Some people today feel the world is becoming increasingly stressful and difficult to grasp and cope with, both privately and in business. They see the world getting more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) and experience a constant pressure to perform.
For entrepreneurs this is a challenge. They need to constantly keep up with what is going on in their markets and broader environment. But they also need to keep their cool and follow their own path. After all, they can’t respond to everything happening around them, can’t allow themselves to fully stress out and need to be the confident leader that their companies require.
How do they do this? How do entrepreneurs deal with the stressful environment they face today? To find out, I asked five successful entrepreneurs to share their experiences and advices:
- Jenn Lim (co-founder and CEO, Delivering Happiness)
- Liviu Tanase (founder & CEO, ZeroBounce)
- Andrea Loubier (CEO, Mailbird)
- Uwe Dreissigacker (founder and CEO, Invoiceberry)
- Joseph Duke (CEO, Red Rook)
In many ways, these five are like any other entrepreneur facing the day-to-day challenges of running and growing their business. As such, they should be quite representative for other entrepreneurs. Their key difference is that they do this significantly more successfully than the average entrepreneur. This means we might learn something from them.
How they experience stress
While they of course have their personal differences, there are various things that these entrepreneurs share. A first thing that stands out is that they unanimously most certainly experience stress, both privately and in business. And they are all ready to admit that they occasionally break down, give in or have their burn-out moments. As Dreissigacker puts it: “When it’s all just too overwhelming, most likely because my personal and my business life become too volatile and uncertain, I want to surrender and just give in.” This tells us they are not superheroes but normal human beings that experience stress just as the rest of us do. As we will see below, this is important.
What is also interesting is what they are most stressed about. It is not, for example, the amount of work they face or whether they will be successful. They get stressed when things are uncertain and out of their control or when they feel stuck. Duke is very clear about this: “My stress comes from being stuck. Plain and simple, it’s when I am in over my head and see no way out.” This happens, for example, in case of an accident, when a customer suddenly wants a different solution tomorrow, or when they are puzzled by new and complex regulations. So, for these entrepreneurs, uncontrollable uncertainty is their main source of stress.
What also stands out for all of them is how business and private life are intermingled. Specifically, as they explain, their private lives—their family, dog, hobbies, vacation, etcetera—is their anchor, their main source of calmness so that they are able to deal with the stressful and uncertain businesses they run. It is safe to say that, without this private anchor, they would never be so successful. Tanase says: “My family keeps me grounded—they’ve always been my place of calm.” This also means that, if something stressful happens to them privately, then the stress really hits.
What they do about it
Not only in the way they experience stress, but also in how they respond to stress, the entrepreneurs show a remarkable resemblance, despite their differences. From their stories, we can distill the following seven key lessons:
- Accept that things can be uncertain and overwhelming. There is no point in denying this or pretending you are always in control. Also, accept that you get stressed and that you can’t solve everything. Lim adds: “I hope for the best, but expect that the unimaginable worst can happen.”
- Adjust your expectations. Realize that feeling stuck or that things are uncertain and out of control is just as much a product of what you expected beforehand as of how things really are. Adjust your picture and aspirations so that they are more in line with reality. Duke says: “The tactic itself isn’t lowering expectations, but the re-evaluation of my expectations as a partial contributor to stress”.
- Stay alert, adapt and act fast. Be like a firefighter, always be prepared to act instantly in case something unexpected—good or bad—happens. Monitor things closely and have a plan B ready in case plan A might not work. As Tanase puts it: “My colleagues and I have to always be in firefighter mentality. We have to be ready for what we know we do not know. Regardless of how volatile and complex our market is, we are prepared to react fast.”
- Focus on something else. When feeling stuck in one project or with one problem, leave it for a while. Work on something else or let your mind rest for a moment. Loubier agrees: “Taking time to do things you love or to just disconnect is important. Meditate. Do yoga. Hit a fitness class. Go on a long hike in nature. Set rules for no technology.” And then use this time to set your mind on something else and let your subconsciousness do the work.
- Be your true and whole self. Stay authentic, don’t pretend and don’t do things that are supposedly right or healthy but that don’t fit you. Don’t put a lid on your feelings of stress. Your team will notice it anyway when you pretend. And start liking yourself for who you are. Lim was very clear about this: “Stress and pressure can happen every day. Which is why I believe it’s important to be grounded in who we are, wholly and authentically.”
- Put yourself in other people’s shoes. Ask yourself how others would respond. This could be someone in the company or outside, but also your three-year-old daughter or the company mascot. This changes perspective and it also helps you be more empathic to how others experience something. Dreissigacker says: “Since my daughter was born three years ago, I learned so much by observing her natural instincts and try to apply that when dealing with difficult situations in life.”
- Create an organization that functions without you. Even though it can be very hard to delegate and let things go, create a team and organization that doesn’t need you. This reduces your stress level and it also reduces the impact that your stress has on the company. Because, as Dreissigacker argues: “Adding poor structure and organizational skills to the ever-increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity is a recipe for burn out.”
These are valuable lessons, for entrepreneurs and for others too. A final thing that these entrepreneurs showed was the importance of balance and self-consciousness. Yes, focusing on something else can be very effective, but not if you use it as an escape—then it only creates more stress. And being your true and whole self is generally good advice, but as the entrepreneurs remarked, there also is a limit to this because however you feel and whatever you do affects the team. So, the main advice: don’t follow these bits of advice blindly, but apply them wisely.
Acknowledgment: I want to thank all five entrepreneurs for their openness and Corina Leslie for gathering the information for this article.
This post was published earlier here on my forbes.com page.
Image credit: Getty