Relax And Conquer

Photo: Tony George

A recruiter friend once told me that a good manager is one who gets things done and honors appointments or at least calls and reschedules, but a true executive makes time for priorities even in the midst of crisis. At the time, we were trying to figure out how to accommodate a mutual client, who was dealing with too many urgent items. I hadn’t thought much about my friend’s observation until I reflected on the advice in Executive Stamina by executive coach Marty Seldman, Ph.D. and endurance athlete/fitness coach Joshua Seldman. I’ll share ideas that can help you become calm, focused, energetic, and successful.

Breathe (deeply). Joshua offered this tip as the most cost-effective and easiest way to reduce stress. Detect your tension or anxiety by noticing changes in your breathing and calm yourself through deep breathing exercises. For more on stress reduction, there is an entire chapter on yoga in the book.

Identify and focus on high pay-off activities. If you’ve made it to mid-level management, you should be able to establish what these are. If you are working in an entry-level or staff-level position, studying your performance objectives (rather than job description) is a good place to start; you might also arrange time to speak with your manager about priorities and talk with colleagues who are a few steps ahead of you on how to concentrate your efforts.

Define what needs to be done extremely well, what just needs to be done, and what can be left undone. The board presentation and preparation for a client meeting should (most likely) receive your highest attention and best effort. If you have too many “extremely wells,” re-evaluate your priorities.

Hire the best possible person for each job opening and be aggressive about filling openings. Finding the right person can make a huge difference not just in your group’s long-term performance but also in your day-to-day working life. Having diligent, responsible, and responsive employees allows you to focus on priorities rather than spending time correcting or covering for other people. 

Delegate effectively. I like this guide:

  1. “Explain the task as clearly as possible. Take the time to explain in specific detail what you are delegating. Are you delegating a task, an overall function, or a goal that you want to achieve?
  2. Explain the scope and responsibilities, and assign the appropriate decision-making authority.
  3. Be clear about how much communication you expect regarding progress and decisions on issues that arise.”

Control your calendar, which is tough but essential to effectiveness. Here are ways:

  • Look at all of your activities and find the ones that used to be high priority but now should be lower priority; shift your time commitments to reflect current priorities.
  • Limit interruptions particularly for creative activities that require intense concentration (for me, that is returning calls and responding to emails in batches). 
  • Plan your spiel for saying “no” to new projects. Examples given are: “I don’t have time right now to attend the meetings that will be required if I join the task force. I agree with you that I have some relevant experience. I might agree later to review the findings of the task force and give you feedback before the final report is published.” Or, “My team and I are fully committed to two projects that are high priorities. But I can recommend an excellent consultant who could provide the support you are looking for. If this project is really urgent, maybe you can find the funds to hire her.”
  • Minimize contact with time-wasting people.
  • Overcome procrastination, especially for things you don’t like to do are intimidated by; get training or support to help you move forward.
  • Avoid technology addictions such as Internet surfing and always answering your cell phone.

Get a good night’s sleep. Exercise, combined with avoiding excessive use of alcohol and caffeine, can help you sleep at night. The promise of a good night’s sleep is often the key to motivating clients to exercise, Joshua told me in a phone conversation. After a few days of working out for just 20 minutes or so, they become believers in the power of exercise. That their employers, major corporations such as T. Rowe Price, are paying for executive/fitness coaching probably helps too.

Build stamina through exercise. Joshua, who holds a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Physiology and Minor in Sports Psychology, recommends exercise in moderate, but consistent, amounts. Pushing yourself is encouraged but not required in the exercise regimens included in the book.

Though he has trained elite athletes, his coaching of cancer survivors and those associated with cancer treatment helped him to realize that anyone can become an endurance athlete. He trained a 5-person team for the Lance Armstrong/Bristol-Myers Squibb Tour of Hope (also see this rider's account), an 8-day, cross-country bicycle ride to raise awareness of the need for cancer research. Four teams rode 100 miles at a time, rotating with other teams and resting on tour buses between stages.

I asked him: “what is most important to physical endurance: training, mental toughness, or nutrition?” He told me that often there is one “weak link” that breaks the endurance chain. Here are ways to strengthen all of them:

  • Training: exercise consistently though not necessarily intensely; take small, progressive steps so that your workouts build upon themselves; take pride in successes so that you can gain confidence; when challenges appear, tackle them as you are able. 
  • Mental Toughness: see yourself as capable; give yourself a chance to succeed.
  • Nutrition: get consistent energy through 3 regular meals and snacks comprised of low-glycemic foods; replace things that give you energy spikes (such as sugar and caffeine) with healthier alternatives; make sure you get enough to eat and drink all the time, including the days leading up to an event so that you will not be in a deficit going in to the event.

Basic fitness tips:

  • More (exercise) is not always more beneficial and can even be detrimental, leading to injury or requiring a relatively long recovery
  • Do interval training (small doses of high intensity exercise with lower intensity or recovery periods); these bursts of intensity can increase your fitness level in relatively short, rather than hours-long, workout sessions
  • Measure your effort by your breathing (from level 1: normal conversation to level 5: can't talk)
  • Get mental and emotional support from a workout partner
  • Combine activities, especially if you don’t enjoy exercising: socialize by walking with a friend; read or listen to music while riding on a stationary bike; spend time with your family by hiking or bicycling together
  • Keep yourself motivated and enthused by reflecting on the positive aspects of your workout

Joshua recommends determining your level of fitness before starting an exercise regimen. You can use Rockport Walking Fitness Test and/or see your physician. Ask about the condition of your heart and see if he or she has any concerns. If you have any questions, get a stress test. And, ease into a program not just to protect your heart but also for your muscles and joints.

Make sure that you have the time or can make the time to respond to crises and opportunities that may arise in your work or personal life. This flexibility may be what separates the contender from the champion. It threatened to derail the career of the soon-to-be-unemployed senior manager who my recruiter friend and I were trying to help. He was so busy taking care of his employees that he nearly failed to have time (we needed just an hour of his schedule) to tend to his career.

Executive Stamina is a mixture of fresh insight and others' wisdom (books mentioned include Good to Great, Now Discover Your Strengths, and Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience). I received a copy of the book in exchange for a book review. There is more to the book but I found the sections on controlling commitments and fitness particularly useful for both managers and non-managers.

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Guest's picture

Great tips, especially the exercise and fitness part. Thanks!