I am humbled by the leaders who have continued to produce at high levels during the past two years. Think about the intense layer of challenges they have been facing during these unprecedented times:

  • A global pandemic that forced an instant disconnect with remote teams
  • The need to support employees struggling with the uncertainties about the future
  • Social unrest that was unsettling to many at work who wanted answers
  • Business disruptions caused by supply chain issues that plagued our global economy
  • Politics that spurred divisiveness both in and out of the workplace
  • A war in Ukraine that further added to anxiety among exhausted employees

And all of those elements are precariously piled on top of increasing demands for leaders to accelerate production, inspire high-performing teams, and meet goals with sometimes outrageous deadlines. No wonder a recent Gartner study shows that 68% of leaders surveyed claim to feel overwhelmed. Who wouldn’t be?

Here’s the problem. The same study also showed that a measly 14% of organizations are taking action to help reduce their leaders’ extreme stress.

That leads me to my main point. Have we gone too far? Are we expecting too much from our leaders? Yes, we’re living in unusual times. I get it. But it also seems like leaders today are getting the short end of the stick.

Whether we want to accept it or not, there will be a breaking point at which this almost-super-human pool of talent will wave the white flag. These people who have repeatedly taken on more and more of the burden in recent years simply can’t sustain this level of chaos-juggling forever. Thankfully, some companies are beginning to respond.

Positive Changes Under Way

An article in the HBR Management Magazine (March-April 2022) detailed the efforts by executives at IBM to relieve some of the pressure on leaders by “digitally transforming their work.” The solution? Artificial intelligence (AI). Besides offloading administrative tasks through AI, the company created a digitally accessed, AI-driven advisor (think “Alexa for managers”) to support decision-making with real-time information. For instance, leaders who are considering pay increases for their team members can use their mobile phones to get instant data for employee turnover rates, current and future demand for particular skills, and salary averages.

An October 7, 2021, Insights article from management consulting firm McKinsey & Company profiled another organization taking action to support its overwhelmed leaders. ZF Friedrichshafen AG (a German auto supplier) is splitting up one division’s management hierarchy into two sections in support of the helix model. It features product managers and people managers with equal levels of accountability. One set of managers is responsible for managing work; the other one is responsible for developing people. Leaders essentially get the luxury of concentrating on one area instead of two, and the results have been remarkable. Stress levels dropped. Performance went up. Consulting companies have been following this split-duties model for years and now a wide range of agile companies are beginning to see how a “leader of people and leader of work” model can work across a myriad of functions.

 Actions You Can Take Now

 As we wait for more organizations to step up with leader-preserving strategies, there are some things you can do in the meantime to help protect your sanity.

1.     Prune out redundant tasks and look for ways to reduce burdensome reporting requirements. Do you really need a weekly status report from your team? Can you collapse three meetings into one without losing the context? Do your department colleagues still even use the spreadsheet you’re producing quarterly?

2.     Adopt the helix model as a mindset to make tough challenges feel less overwhelming.

If you view your role as a leader through two different lenses (work development and people development), you may gain a greater sense of control over the constant barrage of tasks coming your way.

3.     Don’t go it alone.

During these times, you may feel like you are solely responsible for supporting your team members and helping everyone else hold it together. You need and deserve support, too. Reach out to a trusted advisor to talk about the unique challenges you are facing. You might even plan to touch base with a colleague at the end of each day or week to exchange thoughts and get help putting some structure around your thinking. The point is, if you feel like you’re drowning under the weight of your leadership duties, reach out to others for support and advice. Help is available.

Final Thoughts

The optimist in all of us would like to think that business in the near future will no longer be plagued by a pandemic, a war, and all the other ingredients in the distasteful uncertainty cocktail. But if we’re being realistic, new challenges will likely just replace the old ones.

There is some good news though. Organizations have a huge opportunity in this environment to implement new processes that not only relieve the stress of their valued leaders but also elevate their performance. That will require some creativity and investment, but the benefits will be worth it. The only hitch? Companies first need to recognize the enormous toll that the past few years have taken on their top talent and, more importantly, be willing to do something about it.

What strategies would you suggest to help leaders successfully tackle the challenges and expectations we have placed on them today?

New Book for Leaders who Want to Compete in this New World of Work:

New York Times Best-Selling Author and Ferrazzi Greenlight Chairman Keith Ferrazzi recently released a book, “Competing in the New World of Work.” Keith and his co-authors share some vital business practices that proved to be quite valuable throughout the pandemic. What resonated with me is the idea that team resilience can be a game-changer. The authors suggest that team members form a social contract that solidifies their commitment to hold each other accountable for outcomes and to support the growth and well-being of their team members. This may be yet another way to relieve some of the pressure on leaders who feel like they are flying the plane solo. You can find Keith’s new book here.

Until next time,