Most top performers are fuelled by a positive drive to achieve, yet this can easily slip into self-condemnation for not always being on the go, present or hitting perfection. The unsustainable concoction of external expectation, professional pride and company-wide responsibility can throw even the most capable of leaders into an unhealthy imbalance.
“A common concern for senior business leaders is how to consistently deliver without letting the ball drop; the pressure to do so can be immense,” says David Grounds
, Relationship Manager at Criticaleye.
“We all want to excel in life, but as a new father my daughter is a constant reminder of the need to balance the commitments of personal and professional responsibilities. Finding that harmony can be incredibly challenging. It’s often about taking the time to reflect on what’s going on around you and how you’re responding. Having people who are trusted and respected sounding boards is a big part of that process.”
Here executives and board members open up about the challenges they’ve experienced in creating a healthy equilibrium, and what they do to protect their teams in this way.
Recognise Your Value
NED at the CIPD and Criticaleye Board Mentor
At the moment, I’m working hard but loving it because everything I do is in line with who I am and who I want to be. I’m in flow like I’ve never been before. Even still, I have to be mindful of staying in good physical condition, that I’m able to say no, and can trust myself to recognise what makes my heart sing. In the past I’ve put too much energy into things that were good, but ultimately were not serving me.
You have to learn how to say no so that your team can too. The team is a mirror of the boss, so when I’ve not been in equilibrium, my team’s not been either. The warning signs for me are that I become quite needy and crave validation, I might spend too much time re-checking details or find I’m unable to sleep.
On a couple of occasions I’ve worked for 24-hours in order to get ahead before a holiday; it’s not something I’m proud of. At the root of it was an insecurity that I wasn’t doing enough, when in fact I was.
If you don’t value yourself it’s impossible to get balance throughout your life; you will give too much of yourself away. For example, it’s easy to become a slave to emails and the expectation of an instantaneous reply. Then everyone who emails you becomes your boss – the tax man, your friends and even the junk mail sender before you have the time to unsubscribe!
As an individual, it’s important to value your results more than the hours you put in. But as a leader, you should value your people even more than their output. You should see them as more than a means to your end. If you do that the results will follow anyway.
Be Clear about What You Need
Vice President, Long-Term Planning & Policy, BP
I’m still trying to find the right balance between work and home life, which at the moment is playing out in how often I work from home.
With a 90-minute commute, my intentions are often to work from home but in practice it’s too easy to tell yourself you must be present in the office. Sometimes it is needed but mostly it’s an internal - and even imaginary - voice that says: ‘I need to be there.'
For me, working from home one or two days a month is a good balance. Keeping it almost as a novelty means it has more impact. It is important to get that balance because there is something about the physical separation of work and home that allows you to compartmentalise in a healthy way. Without that you can find you’re working a lot longer at home than you would at work.
When I am in the office I want to make myself available for meetings, questions, decisions and being with my team. I have regular catch ups with my team and try to make a point of starting those conversations with personal questions about how each other is doing, including workload and personal life.
Those conversations are vital in building a culture of openness, but that too is a work in progress. For example, one of the guys on my team was quite nervous about taking time off. He didn’t want to say that it was because his father-in-law was ill as he wanted to appear committed and in control.
To me, it was disappointing that he was not yet comfortable enough to open up. Staff shouldn’t feel concerned about asking for time off in these situations. If the family element is complex and difficult, people won’t be able to perform well at work so you have to go the extra mile for staff.
We had a recent internal drive to better recognise mental health issues. As part of that some employees have been really courageous and candid in the stories they’ve told about their own situations – that gives people permission to open up about their own challenges.
Structure Your Time
Chairman of OnApp, Portfolio NED and Criticaleye Board Mentor
In the fast moving economies that we have today, there is a huge amount of pressure on people and we’re not spending enough time focusing on that.
In the private equity industry where I work, stress levels are very high. The difficulty in many cases is bravado; you wouldn’t tell your manager that you’re feeling under pressure because you might be perceived as not being capable enough.
From what I have seen, compared to other sectors, PE and PE-backed firms only have relatively small HR functions. They often lack a fully-fledged team that manages career development, internal messaging, communication − everything that makes your relationship with your employer healthy.
In my market we are workaholics; there is always a reason to go to work. Yet if you plan for a work life balance you won’t burn out.
People who are unstructured at work are often unstructured in how they spend their non-work time. I think when you have a family around it’s actually easier. We sit down once a year after our summer holidays and talk about what we are going to do during the next twelve months. If you schedule downtime and activities outside of work, there is a far greater chance you will achieve those goals.
I need to understand how much time my team spend away from work. If an employee is regularly sending me emails at 3am in the morning, I would step in and say something. Initially I might do it with a humorous email. It’s easy for me to tell someone they seem to be working 24-hours a day, and why don’t they have anything else in their life? I’m pretty blunt about it.
Create Value Outside of Work
Chair, UK & Ireland, Cisco
I moved from being the CEO of UK and Ireland at Cisco Systems, to becoming its part-time Chairman. That’s coincided with me getting two new grandchildren so it’s great to have more free time. Thankfully, I’m able to hand those kids back at the end of the day, just as I am with the business.
Stopping a very full on job is a challenge in itself; you start to question your personal value and where you should be putting your time. If you’re no longer providing value to the business in the same way you must determine where you can add value elsewhere and indeed, what’s valuable to you.
It helps if you’ve built interests outside of work, it creates more balance but also gives you something to focus on when you transition out of that role. I’d always protected my weekends during my executive career and was very involved in music and triathlon.
Everyone is different and sport isn’t for everyone; it’s about finding your own thing. It’s equally important to recognise that just because you’re not stressed it doesn’t mean others aren’t. You can often see it in others when they start to behave differently. Some lash out, others become defensive. Communication at those times becomes even more important.
I took over as CEO right when the financial crisis hit, which was a challenging time. I had to communicate that I was aware things were difficult and that it was having an effect on people. I saw other leaders lock themselves away and of course everyone assumed they were panicking and that can be infectious. It’s very easy to make things up in a vacuum.
By Mary-Anne Baldwin
, Corporate Editor, Criticaleye
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