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

When leadership turns toxic: The fine line between being tough and being a bully

 

By Karlyn Borysenko

Shortly after Senator Amy Klobuchar announced her bid to become the next Democratic nominee for president, horror stories began popping up detailing years of consistent abusive treatment of her staff. The reports contended that her reputation made it difficult to recruit someone to manage her presidential campaign. In response, Klobuchar’s supporters argued that she was being targeted due to her gender and that a man in her position would be considered “tough” instead of toxic.

While it certainly is true that assertive women are much more likely to be viewed as bossy or unlikable than their male counterparts who engage in exactly the same behaviors, we can’t assume that just because someone is a woman, it means that her behaviors towards her staff are being wrongly characterized when charges of toxicity are made. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 30% of workplace bullies are women, and according to a recent study more than two-thirds of women have reported being a target of workplace bullying by a female boss.

So, how can you tell the difference between when your boss is being tough and when they’ve crossed the line into workplace bullying, regardless of the gender they identify with? Where is the line? Here are some differentiators to consider.

Tough bosses have bad days. Bullies are consistently bad.

According to Bartlett and Bartlett, workplace bullying is defined as “the experience of repeated and unwelcomed negative acts such as criticism and humiliation, occurring at a place of employment, that are intended to cause fear, distress, and harm to the target from one or more individuals in any source of power over the target, where the target has difficulties defending him or herself.” Continue reading

How Leaders Can Maximize Their Impact

by Henrik Bresman, INSEAD Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour, and Deborah Ancona, Seley Distinguished Professor of Management, MIT Sloan School of Management

 

Effective leaders need to know whether their ‘people hat’ or ‘P&L hat’ fits most comfortably.

A leading supermarket chain in an eastern European Union country feared an 8 percent drop in sales as discounting giant Lidl was about to enter its market. So, in collaboration with researchers, it decided to run a randomised controlled experiment. The goal was to reduce its costly personnel turnover problem, in a bid to improve quality and operational efficiency. Selected store managers received a letter from top management, encouraging them to do something about the 90 percent yearly staff turnover. It worked: Over the next three quarters, the monthly quit rate fell by 20 to 30 percent. However, surprisingly, this vast improvement led to no discernible effect on the predefined performance metrics (sales and value of perished food). In interviews, the researchers found the explanation. As store managers focused more on HR issues, they spent less time interacting with customers (to increase sales) and dealing with the flow of goods (to reduce food wastage). Continue reading

Should I stay or should I go?

The topic of counter offers is an interesting one. I am sure you have seen articles and thoughts about the subject and they are usually one person’s perspective on the topic. For a somewhat different approach, we’ve reached out to people in our network to gain their thoughts and perspective on the topic.

We asked:

You have just received an offer to join a new firm. You are giving notice to leave your current position and your employer makes a “counter offer” to keep you from leaving. You start to think about whether or not to take that “counter offer.”

Why would taking a counter offer can cost you more in the long run?

If I know someone is looking to leave or has done that already, I might offer them a counter to stay if the engagement they are currently working on would be hit hard by their departure, but I can guarantee that I will remedy that situation as quickly as I can by making sure that others are up to speed on tasks this person is doing and that multiple people in the organization have a comparable skill set.

This person would not likely get extra consideration (at least in the short-term) regarding training or new project work, etc. as I am still fully expecting them to leave at some point in the future.  The reason they started looking to begin with was likely not related to money, but rather something that more money won’t fix in the long term.  People can “stand” a lot of stuff when the money is good, but all of the things that caused them to look will likely still be there and sooner rather than later those same issues will bubble back to the top.

Now they have just one less company to get a job with because they burned that bridge.

I would rather have someone leave and want to come back because the “grass wasn’t greener” then offer a counter.

In the one case where I did that, it only took the person about 3 months before they were back in my office resigning again…but this time we were prepared and wished them well.

                                                Mark Anzmann, Executive Vice President, SYSCOM, Inc.

One persons perspective:

Why to Accept an Counter Offer

– Your reasons for contemplating a move are clearly understood by your firm

– Your reasons for contemplating a move are respected by your firm

– The firm has come to the table with the right terms to make you want to remain

– You prefer to stay, have not checked out mentally, and believe you have long-term opportunity

Why Not to Accept

– The firm doesn’t clearly understand why you are entertaining a move but throw $$ at it

– The firm grudgingly admits to your contributions knowing they will have something to lose, but still not truly valuing / respecting you

– You have burned some bridges along the way with people that matter – that never ends well

– You are mentally checked out and not happy with the firm, role, your boss, etc. regardless of the $$

                                                                                    Bill Beck,, Client Partner, Conduent

I’ve been in that situation years ago and also recently, but this time as the jilted hiring manager.  Here are my thoughts as to why accepting a counter-offer is generally a bad move.  For the employee to seriously pursue the new job, one or both of two things must almost always be true:  1) The new job must be really good in ways that are important to the employee, or 2) There must be something significantly wrong with some aspect of the old job.  So to give up one or both advantages by reversing course and accepting the counter-offer is logically a negative for the employee and must be at a minimum offset by something positive.

The easiest scenario to imagine is that pay was the problem with the old job, that the new job would have cured it, but the counter-offer now also cures it.  There are two reasons why the employee doesn’t want to go there: First, do you want to be working for a company that knows they’ve been underpaying you (which they acknowledge by making the counter-offer) and wouldn’t fix it until you threatened to walk?  Will you have to keep doing that every year?  And second, now the old employer feels that you are being paid too much, which will surely have a dampening effect on future raises.

Or suppose the problem is non-cash, something like the employee wants to work from home or needs flexible hours and the old employer says no but the new employer is fine with it.  If the old employer gives in and agrees, human nature says they will hold that against the employee.

An analogy in this political season would be the politician who makes a lot of promises around election time, and the voters wonder, “Gee, you’ve been in office for four years now and you haven’t done any of this for me.  Why did it take you so long to start talking about it now.”

Almost always best to be sure you want to leave the old, and know why, before searching for the new.

       Hack Heyward,  Partner and Practice Lead – Energy, ISG

 

We hope you find these perspectives interesting. If you would like to share your thoughts on this for future blogs, please let me know.

Larry Janis, Managing Partner, ISSG, janis@issg.net

How to Leave a Job You Love

by Gianpiero Petriglieri

Maybe you fell head over heels. Maybe your feelings grew over time. All you know is that you have what everyone is looking for, but few seem to get: A job you love. And you are about to leave it. How do you even start explaining?

The work is great. So is the organization. It’s not them. It’s you. And it was not just a moment of temptation. You have been thinking about it for a while. Even if you might regret it, you must part now. It’s the right time.

After all, you keep telling yourself, you’d better leave while it is your choice. When you still have options. You are too young to get cozy and too good to be taken for granted. You have seen what happens to those who do. One day, they get dumped unceremoniously, and what for, new talent? Or their love slowly curdles into complacency, leaving them going through the motions. No, you won’t let that happen, and ruin the memory of a great modern love.

Because that’s what it is, admit it. Sigmund Freud is often quoted saying, a century ago, that to live a good life we need to be able to love and work. These days, it seems, we must be able to love to work. We no longer want just respect, security, or money from our jobs. We want passion, fulfillment, and surprise too. We want, in a word, romance.

Continue reading