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

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

The rise of diversity and inclusion jobs

By Julia Carpenter

Earlier this year, Uber hired its first ever chief diversity officer, following a string of sexual harassment claims and other PR crises for the brand. Last month, after a year plagued by controversy, the NFL posted a job opening for a head of diversity and inclusion.

Diversity officers are popping up at many other high-profile companies, too. The titles may vary — “director of diversity and inclusion,” “chief equality officer” or “head of diversity, inclusion and belonging” — but more organizations are realizing this is something that matters to their employees. It even merits an entire position (or sometimes, even its own department).

According to data from Indeed, demand for the roles has increased significantly in just the last few years. Between 2017 and 2018, Indeed postings for diversity and inclusion positions had increased by nearly 20%.

But what does a diversity officer do? Continue reading

Why We Need More Authentic Women At Work

  Last Sunday, comedian actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, largely known for her work on Seinfeld and Veep, won the Mark Twain Prize, considered the highest honor in comedy. Louis-Dreyfus is the sixth woman to win the award in a male-dominated field. She is also 57, an age at which?especially in entertainment?many actresses are disqualified.

All the way back in the late 1980s, Julia Louis-Dreyfus was a casting afterthought. The Seinfeld executives decided last-minute that they needed a woman added to the cast. In popped Louis-Dreyfus, and as Jerry Seinfeld said to the New York Times, “I could not get enough of her . . . That whole time, nine years, I was not acting.”

Louis-Dreyfus is gifted comedically. But it is perhaps her conduct that makes her a distinctly unique role model. In spite of the cattiness that can define the entertainment industry, Louis-Dreyfus has made it her business to be both authentic and kind. “Many of those who spoke talked about Louis-Dreyfus’s kindness, [and] how constant and straightforward it was,” as reported in the New York Times.

In one particularly telling incident, Friends’ actress Lisa Kudrow and Louis-Dreyfus were both nominated for an Emmy. “After Louis-Dreyfus won . . . she sent Ms. Kudrow, a fellow nominee, flowers with a note attached: ‘You were robbed. -Julia.’” Continue reading

How to bond with your employees without compromising your authority

By Sadie Williamson

For any company, success is largely dependent on how well workers perform. I’ve long since learned that employees who perform the best are almost always those who are most engaged with their projects and teams. But you might be surprised to find out that one of the biggest contributing factors to the motivation and good feeling of an employee is often their relationship with their manager.

In a study by the OC Tanner Institute, 37 percent of employees reported recognition from management as by far the most important factor for employee motivation. A similar study found that 79 percent of people who quit their jobs do so because they don’t feel appreciated.

The most successful managers understand their responsibility for employee engagement and recognize how good employee relations contribute to a flourishing company.

Unfortunately, evidence also shows that companies are not taking steps to equip their managers to handle the softer aspects of the role. A CareerBuilder survey found that 58 percent of managers reported receiving no training for their current position. While there is no instruction manual or rule book on managing and leading people, my time in the corporate world has taught me that there are steps that you can take to navigate this complicated responsibility. Continue reading