Resilience: The Most Important Executive Skill Not on Your Radar

By: Guy M. Beaudin

A colleague and I met with a CEO late on a Friday afternoon to talk about her direct reports and to make some important decisions that would determine the configuration of her team. The CEO had gone through a long week and looked haggard and distracted. She rambled on about some topics and cut others short before giving them proper consideration. She went off on tangents, repeated some questions, and asked us to go over basic issues more than once. She absolutely had to make some choices that day—we provided our best advice, but the decisions were hers alone, and we were all aware that she wasn’t giving these options the level of consideration they warranted. She ended up going with her gut more than she was comfortable with, but at that point she could not muster the energy to focus on the complexities.

Last week, another client asked me to start coaching an executive who has long been on the list to be the next CEO of his company. Since his last promotion, however, the executive had become uncharacteristically short-tempered and had experienced several public outbursts in meetings. In my initial session with him, it was clear that he had not suddenly lost all the skills that had gotten him on the succession list in the first place—the issue was that the combination of personal and professional pressures had eroded his ability to manage the inevitable frustration that is part of corporate life everywhere. After digging a bit deeper, I realized that most of these outbursts had occurred near the end of the week, just like the CEO from a few weeks before.  

For both executives, I noted that these challenges tended to surface in what was, for them, typical weeks. Just when they needed it most, their ability for decision making and emotional self-control eluded them.

Although there really are no typical weeks in an executive’s life, they will often include a combination of the following: a flight across multiple time zones from which the executive gets picked up at the airport while most people are getting their last couple of hours sleep; a number of important speeches (written by someone else but that still need to be delivered as though the words were the executive’s own) in front of audiences ranging from several people to hundreds of them; discussions with investors and analysts at which the executive’s every word will be scrutinized and one slip-up can tank the company’s stock or draw unwanted attention from any one of many stakeholder groups; dozens of decisions to make every day; breakfast, lunch, and dinner meetings across consecutive days as well as internal and external meetings at which they need to be alert because everyone’s eyes are on them. And that’s not even mentioning the 30,000 emails that CEOs receive on an annual basis, according to a Bain study. Is it any wonder that these executives could not sustain always being at their best?

These interactions and decisions require a great deal of energy. Yet the culture around executive behavior fosters a heroic model in which somehow the brain making those decisions is not attached to the body that is fueling its activities. In fact, it is well established that the brain uses more energy than any other human organ, accounting for up to 20 percent of the body's total reserves (whereas it accounts for only about two percent of total body weight); therefore, any dip in energy will be acutely felt when making decisions, both simple and complex, or when needing to manage one’s emotions.

These two interactions a few weeks apart made me think about the type of advice we give most executives in those situations. Instead of focusing on the whole person, we tend to reinforce the rational side of the equation. Consequently, executives get more advice on how to manage their time versus how to manage their energy, as though the best they can do to be more effective leaders at all times is to be more selective about the emails they respond to or the meetings they choose to attend. Would reducing the number of emails or meetings by even 20 percent have helped our CEO show up in better shape at our Friday afternoon meeting? That might have helped to some extent but likely not enough to improve the quality of her decisions. Plus, that advice is not realistic: To some extent, senior executives don’t have that many degrees of freedom in what gets on their calendar, and therefore, that type of advice rings hollow. Ultimately, every successful executive must come to the realization that focusing on better managing their time or—even better—managing their energy might not go far enough. The key question they need to ask themselves is: How do I expand, and not just manage, my energy capacity?

That line of reflection will lead to some oftentimes un-executive-like topics such as nutrition, exercise, movement throughout the day, and sleep. If properly addressed, these would help ensure that the executive gives the best of their abilities, or as close as possible, at every meeting they attend. But that is just the start—from that physical foundation, leaders should be encouraged to focus on maximizing their energy and well being across all areas of their life, all the way up to the highest order of one’s purpose and character, says Dr. James Loehr, co-founder of the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute and the author of The Only Way to Win, which addresses the importance of character. Finally, measurement and accountability are critical to ensuring long-term success, so executives should regularly review their performance across all areas of their life and those who advise these executives should insist on including some component of these areas on every transition and development plan. Then maybe every executive’s Fridays can be as good as their Mondays.

RHR International has partnered with the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute and the Mayo Clinic to deliver the Premier Executive Leadership™ program, an executive development and well being program designed to drive peak performance for senior executive leaders. The program provides highly personalized one-on-one coaching focused on the whole person to reinforce physical well being, personal resilience, and character-centered leadership. For more information on the Premier Executive Leadership program, please contact Guy Beaudin at gbeaudin@rhrinternational.com.

 

 

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