This article was published by the Canadian Venture Capital & Private Equity Association on January 29, 2020, Bell Let’s Talk Day, in support of mental health initiatives in Canada. We are grateful to have an opportunity to speak out on this important issue. If you need help, please call 911 or access resources here. Remember, you are not alone.
“How are you?”
Three simple words that we hear or read most days, so familiar that we don’t always consider the question. We respond: “I’m fine”, “OK”, or “not bad”, with slight impatience, moving on to whatever is next. There are times when we are the furthest thing from fine, but we say that we are, anyway. Perhaps, we believe that how we are feeling is not relevant to the conversation, that others are not interested enough to care, or that it is a sign of weakness or embarrassment to admit to being anything other than top-shelf. Maybe, it was that one time we were honest about our feelings, on a particularly bad day. Watching another person’s face fall, then look away and awkwardly move to another topic was enough to make us vow that feelings are best kept inside (and certainly out of business talk).
So, every day, many of us tell others that we are fine when we are not, when the reality is “I am hurting”, “I am tired”, “I need help”, or “I am lost”. These are feelings that we are reluctant to share and just because we keep them inside doesn’t mean that they go away. Instead, we carry them and they become part of us, and doing so can be exhausting.
The ability to move forward through whatever ails us is a trait that is revered, one that tends to be associated with leaders and trailblazers who generate success and get things done. Entrepreneurs and business leaders are prime examples; carrying the stress of both their role and the challenge of moving a company forward in an increasingly competitive world. Add the needs of employees, customers, investors, and others into the mix and there is often no time to be anything other than “fine”; at least, on the outside.
But there is more to the business leader role than its exterior. On the inside, it can be a very lonely place; sometimes, to a point that it hurts. Entrepreneurs often say that they love their work, are passionate about it, and would not do anything else, given the choice. They work around the clock, day, after week, after year, without fully realizing that they are running on empty. It can take someone in a position of trust to give a business leader permission to step off the treadmill, before they fall. Do we see the signs? Do we make the effort often enough?
When it comes to building a successful company, sustainability is critical, as there is tremendous benefit to be realized when a business thrives over the long term. Sustainability is equally important at the entrepreneur/business leader level, setting the stage to add significant value over time. Financial partners and those in governance positions can play an impactful role in identifying and supporting strategies that create the foundation for a sustainable company. Fundamental to this is making wellness a priority; here are some ways to help:
- Listen. Deeply, compassionately, and quietly. Asking “how’s it going?” means being prepared for a variety of responses and taking the time to be understanding and supportive when difficulties arise. This includes being fully present in the moment, comfortable in silence, and resisting the reflex to “fix” things. Remember that the person across the table has a family and others who depend upon them; they could also be dealing with a challenging life situation that all of us encounter at some point. Create space for life to happen.
- Make depth a priority. Business leaders tend to carry the ball for much more than their share of the game; this is particularly true for young and high growth companies. With sustainability in mind, ensure that corporate objectives and financial resources include a tangible plan for creating depth, starting with the CEO and other senior roles. While entrepreneurs might claim “it’s easier if I do things myself”, this approach does not support growth, nor will it get the company to where it needs to go. Pay careful attention to the CFO or senior finance role, as these tend to be overburdened positions. Bottom line: a company cannot afford to have its key people become casualties of burnout (and they cannot afford it either).
- Identify resources that can help. Young companies do not always have the financial resources or need for a full complement of senior level roles; however, this is not a reason to bypass doing so. Experienced advisors have the ability to step into contract or part-time roles and make an immediate impact, taking on responsibilities from overwhelmed founders and bringing a level of expertise that the company might not be able to afford at its current stage of development (keep in mind that it is often the administrative and finance areas that get overlooked, becoming lagging problem areas). Financial and governance partners should have a deep network of resources that can fill these roles, be it on a short term or ongoing basis, providing options to help companies move forward more quickly and competently.
- Check in often; mind, body, and spirit. Business meetings need not be solely about dollars and cents. Successful implementation of a growth plan relies heavily on the quality of a company’s team, so it is important to recognize that strength comes from more than just the mind; the body and spirit also matter. Encourage entrepreneurs and business leaders to spend time interacting where wellness is the priority; events on a regular basis can be particularly helpful. Financial partners can play a leadership role, giving the all-important green light to take a more holistic and sustainable approach.
We all have people who have passed through our lives, who we would give any amount of time to see again. To sit, talk, laugh, and savour the moment; to be generous with our time. This perspective reminds us that life is fleeting and that the time that we spend together is more important than we know; not just to us, but to others as well.
We can change the conversation, and there is nothing but benefit in doing so. Our dialogue might begin with “How are you?”, but it can continue with the power and presence of saying “I am here for you. Let’s talk”.