A Coaching Power Tool Created by Marco Paracciani
(Executive Coach, THAILAND)
In the corporate world, being a senior executive is a great honor and a big responsibility. This responsibility usually comes with high demands that stretch far beyond the individual’s professional life boundaries. As a matter of fact, a senior executive assignment almost invariably impacts the five dimensions of human life we all need to manage, i.e. the professional, personal, family, social, and spiritual dimensions. The kind of impact a senior executive assignment has on these five dimensions varies by individual and his/her life stage, but it usually requires significant compromises. It comes therefore not as a surprise if – according to a Gallup survey among 1700 full-time US employees published in 2018 – 23% of the individuals claim to feel burned out often or always and a whopping additional 44% feel burned out sometimes: combined, that’s 2 out of 3 employees with burnout issues. The situation gets far direr when the researcher’s lens focuses on senior leaders: a Harvard Medical School research, published by The Wall Street Journal in 2013, stated that ‘extreme burn out’ was a reality for 33% of the sample and almost every senior executive (96%) felt ‘somewhat’ burned out.
The Medical Dictionary defines burnout as emotional and physical exhaustion resulting from a combination of exposure to environmental and internal stressors and inadequate coping and adaptive skills. In addition to signs of exhaustion, the person with burnout exhibits an increasingly negative attitude toward his or her job, low self-esteem, and personal devaluation.
Unsurprisingly, burnout risks among executive leadership roles are actively debated and researched topics. Senior executives are themselves aware of such reality, as they skirt with its precipices daily.
Despite the vast literature available on the topic of burnout and executives’ high awareness, senior executives often respond to the challenges of their office with a mix of predictable key elements:
- Working longer hours.
- Working harder (fewer breaks, more multitasking, skipping lunch, etc).
- Putting in personal sacrifices (eg. less sleep, less family time, less community engagement, less pastoral presence, less workout, etc).
- Adopting multiple coping mechanisms (from healthy exercise to very unhealthy substance abuse).
- Exercising increased command and control behaviors at work and at home (even if they don’t match the leader’s personal values).
- Swinging between multiple emotional states (e.g. denial, blame, anger, self-pity, etc).
Note: in this paper, I will use the terms ‘senior executives’, ‘executives’, ‘executive leadership’, and ‘senior leaders’ as synonyms.
These responses are based on two flawed perceptions: that time can be compressed and that an individual’s energy is constant. None of the two are true and inevitably the individual feels the pain of not being able to do justice to the demands of his/her multiple dimensions of life, or ‘cram everything into 24 hours’. Eventually, something has to give, with at times serious consequences: psychological break-down, career setbacks, health issues, estrangement from beloved ones, even job loss and/or divorce.
It does not have to be this way though: senior executives’ juggling act between conflicting life demands can be successfully and sustainably managed if the individual shifts his/her perspective from trying to manage just the time component of his/her life to managing actively also his/her energy levels to be effective most of the time. This shift is made even more opportune by 2020’s Covid19 crisis, where a significant layer of complexity and uncertainty have suddenly fallen on senior executives’ already overflowing laps.
The concept of managing energy can be visualized with a simple metaphor: energy is like water that flows between four interconnected pools each of which represents one of four energy types that power a human being i.e. physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy. Like water, energy flows from one pool to the other to maintain the overall system balance. This natural and powerful compensation mechanism does however not ensure the energy levels are constantly high enough for the executive to tackle the many demands of his complex life, or to use the water analogy, that the water in the pools is deep enough for the executive to freely plunge into it. Energy levels impact directly the executive’s behavior and hence performance and it’s up to the individual to constantly replenish them to be at his/her best. The principal levers to generate new energy are summarised in the side box for easy reference.
This sounds easy and it is if the individual is able and willing to practice self-care in the same way a ‘thoughtful gardener’ would tend to his/her precious garden, i.e. by refilling each energy pool in a way that takes into consideration the unique demands and circumstances impacting that specific energy type at that moment. It takes awareness, presence, and perseverance to do so. It is also not a panacea: the executive’s hectic, demanding, and intense life will not change, nor will the day have 25 hours. However, managing one’s energy levels consciously and carefully will allow the individual to function more effectively and consistently over time, allowing for a more balanced and centered approach and response to the person’s diverse and at times contradicting life demands.
The shift in perspectives can be achieved by creating awareness in the client and by helping him/her move into action.
1- First and foremost, by helping the client reflect on the effectiveness (or lack of) of his/her time management strategy and its risks.
Once the client acknowledges such response can be effective only for a few weeks or months and that beyond that such life balancing acts will lead to bigger issues, the corner is usually turned: awareness kicks in and the senior executive acknowledges that such a recipe is not sustainable. Such recognition might not come swiftly but it is quite inescapable, at least among functional individuals.
2- Secondly, the coach enables the client to learn and experiment on how to effectively renew his/her energy pools: the ways on how to achieve such renewal will vary by individual, however, all forms of energy, be those physical, mental, emotional or spiritual, are necessary to provide the executive with the confidence, the balance, the resourcefulness and the stamina they need for to be successful over time.
Once the executive has traveled this journey, it is up to the coach to help the client devise routines that gradually but surely replenish the energy levels across the four energy types. I call these routines ‘energy blocks’ as they behave like bricks i.e.they do build on each other over time, particularly if such energy blocks’ are of different energy types. The synergistic effect that ‘energy blocks’ of different types can have on the overall energy levels of a client should not be underestimated, hence the coach must help the client include such diversity within his/her program.
The decision on which ‘energy blocks’ to adopt, with what frequency and intensity depends on each situation and is ultimately the client’s decision. There are hence no hard and fast rules to follow, however, it might be useful to build routines that make it easy for the client to change habits and embed these practices in his/her routines.
For example, client and coach can agree to define a mix of ‘energy blocks’ that are designed for daily, weekly and monthly consumption, hence providing the needed diversity and richness without overwhelming the executive’s already full schedule:
- daily consumption ‘energy blocks’: e.g. morning gratitude, mindfulness & healthy breakfast;
- weekly consumption ‘energy blocks’: e.g. open-air exercise, date with the spouse, personal hobbies such as music, play, DIY, cooking, etc;
- monthly consumption ‘energy blocks’: e.g. pastoral time, friend’s get together, community work, business network group, etc.
The most effective coaching strategy to achieve the desired client’s adoption of the right ‘energy blocks’ is based on a custom-designed routine that adapts to the client’s personality, needs, and specific situation.
Coaches can also pursue an organic coaching strategy i.e. one that mixes introspection, education, and adoption of small routines in parallel. This has the advantage of allowing the client to experiment, see what works, what does not work, and to appreciate the value of replenishing one’s energy levels once the right ‘energy blocks’ have started to be adopted. This will in turn increase the executive’s confidence and determination to pursue his/her journey and ultimately achieve sustainable and effective energy management that fosters confidence, balance, and stamina.
The Medical Dictionary – definition of ‘burnout’
The Wall Street Journal, When the CEO Burns Out – Job Fatigue Catches Up to Some Executives Amid Mounting Expectations; No More Forced Smiles, By Leslie Kwoh, May 7, 2013, 6:47 pm ET
After watching this, your brain will not be the same | Lara Boyd | TEDxVancouver
The most important lesson from 83,000 brain scans | Daniel Amen | TEDxOrangeCoast
the human era @ work – Findings from The Energy Project and Harvard Business Review, 2014
McKinsey & Co – Re-energizing through the epidemic: Stories from China, April 21, 2020, | Survey – By Lihong Pan, Bernie Yang, Tianwen Yu, and Haimeng Zhang.