Leadership

Practical tools to diffuse drowning executive pressure

Practical tools to diffuse drowning executive pressure

There is no need to describe leadership pressure for you. You know it well. It is there practically all the time. Today’s executive stress at work will be different tomorrow. And pressure-causing events seem to happen in groups, seldom do they occur one at a time. Such fun when things pile up as they will do. Ugh!

As CEO, here is what occupied my mind at times like that.

            -So many jobs could be at stake.

            -If I fail, what about my family? My career?

            -How do I sleep with the weight of this?

            -So many tough decisions I can’t get wrong, but no crystal ball.

            All the things that could go wrong trip through my mind.

                        (Rinse and repeat)

As I progressed to C-level leadership, the pressure mounted. But I had good coaching along the way. I will share some of the stress management techniques that I learned from my mentors and bosses about mitigating workplace stress. A few of them were C-level executives at Fortune 500 companies, so they faced much more severe problems and greater levels of pressure at times than I did. I was very fortunate and am very grateful.

Stress is part of business and life. How can we handle it better? These ideas may help.

How does stress affect executive decision-making?

Let’s put ‘stress’ in perspective. When pressure rises, it will cause our field of vision to become small and narrow. We don’t tend to see the ‘big picture’ easily. And everything around us becomes more urgent (accelerates).

Because we don’t want to spill that anxiety onto others, we tend to initially keep the issues to ourselves. Perhaps we withdraw a bit. That’s normal. But prolonged ‘eating’ of pressure can paralyze us from forming solutions, drawing others in who may be able to help and may exacerbate the issue if we delay too long.

Business leadership is full-time. It is never entirely out of mind. But perhaps we can take cues from different professions but have high-pressure nonetheless. 

How can you handle stress and pressure?

I like sports, so I will begin by using a sports analogy. You will probably agree that professional football quarterbacks face significant pressure. On the field, mistakes get magnified. Off the field, the scrutiny can be relentless. But they must still perform at a high level and consistently, just like we are required to do. So, what can we learn from them?

Practice makes perfect?

One common sports attribute is ‘practice.’ They practice constantly. They get hundreds of opportunities to fail and improve. The better they become, the easier it is for them to visualize what will happen before it occurs to make better decisions and perform better. Practice sessions also include ’emergency drills’ during which there are simulations of challenging scenarios. Yet proper execution is required. So, do you see where I am going with this?

They are simply preparing for real situations by rehearsing for them in advance. They see it repeatedly in practice, so it isn’t foreign to them during the games. You may have heard football analysts say, “the game has slowed down for that quarterback.” That means that the quarterback sees and can anticipate what to do before doing it. Why wouldn’t leadership teams practice as well?

The military rehearses constantly. Emergency fire teams perform drills all the time. And they may face life and death situations. Actors practice repeatedly. I could go on.

While leaders cannot go off stage and practice, and we don’t get downtime without the daily responsibilities that business leadership requires, we need to find ways to anticipate what may happen and simulate our action plans. The safety of your business may depend on how well you do this when required.

How can I prepare ‘practice’ business pressure scenarios?

There are varied ways to accomplish this, and some will depend on the nature of your business. But here is a method that worked well for my teams and me.

Assemble your management team and let them know that you want to prepare with them to manage potential surprise emergencies that may cause the business distress.

Ask them as a team to prepare a list of three significant scenarios that could be detrimental to the business and require rapid corrective action. And you prepare two plans of your own apart from them.

Set aside time, preferably off-site, to select the scenarios you will use to practice and then document each scenario, how it arose, how much time you have, and the potential adverse effect. By definition, emergencies mean you don’t have much time to fix them. That can be a source of stress.

Then during a different session, activate one of your emergency scenarios. Together think through what steps you may take, who will do what, when you will do it, how you will communicate with each other, and the desired outcome.

Think about this. It is exactly what coaches do to prepare teams and players. And in the process, those players are getting more accustomed to stress and how to respond to it.

This is probably apparent, but there are some significant side benefits to this kind of practice. First, you have created teamwork for emergencies that you didn’t previously have. Now you can more quickly approach your team for help to solve high-pressure issues. You are no longer alone. You are managing stress as a team.

Your managers and executives will naturally recognize that they need to ’emergency plan’ in their areas of responsibility. You just built skills depth in your organization and became a safer company.

How can I better handle the emotional stress levels of work stress?

Stress can have both momentary and lasting adverse effects.

Momentary effects:

This pressure usually occurs at the beginning of a stressful situation. There is a bit of shock, and you feel the physical reaction. Some refer to that feeling as ‘stress response’ Whatever you call it, your body feels it. Let me share with you what worked when I felt this intense physical pressure.

I would leave the office and drive to a nearby park. I wanted to get away from the work environment for a short while. I wanted to be alone. Leaving my car, I deliberately began thinking about how small I was in the grand scheme of things. And then, I tried to put the stressful situation into a bigger perspective. I asked myself if, thirty days from now, I would remember this situation. I usually would not be able to remember things that may have happened thirty days earlier. 

I was trying to remind myself that everything is temporary and this situation would pass. I was also trying to minimize the problem at hand. I stayed at the park until some physical pressure subsided and then returned to work. This process usually took 20-30 minutes.

Lasting effects:

Chronic stress made sleeping more difficult for me. That could sometimes have a cumulative effect, causing me to be more tired and prone to short-term burnout. The advice that I received regarding getting better sleep is that I should exercise more. It worked, allowing me to fall off to sleep more quickly and sleep a bit longer. Some days just going for a walk was helpful. Perhaps this can help you rest better as well. A healthy body will handle stress better.

To summarize:

Create ‘practice pressure scenarios’ and exercise them with your team. Get ready for the inevitable. You may want to handle the emotional stress of the moment by simply getting away for a bit and putting things into a broader perspective. Exercise. Chronic stress can take a toll, but a healthy body can better cope.

Talk with senior leaders who have been where you are and ask for stress handling tips. It isn’t going away and it is nothing new. Get help. Don’t go it alone. I hope these tips help you.

To conclude:

This is not an easy topic to discuss. It is personal by nature. I can’t say that I was good at work-life balance. But I have learned some things from others who have done better. If you would like to discuss it further with me, please click below for a free session. https://calendly.com/dave-kerford/

Also, join our Bulletproof Business Community. It is a forum for wisdom and insights shared by our C-suite and business leader members who have built or are building Bulletproof Businesses. As a first step to joining our community, click below for our newsletter. https://davekerford.com/subscribe/  Enjoy!

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