Catching up with a friend recently, I rattled off my mental to-do list and commiserated about how much I had on my plate these days. When I stopped to take a breath and another sip of coffee, she took advantage of my brief pause to insert a question that changed the course of the conversation. “What do you need, Anne?” my friend asked me.
Face-to-face with the question that has shadowed me most of my life, I imagined myself on an airplane as the flight attendant does that spiel about making sure to tighten the strap on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else with theirs. Sound advice that I have never followed!
My friend was right. I had been in problem solver mode for such a long time, I hadn’t considered that my needs mattered, much less tried to identify what my needs actually were.
This type of imbalance happens in all facets of life. Families heap too many responsibilities on a single caregiver. Friendships feel lopsided when one person does the lion’s share of the work to keep the relationship thriving.
And many of today’s workplaces fit into this same paradigm. Who among us hasn’t taken on too much at the office (whether remote, hybrid or in person) trying to keep pace with an achievement-driven company climate, only to find exhaustion and ultimately a sense of negativity pervading our life? I’ve encountered that unpleasant situation a few times over the course of my career. It feels awful and almost always ends badly.
So where do we draw the line? Why do so many of us find ourselves in the middle of these types of unhealthy situations? How is it possible that even self-assured, confident people like me tend to put ourselves last? Why don’t I care enough about my own self-care? What keeps some of us fully propped up while others end up teetering on the brink? What’s behind my tendency to make sure everyone else’s water glasses are full while my glass sits empty?
Business leaders are a complex, incredibly diverse group, so it’s hard to generalize. I’ll take a risk here and say that those of us on the conscientious side of the spectrum share a common desire to ensure our employees are safe, happy and fulfilled at work. However, providing that sense of fulfillment, as essential as it is to them, comes at a cost to us. The pressure to meet and exceed our company’s financial and cultural expectations has the potential to do a number on the well being of the person tasked with meeting those expectations.
To help me unpack these complicated questions, I turned to my friend, Katie Burkhart, Founder of MatterPulse. Katie is someone who always inspires me to think about being more purposeful in business and in life. She’s been a guest on our BSuite podcast and a confidante to me as I navigated the journey towards becoming a certified B Corp. I knew she’d have some great ideas to share about what’s at stake when leaders fail to “invest in themselves.”
“Part of being a leader is setting an example. When you don’t invest in yourself, you’re telling your team that this is what they should do, even if part of the reason you’re underinvesting in yourself is so you can invest in them. If you want them to prioritize their mental health, prioritize yours. If you don’t want them checking email on weekends, don’t check yours. And if this makes you tense up with anxiety about how you’ll get everything done, make growing your team your new top priority. That may mean adding people to your company’s team, and it may also mean adding people to your personal support team. Because you have to be in a position to do your best work and you cannot do it alone.”
Katie’s words resonate with me. I hear her when she suggests leadership goes beyond the day to day “running” of the business and extends into a responsibility to lead by example. From my seat at the helm, I must not only translate how I want my company to be defined to those on the outside, but also model how I want our internal culture to look and feel to those on the inside.
Here at RMG, I want my behaviors to be perceived clearly and definitively. My actions and attitudes should easily leapfrog from my desk, over to the desks of others on my team, then to our agency partners, eventually landing with our clients. Modeling should come full-circle.
Katie also encourages business leaders to add more resources to our existing teams if we start to feel stressed about available bandwidth when prioritizing healthy boundaries or encouraging people to take time away from work. This is an area where I need to make some improvements.
For example, my employees enjoy a generous PTO policy but over the past seven years, I’ve hardly taken any vacation myself. I’m still struggling to figure out how to get away without checking my screen every day.
Starting last fall, we’ve initiated half days on Fridays. This has been a popular idea, but I’ve yet to take advantage of my own policy. Notoriously, everyone leaves at noon and I find myself glued to my laptop way past sunset. Burning the candle is not good for me, and it sends a confusing message to those around me.
On a positive note, now that I’ve identified the problem I’m that much closer to finding the solution. And the solution lies somewhere inside me. Tough part is, as a lifelong perfectionist and people pleaser, I find it difficult to step back and let go.
In order to sustain the ongoing rigor of business leadership, I have to carve out space to rest and renew. I need to model self-care to show I place value on that behavior and encourage my team to embrace it for themselves. To counterbalance stress, I will try to do better at communicating my needs and asking for support before I start feeling overwhelmed.
If all goes well, maybe next time those metaphorical oxygen masks drop, I’ll be ready to tighten my own strap first.