From administrators to advertising execs, no one in any business is immune from the unfortunate reality that sometimes, life happens. As the business leader, that includes you.
Finding the perfect ‘work-life balance’ has been the subject of many a book, podcast, webinar, and training session - and for good reason. But now, in our permanently switched-on and plugged-in culture, it’s not so much a case of finding balance as mastering effective ‘work-life integration’. The problem with leading a life in which personal and professional priorities are intertwined is that - especially for leaders who shoulder the dual burdens to a greater extent - when something at one end of the spectrum wobbles, everything else threatens to come tumbling down as well.
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There’s a lot of guidance out there for how to support employees through periods of stress - such as putting in place employee assistance programmes and offering compassionate leave. But what happens when tragedy strikes and you’re the boss?
Whether expected or unexpected, short or long term, there’s no avoiding them - hard times come to us all in turn. The key to your own wellbeing and the health of the company is learning how to recognise the warning signs and develop strategies to help preserve both.
Here are some of our top tips for doing just that, based on our own experiences and insight gained from Vistage peer group meetings.
What, why, and how - know thy triggers
It’s something we often hear from our Chairs: awareness is the first step to change. Simply by noticing how experiences (whether positive or negative) in your personal life affect you at work - and vice versa - will set you on the right track for amending behaviour patterns and making changes.
Emotions are contagious. Just as a good company morale breeds employee effectiveness, a toxic work culture can spill over into home life. Equally, experiencing stress outside the office can have work-time ramifications for both you and the company.
Dr Douglas McKenna, industrial and organisational psychologist, recommends that leaders learn to identify the real source of their stress, with the knowledge that the cause is not always the same as the effect.
For example, if your usual approach to problem solving is calm and measured, perhaps the fact that you feel unable to think clearly today is more related to the bad news you received about a close friend over the weekend. Conversely, is the argument you had with your partner over an otherwise trivial household matter really the crux of the issue, or are you seeking an outlet for your worry over the quarterly accounts? Emotions are master of disguise - in business, anger can manifest as haste, anxiety as playing it safe, or sadness as lethargy.
Taking a step back and recognising the true origins of your stress will help pave the way for being able to deal with them effectively.
Take care of yourself
This applies whether you’re in the midst of a personal crisis or not. Making time for self-care will arm you with the tools you need to manage a crisis should it arrive - and eventually, it will.
Activities will be vary wildly for each individual leader. Businesswoman Arianna Huffington believes the secret to business success is prioritising sleep, saying that “an effective day at work actually begins the night before”. Practising mindfulness, too, is now a popular and powerful way for CEOs to maintain focus during tumultuous times. Meanwhile, Jeff O’Shea, CEO of Intellitouch Communications, swears by his morning bike ride to work to give him the transitional home-to-work headspace required to mull over any worries or problems. For you, it could be anything from a weekly yoga class to going fishing.
Plan for business, plan for life
No one would dream of running a business without a solid plan - fail to plan, plan to fail as the saying goes. In life, unlike in business, you are the only one accountable for your success, and so you need to think carefully about what you need at home in order to maintain professional success.
Whether you hire a Life Coach, or simply download a behavioural analysis app such as Happify, getting to the crux of what really matters in your life will enable you to make time for the things you never want to miss. Perhaps you never want to miss your child’s Sports Day or School Play - whatever your ‘happy life’ non-negotiables are, setting them down on paper will ensure you are as committed to them as you are to your five-year business goals.
On the horizon: Having a clear plan and direction can ease stress and improve wellbeing
One framework to consider is the three O’s:
Outcomes: Start with a clear vision of what it is you want from life - taking into account values and passions - and work backwards. What does that dream life look like in 2, 5, and 10 years time? How would leading that life benefit those closest to you at home and work?
Obstacles: Ask what is stopping you achieving this reality? Is it because you feel it is self-indulgent to prioritise yourself? It’s not, it’s essential. Interrogating each self-limiting belief or fear, in turn, will make you realise that you are in control of your own future.
Options: Remembering that you always have a choice will empower you to make those choices. Life (and work) is a series of compromises, but in realising you are in control, you will find the confidence to pursue your goals - to the benefit of everyone around you.
Create the time and space you need
You have your life plan - now to make it happen. A good exercise is to keep a time log - perhaps using a tracker tool such as Toggl - of everything you do for one week, to understand not only how you are using, but also where you are losing valuable time.
A properly articulated plan, integrated with your business priorities will enable you to time-block those things that are most important to you. For example, you could block out your lunch hour for a head-clearing walk to minimise the temptation to work through and discourage interruptions. Or you might make it a personal priority - for the sake of your family and mental well being - to always set an out of office on a Friday afternoon, mitigating any expectations of weekend email replies.
As Square CEO and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey explains, building consistent rituals into your work schedule will help in minimising the effects of the unexpected. “Discipline, focus and organisation will help you from being your own worst enemy and adding chaos to your life.”
Have a back-up plan
You’re a CEO, not superhuman - this is something that we often quote in Vistage meetings, but well worth remembering when life gets complicated.
It’s important to put contingencies in place for unforeseen personal circumstances in the same way you would do for an exit/succession plan, or maternity leave. Doing so will mean that even in the midst of a worst case scenario, you are free to deal with your personal issues directly and regain psychological focus in your own time without the added burden of worrying about the day-to-day runnings of your business.
It’s a good idea to road-test your plan by practising effective delegation as a routine part of your leadership strategy, and by handing over to a competent and trusted deputy during periods of holiday.
Not all stress was created equal
Managing personal problems and leadership isn’t about eliminating stress. First of all, that’s impossible. Secondly, not all stress is bad for you. It can motivate, galvanise and propel: the key is moderation and management.
Everyone has a different coping mechanism to achieve this balance. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos swears by action as the antidote to stress, while Maureen Alphonse-Charles, CEO of The Partnership Inc., prefers playing the violin to deal with the duality of workplace stress. Two very different tactics, the same outcome - turning stress into something positive.
Don’t hide it all away
It’s not healthy to bottle our feelings. On a personal level, most of us know this, but there still pervades in certain industries a breed of British stoicism that we should keep personal problems to ourselves.
While it might feel unbefitting of a CEO to share when times are tough, research actually says the contrary. In looking into what makes the most effective teams, Google’s Project Aristotle found that “psychological safety” - i.e. feeling that you can be open about whatever factors at play in your private life are affecting your current mindset - was essential to creating a space in which teams could propose and take business risks. This is backed up by the concept of Radical Candor in business, which found that employees and colleagues valued complete transparency when it came to discussing thorny issues in the workplace.
Of course, the American work culture is a very different beast to here in the UK, but there is increasing evidence that - particularly with a millennial workforce - employees respond positively to bosses that are human, open and transparent in all aspects of their leadership.
There is no right or wrong way of handling a personal crisis - just as we all have different approaches to leadership, each of us develops our own unique coping mechanisms to deal with the unexpected. We hope that some of these tips will help you find what works for you.
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