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Want sustainable startups? Teach young CEOs how to manage their mental health

Being a young CEO means jumping into the unknown, learning the limits of your comfort zones — all the while telling the world and more importantly yourself, that “you’ve got this and that you’re going to be ok.” I was the same; constantly leading from survival mode, scaling my business by working all hours, pushing my body to the extreme. But when everything is uncertain and everything is new — the anxiety and stress which plagues particularly young CEOs, but equally older generations too, needs to be met with tangible mental health support at most, and at least, recognition and dialogue. By dealing with your own mental health issues using the tactics below, you’ll lead by example and others within your company will be happier, more productive experts.

1) Cut it out. Turn it off.

You didn’t sign up to be a 24 hour CEO — so why are you working all the time? The helpful technology you’ve utilised over the years to streamline your workflow and communication, is largely to blame — now begging for your attention.

Slack, Skype, Trello, Gmail, GDrive, Whatsapp — all tech you first downloaded to make things simpler, now just seems to clutter.

Set up regular hours for inbox working, keeping it closed when not in use. Never use your email as your to do list, you get enough messages already without emailing yourself more. Instead, put your tasks into your calendar, so you can see how long you think they will take to complete. And never schedule work past your working hours.

Give each app a specific task. For example, Slack is for internal communication and email is for external. That way you can focus on one at a time, knowing which is likely to hold more pressing questions or requests.

Turn off all apps after a certain time, ensuring that urgent or emergency messages can get to you via text — should they need to. Physically move apps used for work into a folder, onto another screen on your phone, far away from the apps you use in your personal time. That way, there’s no likelihood of you bumping into them out of hours. Also turn off those notifications — just do it.

And finally, skip the pleasantries. About half your inbox will be you replying or people replying to you with “ok,” or “thanks,” or “sounds great,” or “see you then.” If your calendar sends your invitees a message when you schedule a meeting — there’s no need to follow up with an email also. If your email doesn’t require a response, kindly let your recipient know you don’t need one. As long as you’re polite, you might even help them feel better about email urgency.

2) Quit survival mode.

You most likely started a business to find yourself a better work-life balance — yet now you find yourself hooked up to your company like it’s IV fluid.

Sadly too many business leaders exist permanently in fight or flight mode, constantly on edge, putting everything on their shoulders, and linking the very existence and health of their business, to their own. But the reality of this is often severe mental and physical health concerns. Separating your own identity from your company’s is the first step to realising that you can be a better leader — when you give yourself the space to find the powerful perspective free from operating out of panic mode.

Like every CEO that has come before you, you aren’t in any way special or superhuman. You cannot handle more physical stress than anyone else — you’re just better at kidding yourself that you can and therefore endure it.
The first task is taking steps to overcoming worry. Imagine in the back of your mind each day, there’s a plate that you have to keep spinning on a stick in order to survive. Throughout the day, whatever else you’re doing, you’re constantly worrying about that plate falling. You soon stop sleeping, concerned that you’ve missed something which will cause it to topple. Despite your friendships, family, and personal life, in the back of your mind, all the time, exists the worry that the plate will fall and with it your whole livelihood. To make matters worse, the plate is getting larger with each passing day — more and more likely to cause a bigger mess should it tumble.

The worst thing of all is you feel guilty for worrying — because bosses shouldn’t be weak; or so you’ve been taught. You must come to terms with the fact that whilst our education system and culture tells us to put bosses on superhuman pedestals, this is the most dangerous archetype to embody. Like every CEO that has come before you, you aren’t in any way special or superhuman. You cannot handle more physical stress than anyone else — you’re just better at kidding yourself that you can and therefore endure it.

Small changes to your daily working habits such as morning yoga, meditation, or even taking a moment for a quiet breakfast, making lists on paper rather than your phone — can reset your mind, train your brain to bring down your body’s cortisol (the hormone which makes you feel anxious) and free it from worry.

I wrote about surviving outside of survival mode in “Why every CEO should quit their job — if only for a month — to escape their fear of failure” and since then, my good friend and business mentor Nic Yeeles, founder of Peg.co, has spoken publicly about young CEOs finding time each week to fit their own metaphorical oxygen mask. It will change your life — watch it.

3) Don’t be an island.

You must next overcome the irony of leadership loneliness. Along with being taught as children to respect authority, we’re never taught that bosses arguably require the same amount of compassion as all other coworkers. Sadly, the CEO is often the most lonely position to hold within a company, isolated by a strange alchemy of cultural norms and necessity, when they really require the greatest amount of support from others to be successful.

Contrary to what you might think; because there is nothing particularly special about you — there is no way you can’t keep the plate spinning alone, nor should you or anyone expect you to do so. Others must help you put in place procedures which empower others in turn to help you with the plate — making it now far more sturdy with everyone’s combined support.

Remember, whilst your business is awesome — and wonderful — so are you. And moreover, just as you were enough, worthy, and wonderful before your business existed — you still are now, without it.
You must lean on your team, you must delegate, and most of all you must be honest about your feelings and realise it’s ok to ask for help — because they won’t be coming to you to check you’re ok. When you trust people in your company enough to treat them as you would any friend, being honest about how you are feeling so that they’re aware, you allow them in turn to support you and the team around you even more. Widening this to a pool of seasoned mentors and professionals independent of your business is also a great tactic.

Demonstrating vulnerability is part of being a progressive leader — and when you are open to improving upon your weaknesses, you will set a culture of doing the same. Otherwise everyone is just pretending they are fine — which is nonsense.

4) Learn your triggers.

Like all anxiety or mental health concerns, understanding the things which cause you to feel overwhelmed is vital. Being mindful of how you’re feeling throughout your day and even keeping a journal will help you to figure out what instances are pushing up your cortisol, and levels of pressure. This is always a work in progress, as understanding what causes your body to respond with anxiety can be as complex and difficult as solving the feelings themselves.

You must lean on your team, you must delegate, and most of all you must be honest about your feelings and realise it’s ok to ask for help — because they won’t be coming to you to check you’re ok.

My trigger is certainly financial projections — something I in turn felt guilty about for years. In my mind, a boss should have a firm grip of the financial stability of the company, but in the early years I would just avoid producing financial reports and spreadsheets that built projections of cash flow, instead using frugality to make decisions. I later realised, whilst yes, a boss should understand the financial health of their company at any given moment in order to make the best decisions, that doesn’t mean that the boss has to code or produce the reports to present those numbers, or reconcile the accounts to be sure of what is entering and leaving the bank account. Those more specific, financial tasks should be given to people who can perform them faster, more efficiently and with a greater degree of accuracy — to free up your time as CEO to review the numbers, make decisions and then support the team in leading those decisions to action.

As CEO you should be able to find the power of sculpting your own schedule, all the while being mindful of the tasks which cause you to feel anxious, and therefore scheduling yourself more time for rest periods, before or after, or even delegating them to others who are better suited to them than you are.

5) Finally… Be Grateful.

If you’ve started your own business and you’re growing your own team, you’re already doing something very few people attempt, firstly, which makes it hard and secondly, you’re doing something which will be one of the most fulfilling things that you will ever achieve.

In the midst of all that, when you’re taking time for yourself, remind yourself how grateful you are for all the opportunities and people your choices are providing you — because you will never get this time again. You’re the only one who knows what it felt like, when where you are now felt like an impossible dream.

Remember, whilst your business is awesome — and wonderful — so are you. And moreover, just as you were enough, worthy, and wonderful before your business existed — you still are now, without it.

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Mike Buonaiuto

Mike Buonaiuto, our Founder and Executive Director, is an award-winning Creative Director who’s spent a decade working alongside organisations, brands and charities that put people over profits. His background has always involved building teams that use creative tactics and digital tools that grow movements, fundraise and drive real-world change. More than anything, Shape History is a vehicle to bring like-minded people together, and to prove that if the model is right, a social enterprise can work to support good causes of any type, with both integrity and a sense of adventure.

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