Take the pressure down

It’s the second week of June. I haven’t slept well again. I am dreaming about the conversations I must have, playing out scenario’s in my mind, practicing in my mind what I am going to say to my team. It’s not even dawn and I am exhausted.

The end of financial year goals are out of reach. Adjustment upon adjustment has been made, with all sorts of creative justifications and political side-steps. As one of my colleagues put it at the time, “the brand is tanking”.

I need to deliver another set of bad news to the GM on this given morning. The thought of it drives me to dry reech repeatedly in the bathroom. I am not well. It is not pretty.

“Good morning Paul, how are you?” says my GM over the phone.

My response, “good thank you…”

Then I correct myself and confess that I am not okay. I am feeling the strain. Every trick in the sales playbook has been used. There is no other lever to pull. At this point in my career, I had never felt failure to this extreme.

I go to the doctor that day and his prescription is to take time off, go play golf. Nice to hear, but not that helpful.

In my discussions with executives and business leaders recently, it has been clear that the summer holiday rest and relaxation has well and truly worn off. The pressure coming from upstairs (senior managers, not God himself!) is being ratcheted up - even when performance last year was strong.

I can see the tension and anxiety being felt. They may not be physically ill like I was, but there is a sense of dread in there. The sort of thing you need to look into people’s eyes to see.

It’s common

As I visit leaders and their teams, I usually mention that this experience of pressure is happening in almost every brand – they are not alone. I say this with an intent of comfort, but it doesn’t seem to provide any.

It is a little depressing to know that this is epidemic, systemic, and any other type of -emic you can think of. It may also be a downer to know that your situation is not unique. Either way, this pressure is way too common, and it is not productive nor constructive.

The 2017 survey by Korn Ferry found that stress levels in the workplace have increased 20% in the last three decades. I feel the first step to reversing this on a local level is to be aware of it.

Goal Setting - the new sitting down

Cigarettes now come with health warnings. Sitting down is meant to be just as bad for us! This may not be strictly true, but contemporary offices are full of stand-up desks (still gotta get me one of those!)

But it now seems that Goal Setting may have something to answer for. This is beautifully articulated by Chris Weller (Business Insider, 2017) citing Adam Alter and Amy Cuddy’s expertise in the area.

Our measurable targets are important. We will always use them, but it seems that a goal is a means to an end. I hate that saying. Another way to put it – if our purpose is to hit a number and that is it, then this is quite hollow, uninspiring, and possibly destructive. Goals need to be a part of something more meaningful.

Another perspective

It sounds simple, but it is surprising how many blank looks I get when I ask the question:

What are you trying to achieve?

This is worth asking often – of yourself and your team. You can play the Simon Sinek ‘why game’ with your answer. Ask why this is important. Then ask why again. And again. And again. And again. If at the end of asking five times you have a clear statement that feels exciting and relevant, then measurements (or goals) can be set around it to track progress.

The next question to answer is ‘how’. This is where problem solving, creativity and steps to progress come into play. This is where we can start to play the bigger game – where I personally strive to ensure no one ever feels the way I did on that cold dark June morning.


The Play Beyond Targets program focuses on the critical skills every leader can learn and implement to play the bigger game. More info here