Does your startup need a Shrink?

by Adrian Lloyd

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We hold a dinner for all of our CEOs three times a year (and for our CTOs twice a year).  To these dinners we sometimes invite a speaker to stimulate a conversation about an important subject.  Last week we asked James Routledge of Sanctus to take on the Herculean task of prising open our CEOs to get them to talk about their own, and their approach to their staff’s, mental health.  Or as we like to talk about it now, their mental fitness.

What does that mean?  Why is it important?

“Mental health means different things to different people.  In the context of our work as investors in entrepreneurs and their employees it focuses on stress and anxiety.”

James at Sanctus started his Sanctus journey with this blog post on the subject which articulates his definition:

https://sanctus.io/mental-health-in-startups-14726f22c5d1#.os42k5h5d

Why did we choose this subject for our CEO dinner? In a nutshell what James believes is that it is not only the responsibility of a company/CEO to think about and take action to understand & improve the mental health of its/his/her employees.  In addition, I also believe that it can be a competitive advantage given how few companies do it and how powerful it can be in terms of employee productivity.

“I believe that a company with a high level of mental fitness amongst its staff has a much better chance of outperforming.”

A talk I went to last week at my daughter’s school focused on building resilience and the subject of Andy Murray’s ascent to the top of the tennis world was explained by his work with sports psychologists.  I wonder why the same approach is not more widely adopted in business?

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This is a subject close to my heart having grown up with a Jungian psychologist as a mother and having spent a disproportionate time focusing on the Interpersonal Dynamics class at Stanford Graduate School of Business, affectionately known as Touchy Feely.  It is the most popular class at the GSB.

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Some of the highlights of the dinner that I’d like to share with you were:

How surprisingly (to James and to me) open our CEOs were with us and each other

Almost every CEO who attended was highly engaged in the conversation and willing to talk about how they think about the subject, their own personal challenges and how they felt they could do better on this front personally and within their companies.  There was little defensiveness across the Board from the 25 year old CEO to the 45 year old CEO.  Awesome start.  At an extreme, one CEOs explained that he has at least 2 divorces “in the pipeline” amongst his staff and he wants to provide support, not only because it’s simply “right”, but also to hopefully reduce the negative productivity impact on his team.

Few had a way of effectively understanding employee mental health

Unsurprising, as it’s hard to do and people don’t really (want to) think about it on the whole.  What became apparent is that for employees to be comfortable talking about their own mental health, the CEO has to somehow give them permission to do so.  To create a culture where being open is ok vs seen as weak.  Easiest route – hire someone like Sanctus.  Other routes – make it part of regular 1-2-1’s with employees.  Better yet, if you feel you can do it effectively, talk about your own state of mind as CEO in an open way without damaging the confidence of your team.  A fine and delicate balance that requires thought or coaching.  

Better yet, if you feel you can do it effectively, talk about your own state of mind as CEO in an open way without damaging the confidence of your team.

A slim majority of the CEOs felt their employees’ mental health was their responsibility

By the end of the evening that number had increased, but it’s clear there is still work to be done.  The key to increasing that number further is 2-fold in my mind.  Firstly it’s simply the logic of it – people spend most of their waking hours at work and it will affect their mental health, sometimes negatively.  So if you’re part of the problem you have a responsibility to be part of the solution.  Secondly, I firmly believe that good mental health (we refer to it as mental fitness) is a competitive advantage.  It’s worth spending time on because it will make your company more productive.  You cannot be in “flow” if you are under emotional stress.  You want all your employees to be in “flow”.  So, help them get there by removing blockages.

Leaders felt that they were unable on the whole to be open with their employees about their own emotional challenges

No surprises here.  Can this change?  Certainly it can, but will it?  Hard to tell.   Should it?! Three of our CEOs claimed to be very open about their feelings with their employees.  Knowing those CEOs well, that wasn’t a surprise.  They have small companies with very tight teams and it’s their personality to be open – surely it’s easier whilst you’re in the early stage with a small, extremely “bought in” team.  Most CEOs wanted to shield their employees from their own stress if related to business, in order to maintain high levels of confidence amongst the team.  This is quite possibly the right approach.  I believe that sharing some of what you are going through as a leader can be appropriate in the right context.  In my opinion hiding your stress from  your team is a bit like trying to hide a bad mood from your spouse or kids – they always know something is wrong (at least in my case!) so it’s best to be open about it.  At least a bit.  Of course there are huge differences between a company vs a family.   There was more consensus about being open with Investors vs employees.  We have very close relationships with our CEOs, most of us having been in their shoes in the past, and we are very supportive of them which helps with this openness.  I believe this is a great competitive advantage for Episode 1 and the CEOs agreed.

We love this subject and will continue to spend a lot of time building support services for our startups around this subject and to encourage our CEOs to open up and give permission to their employees to do so to.  

If you are interested in the subject, Brene Brown writes and speaks beautifully about it.  Her message: there is great strength in vulnerability.  

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