Stress: the ongoing and certain knowledge that there will never be enough time in the day to do what needs to be done. And when it comes to stress, finance leaders are at a pinch point. The business issues arising from global conflict and the long-term impacts of Brexit and COVID-19 are all funnelled in your direction. They converge daily in your calendar and overwhelm your inbox. But it is not all down to the external environment, you play your own part in the daily cycle of stress creation and perpetuation.
From my consulting work, I know that many of the most significant causes of stress, frustration, and burnout turn out to be related to time: poor prioritisation, bad scheduling, thoughtless deadlines, undefended calendars, and fruitless meetings. As a leader, you direct the time and attention of the entire organisation, so all eyes are on you when it comes to how you master your own time. Your stress is everyone’s business.
As a leader, everyone looks to you for the answers. The added dimension to finance leadership is that you are expected to serve up your answers with a side order of confidence; with data, numbers, forecasts, scenarios and insights. Your job is to soothe and reassure, to provide the illusion of certainty and de-risk an ambiguous future. Being a leader in practice isn’t any easier. You, and the buck that stops with you, are constant companions. Leading from a place of ‘not knowing’ is a lonely and stressful experience.
When stress beckons, it’s tempting to dig deeper, work harder and pretend it’s not happening to you; after all that has stood you in good stead this far. Sustained stress over time can drive you deeper into your own private trench. Do you find that when you are overwhelmed you consult less? In your own rushing and overcommitment, do you signal that stress is the price of success in your business and comes at a high personal cost?
Your stress is contagious. We call it ‘stresscalation’ because as soon as you get stressed, you start seeing the whole world through the lens of stress and you start to model unhealthy time habits. You already know the small signs of stresscalation; little courtesies such as ‘good mornings’ are foregone, you speak abruptly, everything acquires an equal sense of false urgency. Drop a few of these factors into an already overheated system and your stress can become the operating model for the entire business.
You need to reduce the pressure gradually. You can’t meet big stress with the extra stress of big change. When you are on the brink of overwhelm, your capacity for personal and organisational change is low, you simply don’t have the time. Leaders tell me that the pace at the moment is ‘unsustainable’. They don’t call it ‘stress’ but that’s what it is – the ongoing and constant tension between the hours available and the challenges and demands on your time. Step One in dealing with your own stress is to acknowledge it, and name it for what it is.
A great starting point for de-stresscalation is your calendar. I’m sure your calendar is jam-packed with a range of commitments, some engineered by you and others passively accepted without any challenge. That is the calendar you mindlessly execute on daily, with stress already inbuilt. It is far too easy to default to busy; it takes courage to redesign your day to oust the potential for stress. If you can get a grip on your days, the rest follows.
When you look at your calendar for the week ahead, how do you feel? Stressed and overwhelmed or quietly confident that your efforts are strategically aligned? When you see your commitments laid out day by day, week by week, are you really spending your time on what matters?
Here are some ideas to experiment with, which you can start to implement immediately.
Leaders tell me that they are still in the grip of the lockdown pattern of back-to-back Zoom and Teams calls, while now trying to incorporate in-person meetings.
Stop the back to back. Let it go. It is not heroic. Lurching from one commitment to the next is not the hallmark of a leader. Instead insert a buffer between each meeting, even if that buffer is only five minutes. You need time to recover from each interaction, to process what you need to process, to switch context to be ready for the next encounter.
I know you have probably tried a version of this and it may have worked for a while before falling by the wayside. But here’s the magic. Schedule buffer time in your calendar, so it ranks alongside all your other commitments. Give it a name. If you call it Recovery or Preparation Time, then take a five-minute walk, or rehydrate, eat a banana, or stand up and stretch. If you don’t schedule it, others will overwrite it. If you don’t name it then you won’t know what to do with it. You will mindlessly doom-scroll breaking news or check the next hot batch of emails. You won’t have recovered, and you won’t be ready for the next thing. Personally, I call it ‘Decompression Time’ and sometimes it consists merely of shredding a few sheets of paper or emptying my trash folder, metaphorically clearing the decks for what is next.
Does your version of stressed out and busy render you invisible and inaccessible? An unavailable leader creates anxiety for others and injects even more stress into the system, because everyone works around your bandwidth. People can’t get your help when they need it. You signal your priorities as much by what you don’t do as by what you do: the unanswered emails, the meeting invites you don’t respond to. Stresscalation is the inevitable result.
- Use your email out of office when you are in the office. Use it to communicate, to broadcast where your attention is at right now. Whether you are prioritising a major transaction, or performance reviews, or a strategy overhaul your team deserves a response to their interactions with you and that it may take you a while to get back to them.
- Choose a regular hour each week to make yourself fully available to your team and schedule it clearly in your calendar. Invite generously and broadcast it widely. Like a doctor with surgery times or an academic with office hours, your leadership team can be sure that this is the time and the place where they can easily find you. The measure of success is not how many people show up, but the fact that you were there and available to help. This move reduces anxiety around your availability and protects your time. It won’t cover all random demands but knowing that you are accessible on a regular basis helps people plan their time better and be better prepared to engage with you, rather than digitally flagging you down and making every call on your time an emergency.
Carmel Moore is a Chartered Accountant by training and spent more than 30 years advising large, multinational organisations on tax strategy, management and compliance. Carmel is currently director of the One Moment Company, where she coaches and trains leaders to break through the time barrier, increase productivity and design new rules of time.
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