioned the direction we were heading as a company — our goals, what we stood for, and where we wanted to end up.
The result? A stronger and a more aligned business focus, expanded capabilities including a new digital division, and a focus on strengthening client relationships. We’ve introduced a new company culture with a new set of values that accurately reflect what it means to work at Step Change — with resilience as one of the core principles.
What do we do as a company to ensure resilience in our staff?
Resilience at an organisational level
- We implement an organisational system that allows people to prosper from their successes. With each incremental success, a new set of goals and tasks are issued designed to push and test the person and guide them to improve, grow, and learn.
- We place employees around key people whom they can watch and observe. We put a lot of value on teamwork and team successes. It’s about creating an environment where we can learn from each other and ensure we are all positioned to succeed. Why else do conventions get set up for CEOs and meetings get set up for university alumni? We naturally gravitate towards people from a similar environment who we can connect with, speak to, interact with, and learn from.
- We create a culture where there is constant mentorship. There are no stupid questions in our office. We have created an environment where staff members feel supported in their position. We implement a quarterly scoring system where we individually score each employee based on our corporate values to give them a feedback loop and a benchmark to see if they are lagging or leading the team.
What can you do?
If perhaps you’ve fallen into the trap of thinking about resilience in terms of endurance and pushing yourself as far as you can without taking a break from high-level cognitive activity, then it’s time to put our model of resilience to the test.
Why don’t you schedule short 15-minute breaks in your workday where you close your eyes and focus your mind away from the tasks at hand? Why not even go outside for a short 10-minute power walk? These short breaks will refresh your mind and help you concentrate better and help you become more resilient when the challenges at work pile up on you.
P.S If you’re interested in cultivating leadership and learning about culture, have a look at Powerful Presence.
By 2016 TEC Speaker of the Year, Ashton Bishop, CEO at Step Change
It’s easy for leaders to get caught up in their professional pursuits and ignore other parts of their lives that some would say are more important. In these cases, it’s easy for them to not only lose track of what it takes to be successful, but also how these achievements create happiness in their daily lives.
I recently saw a YouTube video that really resonated with me, it was about staying positive by Andrew Matthews. We all want to be successful, but some of us are guilty of getting discouraged or disappointed when we don’t reach our goals or hit targets as soon as we expect to.
Thankfully, as Andrew reminds us, it’s not difficult to adjust your mind set to a positive one. It’s simply a case of knowing what to look for and what to ignore.
Happiness is not an accident
It’s easy to look around at other happy, successful people and assume it’s something they stumbled upon or walked into. This isn’t the case, and it’s this type of mind set that won’t help you to be happy.
What happy and successful people do is focus on what they want, and think about how they can go about achieving it, rather than what other people have.
Tennis offers a simple analogy to reinforce the point. If you’re coming up to serve and start thinking about what will happen if you double fault, guess what? That’s exactly what you’ll get.
If we decide what we want and are able to focus our will on it, chances are we’ll be able to achieve that and be successful.
If you promise something, do it
I’ve encountered people before who talk about how important their family is to them, but rather than act on these assertions, they do the opposite, throwing themselves into work and travel and forgetting what they said in the first place. The result? Everyone ends up being miserable. People pursue success but ignore happiness in the meantime.
In my experience, it’s because people go about it backwards. Instead of taking stock of what they have and thinking “what do I need to succeed?”, they look at what other people have and get disheartened.
Success is not something that happens overnight
While creating the mindset necessary to be successful is simple, this doesn’t mean the results occur quickly. It’s one thing to be focussed on wanting to be successful and looking at what you need to do, but you also need to be persistent.
The other barrier to success, aside from not being able to put the effort in over a long period of time, is a fear of failure. It is a daunting prospect, but a true leader knows there’s no success without failure, especially as many pursuits will require risks and experimentation as they develop.
Even some of the world’s most famous leaders have been through this. Everyone remembers Abraham Lincoln for his effect on American politics. What they often don’t realise, however, is that this success came after years of failings, any number of which could have crushed his spirit and taken his mind off the goal.
For example, he failed in business a number of times, had his wife pass away, suffered a nervous breakdown and lost various congressional races, all before he turned 50. At 60, however, he succeeded in becoming not just the President of The United States, but one of the most well-regarded leaders in all of human history.
The moral of that example is that he stayed positive. Sure, there were setbacks, but his focus on the overall goal and continued tenacity saw him become successful.
Success and happiness don’t always go together. But with the right mindset, and a persistent focus, leaders can put the two together.
I was reflecting on TEC Chair Andrew Dick’s article a few weeks ago regarding stress—how he talked about being self-aware of stress and the impact it was has on you.
I started to consider the causes of stress I have seen in the CEOs I have known.
‘The only way to get something done right, is to do it myself!’
One of the most common reasons for stress, is the fear that ‘Unless I do the job. It won’t be done correctly.’
You will be stressed if you can’t manage yourself, your time and your priorities.
You need to learn to delegate in the right manner and have the right people to delegate to.
If you find yourself always in crisis mode, the only way to get out, is to develop a better leadership team, to become a leader not a manager, and to get out of your team’s way.
If you don’t let your team do their job, you’ll just infect them with your stress.
It’s hard though. You know the business well, so it’s quicker to just ‘do it’, rather than explain ‘how to do it’. Or, maybe it’s a critical area of the business, which if not handled the right way, will have a huge impact.
What have been your excuses in the past?
Fear lies behind this behaviour
Fear of failure. Fear of being made to look silly or stupid. Fear of proving what some staff think or say about you. Fear that you will be shown to be incompetent in the CEO role.
Over the years I have seen two extremes of this behaviour. One went back to an unfortunate experience in the person’s childhood. It meant they felt they always had to be in control of every situation.
The other was caused by an unpleasant start in the CEO role when subordinates objected to the CEO appointment (having come from within the organisation) and used Board connections to undermine the new appointment.
That CEO still hasn’t got over that fear despite being a great success and the board confirming their delight on many occasions.
In these situations, the CEO is stuck in the manager role and despite claiming otherwise, they are not being a leader. This is when self-awareness goes out the window.
They always have an excuse for needing to meddle in the day-to-day operations.
Hire people better than you
Another common cause of stress in the CEO is poor hiring. I’ve seen too many people employ candidates who will not threaten their role. Their insecurity reigns, and distorts the fundamental task of delegation.
A successful leader strives to employ people who are smarter than them, or at least show promise to be so.
We tend to accept 70 per cent performance from our employees, because it’s too hard to either mentor or remove them.
Low performance makes it difficult to delegate and results in an overwhelming amount of work for the leader. Again the fear of being shown up lies at the heart of this issue.
When I talk to business owners I have rarely come across this problem. It is the “corporate” CEOs, who most suffer this fear.
They are in a competitive structure where colleagues are constantly trying to demonstrate superiority before the next round of appointments. What they fail to realise is that they cannot be promoted or moved up the chain until they have created their successor.
It is a bold and confident leader who doesn’t fear the success of subordinates, but recognises it, trumpets it to the world and knows they have been a success themselves.
What are you doing to grow your successor?
For every leader, there will be those things they know, that they can do well, and those things that they simply can’t see. It is in this second category that blind spots dwell, and it’s here where serious challenges to a business’s continuity will arise.
There are also important parallels between blind spots and my earlier post on stress. When you’re under stress, it becomes harder to identify those weaknesses that you and your business have. At its worst, stress might mean you panic in the face of a difficult decision or are unable to detect opportunities you haven’t noticed before.
Just as stress can cause a leader to ignore their blind spots, the answer to addressing both in your organisation is the same: resilience.
What is a blind spot?
One of the simplest tools I’ve used professionally to identify the weaknesses of your own perspective is the Johari Window, which tracks what you can perceive against what others can. Blind spots are those areas that you don’t see, but that others do.
The Johari window reflects a very simple truth about humans – other people will always be able to see things that you can’t. Other people will have skills that you don’t possess. They will have experiences that give them a unique perspective or an ability to diagnose problems better than you can.
One of the main causes of failure is inertia. Business leaders inevitably settle into a routine which reinforces their blind spots. In Scotland, people refer to this state of mind that nothing is going to change as “aye been” – it’s always been.
A business owner who has been in their role for many years will often become set in their ways as they see what works to make the company grow. That strength they have demonstrated in getting the business to that point is also one of the biggest weaknesses they face.
This is the space where blind spots occur, meaning leaders have to constantly strive to bring these points into their own line of sight and break that sense of inertia.
The blind spots of businesses
So far, I’ve focused on individuals, but there’s another side here; organisations suffer from the same problem.
There are plenty of reasons why a company might have a blind spot. It may be that the business is overconfident and complacent, to the point where it is ignoring changes in the marketplace or new competitors. Kodak is a great example here of an enterprise that underestimated the way the market was changing and had too much faith in its existing model.
While this might sound like a question of strategy, it’s actually a cultural weakness that was shared by senior management and permeated every level of the business. For leaders, it isn’t hard for their personal blind spots to become organisation-wide.
However, these two risks both have a common solution – expanding your team to include those who can help you identify and address those areas that you just can’t detect yourself.
Avoiding blind spots by involving others
There’s only so much you can do to address your blind spots without help from outside; from your family and from the team you build around you who can offer a critical perspective.
Bringing in different people to fill the gaps around you means choosing the right people. It’s important to have multiple perspectives and different ways of thinking. Everyone has their own unique perception, so you want to be sure you are seeing their blind spots and they are able to see yours. If you share the same weaknesses here, you aren’t going to be improving your decision-making.
Beyond these changes though, there is still room for you to make slight tweaks to your own work in order to build that personal resilience, especially if you are stressed. Consider taking time out to relax and reflect, even if it is just a 15 minute break at a coffee shop, which can help you remain focused and reduce those risks.
Lastly, make sure to involve your family. Your family and your personal support network are just as important as the professional team you have around you. Your family will also know you well enough to have a good idea about what your blind spots are and be able to help you address them. Chances are, they will have known about these for years, so it’s just a case of actually listening to them. If you are running a family business, this becomes even more important again.
Addressing blind spots through vulnerability
If there’s one overriding theme with all these specific strategies, it’s the idea of showing vulnerability and being open with those around you about your own limitations.
As Lynn Leahy explained; when it comes to addressing stress in your workplace, being vulnerable is incredibly important. It requires leaders to acknowledge they don’t have all the answers. Vulnerability is also necessary for building resilience to stress and also to offset the weaknesses that come with their personal perspective.
Blind spots aren’t going anywhere, so it falls on leaders to actively address them. Bringing in new perspectives to your team is a great start, but you also have to be open about your own limitations and ask for help from those better qualified than yourself. From there you can begin the process of identifying and addressing your personal blind spots.
Just last week, I sat down to a fascinating presentation from Lynn Leahy on the topic of stress among senior business leaders. As I looked around the room at the attendants, it was clear that many were experiencing that same stress and could benefit from building their resilience towards it.
Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the presentation and the topic of stress. In many ways, Lynn’s presentation raised a set of ideas that I’ve always thought were true, but have never quite been able to express coherently myself – which is certainly the sign of a good speaker!
After thinking about that presentation, I thought it was time to outline those key takeaways I took from that event and how it fitted into my own intuitions about the value of being a resilient leader.
The far-reaching impact of stress
If you are thinking about how you can better manage stress, the first step is to recognise just how damaging it can be to your productivity and ability to lead an organisation.
Of course, a little pressure can help us to perform better, but too much can have far-reaching consequences for your ability to lead, not to mention taking its toll on your well-being. Recognising this harm gives you the platform you’ll need to start doing something about it.
Building your self-awareness
Perhaps the biggest problem with stress is that we don’t see it. Stress is seen as a normal part of so many leadership roles that taking a step back and critically evaluating your own workload can be incredibly difficult.
Without giving away everything that Lynn said, one of the big takeaways for me was that stress isn’t just in your head. It can result in very real physiological responses like muscle tension, indigestion and disrupted sleep patterns.
There are also plenty of behavioural concerns that might point to a problem with stress. You could be drinking more, eating more (or less), finding yourself more irritable or just having unusual mood changes. All of these are symptomatic of a high level of stress.
The bigger picture of these direct symptoms is that you will lose focus and drive. If stress is a problem across your team, you won’t be achieving your joint goals.
Becoming a resilient leader
At the end of the day, stress isn’t going anywhere. Leaders aren’t going to stop putting in long hours or experiencing the strain of their role. All of us will, from time to time, find ourselves coping with stress in our own ways.
Resilient leaders will be those who are able to identify these symptoms in themselves and bounce back. They might have a few drinks after a stressful day – that’s only natural – but they are self-aware enough that this coping mechanism doesn’t become a few drinks every night.
In other words, a resilient leader is able to bounce back from stressful situations, while also seeking the feedback of those around them so they become better leaders after a stressful situation.
That touches on the other side of a resilient leader: They build resilient teams around them.
Developing a stress-resilient team
It isn’t enough to reduce the amount of stress that you are experiencing as a leader, you also have to look at your team. In fact, one of the key messages I get from Lynn’s presentation was the importance of meeting with your direct reports regularly.
In an ideal world, this would be every two weeks, but in practice an hour a month should be enough to keep in touch with your team. What’s more, this provides you with an opportunity to keep tabs on the stress levels of your staff and also track any improvements in their workload.
Yes, this might seem like a lot of time if you have a number of direct reports, but these meetings will always be constructive and rewarding. When done well, these one-on-ones can also provide an opportunity to really address the workload and stress levels your staff are experiencing.
The good news is that one of the best solutions to stress in your personal life is to build that support network around you. This could be within your organisation or just with people you know. However, they should all be people who are able to hold you to account and tell you if you are overworked or exhibiting those signs of stress.
At the end of the day, resilient leaders build resilient teams around them, who in turn can help them be resilient themselves. This virtuous cycle can never completely end stress in the workplace, but it can ensure it doesn’t become a destructive force within your organisation.