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

Are Your High Expectations Hurting Your Team?

During a recent interview with a member of my client’s executive team, a leader said to me, “Nothing I do is ever good enough for [the CEO]. We’re all starting to ask ourselves why we bother trying.” When I later debriefed the assessment findings with the CEO, she said, “People consistently disappoint me. It’s always been that way. I have high standards. That’s why I get the results that I do.”

When we discussed the unintended consequences of her expectations, it had never occurred to her that she was undermining the very results she sought. Conventional management wisdom suggests that setting a high bar for employees is a good thing. But when employees can never reach that bar, those high standards become weapons, leaving bitterness and unrealized potential in their wake.

This study of more than 300 executives in 10 countries shows that approximately 35% of executives fail because of a tendency toward perfection. That’s because achievement-oriented leaders tend to be chronically dissatisfied. While you may be thinking that you’re “just pushing them to be the best,” you may actually be setting them up to fail. Step back and reconsider whether your constant pushing may have unwanted side effects. Here are a few you might see: Continue reading

A framework for succeeding as a first-time CEO

We’ve all seen the signs of a floundering first-time CEO: leadership attributes and behaviors we can all agree are not only ineffective but sometimes harmful. Although well-intended, there are four damaging leadership attributes and behaviors first time CEOs often display:

• Over-helping: First time CEOs are often eager to help their new teams gain trust and build relationships. However, this instinct can occasionally turn into over-helping, which often becomes micromanaging or functional leadership.

• Egocentrism: Perhaps born from a fear of failure or insecurity, first-time CEOs often fall into the trap of being driven by their egos. They take on the hero mentality and the accompanying sense of martyrdom.

• Overcapacity: While CEOs should be eager to get involved, they shouldn’t book themselves over capacity. Frequently, first time CEOs try to do so much they become frantic and unavailable. At the worst of times, this devolves into seagull management.

• Ambiguity: At the start of a first time CEO’s tenure, it may seem like the game is moving too fast. As such, the organization may suffer from an unclear vision, strategy and culture. This can manifest in slow or poor decision making and living in ambiguity. Continue reading

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