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How to Help a Pressure-Cooked CEO

When John Williams took office as president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Franciscoin March 2011, he felt what all leaders feel when they move to the top of the house: a huge responsibility to the organization, a desire to positively impact the culture and concern about how he’d be perceived and evaluated by company stakeholders.In other words, a great deal of pressure.

The training and performance expertsat the Institute for Health and Human Potential, interviewed Williams and more than 12,000 other people over seven years’ time as part of determining the role pressure plays in the C-suite.

The research showed that all CEOs and senior leaders experience an enormous amount of pressure, even if on the surface it may not appear that way. According to Julie Howard, CEO of Navigant Consulting, another CEO interviewed for the study, “The constant pressure of being a CEO creates hidden stress that is not evident but becomes evident over time.”

What can learning leaders do to help CEOs succeed in the midst of unrelenting pressure in the top job? It starts by better understanding the science of pressure: how pressure can affect a CEO’s — or anyone’s — thinking, decision-making, behavior and performance.

Most senior leaders take a haphazard approach to managing pressure. They use what they’ve observed in their career, not necessarily what the best science has to offer in terms of managing pressure effectively. Given that mismanaging pressure is at the heart of why many CEOs fail, this is a critical learning area that will help them better navigate their job.

There are two important patterns to be aware of as you support your CEO, which link specifically to the life cycle of a typical CEO’s tenancy. The first can be seen in response to the pressure to do well in the first 90 days, and the first year, of a CEO’s tenure. Many CEOs studied fell into the trap of thinking: “I have to show I'm worthy. I have to prove myself.”

In sports, this leads to the athlete “pressing,” or trying too hard. In psychology, this is called a reinvestment strategy — the individual attempts to cope with the situation by increasing his or her effort, which numerous studies show has little affect and, in fact, intensifies anxiety and stress, leading them to do worse.

The second pressure trap occurs later in a CEO’s tenure as they accumulate knowledge and become entrenched, relying more on their internal networks for information and growing less attuned to market conditions. Thelonger a CEO serves, the more the firm-employee dynamic improves. However, an extended term strengthens customer ties only for a set amount of time, after which the relationship weakens and the company’s performance diminishes, no matter how united and committed the workforce is. In this case, CEOs avoid losses over pursuing gains because they have more invested in the firm. Ironically, their attachment to the status quo makes them less responsive to changing consumer needs. 

What should chief learning officers do to help a pressure-cooked CEO?

Get better at managing pressure yourself.This may seem counter-intuitive but it’s the best strategy for you to help your CEO. So many people around the CEO are worried about impressing the boss that they don’t offer the kind of clear-eyed support the CEO needs. Everyone is so involved in proving themselves worthy they miss critical opportunities to provide important feedback and counsel.

Show them ‘what got them here will get them there.’In our research, we found many CEOs believe, at least initially, they need to be or do something different to be success­ful in their new position. They don’t. They have everything they need to succeed. We work with Olympic athletes who think they need to do something different at the Olympics, but to maximize their success, they just need to do what they’ve done before. 

Have effective conversations under pressure with your CEO. Manage your fears and speak the truth. By having these conversations, you can help the CEO learn and lead in a way that helps the organization succeed. Clearly, when it comes to pressure, it’s not just the CEO who is affected by it. There are plenty of opportunities to manage pressure throughout the C suite — and throughout the organization.