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Drop Dead: Stress is the silent killer of top-performing CEOs; Here's how to deal with it

You just closed your Series C round. You just exited for 9 figures. Or, for a few of you, you just went public. CEOs who experience these “highest of highs” frequently feel the massive stress that leads up to these BIG events. And stress can kill if not dealt with properly. Here’s how to manage that stress and still perform at the highest level on the biggest stage.

It wasn’t all that long ago that CEOs were expected to suffer their job stress in silence. If you couldn’t handle the myriad responsibilities that come with running a company, then you were weak and unfit to lead. That gave rise to cartoon caricatures of what a “real CEO” should be like: always on, always the loudest voice in the room, and always blowing his top so that employees knew they had to keep up, or else.

Drop Dead: Stress is the silent killer of top-performing CEOs; Here’s how to deal with it

Today business leaders know better. Study after study has proven that stress kills. Managing stress is a big focal point of our best practices at CEO Coaching International, because we’ve all sat in the CEO’s chair.

We know that stress isn’t weakness, it’s part of being human and performing under pressure. And the most successful of the CEOs we work with have adopted some important strategies for reducing stress in their Health, Work, and Lives.

Health

Sleep. No, you cannot subsist on power naps and inconsistent night-time sleep patterns. Most CEOs, regardless of their fitness level, need 7 – 8 hours of sleep each night. Without that recharge, you’re going to short circuit at the worst possible time.

I know, it’s easier said than done. I’ve had my fair share of sleepless nights dealing with issues that only the CEO can handle.

The best way to shut down is to shut it ALL down. Cell phone, laptop, TV – turn all your electronics off an hour before bedtime. The leg up you think you’re getting by answering a few more emails or sneaking in another call is crippling your body’s natural transition into sleep mode and making you more susceptible to stress.

Here are 3 quick tips to get better sleep.

Keep it cold. Turn the temp down at night, somewhere in the mid-60s is conducive to better sleep.
Keep it dark. The darker the better.
Stick to a routine. Follow the same bed time routine every night. It could be reading for a few minutes. Meditating. Taking a few deep breaths. Following a routine conditions your body to know it’s time to shut down and go to sleep.
Eat right. Promoting healthy meal options at your company is a workplace upgrade that’s going to benefit both you and your employee net promoter scores. But meals are also prime relationship-building time for CEOs. When you’re wining and dining important clients and key contacts, remember that you’re sitting down to build bridges, not gorge on steak.

Of course, the other extreme – skipping meals to work more – is no good either.

Our bodies process fatigue and hunger in similar ways. If you don’t eat breakfast and lunch, you’re going to feel tired. If you’re not sleeping enough, you’re going to start grazing at every candy dish in the office and reaching for fast food fixes.

Exercise daily. Schedule it, set goals, track your progress, and don’t skip it, or you won’t do it. Exercising is no different than how you run your business.

An hour in the gym every day isn’t indulgent – it’s keeping you healthy and giving you a healthy outlet for all that stress. I have a personal trainer who kicks my butt and holds me accountable. You should too if you don’t already have one.

While you’re working, get out of your chair at least once every hour. Take a five-minute stroll. Do some push-ups or jumping jacks. Stretch. Meditate or practice some deep breathing exercises. Anything that gets your heart pumping and your head clear.

Take warning signs seriously. The CEO who thinks she knows everything is bad for business. The CEO who applies that same know-it-all attitude towards his health could be making a mistake that’s literally fatal.

According to researchers, a scary number of Americans still turn to the internet to self-diagnose – or more likely, misdiagnose – health issues. Often these searches are just self-fulfilling prophecy. People think they do or don’t have a condition, and they keep clicking and swiping until they find info that confirms that belief. But all the belief and willpower that built your business isn’t going to make that tingling in your arm or shortness of breath go away.

When stress starts manifesting itself physically, seeing your doctor should be the only appointment on your calendar that matters.

Work

Ask yourself, “What do I want?” Look, you didn’t HAVE to become a CEO. Something inspired you to bet on yourself, start a business, and pour your heart and soul into growing it. But as you’ve grown, it’s possible that you’ve drifted off course in ways that are making the job more stressful than it should be.

So go back to square one.

Get back in touch with that vision that made you want to run this business. Figure out the actionable, measurable steps you need to put in place to get back on track. Check your blind spots for anything that could get in the way of your goals and pile on extra stress. And make a plan to hold yourself accountable so you don’t lose your way again.

Do your job, not everyone else’s. As a CEO, it’s better to “be the poet, not the plumber.” If you’re still stuck in the do-it-all entrepreneurial mindset, the only thing about your company that’s going to grow is your stress level.

Effective CEOs focus on just five things: Vision, Cash, Getting the Right People in the Right Jobs, Key Relationships and Learning. Delegate or delete the rest. Your company doesn’t need you to do everything – it needs you to do what only you can do.

Download our quick primer on how to effectively delegate from CEO Coaching International Coach Rafe Wilkinson.

Don’t do it alone. A CEO’s office can be a pretty lonely place sometimes. Tough decisions land squarely on your desk every day. When well-liked employees can’t keep pace with the company’s needs, you’re the one who has to pull the trigger on a replacement. The high performers who give you their all are counting on you so that they can support their families and advance in their own careers.

It’s impossible for one person to manage the stress of all those responsibilities without a strong support system in place. That starts with hiring executives and managers who can execute without your handholding. But you also need to talk to people who know what it’s like to sit in the big chair.

Lean on mentors or other CEOs who can help you reflect on and learn from your shared experiences. Work with a coach who can help you formulate action plans to accomplish top tasks and build a world-class team around you. Leverage the wisdom and power of these relationships to create your own inner circle. Instead of feeling isolated, you’ll feel connected to a group that’s going to push you and your company to the next level.

Life

Schedule your priorities. Every year, the first items that I schedule are my daily workouts and vacations with my wife and one-on-one trips with my kids—nothing gets in the way of these. I block off this time months – and sometimes years – in advance. That’s how important my personal time is to me. That’s how important your personal time should be to you.

At home, be present in whatever you’re doing. Your kids will notice if you’re replying to work emails during their hockey or baseball game. Your wife doesn’t want to share date night with a supplier calling you after hours. And don’t neglect your friends either–they can be a welcome sight after a tough day at the office.

Live your personal values. A company that doesn’t have values beyond profit is never going to land top talent or passionate customers. But where do those values come from? Ideally, the CEO.

If you’re all about business, all the time, then your business is going to feel hollow and inauthentic. And on the home front, you’ll just be another blip in the divorce statistics. Me? I’m Passionate about life. It’s important to feel like I’m having an Impact on my family and my community. I have the Courage to be honest with myself and those around me to deal with whatever issues need to be dealt with and to always do the right thing even when it’s hard. I have a pretty strict No Drama policy. I pride myself on my Integrity. And I’m Compassionate and do what I can to help people.

Those are some of the values I try to carry with me every day. In turn, they inspired the PICNIC acronym that drives our workplace culture at CEO Coaching International.

Think “work/life integration” instead of “work/life balance.” Most people will tell you that to relieve stress, you should strive toward a better work/life balance. My experience is just the opposite. I’ve found that work/life integration is a better strategy that leads to BIG results while also allowing me and my family to live the kind of life we want.

Richard Branson was right when he said, “I don’t think of work as work and play as play, it’s all living.” In a similar way, I seamlessly weave in and out of work/life in a way that allows me to do the work I need to do, get the rest I need to recharge, and live the life that makes it all worthwhile. For example, I frequently invite clients to go boating with me. When I hike the Grand Canyon, I’m usually with a mix of clients, friends, and family. And sometimes I workout with clients and colleagues. So is that work? Play? Both? Yes!

Look, if you want to be a high-achieving CEO, you’ll need to figure out how to structure your life so you do the work you love, with the people you enjoy, while being fully engaged with your family and the people most important to you.

Expand you mind. I’ve found that being a lifelong learner is a great way to take my mind off what might be stressing me and replace it with energizing ideas. For example, I attended YPO’s Singularity University Program and YPO’s Executive Education Program at Harvard University several times to sharpen my game. Not only did I learn some mind-blowing things, but I got to hang out with other high-achieving CEOs.

Anything that expands your horizons and gets you out of your company bubble will be good for stress management. These kinds of experiences can also get your mind firing in ways that lead to new personal and professional breakthroughs.

Be grateful. I know it’s hard to feel gratitude when your to-do list has your heart racing and your head throbbing. Sometimes the best way to reduce stress is to take a moment to yourself and reflect. Several times in my life I have used a gratitude journal where every morning I write the top three things I am grateful for.

You belong to a small, select group of people who call themselves entrepreneur, CEO, founder. You’re the boss. You’re making your family proud and setting an aspirational example for your kids. You’re running the company you’ve always wanted.

If being the boss wasn’t hard and stressful, everyone would do it. Give yourself some credit for that accomplishment and be grateful for all the hard work and outside support that got you where you are today.

Then, take a deep breath … and let’s get back to making BIG happen.


About Mark Moses

Mark Moses is the Founding Partner of CEO Coaching International and the Amazon Bestselling author of Make BIG Happen. Mark has won Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award and the Blue Chip Enterprise award for overcoming adversity. His last company ranked #1 Fastest-Growing Company in Los Angeles as well as #10 on the Inc. 500 of fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. He has completed 12 full distance Ironman Triathlons including the Hawaii Ironman World Championship 5 times.

Mark Moses
FOUNDING PARTNER & CEO

About CEO Coaching International

CEO Coaching International works with CEOs and their leadership teams to achieve extraordinary results quarter after quarter, year after year. Known globally for its success in coaching growth-focused entrepreneurs to meaningful exits, CEO Coaching International has coached more than 1,000 CEOs and entrepreneurs in more than 60 countries and 45 industries. The coaches at CEO Coaching International are former CEOs, presidents, or executives who have made BIG happen. The firm’s coaches have led double-digit sales and profit growth in businesses ranging in size from startups to over $10 billion, and many are founders that have led their companies through successful eight, nine, and ten-figure exits. Companies working with CEO Coaching International for two years or more have experienced an average EBITDA CAGR of 67.8% during their time as a client, nearly four times the U.S. average and a revenue CAGR of 25.5%, more than twice the U.S. average.

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