Why stressed out CEOs are bad for business

WATCH: CEOs have to learn to let go and relax, Steve Tappin says

When the workforce, the customers and the board look to the chief executive for leadership, it can be a shock when the boss falls ill and takes an unexpected leave of absence.

In November 2011, it was announced that the chief executive of Lloyd's Banking Group, Antonio Horta Osorio, would take temporary medical leave due to ill health. He had been rebuilding the bank after its near collapse in the financial crisis.

It is perhaps unsurprising that chief executives (CEOs) are prone to exhaustion and health problems because of the long hours they work, the amount of international travel they do and the level of pressure they are under on a daily basis. Managing stress, however, can mean avoiding burn-out.

Steve Tappin is a management coach who specialises in working with chief executives. He says he has met plenty of leaders who are struggling to cope.

"The best leaders achieve balance and happiness outside work, which means the business doesn't subsume them and they can sustain themselves and stay fresh over time," he says.

'Sense of balance'

Some chief executives find that pressure can exert a heavy price. Joe Plumeri, chief executive of global insurance broker Willis, lost his son in tragic circumstances. Mr Plumeri blames himself. "He passed away because of drugs and I didn't pay attention enough," he says.

Blurb CEO Eileen Gittins Blurb's Eileen Gittins says she switches off when on holiday

Mr Plumeri says he doesn't mind talking about his experience, hard as it is, because he believes others can learn from it. He has this warning message for other executives who are also parents: "Pay attention to your kids. Love them, try to get a sense of balance in your life."

Hard as it is to strike the right work-life balance, Eileen Gittins, founder of make-your-own-book company Blurb, has learnt to take time out.

"I make a point on weekends to see family, friends, socialise a lot more, have the rest of my life," she says.

Perhaps unusually for a CEO, Ms Gittins is also able to switch off when she is on holiday.

She says: "I'm off the grid. The world probably won't come to an end the week that I'm gone!"

The founder of PC-maker Lenovo, Liu Chuanzhi, also carves out vital thinking time for himself. Every two weeks or so he would disappear on his own, he says, "to think carefully about my work and how well I was progressing towards my goals".

Start Quote

Keeping everyone motivated through a 95% share price decline was challenging”

End Quote Brent Hoberman Former Lastminute.com CEO

Start-up businesses can be uniquely exhausting and stressful.

Xia Hua is a former academic who took the plunge into the "business sea" in the mid-1990s when she founded the Chinese fashion company Eve. She recalls many sleepless nights in the early stages of the company's growth.

"I only had a single idea that if tomorrow is better than today, we will have hope," she says. Ms Xia says she still sometimes stays awake, worrying about the future.

Brent Hoberman co-founded Lastminute.com in 1998. It became a public company just 18 months later.

Soon after that the dotcom bubble burst. "Keeping everyone motivated through a 95% share price decline was challenging," he says.

'Right mindset'

Mr Hoberman admits to being a micro-manager during his days at the helm of Lastminute.com. In other ventures he is now involved with, he's learned a valuable lesson. "It's about finding people you can trust and just supporting a shared vision for the business," he says.

Finding a happy medium is a learning process for many CEOs. Leaders often have very strong motivation to get things done, and can end up ignoring important aspects of their lives. "People who are driven have to make sure that they don't go into overdrive," says Mr Plumeri.

He adds that it's also vital to have a balance between private and professional life. "Take a deep breath and understand what that entails, understand what other things it might affect [including]… where you want to get to in business and in life," he says.

Mr Tappin agrees. "Top CEOs don't get stuck in the day-to-day running but instead build a system of the right team and instil the right mindset and performance standards so it can run without them," he says.

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