When I broke my shoulder in June this year, the reality of running my business and looking after two sons under the age of three, as a single parent, hit hard. My company, Cause4, was just about to move to new offices, there were training courses and workshops to be delivered nationwide, clients to service, staff to manage and deadlines to meet. On top of that, my sons and I were moving to a new house in a rural part of Norfolk. Being told that I couldn’t drive, lift, or travel to work for three months, at least, felt an impossibility and for the first few days I had to work hard to stop the panic setting in. Up until that point, I’d coped with most crises by working harder. When I experienced tough times over the eight years since I started the business, my response was usually to increase the hours I worked, maximize the effort I put in and plough through until the problems were solved, and a status quo was established. With me ‘out of the picture’ for so many weeks, that strategy wasn’t going to work. And so, I had no choice but call in help and by doing so I had the opportunity to test out my business’s contingency plans, rely on my team to step up and fill in, look at how I juggled my home and work life and, ultimately, to consider my own style of leadership.
As many entrepreneurs will tell you, running a business can feel like spinning plates. And, like any well-practiced conjuror, you get good at it. In fact, it can mean that business as usual is when you are stretched to the max. What I wish I’d realized is that the pressure, which can be so unhealthy in the long term, is only sustainable when you’re in good health. It doesn’t provide any safety net and as your exhaustion builds, that insidious tiredness that comes with looking after young children and a dynamic business, you’re putting yourself at risk. Many entrepreneurs are motivated by a fear of failure, worried that despite a great track record and a strong reputation in your industry, everything you’ve achieved could be taken away. But I learned, when I returned from hospital, that being incapacitated didn’t mean that the business was out of action. I realized that the company is mature enough to rely on the people that work there, a core team of brilliant and supportive colleagues that picked up the work I could no longer do from home, and worked with me to liaise with clients and attend meetings when I couldn’t. My mother was extraordinary in helping with my sons and it’s often crossed my mind how difficult things would have been if I didn’t have that family support.
The key learnings from the experience are straightforward. In fact, if someone had told me before my accident I might even have shrugged them off. First, life is fragile. Every day should not be a drama, even if you enjoy the high-energy pressure of working in a dynamic, game-changing organization, there has to be some wriggle-room. It’s important that every minute of your schedule isn’t filled, that the deadlines you’ve taken on can be done realistically within office hours or by another member of the team. You can’t see into the future and some of the things that life throws at you require time. Keep the plate spinning for special occasions. Secondly, be honest with yourself about how tired you are, how well you are looking after yourself in terms of diet, sleep, exercise and relaxation. And finally, the best investment you can make in your business is in its culture. Our company has always had a supportive culture. When I needed it, I had favours to call in from colleagues, partners and clients.
I’ve been telling everyone that once I’m back to work in a few weeks’ time, I want to have a year of ‘no shake ups’. Twelve great months where the strategies we’ve put in place are carried out, where the team achieves its goals and where the daily running of the business brings the success we need without plate spinning. That happening is probably unlikely, but I’ve learned some important lessons following my accident. Get perspective about what jobs really are urgent and what can be delayed, what can be handed over and what needs my undivided attention. Our precious time needs to be protected, at work and with our families, and every extra minute shouldn’t be filled up with activity. You just never know if you’ll need it for a real crisis.