Pressure and performance.

An example that's more valuable than money...

Get a group of CEOs together and ask them about their biggest challenges, and invariably the topic of people will be at or around the top of the pile. Recruiting, keeping, and getting the best from the best, while managing the performance of the rest, are all perennial talking points.

Brexit might dominate the headlines, technology transformation might pervade management magazines, but people are the beating heart of just about every business. And yet, in our quest for the best, in our search for the quality, creativity and productivity that will drive business performance, the pressures we put on our people, often through the examples of our own behaviour, can dramatically undermine everything we hope to achieve.

It’s rare I meet anyone in a senior or executive role these days, who’s not working from dawn till dusk, picking up calls at the weekend, checking emails on the beach. It’s insufficient for any of us to say ‘ah, well, I’m not too bad because I don’t do that one’ – none of those things are healthy, nor are they a sustainable route to success. I’ve been there, probably as much as anyone, and I have the scars to show for it.

I used to think it was a “man” thing: the challenge, the competition, the need to prove strength and resilience; the desire to be seen to work hardest. But it’s not. It’s a people thing. I’ve seen many colleagues, male and female, whose marriages break down because the rational and solvable problems at work are far more attractive than the emotional and complex problems building up at home.

For some, a packed diary is as much about personal protection as it is about pride in their indispensability. But underneath, it’s most often about insecurity.

We allow our diaries to fill because we’re worried we won’t get everything done. Worried others will drop the ball if we don’t check in. Worried we won’t be sufficiently supportive, accessible, engaged. Worried we aren’t working hard enough. But everything we add makes us less effective at the rest. This is the example we set for our people. This is the message we send them about productivity and performance, and it’s culturally reinforced. “If you want something done, give it to a busy person” sits alongside quotes proclaiming how success can only be achieved through constant hard work.

And yet, the best racehorses spend far more time resting than they do racing or training – their victories depend on it. When Brian Clough took over at Nottingham Forest he started fining any player who trained on their days off. It was a source of consternation for some of them, but Clough‘s approach to engagement was simple: “We talk about it for twenty minutes and then we decide I was right.” The team went on to win back-to-back European titles.

Bodies need time to recover after strenuous exercise. But so do minds. You can’t work-off stress any more than you can run-off shin splints and the more you try or deny, the slower you go. A full diary is not a badge of honour, it's the hallmark of inefficiency.

Headspace, the time to unwind and reflect, the capacity to completely disconnect, is not just a nice thing to have. It’s prerequisite for performing at your best. Those rare people I meet who seem easily able to create space in their day are generally the most creative, the most collaborative, the most engaged and engaging people to work with. They’re often among the most productive and successful, and they’re invariably the most fulfilled.

Most people I work with find they can take half the stuff out of their diaries just by communicating more clearly, delegating more completely, and recruiting more effectively, but only a tiny minority of leaders even consider investing in a coach to get that kind of advice. We watch world champions surrounded by their coaches, but for some reason we don’t think we’re worth the investment.

Money is replaceable once it is spent. Time isn’t. People might claim “time is money” but to paraphrase the immortal words of Bill Shankly, it’s much, much more important than that.