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  • Writer's pictureMichael A. Hughes

Oxygen Mask Principle

Begin with the Beginning of the End in Mind

The Stress Created by Career Desires

I have coached a lot of great people over the years.....some have been very content in their roles and consistently unflappable. Others have been far more uptight, frustrated by other's performance issues and constantly worrying about how to climb the next rung of the ladder. I took some time to understand what made each type of person "tick" and I found some themes in the answers I learned.

One observation I made was that the stress levels in individuals who were highly focused on their careers was significantly higher, no matter whether they had just received a promotion, a great review or had gotten some challenging feedback. It became evident to me that the effectiveness of these leader's ability to lead, diminished significantly when they were highly stressed - they snapped at their employees, they took less time to listen and they over-reacted to minuscule outages. It was like, in their drive for personal progress, they were always gasping for air.

Oxygen Mask Principle

A Leader needs to take care of their personal needs and reduce their stress levels sufficiently, before they can truly take care of their people and be the best possible leader

We have all heard our cabin crew remind us that we should put on our own oxygen mask before looking after others. The apparent selfishness of this concept has always bothered me, particularly after I had children of my own. It was only after some deeper reflection (and possibly an airplane themed thriller movie) that I realized that if I am not functional, then I will be in no state to help those that depend on me. I realized that there are situations where temporarily being selfish, can lead to the greater good. After 20 years of leading organizations, I continue to recognize that this applies equally to leadership as it does to airplane catastrophes.

Step Ladder to Where?

To address stress, you need to dig in and find its source. When I coach leaders such as the one described above, I find that their high level of anxiety is often linked to the pressure they have put on themselves to "succeed" in their career. This prompts me to ask them, in a 1:1 setting, a very rudimentary question...."what do you want to be when you grow up?" I typically get a chuckle out of this question, followed quickly by a pause and then an awkward, puzzled look. I ask the question again in a different way..."what role would you like to have at the time you are about to retire from professional life?" It still amazes me how many people are not able to instantaneously answer that question. It seems that our young professionals have been groomed to push as hard as possible to climb the corporate ladder without every thinking about where that might lead to. Even when I do get a defined answer (typically something like: "I want to be the CEO"), I ask some clarifying questions about the willingness to invest in further education, to relocate family 10 times, to travel 60% of the time etc. These questions generally confirm the fact that the individual may not have thought their way through their career map in a thorough or complete way.

Most Important Homework Ever

At this point, I give the leader some home work to do. Here are her or his instructions:

  • This homework must been done at home, not at work

  • You should have some clear headspace, not be under time commitments or be in a distracted state

  • You need to do this exercise with your significant other to get full benefit from it

  • You need to write the answer to the exercise, not just think or talk it....writing it is a much more concrete process, avoids miscommunication or assumptions and can be referred back to a year or two from now

The Oxygen Mask Exercise

  • Envision your retirement party. Describe what company or type of organization you would like to be retiring from. Describe what your colleagues are saying about you publicly at the time of your retirement. Define the impact you want to have had on results, people, do you want to be remembered in that organization after you depart.

  • Based on the above, describe the type of role(s) you would need to have had leading up to your retirement. What type of responsibility would you need to have and what that work-life would entail? Do these roles excite you and play to your passions? If not, iterate.

  • Now, describe the lifestyle you would like to have outside of work, before and after retirement. Be as specific as possible (for example: family vacations every year, enough free time to fish or golf every weekend, have an RV in retirement to travel the country, just spend time with grandkids and read my books etc). Think through the level of income required to support this lifestyle. Does it synch up with the role(s) described above? If not, iterate.

  • Lastly, think through the stepping-stones you (and your significant other) will need to navigate to support these career goals. Will you need to go back to school? What level of travel will it require? Are you excited to lead the size of organizations required to enable all of this? Will you need to relocate will you handle this when your kids are in their teens? Are these sacrifices and commitments you are both willing to make? If not, iterate.

The Benefit

I did this exercise with my wife about 10 years ago, just after we had our second child. I had found with all of the stresses inside and outside work, as we both juggled our careers, childcare and other personal goals....we were starting to drift from the same sheet of music when it came to issues like work-travel requirements or other sacrifices required to progress. After going through the above exercise, which took a couple of evenings of deep discussion and a couple of iterations to instill reality into the plan, we landed on a plan we were both excited about. From that point forward, when challenging decisions arose (like whether to relocate our family, whether to stay with a particular company etc), we have very quickly converged on the right decision for our family's long term goals. This process also reduced my stress level inside of work....whenever I was feeling overwhelmed or defeated, I asked myself if the obstacles I was facing were ultimately going to help me move in the direction of my retirement speech and the lifestyle I wanted to retire into....inevitably my energy to plough ahead was renewed. This "life mission" has become my oxygen mask. When catastrophe strikes, it helps me deescalate the stress levels time and again. I believe, if you do your homework, it will do the same for you!



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