Tag Archives: stress

A Day in the Life of a Leader

Right out of college, I worked in the IT department as a help desk representative for an insurance company in upstate New York where I grew up. I was the person you called if you had a computer problem, forgot your password, or couldn’t get your macros to work in Word Perfect.  I didn’t really know much about leadership or managing, but from the outside, it looked pretty cool. Better pay, better title, a nice office, and more authority. It seemed pretty straight forward, and a nice reward for doing good work. It seemed that when you become a manager, you finally made it.

One day my boss told me he was going to hire another representative to help me, and that this person would report to me. Four weeks later, I became a manager for the first time. I had no idea what I was doing. I quickly figured out that management wasn’t so straight forward after all, and frankly, not as fun as I had imagined.

As leaders, we need to give people a peek behind the curtain of what leadership really is; before they become leaders. Perhaps then we will begin to fill leadership positions with people who want the job for the right reasons; to serve others and make an impact.

Here is what I would share with potential leaders before they make the leap.

So, you want to be a leader?

Before you decide, allow me to give you a peek behind the curtain of what being a leader is really like. Because I can tell you for sure, that the fantasy of leadership and the reality of leadership are very, very different.

If you are a leader, here is what you have in store for you. And by all means, this is not an exhaustive list.

  • You are responsible when your employee fails
  • Your days will be a series of meetings, employee complaints, and upward delegating
  • You will rarely have a minute to yourself
  • Your role will completely change: you will be responsible for mentoring, coaching, and teaching (not the technical job you once held)
  • It’s often a thankless job
  • All problems will make their way up to you
  • You will spend significant time training an employee to do something you can do in five minutes
  • You will often work long hours
  • You will leave the office many days wondering what you actually accomplished
  • Meetings, more meetings…did I mention meetings?

In short, effective leadership is no walk in the park. Your focus is people, not things, and people can be complicated. Employees are motivated differently, they all have different personalities, and not everyone will share your work ethic. Your job will be to bring out the best performance in each individual employee to reach the strategic goals of the organization. This may not sound complicated, but many days it can feel like trying to run a marathon when you haven’t eaten or slept in days.

True leadership is about service; it’s serving your employees by developing them and helping them reach their highest potential and personal goals. It’s serving the organization by contributing your best to achieve the goals. It’s serving the membership by having their best interest in mind and helping them achieve their financial dreams.

Of course, there are many rewards in leadership; it’s not all challenges and meetings. But those feelings of accomplishment and fulfillment can sometimes be overshadowed by the daily grind of leadership. Rarely will someone be standing at your door patting you on the back for a job well done.

Leadership should be a decision, not a given or the next step for your technical superstar. Employees should know what the position really entails before they commit to leadership. Leadership is a privilege and a huge responsibility. And as organizations, we need to let people know what to expect—what their days will really be like—when you become a leader.

How to Succeed When You’re Overcommitted and Overwhelmed

Have you ever felt so overwhelmed that you want to crawl back under the covers, eat a pint of ice cream, and watch Friends on TV all day? I had a moment like this last month when I overextended myself and felt swamped with all my commitments.

I was flying back from California after traveling for business, and felt a wave of panic as I thought about the week ahead.  I had a week full of clients, a speech to present that Friday, and my kids had a slew of activities. I had also volunteered to be Vice President of the Parent Association at my children’s school earlier that year, and I was in charge of the spring fair event that was to take place the next weekend. We were getting ready to have pictures taken to put our house on the market, and on top of all that, I had volunteered to lead the new website project at the school as well. I was overcommitted, overwhelmed, and completely stressed.

I’ve always prided myself on being able to balance so many projects and commitments. I’m great at managing my time and juggling multiple responsibilities. But there was a precise moment that week when I reached a breaking point. I had no balance. I stopped exercising, I was staying up late, and wasn’t eating healthy. I felt anxious all the time, and didn’t feel like I had a moment to even breathe. My mind was so overwhelmed with what I had to do, that I felt paralyzed and couldn’t think straight. I had no space in my schedule for at least three weeks, and felt depleted and exhausted.

My husband gently reminded me that perhaps I couldn’t do it all, and needed to make some choices about what I could reasonably accomplish. The answer was clear to me in that moment: I needed to resign from vice president of the Parent Association.  Saying no is hard for me, but I realized I needed to put boundaries in place to gain my time and energy back. That one decision took a huge weight off of my shoulders.

Although on some level it felt good to be a part of so many things, it was at the expense of the bigger picture. Being overtaxed was in direct conflict of my values. Particularly the time I was investing in my children’s school.  I was making a big impact for the school, but at the expense of my own personal impact. The time and energy I was spending volunteering could be channeled into my family, my business, and my health and make a bigger impact in my own life.

I’m sure you’ve had an experience like this. You say yes to so many things because you are a leader. You are a leader at work, in your life, and in your family. You want to serve; to be involved, make a contribution, and get things done. And maybe you feel a little bit obligated to contribute your best effort all the time.

It was tough for me to admit that I couldn’t do everything, and that I had overcommitted myself. At first I felt like I had failed and that I should be able to handle everything with ease and balance my life perfectly.

This experience got me reflecting: why do we feel like we have to do it all? And, is there such a thing as work life balance?

There has been a significant change in our society and how we live over the past 30 years. More women are in the workforce and contributing in broader ways. While this is a positive shift, for many women, these changes have added an additional layer of stress since most of us still have responsibilities and commitments outside of work. Even if you have a great partner who shares the responsibilities, there is still a lot to balance with raising children, running the household, getting involved in the community, and working a full time job. And that doesn’t even take into account time for yourself. Simply put: we’ve added several more roles in our lives, and we have the same amount of time to perform them. I often have to remind myself that I have two jobs: running my business, and running my home life. The responsibilities of home life don’t diminish for women who are working outside the home.

Most of us walk around each day in a state of stress, and look outside ourselves to place the blame. We blame our boss. We blame our kids. We blame our spouse. We even blame time.

But busy is a choice. Overwhelm is a choice. Stress is a choice. It was hard for me to accept that, but I realized that I have choices in how to spend my time. I don’t have to say yes to everything, and I am ultimately responsible for my life experience.

One of my mentors, Marie Forleo, so brilliantly said, “You can have it all, but you can’t do it all.”

Although we may want to do everything, and do it all well, when there is an abundance of things to do and only so much time, there has to be tradeoffs. It’s just not possible to do everything and do it well. This creates an enormous amount of stress that bleeds into our work. Leaders who value achievement and impact often have a hard time saying no. We load up on our commitments and fear we may be perceived negatively if we can’t handle it all. And if you are a leader at work, juggling the responsibilities of coaching, developing, and mentoring employees can add to the stress.

In her article, Stressed, Tired, Rushed: A Portrait of the Modern Family, Claire Cain Miller cites research from a Pew survey that indicates women still do the majority of the housework and childcare. As one woman put it, “you feel like you’re doing a horrible job at everything.”

So what ‘s the solution? I’m not sure this challenge will be solved anytime soon. Most organizations still operate in a bureaucratic manner and struggle to embrace a more modern approach of work life integration. And most women struggle to find a balance between work and home with all their competing roles.

But there are small steps that can make a difference. I am much more deliberate about how I schedule my time. I am pausing to consider opportunities and commitments before I say yes. I have hired more help with managing the home because I realize I can’t do it all. I put boundaries in place and don’t accept weeknight commitments that will keep me out past 8:30 p.m. so that I can keep to my 9:30 p.m. bedtime. I am saying no more often. No, I don’t need to accept every play date or have my children attend every birthday party. No, I choose not to volunteer any more time outside of my family. And no, I will not feel guilty for going to yoga on Saturdays.

These small steps make a difference, yet I’m experienced enough in life to know that it doesn’t solve the problem. There will be times where I start to feel stressed and overcommitted. I may fall off the wagon and say yes too much. I am a work in progress. I may never manage this life perfectly.

But for now: I choose space. I choose calm. I choose to say no.

The Myth of Multi-Tasking

Last week I almost burnt my kitchen down. In my quest to get all the important things done on my list, I decided to multi-task. I put my lunch on the stove, and then went into my office to answer a couple e-mails while simultaneously making an important phone call. I was so engrossed (and overloaded), that I completely forgot about my lunch. I totally charred the pan, and black smoke filled the house. It was not a pretty scene.

 Multi-tasking is overrated. You think you are getting a lot more done, but in fact, you are not. You just end up doing a few things poorly (i.e., burnt bacon and an interrupted phone call) than doing one thing really well. It’s a fact that quality suffers when we multi-task.

I often hear clients talk about multi-tasking like it’s the sought-after skill that will help them get more done in less time. I even see “ability to multi-task” in most job advertisements. We have become obsessed with trying to squeeze as much as possible into each minute of our day in the unrealistic quest of being perfectly efficient.

 The “skill” of multi-tasking has become a popular buzzword in organizations. But it’s killing our business. It’s killing our effectiveness. It actually has the opposite effect of what we are trying to achieve. And that’s because our brains weren’t built to do more than one big thing at a time. Research has shown that workers waste an average of two hours a day on recovery time from interruptions and multi-tasking. It’s costing businesses about $650 billion a year; not to mention stress, loss of composure, and sloppy work.

Remember the days before iPhones, Facebook, and e-mail? When you left work, you actually left work at the office. Technology is meant to make our lives easier, but that’s not what happens for most professionals. We feel more stressed and over stimulated than ever. We can’t seem to pull ourselves away for a mental break.

Have you ever left your office at the end of the day and thought, “What did I get done today?” If you can’t pinpoint what you accomplished, you probably spent a lot of the day multi-tasking. One of the best things professionals can do to boost performance is to focus on one thing at a time.

Here are six strategies for improving your focus (and your performance!):

Concentrate on one task at a time. Block out a specific time in your schedule to focus on one project. Make it a habit of scheduling your entire work day in chunks of time meant for focusing on specific tasks and projects.

Check e-mail only a few times a day. Turn off your e-mail and message alerts so they won’t distract you when trying to focus. Schedule a few specific times in your day to check e-mail and messages and focus only on that task.

 Say no and simplify your life. You don’t have to volunteer for everything. Pick a couple things you really enjoy, and do them well. When you are asked to take on a responsibility, tell the person you will think about it and get back to them.

Change your scenery. Most professionals I know can’t get much done in their office because that’s where most of their distractions are. Find a quiet conference room or go to a local coffee shop to get away from distractions and you’ll improve your focus.

Focus on two or three accomplishments a day. Executives often make a list of ten or fifteen things to accomplish in one day. We become too overwhelmed because our expectations are unrealistic. Pick two or three important tasks for the day and focus on accomplishing them (and doing them well). If you finish early, then you can move on to another task.

Delegate tasks and projects others can handle. Most managers I’ve worked with don’t use their employee resources effectively. They either feel they don’t have the time to teach employees or that their staff will resent them for piling on more work. The truth is, most employees enjoy the challenge and want to help their boss. Keep only the major initiatives you must be involved in, and delegate other tasks.

I’ve seen huge improvements in my efficiency and quality of work when I focus on one thing at a time. Learning to banish it from your life is a work in progress, and will take some time. But with practice and focus, you will feel less stressed and more accomplished.