CEO Wellbeing is a Board Priority
By Caren Kenney

Time to tackle work-life and job challenges of the corner office.

We are starting to hear more and more from top leaders of organizations on their personal struggles as a result of their role — whether it’s a Fortune 100 CEO reflecting on personal sacrifices and impact on her family, or a high-profile entrepreneur calling out concerns about his mental wellbeing in a way no other executive has candidly shared before. Many CEOs are feeling the pressure of their demanding jobs.

August marked the highest month of CEO turnover in history. Each time there is an unplanned CEO dismissal it costs shareholders billions and unsettles employees and customers. The accelerating rate of CEO turnover has reached a point where it can no longer be ignored.

How is it that so many CEOs with significant experience, impeccable records and great passion for their work — despite being vetted by HR, their predecessors and the board — suddenly struggle in roles they worked so hard to achieve?

Leadership performance is fueled by personal wellbeing

When the demands, pace and schedules intensify, leaders often deprioritize their physical wellbeing (e.g., exercise, nutrition, sleep), time for mental recovery (e.g., vacation days), and quality time with the people who matter most to them. They may even turn to unhealthy behaviors to help cope with the stress.

A non-stop pace without frequent — even if very small — energy recovery in the mental, emotional and physical domains can cause burnout and impact focus, performance and quality of decision-making. The role is also highly isolating, with leaders questioning who they can trust during a time when they need more support than ever.

A leader’s emotional intelligence and strength of character cannot truly be measured until subjected to intense pressure, which is often too late. This is a growing issue, with a 36% increase in CEO dismissals due to ethical lapses.

No CEO wants to fail. In fact, most are deeply passionate about making a difference in roles that culminate from years of hard work and professional investment. We see this in our confidential work training CEOs and other leaders who want to achieve higher levels of energy and resilience and to demonstrate strong character.

The reality is many leaders are at risk, and we must take a different approach to preparing the C-suite for leadership. We must not only ensure “resume readiness” but also their “wellbeing readiness.”

What is the board’s role?

While inquiring about a leader’s wellbeing can feel like none of your business, in reality it has everything to do with the success of the business. There are a few ways you can address wellbeing in the boardroom:

Engage in candid conversations. Many board members are or were CEOs. Sharing your own challenges — or at least the challenges inherent in the role — can reassure CEOs struggling with confidence, imposter syndrome or feelings that they are alone, and encourage them to seek additional support. Regularly ask what your CEO is doing to focus on his or her wellbeing (e.g., sleeping well, taking vacations, building in regular recovery and oscillation throughout the day/week, spending time with family).

Formalize wellbeing assessments. Leadership and personality assessments don’t provide the whole picture on a leader’s ability to successfully sustain themselves in the most stressful roles. The board should encourage confidential assessments that measure a leader’s energy, wellbeing, mental and emotional resilience and character strength. This should include confidential input from stakeholders in and outside of the workplace, allowing the leader to gain insight to how he or she is performing in all areas of life — and then engage in coaching to overcome barriers and expand capacity in these areas.

Articulate and model desired behaviors. Just as CEOs must set the standard for desired team and organizational behaviors, board members should do the same. Offer suggestions on how leaders can influence organizational behaviors. This can be as simple as ending meetings five minutes early so everyone can disconnect and recover energy or establishing a mandatory vacation week to ensure all can truly disconnect without feeling the need to be available for others within the business. Let your CEO know how you are engaging in behaviors to improve your own wellbeing to align to your personal purpose. And purpose is not soft — a strong sense of personal purpose is proven to increase mortality, improve energy and vitality, and lower stress levels.

Create an ecosystem of support. CEOs need someone to talk to who will support them but also provide honest feedback, keep them accountable and provide personalized strategies to support their success. In the premier executive leadership program, we surround each executive with a team of three coaches (e.g., executive coach, exercise physiologist, dietitian), put the administrative assistant and spouse or significant other through 2.5-day performance training, and conduct home visits and foster family engagement. 

Make transforming leadership part of your legacy. Your influence can extend beyond the boardroom and companies you oversee. Be vocal in calling out the challenges, and encouraging other board members and CEOs to understand the inextricable link between leadership wellbeing and business performance, and the need for investment in confidential and holistic training and support. Johnson & Johnson is partnering with Harvard to study the impact of stress on CEO wellbeing. Encourage CEOs to participate in this and other research to serve as a catalyst in transforming the future of leadership.

Caren Kenney is Executive Director of Premier Executive Leadership at Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute. 


2018 Fourth Quarter

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