Stress & the CEO: What role for the NED?

There’s no doubt its a tough job being a CEO, but it goes stratospheric when you have to manage a game-changing situation that has the potential to destroy or seriously damage the size and shape of your organisation.  Take the challenge of access to capital for instance, as it is one of the top concerns for scale-up entrepreneurs and SME CEOs and consequently one of the top stresses. Which is hardly surprising when its quite usual for the process of raising finance to be more lengthy, more onerous, more incomprehensible and less within the CEO’s control than anyone had forethought.

I read recently that some financing professionals claim the rigorous and stressful process of raising capital ensures that only the best companies (i.e., those most likely to succeed) receive funding. There may be some truth in this, as I’ve certainly seen companies produce clearer, more thorough and more strategically robust business and financial plans as a response to external scrutiny and criticism. But, if only it’s a perfect world, as for every good outcome of the process of raising capital, I’ve also seen a bad one:  spurious demands for data, reports and analysis; legal documents full of irrelevant clauses (only inserted to be negotiated out); and, worst of all, processes that seem to be going swimmingly only to be derailed just when nearing the finish line. Go figure that persistence and resilience are considered the most vital qualities needed by CEOs of companies trying to raise capital.

It also means that money, or the lack of it, becomes the focus of conversation around the Board table and, consequently, as the CEO bears responsibility for raising capital, they face mounting pressure. We also expect them to shield employees from this pressure and to retain a calm, positive and contained exterior for fear that otherwise others in the company will get stressed and performance will go downhill.

Crikey, who’d take on that job?

This is a good reminder to NEDs: the CEO is only human and more than likely the situation is causing them extreme frustration, irritation and disappointment to the extent that they are probably wondering what possessed them not to take the sensible job which was on offer at Google. So allowing the CEO time to vent is imperative, especially because those who hold the power over the investment cheque can make unexplained decisions perceived as unjust and unfair. Its elementary human psychology to want to be listened to, and so it is crucial that Non-Execs don’t just jump in with ‘solutions’. Neither should they suggest inane actions that have already been pursued, nor should they express opinions such as “if only the CEO had spoken to so-and-so” if they themselves have not offered any practical help to introduce the CEO to this seemingly very important person known to them.

So once the gripes and frustrations have been aired, the team needs to constructively turn their attention to “if not this, then how else?” and when the leader of the company is experiencing significant stress, NED’s need to be allies not critics. Studies have shown that to build resilience, you need to buffer collective stress and support is essential for stress management within groups. While you don’t need to be the best friend of everyone around the Board table, you do have to work together and cultivate a collective belonging and belief in the talents of the team to get through this crisis.

The good NED then brings perspective, experience, wisdom, clear thinking and contacts. We all know the importance of being forced to pause and reflect when in the thick of a fight and this is where intervention from the NEDs can be so helpful, using the clarity that comes from not being in the day-to-day miasma. They can identify strengths that may be being overlooked, focus the executive team on being data-driven (as the enemy of anxiety is good information) and offer practical help. NEDs should deliver a dose of realism, but they should not be unduly negative as openly reflecting on the dire nature of the situation and being a harbinger of doom helps no-one.

Adding to some CEOs stress is, of course, the underlying concern that the Chairman of the Board can ultimately sack them. Believe me, though, it also adds to the Board’s heightened anxiety that the CEO ultimately can resign! Either way, you will always find pundits who want to introduce someone new to boost the chances of improving a business’s fortunes.  Realistically, finding a CEO replacement at short notice for a company that is strapped for cash is nigh-on impossible, but introducing additional firepower is certainly an option that everyone involved should entertain as anything that helps the company live to fight another day is worthy of being explored.

Times like these are extraordinary so they call for an ‘all hands to the pump’ mentality.  This will help a business raise the capital. For instance, NEDs can introduce possible new investors from their networks or behind the scenes they can use their influence with the external decision makers or, just simply, they can add credibility to the plan by publically voicing their support for the CEO and executive team.  The stress on the CEO will only be worse, and the outcome less favourable, if the resources around the Board table aren’t used and this stress can become toxic and highly unproductive so the absolute last thing your CEO needs in this circumstance is a ritual beating.

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Of course, I hope all the CEOs out this predicament weather the crisis, but realistically there are times when it just doesn’t work out.  In these cases, having NEDs on your Board who have experienced it before can help with the practicalities of winding up a company, but when they also have the capacity to be phlegmatic, reflective and supportive it could be the difference between giving up your entrepreneurial dreams or trying again.

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Author: Jill Ridley-Smith

Jill works with start-up and scale-up companies as a Non-Executive Director, business mentor, coach, advisor and investor. She is a Non-Executive Director on the Boards of The Digital Catapult, Smartzer, Pearson Ham and Nottingham Trent University Development Board. In addition, she volunteers as a business mentor for Innovate UK and the government's Start-Up Loans scheme. Previously Jill worked in private equity investment and portfolio management at HgCapital and held management roles at GlaxoSmithKline and LEK Consulting. She is an experienced Non-Executive Director with over 15 years of experience working at Board level. Jill graduated in Economics from the University of Bristol in 1994. She completed her Master’s in Business Administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Illinois in 1999. She is an accredited commercial mediator qualifying in 2012 from the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR). Jill is married with two children and lives in London.