Salisbury Business Improvement District

Building Mental Resilience as a Business Leader

Salisbury BID has teamed up with local anxiety specialist, Caroline Cavanagh, to provide business leaders of Salisbury with the guidance and tools they need to support their employees through the mental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Find out more about the support programme here.

A foundation for long term success - By Caroline Cavanagh

At the moment, I think it would be reasonable to say that anxieties are running high.  We’re feeling vulnerable as there is so much we can’t control.  However, it is also fair to say that by focusing on those things that we can control, it not only reduces the perception of vulnerability but also empowers us.  And in empowerment, there is strength, a resilience that keeps anxiety harnessed.

Here are five approaches that support mental resilience.  They may be totally alien to your normal approach to running your business or how you work.  But ‘normal’ has now been replaced by ‘different’ and these approaches will help you feel back in control and adopt a positive approach to change.

1. Be selfish

Now bear with me on this one if your automatic reaction was, “Being selfish is wrong!”  Selfish as a word has been misconstrued to relate to putting yourself first to the detriment of others.  That was not however, the original meaning of the word.  Looking after your ‘self’ and being the best you can be, enables you to serve others better too.

Consider a glass of water.  If you allow everyone to drink from your glass, the glass will empty.  You then become dehydrated and there is no water left for anyone else, so everyone ends up depleted.  However, if your glass is full to overflowing, you remain hydrated and can continue to share your abundant water supply with others.

Now consider water as energy.  Giving your energy to others will drain you to the point that you may not be able to serve them anymore.  Move your focus to keeping your energy levels high, you can work to your optimum, having the resources to give to others – everyone wins!

The principle behind being selfish is to be the best version of yourself as this places you in the best position to help those around you.

What builds your energy reserves is personal to you. There are the fundamentals we all need – sleep.  So, if your anxieties are resulting in poor sleep, addressing this is a priority.

Then there are the activities that by doing them, leave you feeling better – they have ‘topped up’ your energy resources.  It may be exercise, dancing, meditation, walking in nature, doing a crossword, listening to music…..It is any activity that having done it, leaves you feeling better.

So make a list of these things that work for you.

And now plan to do some of these activities every day.  The natural inclination for many will be, “How can I justify taking an hour to go for a walk when my business needs my attention?”  My answer, “How can you justify not going for a walk when your business needs your attention?”  If the walk ‘tops your mental resources up’ then walking is investing in those resources that will then return the dividends into your business. 

To take money out, you need to have invested.  The same is true of energy.  It is time to invest more than you ever have before – and the dividends will be returned!

2. Review your sphere of control

Planning is a key element for most business leaders, be they 10 year plans or quarterly. But the ‘game’ has changed and therefore, time to change your approach too.

Imagine a game of tennis.  You can only control what you do with the ball when is on your side of the net.  Once the ball travels into your opponent’s side, you lose that control. 

If you know your opponent well, you may confidently anticipate their next shot.   You may be confident that your drop shot will result in them playing an overhead lob, and so you can be on your toes ready to get to the back of the court in time

With a new opponent, you don’t know their game.  Therefore, if you do your drop shot and then head to the base line anticipating that long high ball, you may find yourself scurrying back to the net and off balance because the game has changed.

What would Federer do when playing a total stranger?

He would prepare to have all options open to him to without committing himself to any particular one, enabling him to react as best he can when the ball appears over the net.

The current business environment is much like this new tennis game and so sticking to the old game plan can leave you vulnerable.  It is time to have options:  If this shot is played, I can do that.  If that shot is released, I can respond in that way.  And to have all of those options available, it requires you to not overly commit to any one of them and have them all accessible.

Planning requires energy and can lead to a false sense of security.  If those plans are then never used, then that energy has been consumed (drained you) and shown no return.  If Federer invested energy in developing one shot but his opponent never gave him the opportunity to use it, he would be vulnerable.

You know your business and how the game used to work.  What you don’t know now is how the game will progress.  So, your investment is in considering all options – if this happens, I can do that, if that happens, I have that option covered too.  These are all short-term decisions that allows the game to keep going until the new pattern of play becomes established and you can become more confident in developing certain ‘shots’ again. In the meantime, however, you are taking control by being prepared for each eventuality, leaving you less exposed, less vulnerable.

So, bring your sphere of control right back in to replying to the next ‘shot’ and have as many options available to you as possible.  This will allow you to remain mentally agile, mentally prepared (not on the back foot) and give you the best opportunity of staying in the game. As time goes on and this game develops, you may start to notice certain patterns of play and thus you can start to invest more in those particular responses.

3. Be a vulnerable leader

History is littered with stories of leaders who were strong, often inaccessible and positioned as being invincible.  This ‘war’ is different and three things have become very obvious in recent weeks:

- No one has ‘the’ answer to destroying this invisible attacker, so don’t assume you are expected to know what to do.

- Inaccurate information and lack of information lead to poor decisions (Just think how much food was wasted from unnecessary stock piling)

- Communities are pulling together and it is team work and co-operation that is making a difference

More recent history has shown us something else that I believe is very pertinent for leaders and role models: Speaking your truth. Bringing the façade down and allowing yourself to be vulnerable actually makes you stronger. Phillip Schofield comes to mind - he spoke his truth and in doing so made himself vulnerable to criticism.  However, the respect shown for him and his popularity has soared.

As the leader of your business, you do not have all the answers to all of the questions your staff are posing.  No-one does.

So be honest and let your staff know where you stand, where the business stands.  If the business is at risk, let your staff know and be accurate in your communications with them.  In your vulnerability, your honesty will have value as it allows them to make the right decisions for them. And you maintain your integrity – an intrinsic element to mental resilience. 

Misrepresenting, or not sharing the truth to others also affects you – it doesn’t feel good to deceive and it takes energy to hide the truth.  By being honest, you maintain that integrity, people are more likely to respect you and as we have seen, the common response in such situations is a pulling together and desire to help each other – and in that, you can build a strong army!!

4. Compartmentalisation

Working from home makes it very difficult to leave work. Now, more than ever it is very important to be disciplined in segregating the parts of your life and an image I find that works very well is that of a train.

Consider an Intercity 125.  It is like a great long tube.  If there is a fire in one area, it spreads throughout the train very, very quickly. Now think of an old-fashioned Victorian train where each carriage is connected through buffers and you literally have to jump across a gap from one carriage to another. (I love the one in the Disney film, Dumbo – just Google the image and you will see what I mean!!) If there is a fire in one carriage, it is contained, and you can escape to safety by jumping the gap.

Life is like those carriages – there is the work carriage, you may have a parent carriage, a spouse carriage, a ‘playtime’ carriage – all different parts of your life in which you have different roles, responsibilities and behaviours.

This is an adaptation of a model used to help people with depression.  Often depression starts with something going wrong in one area of someone’s life – like being made redundant.  When their life is like the Intercity 125, very quickly, their relationship is affected, their health, their family life – the ‘fire’ rips through everything.  However by compartmentalising life, the loss of a job means that the person can still escape into their relationship carriage where they are safe, or feel strong in the knowledge they still have their health – there are likely to be carriages on that train where the fire cannot reach! And in that place, depression does not reach either.

When in lockdown, life can quickly feel like the Intercity 125 and your business challenges have no boundaries.  However, you can turn it back into the old style train.  When in work mode, get fully into work mode.  If possible, have one place that you work at and let the rest of the family know you are not to be disturbed.  Wear the clothes that you would normally work in.  Do all you can to replicate your normal work environment.  But then when work is finished, ‘jump the gap’ into the next carriage.  Be fully in parent mode, or spouse mode, or play mode.  And don’t go back into the work carriage until it is work time!  The fire in the work carriage may still be burning, but you will have had a break from it and be ready and more able to fight it again.

5. This too shall pass

Nothing lasts forever.  Your challenge is to keep going today because yesterday has already passed and you survived it. 

When it all gets too much, have one thing that you can go to and say to yourself that you believe in unequivocally; now use it like a mantra – repeat it to yourself over and over again.  Quietly in your own mind is OK.  Out loud is better.  Out loud whilst looking in a mirror even better! 

Every experience is experienced by our senses.  The more senses we evoke, the stronger the experience.  If we think something, it creates a feeling.  If we say it out loud, we bring hearing in too.  If we say it out loud whilst looking in the mirror, you have evoked a feeling, a sound and a sight.

Mantras have been dismissed by people in the past but they work.  So create a mantra that works for you.

Mine is “This too shall pass” because for me, it’s a proven truth.  When I find myself in that dark hole, saying this is the thing that gets me climbing out again because it tells me there is hope.

Here are some other options you can play around with.

“Today, I won’t give in.”

“I’m a survivor and we will survive this.”

“I have already survived my worst day and it made me stronger.  This will too.”

“I am strong.”

Keep it short, believe in it, use it – mantras work!