Blog: On the edge, holding it together

Via our networks, we hear regularly about agency leaders who are struggling. Most often we hear of people who feel they are not on top of things, that they're not performing at their best. At the worst, we hear of agency leaders who are feeling broken and burnt out.

The pandemic; the health and social response; the multiple simultaneous hits to the national economy; the relentless news cycle; outrage and frustrations at political events we feel powerless to protest — it is wearing us all down.

If that's you, you are not alone.

Simply being able to acknowledge that you feel that way is significant and important. If you feel that way, then now is the time to sit back, to take the time you need to observe yourself, your health and your work.

Everyone is struggling to one degree or another at the moment, and people in every context of life are experiencing challenges: loneliness and isolation from family and friends, boredom, frustration that everything is online all the time, financial worries and stresses over work or job security, tensions riding high and heating up far more quickly than normal, griefs too — the list is long.

As a business leader you don’t just have your own experience of this crisis to deal with, for you and your family. You also have the responsibility for many others as well.

This is normal when all this is different

What we're feeling is normal, and it's completely understandable. Each of us is dealing with a series of interlocking crises — our own personal and family crises, wrapped inside a business crisis, wrapped inside a national crisis (or two!), wrapped in a global crisis.

Leadership responsibilities are weighty in good times, and the demands of leadership often lead to the risk of burnout. During this current time, this series of health and economic crises, personal, business, national and global, they are heavier still:

  • The responsibility for payroll and good finance management weighs heavy when the economy is unpredictable and the sources of income for the business that are usually reliable are under great stress.
  • The responsibility for client satisfaction is made harder when the health crisis affects your team, and the economic crisis puts continued work in doubt.
  • The responsibility for company culture, team health and supporting team members is made harder by having to continue to be remote from each other, and frictions that would normally be simple escalate out of proportion.

It's important to remember, though, that there are things that you will encounter in your business that are beyond your responsibility.

  • Some people will pile extra expectations on you or extra demands, giving you an almost parental role to sort stuff out for them, to deal with whatever they dish out
  • Some people have lots of other problems going on in their lives — a boss can be a handy target as an outlet to vent frustration, anger, or despair.

You may want to do what you can to help, but as a business leader you need to remember that they are not your responsibility.


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Not drowning, waving

So, are there some healthy ways that we can respond? Here's some suggestions of where to start.

You may find this a helpful insight, a rule-of-thumb to learn from elsewhere:

Paramedics are trained not to put themselves in danger when attending an incident, to first wait for the scene to be made safe. It is no help to add to the list of casualties.

In other words, you have a responsibility to take steps to look after your own health before you are able to help others. You will not be able to take rational and helpful steps for your team, your colleagues, your clients, your business, your family and friends, if your physical, mental or emotional health is impaired.

What does that mean in practice?

Give yourself permission

It may feel counterintuitive, but that may well mean taking time out. Even if holiday feels a bit pointless at the moment, there is great merit in having days where you are disconnected — where you are are uncontactable, and you keep yourself detached. You need to give your mind a rest.

  • Take long walks.
  • Read.
  • Cook.
  • Watch box sets.
  • Spend time with the family.

All of this helps you switch off from work, and that’s good for you.

The next step it to give yourself permission. Give yourself permission to be operating at about 50–75% of what you would expect normally, a third or more lower than your usual effectiveness. In these times, that’s damned good!

On a day-to-day level, that means really pruning your task list.

Start each day with a gold task list of just the three most important things that you must do today. Once you’ve done those, either finish for the day, and only if you have the energy should you could consider things on the bigger task list. But you are making progress if you just do those three.

Look up, look outside

It's important to look for support and insights from elsewhere, too. You don't need to be to sole source of motivation at the moment.

Talk to other agency leaders. As well as people you know yourself directly, there are good communities for this such as Agency Hackers and The Agency Collective.

Pick some inspiring books and read them — it's a real boost to be inspired. Audiobooks might be a good way to fit this in around the rest of life too.

The limits of your responsibilities

In the midst of everything, it's important remind yourself that you do not have parental responsibility for colleagues, just leadership responsibility.

You’re not a punchbag, and you’re not there to solve every problem.

You are there to keep a safe and productive space for the team to work, with a direction to work in, and to support them in that work, but beyond that your responsibilities are limited. That means that it’s okay to say there are some things you can’t help with. It's okay to define boundaries.

For colleagues who are struggling with issues or problems in their personal or family lives, you might consider putting in place other sources of support for your team members if you’re not in a place to provide the extra support needed at the moment. For this, there are a number of mental health and other helpline providers, therapy providers who can work via by Skype, and more.

Don't forget yourself

Lastly, don't forget to find space and time to care for yourself.

Do nice things that you enjoy.

This sounds silly, but it’s easy for those to get bumped off the priority list. Take time for your hobbies, for yourself, for simple pleasures of life.


Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

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