How CEOs manage excessive workload
For Blume I wrote the following article about coping with excessive workload based on my own experiences and on conversations with other chief executives.
Running a charity has never been easy, during the COVID19 crisis it has become even harder. How do hard pressed charity CEOs cope with the heavy workload and support their team? I have had some fascinating discussions with the CEOs of a dozen charities with teams ranging from 180 staff to a handful.
Managing your time
First I asked them how they managed their own time and what techniques they had to let them know when there was just too much work.
As you can image their approaches are varied but the overwhelming theme was the need to take time to plan and reflect, whether that was going for a walk, which almost all of them do, or using very structured management practices, like using a block diary system: when something new doesn’t fit in the diary, there is too much work!
“I look at new pieces of work and then either delegate it to one of the team or I will just pop it into the diary. If it's a funding application or about social impact it takes priority. If it's a team inquiry, it normally comes through on my WhatsApp and if it is urgent they call me. So, we have set patterns within the staff team and trustees so that I know how urgent something is by the method through which they contact me.” Sam Everard - SAMEE
“Every Monday morning, I start by looking at the following week ahead, especially at the moment because of remote working and zoom. I look two weeks ahead because I find that changing things in the current week makes me feel like I'm letting people down. Doing it a little bit further in advance so that people have got notice and I'm not relying on things at the last minute feels better. I try to make sure that I'm not on Zoom for more than four hours a day. I find that being on the phone is easier than staring at myself on the screen all day, especially for a one-to-one conversation where you don't actually need to be on video.” Fiona Spellman – Shine
Tom Lawson from Turn2Us impressed me with his self-discipline, something I need to work on, in having a system to capture and control work, ideas and tasks straight away. “Identify critical goals and a regular assessment of risks. Delegate tasks according to a Trust and Verify system with clear measurable and timed outcomes. Personal prioritisation is a balance of operational need, time requirement, strategic importance and risk management. I use the Eisenhower matrix if things get overwhelming. I also have a things to remember list where I list people and keep a list of things I need to tell them, discuss with them etc. I write only actions down in my notebook and transfer them regularly to my planner. For email management - 3,2,1 zero from Happy Henry is really helpful.”
I was interested to hear how they not only prioritise but also reconcile themselves to not working on everything. As the size of organisations varied the opportunity to delegate also varied but I was particularly taken by the comment from Nicola Sharp of ‘Surviving Economic Abuse’: “For me there is an element of feeling comfortable in not always getting everything I want done. Of holding onto the most important things and trusting that the other things will come together.”
There is a danger of taking on too much and becoming exhausted. Interestingly many of the CEOs have missed the daily commute. Having a long train journey gave them the time to prepare for the day ahead and on the way home they could digest and think about what their next steps would be.
Practising a little bit of self-care and a bit of self-acceptance that you can't be in five different places at once is critical. It is better to have fewer higher quality meetings.
It is also helpful to set up protected time slots of two to three hours, a couple of times a week and ensure there is time to reflect.
Supporting their teams during lockdown
During the lockdown we have all been remote working. For some of us it has been a welcome working style, for others it has been isolating and difficult. I asked how people deal with this challenge not just in terms of getting the work done but also in taking care of their teams.
“It has become more difficult with remote working because you don't get the same informal signals that you get when you're interacting in person. So I have a weekly or fortnightly catch up with all my direct reports and they do the same thing with their teams. If I receive an email that's substantially outside of working hours that's something which will trigger a conversation about what's going on. I am also very conscious of the effect my behaviour has on others. I don't send people things outside working hours and use the delayed delivery function in Outlook. From my point of view it's dealt with and they are not logging in to find five emails from me that they're then thinking oh gosh I should be working those hours too or I need to respond straight away.” Fiona Spellman – Shine
“We have always had monthly line management meetings. Moving to remote working we have increased that to biweekly with a Monday priorities meeting and Wednesday check-in” Mary-Ann Stephenson – Women’s Budget Group
“Well-being and social capital are directly related. We've set up a Google Map, and everyone has popped in where they live, and if they live closely they've been meeting up for lunchtime walks or walking meetings. So we have been building that social capital between people that normally builds in an office environment such as “Oh that's a nice picture” “I heard you got a new dog” “Do you want fancy beer”. At the moment no one's doing any of that, they're only having meetings without social capital. People have become minded to not give each other the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong.” Tom Lawson – Turn2Us
Supporting themselves during lockdown
Chief Executives are often very bad at looking after themselves. They sometimes feel as if they need to be doing everything all the time and that they alone are responsible. There is a particular pressure on leaders at the moment.
Not only is there the increased demand because of the circumstances but there is also the sense that now is the time to #buildbackbetter and engage with key decision makers and drive change.
So how are they stopping themselves from being spread too thinly?
“It's all the stuff that your Mum told you; get outside, get some fresh air and have a proper meal. I have a walk with my husband every lunchtime, partly to get some exercise and fresh air, but also because we are both so exhausted at the end of the day that we weren't having proper conversations. Whereas before we sat over our dinner and chatted, at the moment we are staring into the middle distance, all our focus has been on work and the kids, and not on ourselves or each other. So our lunchtime walks – when we have both got some energy – have been really helpful. I'm also part of a couple of WhatsApp groups of women leaders of other women's organisations, so we chat and we moan and share experiences.” Mary-Ann Stephenson – Women’s Budget Group
“Simple things, I've made sure to go for a walk before work every day and at lunchtime, even if it's just around the block. At the end of the working day it need to reset my mind to being at home so I turn everything off, go for a walk then I'm coming back home, even though it's the same space. I'm not someone who finds working from home at all easy it's not my preferred working style I like being around other people. I try practising the art of self-acceptance because we all struggle at times, not just at work but in our wider lives. I've tried very consciously to change what I expect from myself and to be more accepting of the fact that sometimes things are more challenging and one of my key responsibilities as a CEO is to take care of myself because I can't take care of my team or, or be a support to them, if I'm in a sort of depleted state. You can't really give your full self.” Fiona Spellman – Shine
“I love reading and then taking that thinking back into my one to ones with my directors or into management or leadership team meetings. It is digesting emerging thinking from others that is a really helpful way to think about how to continually evolve the operation. I've never had a revolutionary thought in my mind and I like classic cars. So what I think about is that you can't drive the car fast until the engine is tuned. So, for me is always about understanding the language and thinking about how to get the most psychologically safe culture, how to excite people about their role, all of that thinking is how I know how to make an organisation work.” Tom Lawson – Turn2Us
Having a sounding board
As I said in the beginning being the leader of an organisation can be tough anywhere, but it is especially true in the not-for-profit sector. The CEO may not feel comfortable sharing all their concerns with the board, although the majority of the CEO’s talked about their supportive Chair of Trustees. The CEO cannot really share personal concerns or anxieties with staff members who are employees, who want to see their leader as being able to solve all the problems.
Ten of the twelve CEO’s talked about the benefits they got from having the experience, skills and support of an experienced mentor to help them navigate through the current difficulties. They emphasised the value of having someone who can ask questions that clarify the situation and can help relieve the anxiety that builds when there is nowhere to articulate the doubts that they may be feeling.
I have always liked the acronym that Mentoring brings MAGIC
- Making better decisions through seasoned and supportive input and lateral thinking.
- Accountability, provided in a positive and helpful way, to those who often have no one to hold them responsible.
- Growth, both personal and professional, through challenge.
- Isolation is relieved. It is lonely at the top. “Discussing the undiscussable” in absolute confidence makes the meetings something that you can look forward to.
- Change is risky and uncomfortable. An independent but pro-active sounding board helps to improve both the thinking and the implementing.
“I have certain groups that I'm part of which is incredibly helpful. I have a coach who helps keep me focused. I also have a couple of people that I'm mentoring at the moment and I feel like I learned as much from those as I do when I'm being mentored” Joseph Howes - Buttle UK
“I'm on an action learning set which I've been on for 10 years, with horribly experienced people who are really good at asking blinding brilliant questions. I have a coach who I use when I feel like I need a coach and I've had the same coach for nine years. I've also got a very good relationship with my Chair – we invested a lot of time in it at the beginning. We know how to have conflict, how to challenge one another, and also basically how to be vulnerable.” Tom Lawton – Turn2Us
I found it difficult to end the conversations as it was both fascinating and inspirational talking to such caring and dedicated leaders. I rounded off by asking them for their top tips on how you stay current and relevant?
“Read... read widely and regularly.”
“Be a Reader: Read widely both old and new and within and outside your current industry. Be Present: Make sure you surround yourself with a variety of thinkers, ideas, fresh thinking and then practice the discipline of listening, note taking and observing the world, constantly asking the question 'Why?'”
“Look outside your traditional networks for information and knowledge and be open to new ideas and thoughts from others”
“First is to look at your vision and mission from where you are - what is the biggest step you can take right now towards that future vision? Don't try and road map the whole journey - rather have a sat nav approach where you can make small adjustments to keep moving in the direction of that future vision. Second is to listen to understand and not to reply. If you already think you know the answer then you cannot make adjustments which maintain relevance and currency. Truly understanding others enables you to flex and adapt. Thinking you know what's best for them doesn't.”
“Talking to lots of different people, having lots of networks. Talking to people from different backgrounds, different interests, different ages. Taking seriously the views and inputs of junior staff, Not just talking to the management team, but actually having conversations with other staff to find out what they are thinking about and talking about.” Mary-Ann Stephenson – Women’s Budget Group
“It's absurd to think that I've got any more than a fraction of the answers that I'm facing. It's an increasingly fast changing world, so with that very comforting belief, it's great to say to yourself ‘I don't know. Where can I find the answer?’ The answer can be someone, it can be in work, reading and going to conferences and training courses. So, the belief of knowing that I don't know very much means that I'm equipped to go and find out without any sense of defensiveness.” Tom Lawson – Turn2Us
A huge thank you to the Chief Executives who contributed to this piece.
• Phil Kerry, New Horizon
• Fiona Spellman, SHINE
• Tom Lawson, T2U
• Joe Howes, Buttle
• Nicola Sharp-Jeffs, Surviving Economic Abuse
• Red Godfrey Sagoo, Sophie Hayes Foundation
• Penny Thomas, Halo
• Sam Everard, SAMEE
• Mary-Ann Stephenson, WBG
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