In the plusses of a new Zoom world, I was able to attend a female founder breakfast with other business owners across Europe. A very welcome reprieve from the homeschool realities of having four little boys underfoot, a deluge of emails to sift through, a mortgage application, and the nitty-gritty of product launches, this small gathering of women entrepreneurs and team leaders—coming together to share stories of this unusual time—was just what the pandemic ordered. Our guest host was another mother running a booming business that has expanded and grown in the pandemic and who is, frankly, just nailing it. Yet, at the same time, she was humble and open and honest and shared all the things you want to see in a leader. She had spent the last several months actively hiring and lately come to find herself in charge of a large international and young remote team. Her question for us: what do we do to protect our team’s mental health during the pandemic? It seems this was a question on everyone’s minds, and the founders gave some examples, from buying hours of free therapy to encouraging virtual meetups.
Then, when someone turned the question back on her, “How do YOU balance work and personal life?” she looked offscreen and said, “I work all the time. All the time.” Her non-negotiable balance? A family escape to a country house every Friday afternoon for the weekend, “except for this weekend, ’cause I’m working, and then next weekend, ’cause I’m working.” And I thought, when do we stop doing this to ourselves?
Maybe when we stop wearing busy as a badge of honour.
I learned a lot of lessons that morning. I got tips on ways to drive growth, I met potential investors, I connected with other women about being mothers and founders driving businesses and families.
But the biggest a-ha moment for me was our relationship to busyness and how terrible being “busy” sounds. We gather as leaders to swap stories and knowledge because I suspect we want to be good role models. But how can we be role models for the younger team members, for the rest of our colleagues, if we are constantly talking about how much we work, as if that is the measure of success.
We need to get over this myth that Busy = Productivity. One can be busy on calls all day, but that will kill productive deep work later, on the kind of tasks that might move the business needle. For a while I’d gotten my team nicely boundaried about “meeting for the sake of meeting,” but in this remote working life, we’ve tended to meet even more for a sense of connection. I deeply understand all sides of this coin. But now more than ever we need to re-examine our relationship to how we spend our time, how we identify and prioritize our work, and look deep into the dialogue of busyness.
Brene Brown says in Dare to Lead, “We have to let go of exhaustion, busyness, and productivity as status symbols and measures of self-worth. We are impressing no one.” And as leaders, we need to lead by example. We need to make sure we are weaving this mindset into our office cultures. It is the responsibility of the leader to model appropriate behavior by shutting off email and taking time to focus on ourselves and family. A younger colleague reflected upon her internship years; she was told to arrive to work by 9am. When she realized everyone else was arriving at 8:30am, she started to arrive at 8:30am. It doesn’t work to tell people to turn off, take time—we need to show and share how we take personal time, recharge our creative juices, slow down to let new ideas percolate. These are the times we need to highlight with our team members: the sit-down dinner with our family, the new neighborhood we found on an evening stroll with our partner, the heartwarming conversation we had with an old friend during a lunch-break-walk-and-talk. If we do not take this time for ourselves, then we need to do it for those we lead.
So I spoke with a psychologist friend of mine, Dr. Mary Collins, who is also a professional executive coach, and together we devised a proprietary acronym called SPA that I am excited to share and roll out to my team. SPA wonderfully sums up three practical microsteps needed to manage our work-life demands and to re-engage with our parasympathetic nervous system, those times when we are fully self-aware, in tune with our emotions, and “respond” instead of “react.” I will be weaving SPA into the fabric of SteamLine and hope it serves as a helpful tool for our broader community.
S – Set Boundaries
Setting boundaries includes, but is not limited to, scheduling meetings that actually work for us, and feeling empowered to say no to something that is tempting but not necessary for the times. If you do work less than the traditional five days a week, it is imperative that you set clear boundaries around the days you are working and the ones you are not. And we should encourage colleagues and co-workers to do the same. It is refreshing to see an increasing amount of email signatures with people being open and transparent around their work arrangements. Burnout will loom quickly if we say yes to everything and don’t set careful boundaries. Remember, saying no to some things only means having the room to say yes to creative time.
P – Prioritize
Fill our early parts of the day with the non-negotiables, prioritizing important to-dos in the first half of the day so that we can make sure we are closing the computer at a reasonable hour and leaving time and space for moments that let our creative juices flourish. This will call for a certain amount of straightforwardness that you may need to cultivate. Dr. Martyn Newman, author of Emotional Capitalists describes “straightforwardness” as a core emotional intelligence competency of successful leaders. Also, known as “assertiveness,” this refers to prioritizing and asserting our “personal needs” in a clear and direct way. Dr. Collins says that in her coaching work she sees successful women often struggling with this, prioritizing everyone else’s needs before their own. Asserting your needs is a skill that can be developed with consistent regular practice and feedback from candid friends in your life.
A – Authentic Leadership
Authentic leadership is about radical self-awareness, knowing our strengths and limitations and owning them. And knowing there is strength is showing vulnerability—acknowledging when to ask for help, leaning into others to help make decisions, and, above all, having a strong moral compass along with self-compassion.
A core part of authentic leadership is knowing and playing to our signature strengths. The growing research body is overwhelming in terms of the positive impact that knowing our strengths has on our resilience, well-being, and general happiness in life. An excellent resource to identify your strengths based is the VIA (Values in Action) Character Strengths profile, available free of charge (www.viacharacter.org). Once you are aware of your top five strengths, make sure you get a chance to engage with each of them each day!
And lastly, for authentic leadership, Dr. Collins emphasizes the importance of building a strong team whom you encourage to manage and motivate themselves. To me, this has been revolutionary. What if we all make a conscious effort to entrust those who work on our team with the authority to be their own leader, make their own decisions? Sure mistakes might happen, but this is also the quickest way to strengthen your team. Empowering others is perhaps one of the best things we can do as leaders. Followed, that is, by generously giving credit where credit is due.
We are all crazy busy. More so than ever without the former boundaries and breaks between work and life, as literally every minute of my waking day someone is calling for my attention, and my head-clearing “commute” is now a walk downstairs. And I know every member of my team is going through some version of this at home. So if we are ever going to finally change the rate of burnout, in or outside a pandemic, we need to say, “Yes, yes, you can build a business and live a balanced life.” We need to Set Boundaries, Prioritize more carefully, practice and encourage powering off when needed and, most importantly, embrace Authentic Leadership by knowing our limitations and then building a solid team. We are all on call in our digital age, but now more than ever, if we are genuinely concerned about the mental health of those we lead, we need to change our dialogue, break the badge of busyness, and foster time without computers, restorative times when creative thoughts are allowed the room to surface. We might be surprised to find that these are our most productive hours yet.
The reason SPA is a microstep goes back to a term I’ve used before, kotsu kotsu, which is Japanese for step-by-step. What happens then when, as leaders, we break our own rules, something I have often avowed to doing? You keep at it, step-by-step. It is a practice, like exercise, a priority on which you decide and recommit to every day. It may feel hard to square ambition and a sense of urgency with slowing down for sanity’s sake. But how much of that must-happen-now mania stems from the part of our ego or generalized anxiety that hurts rather than serves our best interests? So when you break your own rules, don’t beat yourself up. Remember how and why you decided to quit living this way. Renew your vows to yourself, your family, your team, and put the phone down. You call it a day. You take the weekend off. You remember, it really can all wait.