Dealing with Stress as CEO

The CEO position is where “the buck stops”. Total responsibility, and accountability. It is one of the most invigorating and challenging positions in business and not for everyone. It is impossible to understand the demands of the position until one is finally in the “hot seat”. This is a letter I wrote to coach my CEO in Brazil who was extraordinarily talented and determined to grow in the position while dealing with constant stress.

Here are some thoughts from my experience of learning to grow in the job and develop techniques of dealing with stress that comes with demanding jobs. I hope it helps!

First, it is important to understand that there is no embarrassment in being stressed. There is no person in a position of responsibility that does not have to deal with stress. Having stress is not a sign of an inability to handle the job. In some ways, we have to live with and manage stress the same way as a sailor must manage big waves if he wants to sail on the ocean. If the waves are too much and the sailor cannot develop an ability to handle the waves, there is always the choice to leave the sailor life and become a farmer. If the life choice is made at least for the time being) to be a CEO or be on the ocean, then it is important to develop the techniques of handling waves on the ocean or stress in the “hot seat” of the CEO.

The absolutely core principal of dealing with stress is to manage to give yourself space/time. This is what stress robs us of. We become like the hamster on a spinning wheel……running, running, running……with no end. This absence of time and personal space becomes exhausting, a health risk, and prevents one from growing in the job. Stress exists with an uncomplicated job such as a cashier at the grocery store who has a never-ending line the entire day. It also hits the CEO with thousands of people working for him. I remember when I was working at Citibank and it always seemed that as soon as I grew to handle my position without too much stress, I was promoted into a bigger, more complex job and the stress returned. When I look back on the years, I realize that I was continuously growing and developing ways to handle more responsibility and the stress that goes with it. The need to improve in stress management never ended.

For a bit of background, there are two primary “philosophies” or techniques to deal with the problem of stress. The first is the “Transactional Model” and the second is the “Health Realization Model”.   We don’t need to go into complex studies of stress so I will just summarize the two as:

Transactional Model: Stress is regarded as an imbalance of demands and resources. Therefore the solution is to balance this out through either more resources, less demands, or higher productivity (like to-do lists, prioritization, better management, etc.) or a combination of these.

Health Realization Model: Stress is regarded as all in the mind (unless you’re being chased by an elephant). Therefore, if you can control and relax the mind, you reduce stress. Meditation, positive thinking, “can do” attitude, deep breathing, etc. are approaches associated with handling stress in this way.

If you are like me, you really don’t give a %#@$, you just want less stress! However, the important thing to note here is that there are many different ways of dealing with stress and some of them work for some people and not for others or a combination of techniques is needed.

Let’s have some fun and look at a few familiar quotes about stress and understand the lessons they tell us.

“When you are up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember you are there to drain the swamp!”  This is a common outcome of stress…..that we react to the stress mentally and become less productive. It is common to lose sight of the most important objectives and have difficulty focusing.

“Shoot elephants rather than stomp on ants.” Remembering this expression is a good way to remind oneself of the importance of delegation and prioritization as a manager and leader. If you cannot delegate and accept the output of your subordinate, you are limiting your business impact to what you can do individually and will be forever stressed by additional demands of your position. Think of it this way… do a good job as an individual performer and so you are promoted to manager. You cannot accept your subordinates work because it is only 80% as good as you could do if you did it yourself. So you spend time doing what should be done by the subordinates and the result is they are unhappy (don’t feel trusted and valued) and you are limited to your hours in the day. This is very stressful.

The experienced manager/leader accepts the 80% output as the cost of helping 7 or ten subordinates and not having only time for 1 or 2. The manager then focuses on how to raise the subordinates output to 90% through better goal setting, better coaching, etc. To take on more responsibility or a new initiative is to add another 80% subordinate with that responsibility and coach them, not do it yourself. With this approach, there is no limit to how much you can handle in an 8 hour day as the business grows and the demands increase. If you cannot accept the 80% output and focus on setting goals and coaching, then you are doomed to being maxed out with tremendous stress.

To summarize this very important point: Properly delegate with goals and target dates so you can monitor output and still be in overall control. It is more important for the leader to rely on 7 people that can do their job 80% as well as the leader and focus on raising their performance to 90% than to do the work of one person at 100%. If the people are not adequate for the task then the proper people should be put in place or the business goals cut back to fit the resources available.

“Do what is important, not what is urgent.” This comes back to the alligator and swamp saying above. The phones ring, emails come in, employees want advice, and on and on. These are the urgent things, but not necessarily the best way to spend your time for total impact on the business. It is important to have a nice way of saying “no”. If you do not have this ability, the demands on your time will always be more than your time available. Also, being responsible and caring about staff, customers, ideas, bosses, etc., etc., leads to a greater difficulty of saying “no”. I remember another occasion at Citibank when I was in a senior position in NY and I felt I could not leave to take vacation. I happened to mention this to the Chairman, John Reed, as we were riding up the elevator together and his response was, “You are important, David, but not THAT important. Take vacation, and I will watch The Bank while you are gone. I promise it will not have fallen across the East River when you return.”

This ability to step back and say “no” to create space for your self is one of the most important techniques of stress management in my opinion. Sometimes, when I was working in NY and the minute by minute stress became too much, I would tell my secretary that I needed some fresh air and I would go outside and slowly walk around the block. Feeling the sun, hearing the cars honking, seeing people standing on the corner eating hotdogs, brought me back to reality and I could reenter the storm with a clearer mind. I used to do something similar when I really needed to concentrate on something important. I would either work from home for the morning or go to a conference room and ask not to be disturbed for 2 hours. Just knowing that I had that space and time to think and concentrate was like an open window of fresh air. After a while, you start to realize how flexible the world really is and how it somehow keeps rolling along, even when you stake out an hour or two of personal space to manage the constant demands that lead to stress.

“If I can’t finish it in an 8 hour day, it doesn’t need to be done.” J.P.Morgan (reportedly). This is another way of saying delegate, prioritize and be able to say “no” and there will be no limit to how much you can handle in a normal work day. Being able to then leave the work and have quality personal time at home is important. I find for me, having two good lists is a tremendous comfort. One is my “to do” list and I take satisfaction from glancing through it to know that I have every concern crossing my mind on the list. This way I do not have to “hold on” to the responsibilities in my mind and worry. I know it’s on the list and will be there in the morning. The second list is longer term objectives, projects, thoughts, etc. that I am not focusing on right now, but do not want to forget. It’s a bit of a “dream” list.

It is also good to find routines that help switch off from the office. I had a friend at Citibank who always took a bath when he got home and put on blue jeans. It successfully switched his mind to “cowboy casual” and he was into another world immediately. For me, Sudoku and crosswords help me switch gears and relax. Whatever, works for you, it is important to build it as a routine that your mind will associate with time off and relaxation. From about 3 months old, my children fell asleep easily by having “falling asleep routines”. Each had their own. David’s was to have the book “Goodnight, Moon” read to him and then say good night to each stuffed animal in the bedroom. By the last few, he could not keep his eyes open. We all need to build similar routines to switch off and relax. It is important that you develop ones that work for you and use them regularly.

“When all else fails, lower your standards.”   When I was the CEO in Singapore for Citibank, my operations head was a Chinese lady name Lum Yin Fong. She was highly professional, worked 14 hour days, had no family or outside interests and was always stressed. It was leading to health issues for her. We worked on this as a part of her personal development and finally realized that she was a perfectionist and was always stressed because perfection was never achieved. She found this saying and it is translated from Chinese. Yin Fong put in a frame on her office wall, and looked at whenever she felt overwhelmed. It worked.

These are some thoughts that should get your started thinking about what can work for you and growing your techniques of dealing with stress. Please remember that it is never finished and is an integral part of holding a position of responsibility and leadership. I am looking forward to when we can sit and talk in person, hopefully over a caipirinha and picanha! I will leave you with two more sayings to reflect on:


“Time stays long enough for anyone who will use it.” Leonardo da Vinci
“To get all there is out of living, we must employ our time wisely, never being in too much of a hurry to stop and sip life, but never losing our sense of the enormous value of a minute.” Robert Updegraff