Craig Dearden-Phillips: Do less to achieve more

Senior managers need to take more time out if they want to get better at their jobs, says the managing director of Stepping Out

Did you have a good holiday? I hope so, because research with 30 successful third sector chief executives for my forthcoming book How to Change the World: The Essential Guide to Social Sector Leadership, contained a powerful - and possibly surprising - message.

That message was that there is a strong correlation between the willingness of chief executives to take proper time out and their capacity to lead successfully. Time out in this context can be divided into three distinct areas.

First, it means taking frequent holidays, including at least one long holiday each year, and actually going away rather than staying at home, where it's all too easy to get sucked back in. The chief executive of a well-known charity told me that taking regular holidays off the beaten track, often travelling alone, gives him the space for reflection and renewal that helps him lead his organisation during challenging times. Spending time in quite different environments also means he finds it easier to see the organisation "from the outside, looking in", which brings a helpful perspective that is not easy to find amid the muck and bullets of organisational life.

Second, top-performing chief executives understand the need to switch off, take full weekends and not work too late into the evenings. This means shutting down email at these times so that they're not contactable, except in an emergency. One well-known boss uses the social media app WhatsApp to be contacted in a crisis, meaning her work email can be turned off during downtime. This, she told me, "works brilliantly", allowing her to switch off properly and be fresh when she returns to work. For chief executives who have children, time given over to them in the evenings and at weekends, without distractions, not only improves their performance but allays the feelings of guilt many leaders can feel at how much of their headspace the job takes up.


Third, nearly all the high-performing chief executives I spoke to use mindfulness techniques, such as meditation or intensive exercise, to create some psychological distance from work for at least a part of each day. One boss of a £60m social enterprise told me he finds time to meditate for 20 minutes in the morning and the evening; another I spoke to, who is in his late 50s, is a marathon runner.

This might sound too difficult or too great a time commitment, but the benefits of proper R&R, I kept being told by chief executives, are well worth the effort. "If you want longevity in the job and impact then you have to constantly renew your energy," one told me. And it is clear that the three steps above help to manage the anxiety that comes with senior leadership. "Being a chief exec can mean sleepless nights and constant mental churn, if you're not really careful," one respondent said. In his case, a mindfulness session at dawn each day is key to liberating his mind from obsessing over work. So did the findings of my research come as a surprise? To some I suspect they would have, especially chief executives of an earlier, more workaholic generation.

As a former 70-hour-week chief executive myself, I was taken aback in a good way to see just how seriously the current generation of leaders take their own wellbeing. But I wasn't totally surprised. Today's top chief executives seem to be aware that sustaining high performance relies on that vital relationship between rest and recovery.

The evidence base for this has its roots in sports science. Studies from the 1980s onwards have shown that athletes who build rest days in between hard training sessions perform much better than those who over-train. Leading sports coaches have surmised that, in order for athletes to improve their performance and maintain it, they need to mix activity with recovery judiciously: each is as important as the other. Take the recovery out and the athlete regresses. And it's the same for workaholic chief executives who grind themselves into the ground by working long hours.

What my own, admittedly less scientific, research among chief executives suggests is that if you want to build the stamina and resilience to perform at the top level, you should plan meaningful rest with the same zeal that you plan your work. You need to build rest in and do it every day. The ingredients of successful leadership - resilience, influencing skills, judgement and clear thinking - are all sharpened by rest and recovery. Conversely, it is now well understood that tiredness and overwork can erode these attributes, often with calamitous consequences. The era of the workaholic leader may well be drawing to a welcome close.

So as the summer holiday recedes into the past and you start thinking ahead, take a moment to heed the wisdom of our sector's high performers and schedule rest and relaxation into your daily routine. And start planning your next break.

Craig Dearden-Phillips is managing director of Stepping Out and convenor of Social Club, a network for third sector chief executives


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