Relax – don’t do it! Tips for overworked executives Part 2


January 29th, 2016

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In my previous post, I reflected on the findings of the Odgers-Berndston Lonely at the Top survey of FTSE 350 top executives, published in The Times (30 November 2015). This report highlighted how unsustainable these executives felt their current pace was with nearly 40% saying 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.

I offered three tips, which, from my experience of coaching C-suite clients, can help senior executive take back some control of their lives and establish a more sustainable routine. They were:

Tip 1. Step away from your quarterly focus – hold your nerve and take the long view
Tip 2. Step away from those e-mails – recognise the addiction
Tip 3. Tackle the problem at source – take a strategic lead on reducing e-mail traffic

Here I offer three more tips towards a more sustainable working life:

Tip 4. Step away from the operational – pursue the strategic

Amongst the leaders I coach, I find the e-mail issue highlighted in Tips 1 &2 is often an indicator of a wider problem. The majority of C-suite executives that I work with are too embroiled in operational issues, which not only results in their personal overload, but it also means that their ability to step back and think more strategically is impaired.

On Roffey Park’s Strategic Leadership Programme, we define the role of a strategic leader as:

“enabling the organisation to continually adapt to meet the changing demands of its environment, exploiting opportunities, while mitigating risks, in pursuit of its core purpose”.

This can be a useful starting point from which to define specific purpose of the executive’s role in their organisations and so help them focus on what matters most – for them. With this in mind, I encourage them to pause for a few seconds before they get embroiled in an operational issue or distracted by unimportant e-mails and challenge them to interrogate any unplanned demand on their time with three tests:

  • Firstly, the Test of IMPORTANCE: “Does this really have to be done?”
  • Secondly, the Test of RELEVANCE applies: “Do I have to do it?”
  • Thirdly, the Test of URGENCY, “Do I have to do something now?

If the answer isn’t a firm yes to all three questions then they need to either drop it, delegate it or schedule it in for later.

Many of my C-suite coaching clients decide to give themselves e-mail and interruption-free zones, usually away from the office when they can do their strategic thinking. These become zones when their PA’s and everyone else knows they are not to be contacted unless it is a genuine emergency.

Tip 5. Take a deeper dive – identify what’s really driving you

While the somewhat rational approach of Tip 4 can be helpful for some, others need to delve deeper to the emotional roots that drive their behaviour.

In 1975, Taibi Kahler identified five common drivers to human behaviour that can be dysfunctional if left unchecked. Most people can recognise one or two of these in themselves – and C-suite leaders are not immune. They are:

  • Be perfect – “if it’s not exactly right I can’t feel ok”. This often leads to a difficulty in delegating and a tendency to micromanage because no-one else will do it to our standard.
  • Be strong – “I cannot show weakness. Unless I appear strong at all times, I can’t feel ok”. This can easily lead to a lack of awareness of one’s limits or ability to ask for help.
  • Please others – “If those around me are not happy, I can’t feel ok”. They can make caring and empathetic leaders, but they will also find it difficult to say ‘No’.
  • Hurry Up – “Unless I am filling every moment with activity, I feel restless and not ok”. They are whirls of activity, seizing every moment that technology gives them to send an e-mail.
  • Try Hard – “As long as I put maximum effort in, I’ll be ok”. Hard work often produces results, but when things are not working, doubling our efforts is not necessarily going to fix it.

These drivers are deep-seated, formed early in childhood as we tried to make sense of the world around us. This means they are not easy to bring into line – they are wild horses that need to be tamed. Each of them has a productive energy when used to the right extent at the right time, but each needs harnessing and training if it is not to ‘overdrive’ us. We need to develop different mantras such as: “That’s good enough” or “I need help and that’s ok” or “You can’t please all the people all of the time” or “Slow down, Rome wasn’t built in a day!” or “Less is more”. If we can recognise our drivers and challenge them, we can discipline them to work for us and not against us.

Tip 6. Restore the Margins – accept the reality of limits – balance is an executive duty

In the mid-20th century, the UK countryside changed as small farms were gobbled up by larger conglomerates and the hedgerows and bushes in many field margins were lost in the name of more efficient agriculture. This short-sighted approach led to the need for more pesticides as the habitat for the hedgerow birds and animals – the natural pest-controllers – was decimated. In the 21st century, the margins of our lives are being decimated by the 24-7 working that is made possible by the advance of technology. ‘Progress’ demands that we fill every single moment with productive activity. These margins: the journey to work, the leisurely meal, our evenings and weekends, have gradually been eroded – each can be used to reply to e-mails, send texts, or make conference calls. The times that we used to use for ‘thinking things through’, or simply slowing down are too easily lost. To function at our best we need space for physical, mental, social and spiritual renewal. The growing interest in mindfulness is a cry from the human soul to give our whirring brains a rest: to forget, at least for a few moments, what’s happening next and learn to experience life ‘in-the-moment’.

Technology is not just a villain, but can also help restore our margins as renewal time. Rushing along a busy London street recently, I found my spirit transported to a different plain by an inspiring piece of music through my i-phone headphones. I noticed my pace unconsciously slowing as a result. Apps exist that provide us with guided meditations, relaxation and mindfulness sessions.

As a busy consultant and executive coach, I know how difficult it can be to protect those margins. I also know that unless I recognise the importance of this time and schedule it in, well in advance, it will never happen. One of the ways I committed to doing this last year was to put aside monthly retreat days in 2016, forcing margin back into my crazy schedule. It has been a painful process for me, as it often is for my clients, to recognise that these margins are not luxuries. We need to see the margins, and the renewal that is only possible within them, as crucial to sustainable and whole-of-life success.


Kahler, T. (1975). Drivers—The Key to the Process Script.  Transactional Analysis Journal, 5:3