In turbulent times like these, the uncertainty that comes with a global pandemic creates fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, and doubt for us all. With no immediate end in sight and the prospect of a pandemic being with us for some time, people and leaders will continue to find identifying and managing their emotions challenging at best. We need coping skills for every-day life when our daily experiences are uncertain, ambiguous, and constantly changing.
For leaders, in particular, this becomes a complicated equation of demonstrating emotional intelligence by being aware and able to feel their emotions fully, while managing them appropriately, and simultaneously being available for others in need of some concrete answers to alleviate their anxieties and fears. This may feel in any one moment like patting our heads while rubbing our stomachs, requiring coordination and a unique ability to observe oneself while reading the emotions of others.
There are some practices that we can use in times like this, the most effective of which, is being able to both welcome and manage the peaks and valleys of our internal emotional terrain in any moment. This requires self-compassion to recognize that something challenging has hijacked our emotions and we need to do something with the information our emotions have provided. Our emotions have a purpose to move us to action, and when we listen, we can move to appropriate action. For example, when we feel anger someone or something has crossed a boundary and we want to hold that boundary for ourselves. The identification and welcoming of our positive and negative emotions help us to better understand what is driving our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
This practiced skill is about finding ways to be present to our own changing emotional conditions throughout the day so we can focus on what we can control. A secondary practice follows our emotions that is letting go of narratives or mindsets that affect how we respond. Another effective coping skill that builds upon our narrative is called perspective-taking. Perspective taking is not about being overly optimistic, rather it is about achieving balance in our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
At times balance may be achieved by recognizing the stories we tell ourselves when hijacked by our emotions. Our narratives are often without perspective that lead to automatic assumptions. For example, a CEO may have a narrative about not being able to meet the needs of a demanding Board. Any time the Board wants information or action the CEO may move to an old narrative such as, “our Board is unrealistic, demanding or out of line.” We may have narratives about how to handle certain types of people and their perceived reactivity in relation to our own.
Some CEO’s at one time or another might come to doubt if they’re the right person for the job in this new environment, in the midst of complex change or the CEO feels he/she/they cannot see around the corner far enough to respond to the rapid industry upheaval. The perspective taking in these instances might be to recognize that our emotional state might be driving overly negative narratives. In moments these, it can be helpful to take a step back, take stock of the whole situation or recognize default emotions when under stress.
Another practice that does not come easily to many of us is acting with self-compassion and following that up with acts of self-care. Self-care is different for everyone, so it is important to experiment with what works for you. Many of my clients have come to depend on practices such as sleeping well, exercising, and eating healthy foods - with some occasional guilty pleasures such as ice cream or chocolate.
This practice of calming the immune system in response to sustained stress levels may require more frequent stopping, deep breathing and meditating throughout the day. One of my client’s makes it a point to center herself and take a few deep breaths before walking into the next meeting. She says this clears her mind and settles her emotions to ensure she can be present for others. Another client insists on 50-minute meeting(s) so he has 10 minutes to do whatever he needs before moving onto the next conversation.
These simple practices for every-day life and leadership are essential when facing mounting personal and business pressures. The good news is they can be learned. It is a humbling act to observe and understand ourselves in these times of great uncertainty, to allow our emotions in fully, without minimizing or rationalizing them, or simply numbing ourselves to them. They are mandatory practices to be agile enough to manage ourselves and our relationships for positive outcomes in challenging times.
In turbulent times like these, with a global pandemic that creates fear, anxiety, sadness, uncertainty and doubt, it’s reasonable that leaders may be finding it difficult to balance their emotions and remain open to others. I’m struggling with the barrage of information about spiraling death rates, and how to remain safe, that elevates my anxiety. When everything seems to be out of control, and our physical safety is compromised, we can manage our negative emotions by living life in small moments. The coping skills of zeroing in on the many moments in our days that are alright and going well, can change our perspective from overwhelmed to simmering to relaxed.
The Covid-19 virus landed in Washington state in February this year. Two months later, with thousands of positive cases, hundreds of deaths and stay at home requirements, we’ve been riding on an emotional roller coaster and anticipating it might be a while before we can get off.
There are no human beings on this planet that have not been affected by this extremely contagious virus. I have deep empathy for those who’ve lost loved ones and who have been unable to console or say goodbye to them. It’s impossible to understand the shortages of safety equipment, masks, ventilators and tests for first responders putting their lives on the line every day. There are fear and anxiety driven behaviors such as food hording, price gouging, cheating people out of federal relief checks and loads of internet scams that prey on people. We’re all wondering if there will be a new normal on the other side of this.
I’m taking my own advise at this time to focus moment to moment each day while practicing extreme self-care (ESC); sleeping well, exercising, eating healthy foods (with some guilty pleasures like ice cream and chocolate); calming the immune system by meditating, whatever will settle my mind and bring awareness to my reactivity to so many factors beyond my control.
In turbulent times it’s best to live our lives in consumable bites – day by day and moment to moment.
For leaders, practicing self-care feels like the last thing to do in the long list of mounting personal and business pressures. However, ESC with doses of self-compassion, grace and courage are now required more than ever, to help others in need of extra support. It’s a humbling act to observe and understand ourselves in these times of great uncertainty, to allow our emotions in fully, without minimizing, rationalizing, fixing or numbing them.
Leaders must extend their awareness beyond themselves, knowing that heightened negative emotions can spread to others quickly, so managing them well, and having good coping strategies saves everyone from taking a ride on the stress bus. With greater presence and a practice of appreciation, we’re more able to be intentional about our next actions and words, to be as authentic and balanced as possible. Appreciation moment to moment may include thinking about what is good in our lives, taking walks in nature, smelling everything new in the Spring air, being grateful for you own health and that of our family members as well.
By making a choice every day to pay attention to and contribute to the many acts of kindness in our communities, to thank the many selfless health and essential workers and to support local food banks, will take us out of our own revelry to see the bigger picture around us. Living our best lives in times like these comes with a steep learning curve, however, with great uncertainty, we can choose to take it all in one moment at a time.
When time is scarce (when is it not these days) and the to-do list is endless, prioritizing important projects, deciding where to spend your time and maintaining energy are critical skills for the overburdened executive. Everyone today in corporate environments will tell you that time is the scarcest resource while work volume is increasing. With shrinking budgets, an over-abundance of information, twenty-four seven access on multiple devices and increasing business complexity, leaders must use their time wisely.
This is true for all executives, and for those new to C-levels roles especially, where a leader spends his or her time are the most essential skill sets to build credibility in the first year and beyond. Seasoned executives could benefit from periodic adjustments to their time, energy and resources without apology as well. A key part of this time adjustment is often managing the expectations of others’ about where you will focus your precious time, resources and energy.
Although coaching goals for executives are targeted at outcomes, such as increasing revenues, maintaining or decreasing costs, envisioning new lines of business, leading organizational change or communicating with key stakeholders effectively, our coaching conversations often include managing oneself effectively, monitoring where time is spent and recasting focus areas to use that time well. Understanding where a leader currently spends his or her time might sound onerous, however, a quick calendar scan over a two to four-week time frame will illustrate well enough the big buckets of work and time allocated to them.
The narrative often goes like this, “I can’t believe I spend most of my time on short- term horizon activities, mostly in meetings, presiding over daily operations and initiatives.” CEO’s should be spending the bulk of their time on mid to long horizon strategies that only he or she can do for the company. Another observation that’s common is the frequency of important impromptu conversations that could potentially wait to be addressed in other venues such as staff meetings, scheduled 1:1 update(s) or handled by others (the direct reports of the CEO). It’s not that open-door policies are bad, in fact, they’re great for preserving or building healthy business cultures, however, executives must maintain a focus on the right work to move the business forward and delegate the rest.
As many of the executives I work with are making the transition to C-level jobs for the first time, letting go of the old functional responsibilities is a difficult habit to break. It’s tempting to keep a hand in old functional activities from one’s previous job, instead of fully handing them to other leaders so they can learn. Holding onto perfection expectations can be one reason for holding on to old work or simply that this work is a comfort zone, where one feels competent.
One new C-level executive, Jane, had grown up in the company before becoming CEO. When we reviewed where she was spending her time, as much as 40% of her time was spent in lower value activities that could be handled by her successor. Many leaders wait too long to hand work to other senior leaders, and instead are in some way micro-managing this work that now belongs to others in the organization. The question becomes, how deep should one go into functional work versus adopting a new role as coach or advisor to up and coming leaders?
Jane was also spending 25% of her time on a significant organization change project by sitting in long weekly change team meetings and attending satellite office meetings where the operational change work was taking place. After evaluating her time, she moved from doer to sponsor in the change work, keeping an appropriate distance while her very capable senior leaders managed the daily tasks. When she became more of the thinking partner to them, she bought herself significant amounts of time to focus on important external community and legislative outreach.
She made significant changes in her mindset about the value of her contributions across the company and began to control her work, instead of it controlling her. As a result of her new focus on high priority work, Jane found she had more energy to give to her daily responsibilities. She started to feel energized instead of exhausted. For example, she changed how she utilized transition times before and after work and between meetings or conversations.
Jane used to catch up on emails while riding to work on the ferry. Instead of feeling behind on daily communications, she spent her ride time thinking about longer term opportunities for the company. As a result, she would arrive at work feeling more energized and proactive. She made sure that work processes were in place to manage annual planning work streams and delegated this accountability to her head of operations. When leaders would ask her questions about strategic planning deliverable(s) she would refer them to her COO.
Jane created what we called micro-practices during the day that would allow her to assess if she was focused on the right work, such as repurposing mornings, when she generally felt fresher, for ideating with her direct reports. She caught up on emails twice a day at specific times that were scheduled on her calendar as uninterrupted desk time. Jane gave herself permission to attend her favorite yoga class every week. She also allowed one late day a week to catch up if needed, otherwise she went home on time to be with her family on a more consistent basis.
One of the biggest improvements was testing her assumptions about meetings that had been on the corporate calendar for years. She asked, “do we still need this meeting or could be repurpose this time for something else or just getting work done?” Jane asked meeting owners to provide prereading materials and agendas in advance of each meeting, so everyone arrived ready to have the conversation they needed to have. This practice was about valuing everyone’s time, not just her own. Some meetings were changed to 50 minutes, instead of one hour, so she had time between conversations to relax, breathe deeply, refocus and prepare for the next conversation. Many of her lunch hour meetings with direct reports were shortened as well, and now included a 30-minute walk when the weather was good. As a result of these small changes she found the transitions between meetings more relaxing and centering, and she gained back another 10-15% of her time on a monthly basis.
It took some time to get there, but eventually, Jane was unapologetic about spending her time on the highest leverage activities for the company. Modeling this approach, gave other senior leaders permission to test assumptions about where they spent their time. Over time, meetings became much more efficient and they had less of them on a weekly basis. Senior leaders took these approaches to their own teams, so the wisdom of valuing how people spent their time was passed along to others. This approach aligned with one of their company values of delivering high-quality work and excellence in company performance. Jane’s focused time, resources and energy approach and her ability to pay herself first, ultimately paid time forward for everyone in the company.