Leaders, Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First

I need to start this article with a disclaimer. Before I talk to you about taking care of yourself as a leader, I must confess that I’m not great at this myself. In fact, I’m terrible at it. And I don’t think I’m alone. Many executives have confided in me that they, too, struggle to maintain their health and personal lives while leading their companies or teams. So, by writing this down, my hope is to increase my own accountability and maybe it will resonate with some of you as well. Leaders are highly driven, ambitious people, and slowing down doesn’t come easily. But I’m beginning to notice that my drive and tendency to hunker down during busy times at work can be counterproductive. During the busiest times at work, my health and family are the first things to suffer. I skip workouts, opt for quick meals over healthy ones, and am not 100% present with my family even when I’m home because I have a hard time disengaging from work.  The job can be 24/7 and my instincts during stressful times are to drop everything and focus on that. The lack of exercise and nutritious food degrades the quality of my sleep, so I’m more tired than usual. The fatigue makes me cranky and have a shorter temper with everyone, thus making me a less positive influence than I’d like. I also tend to overcompensate with caffeine, which in turn affects the quality of my sleep the next night. Rinse and repeat. The downward spiral begins because of my work ethic. Like every professional weakness, it’s a strength taken a little too far. However, I can’t help anybody if I’m not at full capacity. I also can’t lead with full integrity. BVOH encourages our employees to be the best versions of themselves at all times. This includes having balance. I expect my team to work hard to deliver the best results for their clients and candidates, but also to take the time they need to recharge so they are fresh and ready to tackle new challenges.

We need to balance the impulse to give 110% percent to the business with activities that replenish our energy and our mind.

We promote a healthy lifestyle. As part of our new review process we are starting to incorporate personal goals in addition to business ones. Whether that’s scheduling a monthly date night with their spouses or hitting the gym X times a week, we plan to hold them accountable. I want them to know that their personal well being is just as important in my book as them hitting their KPIs. We want them in top form professionally and emotionally, because that’s when they work best and contribute positively to our environment. This concept is not intuitive for me. My knee jerk reaction when the stakes are high is to go full throttle on the professional front. Personal priorities and agenda take a backseat. However, I’m learning – through coaching and a lot of reading – that this is in fact the exact opposite of what’s needed to be effective. When we’re stressed it’s even more important to do the things that refresh us and keep us healthy. We need to balance the impulse to give 110% percent to the business with activities that replenish our energy and our mind. Finding that balance is not natural for me. When the pressure is on I tend to become singularly focused and put everything into work. It still makes me uncomfortable if I’m the first one to leave the office. But how can I tell our employees to be present with their loved ones or make time for their evening workouts if I’m skipping the gym and getting through the day fueled by caffeine? I’ve learned that not only is it healthy for me to prioritize exercise or dinner with my family, but it also sends the right message to my team. Even still, putting on my oxygen mask first doesn’t come naturally. If you struggle with this, too, you may find the following tips helpful. These strategies help keep me on track when my impulse is to give 110% to the business and very little to everything else.

1. Find an accountability partner.

Accountability partners are game-changers when you’re working toward challenging goals. Each month, I identify my key objectives, and my accountability partner follows up to ensure I’m honoring those. Our check-ins remind me that my personal and professional commitments are equally important. I might blow off a personal goal if I’m the only one who knows about it, but I don’t want to lose face by admitting that to someone I confided in. Studies also show that simply telling someone what your goals are gives you a greater chance of achieving them.

2. Commit to a big goal.

Add another layer of accountability by committing to a major event related to your goal. If you’d like to exercise more, sign up for a marathon, or a charity bike ride. Even better, ask a friend or your spouse to sign up too. You’ll show up for your training sessions because you don’t want to disappoint them, and also because you have a deadline.

I’ve found that having a big event on the calendar, and knowing other people depend on me for its success, forces me to prioritize my commitments outside of work.

If your goal is to volunteer more often, commit to a big fundraiser. You’ll have to participate in strategy sessions and activities for months ahead of the event, and that will create a habit of leaving the office at a reasonable hour. I’ve found that having a big event on the calendar, and knowing other people depend on me for its success, forces me to prioritize my commitments outside of work.

3. Treat non-work commitments like client meetings.

When you have a big meeting on your schedule, everything else takes a backseat. Unless there’s an emergency, you honor that commitment. Approach personal priorities the same way. If I tell myself I am going to an exercise class one night a week, I put it on my calendar. I know that to make a 6pm session, I need to leave the office by 5pm to catch the train and make it to the gym on time. Having it on my calendar signals that this event is important and deserves my attention as much as the business does. Balancing your professional and personal lives is one of the toughest acts leaders must master. Leaders aren’t just driven by a desire for individual success; we also feel the weight of our responsibilities. Running a business means that people’s livelihoods depend on you, and that knowledge can make us single-minded in our priorities. But as I’m continually learning, leading is a marathon, not a sprint. And you can’t cross the finish line unless you take care of your whole self. With that in mind, off to the gym!  

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