How to Turn Stress Into Success Once You Reach the Top

  by Roger E Jones

What dozens of experienced CEOs wish someone had told them before they assumed the hot seat.

Aspiring CEOs need to be careful what they wish for; the job has its downsides too.” – A seasoned CEO

Many business school graduates see the CEO job as the pinnacle of one’s career. As a result, they work hard to get there or, if they feel their path is blocked, leave the big company to become CEO of their own start-up, sometimes with huge success. Yet those who achieve that hallowed CEO status often face enormous unforeseen challenges that make them wonder whether it was all worth it. And with good reason, because these challenges tend to lead to increased stress. This, in turn, has a detrimental impact on their career and home life.

However, companies can be coy about their senior executives’ health. When a CEO needs to take a leave of absence it is normally put down to “exhaustion” or “overload”. It is almost unheard-of for companies to admit this fatigue is due to stress. Elon Musk himself admitted to the New York Times in 2018 that stress is taking a heavy toll on his life. And in 2015, then-newly-appointed United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz reportedly suffered a heart attack soon after starting his role (a number of studies link stress to heart disease).

As an executive coach working with new CEOs, I am familiar with the rollercoaster ride that some experience. I thought it would be of value to those wanting the top job (or are new to the CEO role) if they knew in advance what to expect and how to transition from job stress to job success.

So, I asked 84 CEOs from around the world, whose firms range from SMEs to global multinationals, about their biggest challenges in their first months as a CEO. I also queried them on the impact of these challenges and how they addressed them (or wish they had addressed them).

The biggest challenges

Seven problems were most frequently mentioned:

  1. Feeling trapped and viewing themselves as slaves to the business: Their huge sense of obligation meant that most were unable to ‘switch off’ even at weekends.
  2. Feeling dazed and confused, even skeptical, and not knowing whom to believe: A consistent theme of “Who tells me the truth?” came through. My earlier research and my piece for Harvard Business Review also highlighted this struggle to find the truth.
  3. Lacking credibility and wondering how to earn the respect of their team: If they have come up through the ranks, they face the delicate and daunting task of leading their former peers. If new to the business, they must prove themselves with no internal track record to rely on.
  4. Dealing with huge self-doubt: Some new CEOs fear they are not up to the job and lack the skills and mindset needed to be successful.
  5. Feeling lonely: It may seem hackneyed, but it really is lonely at the top. When new in their role, CEOs yearn for a knowledgeable confidant and independent sounding board.
  6. Getting addicted to the job: “You become king of the castle, the ruler of the land,” jokingly remarked one CEO. But for many, the sense of power and control becomes addictive.
  7. Sacrificing home life: The job addiction can mean a complete lack of work-life balance. New CEOs can become so immersed in the business that they lose sight of their life outside work. Many remarked that they didn’t see their kids as much as they wanted to.

Strategies to transition from job stress to job success

The chief consequence of these challenges is stress. The 84 CEOs I consulted, and those CEOs I’ve coached over the past 17 years, used a portfolio of coping strategies to help neutralize the stress and ensure their success. These include:

  • Scheduling time to think: The CEO role can be all-consuming as everyone wants to have your ear. However, consciously carving out free time, even if it’s just two 30-minute slots a week, will allow you to reflect on your thoughts and feelings, and take a more objective view.
  • Upgrading your leadership: Your leadership and communication style may need to be refreshed. One new CEO requested to go on a senior leadership course as a condition for taking the job. This was brave, as it could have been interpreted as a sign of weakness.
  • Making your top team ‘click’: New CEOs ensure they have the right team in place. They ask themselves fundamental questions about the quality of their direct reports: Could I work with this person? What could I learn from them? Do they focus on getting the job done rather than politicking? They then replace those that don’t make the grade. External specialist coaches are often called in to work with the team, so honest, open and direct conversations become the norm.
  • Checking the organisational reality: CEOs find it key to decode what people are telling them. As one CEO remarked, they make efforts to ‘unpick the stories they hear’ and another aims to ‘find routes to the truth’ by testing the assumptions made by others.
  • Building inner confidence: As a new CEO, you will do things you haven’t done before and you will face high expectations. At times, your inner confidence may waver. In such case, remind yourself of your accomplishments. Seasoned CEOs believe you should ‘trust yourself and call the tough decisions’ and you will ‘become content with the discomfort’.
  • Hiring an external coach: Many CEOs had the support of an external coach when starting in their role. A good coach will not only act as a sounding board but also won’t be afraid to tell you the uncomfortable truth, keep you from lying to yourself and hold you accountable.
  • Staying balanced: To prevent their CEO role from taking over their life, my clients find it helpful to imagine they are 100 years old and looking back on their proudest moments. Time spent with family features prominently, far ahead of any CEO accomplishments.

So, if you are aiming for the top or have just taken on the CEO role for the first time, be cognisant of the challenges you will face and heed the advice of experienced CEOs. Their coping strategies will help you have a more balanced, productive and stress-free life.

Source: INSEAD

Great Leaders Are Thoughtful and Deliberate, Not Impulsive and Reactive

  by Tony Schwartz and Emily Pines

You set aside the first hour of your day to work on a strategy document that you’ve been putting off for a week. You haven’t been disciplined about getting to it, but you’ve had one crisis after another to deal with in the past week. Now, finally, you’ve carved out 90 early morning minutes to work on it.

First, however, you take a quick peek at the email that has piled up in your inbox overnight. Before you know it, you’ve used up the whole 90 minutes responding to emails, even though none of them were truly urgent.

By the time you walk into your next meeting, you’re feeling frustrated that you failed to stick by your plan. This meeting is a discussion with a direct report about the approach he’ll be taking in a negotiation with an important client. You have strong views about how best to deal with the situation, but you’ve promised yourself that you will be open and curious rather than directive and judgmental. You’re committed, after all, to becoming a more empowering manager.

Instead, you find yourself growing even more irritable as he describes an approach that doesn’t feel right to you. Impulsively, you jump in with a sharp comment. He reacts defensively. You worry for a moment — and rightly so — that you cut him off too quickly, but you tell yourself that you’ve worked with this client for years, the outcome is critical, and you don’t have time to hear your direct report’s whole explanation. He leaves your office looking hurt and defeated.

Welcome to the invisible drama that operates inside us all day long at work, mostly outside our consciousness. Most of us believe we have one self. In reality, we have two different selves, run by two separate operating systems, in different parts of our brain.

The self that we’re most aware of — the one that planned to work diligently on the strategy document and listen patiently to your direct report — is run by our pre-frontal cortex and mediated through our parasympathetic nervous system. This is the self we prefer to present to the world. It’s calm, measured, rational, and capable of making deliberate choices.

The second self is run by our amygdala, a small almond-shaped cluster of nuclei in our mid-brain and it is mediated by our sympathetic nervous system. Our second self seizes control any time we begin to perceive threat or danger. It’s reactive, impulsive, and operates largely outside our conscious control.

This second self serves us well if a lion is coming at us, but the threats we experience today are mostly to our sense of worth and value. They can feel nearly as terrifying as those to our survival, but these threats aren’t truly life-threatening. Responding to them as if they are, only make things worse.

It’s in these moments that we often use our highest cognitive capacities to justify our worst behaviors. When we feel we’ve fallen short, we instinctively summon up our “inner lawyer” — a term coined by author Jonathan Haidt — to defend us.

Our inner lawyer is expert at rationalizing, avoiding, deflecting, dissembling, denying, disparaging, attacking, and blaming others for our missteps and shortcomings. The inner lawyer works overtime to silence our own inner critic, and to counter criticism from others. All this inner turmoil narrows and consumes our attention and drains our energy.

The problem is that most organizations spend far more time focused on generating external value than they do attending to people’s internal sense of value. Doing so requires navigational skills that most leaders have never been taught, much less mastered. The irony is that ignoring people’s internal experience leads them to spend more energy defending their value, leaving them less energy to create value.

In our work with leaders, we’ve discovered that the antidote to reacting from the second self is to develop the capacity to observe our two selves in real time. You can’t change what you don’t notice, but noticing can be a powerful tool for shifting from defending our value to creating value.

A well-cultivated self-observer allows us to watch our dueling selves without reacting impulsively. It also makes it possible to ask our inner lawyer to stand down whenever it rises up to argue our case to our inner and outer critics. Finally, the self-observer can acknowledge, without judgment, that we are both our best and our worst selves, and then make deliberate rather than reactive choices about how to respond in challenging situations.

To improve your capacity to self-observe, begin with negative emotions such as impatience, frustration, and anger. When you feel them arising, it’s a strong signal that you’re sliding into the second self. Simply naming these emotions as they arise is a way to gain some distance from them.

Also, watch out for times when you feel you’re digging in your heels. The absolute conviction that you’re right and the compulsion to take action are both strong indicators that you‘re feeling a sense of threat and danger.

In our work, we provide leaders with small daily doses of support — reminders to pay attention to what they’re feeling and thinking.  We’ve also found it helpful to build small groups that meet at regular intervals so leaders can share their experiences. A blend of support, community, connection and accountability helps offset our shared impulse to stop noticing, push away discomfort, and revert to survival behaviors in the face of perceived threats to our value. A good starting place is to find a colleague you trust to be your accountability partner, and to seek regular feedback from one another.

Finally, it’s important to ask yourself two key questions in challenging moments: “What else could be true here?” and “What is my responsibility in this?” By regularly questioning your conclusions, you’re offsetting your confirmation bias — the instinct to look for evidence that supports what you already believe. By always looking for your own responsibility, you’re resisting the instinct to blame others and play victim and focusing instead on what you have the greatest ability to influence — your own behavior.

A deceptively simple premise lies at the heart of this deliberate set of practices: see more to be more. Rather than simply getting better at what they already do, transformational leaders balance courage and humility in order to grow and develop every day.


Source: HBR

Two leadership practices for tapping the best of your multi-generational team

By Nicole Bendaly

Diversity, when capitalized on, gives teams a big leg up. It provides a mix of perspectives and experience that generates energy and better ways of doing things—most simply put, a higher level of performance.

Fortunately, it is not uncommon to find diversity within teams these days, as more and more people are working alongside team members who represent two, if not three, generations different from their own. But this enriching ingredient can also present challenges. Differences in values and points of view can make for a challenging work environment, certainly toughening a team’s ability to reach a consensus but also potentially creating tension between team members over expectations of behavior and work practices.

The trick to thriving as a leader of a multi-generational team is to know where to focus your energy so your team is energized by their differences and members can work in sync. The following two leadership practices will launch the habits a multi-generational team needs to be at their best. Continue reading

When Talking the Talk Is Enough to Change Culture

by Phanish Puranam, Roland Berger Chaired Professor of Strategy and Organisation Design at INSEAD, and Özgecan Koçak, Associate Professor of Organisation and Management, Goizueta Business School of Emory University


Careful cultural interventions can impart beliefs about collaboration that become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Organisational culture – shared assumptions, values and norms – can facilitate collaboration. Culture can fill in the gaps in formal administrative systems where collaborative actions cannot be measured and monitored. Put simply, organisational culture shapes what employees do when the bosses aren’t looking. No wonder, then, that failures of collaboration, such as those observed after mergers or in the aftermath of too-rapid expansion through hiring, are often attributed to cultural factors. Conversely, cultures are often credited with the success of organisations that do particularly well at getting their employees to work together.

How to create a culture of collaboration

This leads naturally to the question of whether and how a culture that supports collaborative efforts can be designed. One cannot simply mandate a particular set of assumptions, values or norms on the basis of authority, and expect them to persist. Broadly speaking, there are two approaches to making common cultural assumptions stick: through shaping consequences of action (which we will refer to as the “incentive-based approach”) and through shaping beliefs about what actions are appropriate (which we will call the “framing approach”). Continue reading

GBS leaders must align their shared services for the digital age or face extinction

by Jamie Snowdon

Enterprise leaders are under increased pressure to pivot their businesses to meet the needs of consumers and ensure operations are agile enough to support these needs. Yet, the engine room of most organizations’ services — global business services (GBS) — often struggles to do little more than apply cosmetic changes that fail to address the complex changes really needed, placing the future of many GBS leaders in jeopardy.

GBS must increasingly provide innovation and agility

Over the past couple of decades, GBS has been a key operational lever enterprises could use to balance efficiency, cost savings, and quality of internal services. However, organizations are increasingly expanding this remit to include a new dimension — a source of innovation and agility across the organization. We used this to change the old IT adage, “We offer three kinds of IT services: good, cheap, and fast. You can only have two.”  We replaced “fast” with “innovative.” You can have innovative and good, but it won’t be cheap.

  • You can have good and cheap, but it won’t be innovative.
  • You can have cheap and innovative, but it won’t be good.

Crucially, the common GBS criticisms we hear are linked to innovation and agility—the very areas enterprises are looking to expand. Typically, these complaints stem from GBS’ inability to: Continue reading