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Eustress or Distress - What Startup CEO's Really Experience & How to Transition Through Coaching

I just dropped off a great friend (and former coaching client) at the airport after a wonderful 2 days of catch up and visit. He left last night. We reminisced about the time he was building his tech startup and how the process went, and how he was able to learn so much from the successful sale to a large company. Of course, he is now financially set for life.

What really impressed me, though, was that he was physically leaner and exuded a lot of energy and strength. His face was slimmer. His clothes fit differently on him. I took him on a gentle hike up to Horsetail Falls in Alpine, Utah and he walked and talked with ease without stopping. The last time I took him on the identical hike, we barely made it halfway up in the same amount of time. And, yes, he was in the middle of growing his company at that time. Now, he has a personal trainer, goes and works out with that expert supervision, and he has drastically changed his diet too. He says he has cut out a lot of sugar and processed carbs.

So what do founders experience as they grow their businesses, and what have I personally witnessed? Pitchbook made this short report recently, where they focused on the mental health of VC backed software CEOs. They shared:

  • 72% of software founders experienced a deterioration in their mental health in starting their business.

  • Not even 20% open up about their stress and anxiety, and definitely do not share that with their investors (less than 10% do).

  • Dr. Michael Freeman, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco, expressed that founders exhibit 3X more ADHD and suffer 10X more bipolar issues compared to the normal population.

With my thousands of hours coaching venture funded tech CEO's, I see a lot of incapacitated founders. They have all the talent and best intentions. They exert all the effort and lead from the front. These men and women are leading with passion and example. They are also no where near their full potential. They are, essentially, "sawing with a dull blade" as Dr. Stephen Covey wisely taught.

How can I tell they are stressed out, anxiety-ridden, operating at less than full capacity? How do I know that many, if not all, tech CEOs are experiencing this?

  • They carry a constant cold or sniffle.

  • They have bags under their eyes.

  • They have little to low energy.

  • When they are not talking, they get sleepy fast in meetings.

  • They yawn a lot.

  • Their direct reports tell me that they are moody.

  • Their waist lines are not going down.

  • When eating meals with them, they regularly eat and drink what they want, regardless of the nutritional value.

  • They have foggy brains (my 'technical' term).

  • When I have my CEO coaching boot camps with them, they are fairly limited in their physical activities - in breadth of options and the duration in which they are able to participate.

I can go on and on with my observations.

But the one story that I have to share happened with a client many years ago in the mid west. He was in the middle of a staff meeting with this executives, and I was participating remotely via a conference call. There were lots of animated words being exchanged, and my coachee was particularly emotional. While on the call, and while they were heatedly shouting, a knock on the conference door interrupted, and paramedics entered the room. They asked who the CEO was in the room. My client stopped to identify himself. The paramedics asked if he could step out of the room with them, and he refused. He said that they were interrupting his meeting, and that they needed to leave. The health professionals said that they wouldn't, and that they needed to have the CEO leave with them. He refused. I listened to all of this with incredulity. Was this really happening? The paramedics said that for the health of those in the meeting, and for himself, he needed to accompany them out or they were going to force him out. Thankfully, my client eventually agreed (took about 30 minutes), and as he was leaving, he shouted to me, "Benoy! They are taking me! Call me! I need you now! Please call me!" He was admitted to a psyche ward, and stayed there for a few days, and I was able to talk to him daily. He was administered and medicated for bipolar symptoms, and now has medication to help him level out the swings. It was a pretty stressful phase for him, his team and his family.

Clearly, this is a deep topic, and one that requires professional help. Bipolar tendencies, and other associated issues, are not trivial mental health concerns. They need focused, expert help with medication and professional counsel. I wish I could help my friend, but I was out of my league, and all I could do was provide support and unconditional care to the extent I could remotely. Sometimes, that's all you can do.

If this is an example of distress, what is eustress? Eustress is the positive, motivating energy that you feel when you are working out of love and passion. You want to bound out of the bed on Monday mornings, ready to create and impact your family and work. You want to make an impact in your field of expertise. You can't help sharing what you are doing with others. Doesn't this sound like the fervor and daily goals of most founders and startup CEOs?

So why does this positive stress become negative? When does it become distress?

The short answer is when you lose balance.

When it becomes such an overriding element of your purpose that you allocate a disproportional amount of energy to the business, and you detract from your family, your health, your social life and your re-energizing hobbies and activities. What makes this worse is the pervasive 'bro culture' of tough and cool, supported by the very investors in your business who require 24X7 access to you. Mental health is not a priority. Emotional resilience is tested because of the imbalance that is expected in starting a company. Instead of wanting to build a business, now, with money infused into the business, you HAVE to build the business. You change from love to fear in your mindset.

I absolutely agree with the statement made by Lisa Mikkelsen, head of global human capital at Flourish Ventures, who said in that same Pitchbook report:

"Because of the inherent power dynamic of the VC and founder, VCs need to step up. There's still a lot of stigma around mental health and there is a culture of glamorizing burnout. VCs need to care because healthy founders create awesome, healthy companies. And investing in [mental health] is investing in long-term outcomes.”

While there is never enough time and space to go in depth on some of the solutions I have personally used to be in eustress mode (solutions that I share with my coachees), I can tell you the following are constantly repeated:

  • I am more balanced when I have enough sleep, exercise, healthy (lower calorie) food and have time for hobbies.

  • While growing 4 businesses from scratch, I deliberately took time to learn a new skill or hobby (hiking to Base Camp Everest, learning to surf, learning new songs on guitar weekly to name a few) where my brain had to forget everything and focus on the new, non-work subject).

  • Learning that my mindset was riddled with fear-based programming, and how to reset that through hiring a coach, meditation and deliberately engaging nature to be healed.

  • Changing the people I hung around with (I have a core value of not working or being around 'turds') - this was a significant feat that helped.

  • Deliberately not being subject to the comparison game that social media creates insidiously. I severely limit my time on these apps.

  • I carve out dedicated, focused time on my calendar to my intentional goals primarily by saying more 'no' and less 'yes' to external requests and demands. This has been another game changer. A friend of mine quoted this to me from another source (that I have already forgotten) that said something like, "The more you care less, the more you are open to caring more."

  • Deliberate vacations planned more frequently with, and without, your family to a location that encourages you to not think about work.

I have learned that you can be more successful if you can learn to convert your distress to eustress, and that requires a deliberate focus. When you are in the midst of the battle, it is hard to see that become a reality. Unfortunately for many, it is after the sale (or loss) of a business that the level of clarity comes back to you. If it seems like other people who are not in the business can provide clear thinking about your business, that may mean you need to get above the daily fray, provide some distance from operations, and be open to more clarity on how poorly you may be executing. If you can see that, it's time to get healthy, balanced and energized!

The goal is to be like my friend who sold his company; healthy, happy and clear of mind. But to achieve that while growing your business? That's everyone's goal, isn't it?

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