Every Chief Executive I know has a secret. It comes out, in an uncomfortable whisper, when we start to examine why they’ve come to see me, why they’re feeling so anxious and life seems out of control. The relief on their faces when I tell them they’re not alone is palpable. And yet, that’s not quite true. At the top of an organization, they are alone. And that is one of the key sources of their stress.
It’s very difficult to become a CEO of a successful company without being extremely good at what you do. Luck plays a part, but even with every star in the universe aligning, you need to have a strong work ethic, be good with people, possess a quick mind and sound judgment. Yet even with all these qualities and skills, you can’t control everything, especially when you run a large company. When something goes wrong (as it always will – humans are fallible and life is unpredictable and imperfect), the buck stops with you.
For someone who is used to things going right – sailing through university, professional exams, etc. through hard work and intelligence – it can be tough to discover that you will often get things wrong, however hard you try. Alpha, perfectionist personality types are more likely to find themselves in the doctor’s surgery with a series of serious physical complaints before admitting they are findings things tough though.
According to this article in Reuters www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/16/us-bosses-quitting-idUSBRE94F09U20130516 the median age of a CEO is 55 years, and their median tenure just four. There are many reasons for choosing to retire early when you reach your fifties, and it may always have been your plan to work hard, then spend the rest of your life travelling round the world. No problem with that at all. But I suspect the reason a large number of people quit early is to do with energy levels and stress.
I come across a lot of successful, 40 and 50-something CEOs in my daily work. Yes, a few of them will be keen to retire as soon as possible, but the vast majority wants to carry on. The drive to succeed and grow a company gives them a real sense of satisfaction and pride, and they want to continue on the same trajectory for some time to come. But in order to do that, they need to radically change their views. So many people assume it’s either “work til you drop” or change direction completely. Of course, a career change will be relevant and desirable for some, but what if you love what you do and just want to be able to carry on without the stress and anxiety that you’re experiencing right now? What if this wasn’t what you signed up for yet the lure of a Senior role appealed at the time until you began to appreciate just how mentally resilient you had to be?
I read a great piece recently on the Tech Crunch website called “What’s the most difficult CEO skill? Managing your own psychology” http://bhorowitz.com/2011/04/01/what%E2%80%99s-the-most-difficult-ceo-skill-managing-your-own-psychology/ Author Ben Horowitz (himself a CEO) talks about the “Fight Club” rules of management: “The first rule of the CEO psychological meltdown is don’t talk about the psychological meltdown.” His advice to those in the same position is as follows:
- Make some friends. In this case, he is referring to friends in other companies from whom you can learn, but this could also apply to a more formal mentoring relationship or a group context. You need people who’ve experienced similar anxieties and fears who you can talk to.
- Get it out of your head and onto paper. Writing down the details of a difficult situation and its implications can help you distance yourself from your own feelings and help you make a more rational and considered decision. Psychologically it also unravels the emotions you are experiencing at the time and helps the problem solving process
- Focus on the road, not the wall. This analogy comes from Formula One racing advice, where drivers are told not to focus on the wall when going round a bend at 200mph as they’re more likely to crash. But if you focus on the road, you’re more likely to stay on it. Being too easily distracted by the little things can steer you off course. You need to focus on what you want, rather than what you don’t.
To these tips, I would add:
- Stay on course for the ultimate goal. Recognize that all too many of us get de-railed by lack of approval for the choices we make, or criticism from key shareholders when we know what’s best for the company. This is based on experience and sound assessment of the situation: trust your instincts & stay on course as best you can. Planes navigate from one destination to another but remain off course 95% of the time; they still get there by making small adjustments as they go.
- Focus too on what you offer, not what you dislike about yourself. Many people who come to see me are made more vulnerable because they ‘listen’ to their inner voice doubting themselves or worse, other people’s voices. You are not only good at what you do but you are probably brilliant; no-one else can do your precise job as well as you or if they can then you’ve trained them to do so
- Learn about your body and what makes it perform well. Good nutrition and exercise are really important to psychological wellbeing, and yet are often considered as “nice to have”. Sound, deep sleep even if it’s short is essential. We can sometimes forget that our intellectual powerhouses are housed in flesh and bone that need proper maintenance.
- If you truly doubt yourself or your purpose, then consider support. Get in touch if you need to so that a strategy can be identified that can help you better manage your stress and the rigors of the role. I can help you find a long-term solution that fits into your lifestyle and helps you make decisions based on what you really want for your working life, rather than having undesirable health conditions make that decision for you.
Being a CEO is a great place to be & it doesn’t have to cost you your health.
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