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Relax – don’t do it! Tips for overworked executives

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For any executive coaches of C-suite managers, the findings of the Odgers-Berndston Lonely at the Top survey of FTSE 350 top executives, published recently in The Times (30 November 2015) will come as no surprise.

One of the stark findings of the survey was how these executives felt about the pace they were currently working at. Nearly 40% felt they could not sustain their current pace for more than 12 months, three quarters that they could not sustain it for more than two years.

There have been high profile casualties in recent years of this crazy pace we have become accustomed to. Antonio Horta-Osorio, CEO of Lloyds was forcibly signed-off as sick and checked into the Priory with sleep deprivation in 2011 and Sir Hector Sants, the former City regulator resigned from Barclays in 2013 after being signed off sick with exhaustion and stress. Both have returned to the workplace, but with a realisation that things needed to change.

Reflecting on the findings of this study, I will be offering six tips over two blogs, which, from my experience of coaching C-suite clients, can help senior executives take back some control of their lives and establish a more sustainable routine.

Tip 1. Step away from your quarterly focus – hold your nerve and take the long view

Any hint of a dip in performance shown in the quarterly figures and the subsequent expectation of being grilled by City Analysts as a result was the biggest cause of anxiety for 13% of directors in the survey. How do we let go of our obsession with short-term financial performance? It doesn’t even produce the best results: a number of studies have shown that the most profit-oriented companies are not the most profitable. Those that deliver the best return for shareholders tend to be the ones that have an external focus on customers, or on building a great company over the long-term. Successful companies such as South West Airlines have had a long-term strategy for slow, sustainable growth rather than short-term opportunism. In one year, in the mid 1990’s, 200 US cities were clamouring for them to open a hub in their airports. They opened just four. This ‘as slow as you can and as fast as you must’ approach meant that when 9-11 hit, they had reserves to weather the storm of a sudden drop in demand and were one of the few airlines to come through that crisis with healthy finances. Investing in this kind of company has made Warren Buffet the world’s most successful investor. Central to his investment strategy is a focus on long-term potential not short-term profitability. Short-termism also leads to all kinds of risky compromises: the temptation to decide tactics on what is expedient rather than what is wise and a compromising on values and ethics. There are plenty of examples in sport and business where ‘the chickens’ of this approach are fast ‘coming in to roost’! It takes courage, but leaders that focus on long-term performance are likely to have less sleepless nights over time.

Tip 2. Step away from those e-mails – recognise the addiction – the world (probably) won’t fall apart if you don’t respond immediately.

Almost all the directors in this study (94%) said they would be prepared to answer e-mails at any time of the day or night and 60% kept a phone, laptop or tablet beside them at night for this purpose. No wonder they can’t switch off. It’s a problem that is borne out of my own experience of coaching C-suite clients. Often they are picking up and responding to stuff that maybe someone needs to be handling, but not them, and if they had a clear sense of the fundamental purpose of their roles, they might be able to judge this better. And as they model responding to e-mails at all hours of the day and night, they set the expectation for the whole company culture. The problem is that e-mails tend to create their own sense of urgency: we may enjoy, even be addicted to, the sense of immediacy. But ‘keeping the inbox down’ can so easily distract us from more important strategic stuff. We have become seemingly helpless slaves of a tool that is meant to work for us. More on the individual techniques for taming this beast in Part 2, but let’s focus first on the need to tackle this problem at an organisational level.

Tip 3. Tackle the problem at source – take a strategic lead on reducing e-mail traffic

A 2012 McKinsey study suggested that highly skilled knowledge workers, including managers and professionals, spend up to 28% of their working week answering e-mail. They also found that few companies seemed to be grasping the nettle and reining in this crucial but maverick communication tool. Companies and their c-suite leaders desperately need to start taking control. Four years ago, IT organisation Atos did just that. Waking up to the daily deluge of e-mails that took up so much of their time, the CEO, Thierry Breton, told his 80,000 workers that no-one should e-mail each other within the same building. His eventual goal was to eradicate internal email across the organisation’s 42 countries. An in-depth analysis into e-mail traffic found that while 75% of employees spent a quarter of their time on inbox management, only about 10% of all e-mails warranted attention. There was a cultural pressure to ‘be seen’ responding to e-mails outside of office hours, to the tune of around 20 hours per employee a week, causing 82% of them stress. Four years later they have reduced average inbox sizes by 64%, freeing up time for more important things.

Next time, when I share three more tips, we will look at how our slavery to e-mails is a symptom of a wider executive problem and how it can take a deeper dive to remove some of the barriers to a sustainable working life.

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