Dear Founders and CEOs: don’t forget to secure your own oxygen mask first

You don’t have to spend much time with the founder or CEO of a company to find yourself blown-away by their juggling skills. Not only must they deftly manage an unenviable host of responsibilities — they have to balance them against a full cast of different personas, any of which might need to be called upon with a moment’s notice. Building and leading a company of any size is no feat for the faint-hearted and I spend my days in awe of the inspirational, driven and ambitious CEOs of the companies we support.

Every company faces its own unique challenges, but there are common themes across many of my conversations with founders and CEOs. Questions like, how do you stay pals with your team, and nurture open and honest relationships with them, whilst also keeping up the appearance of the invincible, brave-faced leader? How can you foster a great cultural attitude to work-life balance, at the same time as attending to an endless barrage of urgent requirements and fire-fighting?

From pre-seed companies to medium- to large-sized enterprises, the top can be a lonely place. Ultimately, people’s salaries need to be paid. It’s a huge responsibility that lands squarely on the shoulders of the person with whom the buck stops — the CEO. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. 

The problem extends beyond the individuals it impacts directly. People under stress make reactionary decisions, while anxiety can be paralysing. Neither is useful for a business that’s setting out to change the world. So what should founders and CEOs do when the psychological forces that can help galvanise growth go a little too far in the wrong direction?

You’re not alone

Digital therapeutics platforms do great work in helping people maintain a healthy lifestyle, but even the best-designed routine can take a knock when stress bites. The unfortunate knock-on effect of this is that losing that perfect night’s sleep, or falling off a balanced diet, can lower tolerance for stress even further. That’s why stress needs to be tackled at the source.

The unique demands of the role can make seeking internal support a challenge. CEOs may not wish to burden their leadership team with their problems, or might be loathe to let their ‘bulletproof’ demeanour slide. Going to the board can also  feel undesirable, while friends and family might struggle to fully understand the challenges – and pressure – an individual in charge of running a company faces. We’re lucky to live in an age rich with digital solutions, but while the conversations around mental health are changing, there’s still a long way to go.

It’s unfortunate that in many contexts, stigma around mental health persists. Startups aren’t an exception, and while the incredible hours that founders put in are lionised, the impact they have on individuals’ wellbeing is spoken about far less. Given how widespread the negative impact of this stress can be, it’s noteworthy that vulnerability between peers at, for example, industry events, is still uncommon. This speaks to a persistent, and harmful, negative correlation between struggle and performance, and an association between speaking out and weakness.

One way to shift this harmful paradigm is to build a network of trusted peers and be open about the problems everyone is dealing with. At Octopus Ventures we supply a ready made network, in the form of the founders and CEOs of our portfolio companies. As investors not just in great ideas, but in the people behind them, one of our top priorities is in ensuring that we as thought-partners support the success — and happiness — of the teams we’ve backed. Finding investment partners who are sympathetic not just to the bottom line, but the people behind it, is one great step in managing the stresses that come with leadership.

Performing at an elite level

Professional athletes work with a tight, trusted support team around them, comprising a sports coach, a physiotherapist, a nutritionist, a psychologist, a massage therapist, sponsors — and more. While founders and CEOs generally need their mental muscles kept agile more than their physical ones, there’s no reason they shouldn’t look for a similar set up. In my experience, the most important for top-level business people is the coach. 

We’ve written before about the value coaches stand to add, and how best to pick them. Their goal is to support individuals to optimise their mindsets, increase their confidence and develop resilience in order to activate their full potential. As with most industries of this nature, coaches specialise across a range of areas. Some focus specifically on work-related goals and ambitions, while others take a more holistic approach to an individual’s achievements and wellbeing. Whatever the desired outcome of coaching, founders and CEOs need to remember that they won’t necessarily click with the first coach that they meet — it’s a question of keeping an open mind until they find the perfect match.

The coach stands out, but that extended support team is also crucial. Our dedicated team of People and Talent partners supports our portfolio companies on all things people-related. From organisational design and hiring plans, to performance management and retaining a superstar team, our partners bring an outstanding level of expertise across different market verticals.

Beyond that, our venture partners bring a wealth of experience to bear in their fields. Operational and strategic challenges take some thought, but very often we’ve seen it before. Pragmatic help, in the form of strategy or operational input, can go a long way towards alleviating the stressors that can impact a CEO’s performance.

Secure your own mask

I’ve touched here on extremes and the potential solutions for an individual in crisis mode. But it’s far better to take a preventative approach in order to avoid reaching that point in the first place. Good coaching can help people to organise their lives in a way that reduces stress and enables internal balance and wellbeing, despite life’s inevitable curve-balls.

People support helps build an institutional culture that’s robust enough to withstand shocks, and to embed the values and practices a company needs to retain the type of talent that can drive growth.

All of our founders and CEOs also have access to our Notion platform, offering resources to support leaders with all the people-related questions they need to consider at every stage of their company’s growth; from course recommendations to useful templates on company policy, to personal suggestions on handling difficult conversations.

But what’s crucial is recognising that the health of a company and its founder, or CEO, are inextricably linked. For a business to realise its world-changing potential, its founder, or CEO, needs to make sure their own metaphorical oxygen mask is firmly strapped on, to ensure they’re best placed to facilitate a smooth ride for their enterprise – and its team – on the journey to new heights.

If anything in this blog resonates with you or you would like to discuss anything raised, please don’t hesitate to contact [email protected]

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