10/29/2013 – Helping CEOs in the Crucible of Mental Health Issues Part 1

Like everyone in the general population, chief executives and other business leaders are at risk for developing psychiatric conditions like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In fact, CEOs may be at higher risk because of the intense stress and pressures they face in their important leadership roles. There is clear scientific evidence that the kinds of stressful life events (SLEs) confronting CEOs can precipitate or exacerbate acute episodes of depression, anxiety, and related problems.

CEOs increasingly must perform in a fast-paced, globalized, turbulent, and uncertain business environment. Every economic downturn, disappointing quarterly report, intimidating board meeting, or guilt-ridden need for layoffs (just to name a few) can be a SLE. Intense worry and emotional trauma have become a routine part of the CEO experience. Mental health problems in CEOs can increase the perceived negative impact of these events. And these traumatic CEO experiences can cause or worsen a pre-existing psychiatric condition.

Even if the CEO doesn’t have a diagnosed condition, his or her performance can be affected by a psychiatric illness or personality disorder in someone else. A colleague or employee may be underperforming because of a psychiatric illness, such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD. How can the CEO confront this challenge in a compassionate, ethical, and business savvy fashion? One of my clients dealt with this question when the top performing marketing and sales manager in the firm developed an angry, demeaning, and destructive attitude in the context of a worsening of his bipolar disorder. The coaching here focused on how best to understand the health condition, direct the colleague to appropriate clinical care, and ensure the best interest of the firm as a whole.

Other CEOs may fail to reach their strategic goals because they are overwhelmed by a mental health problem in a close family member or friend. One of my clients has been severely distracted from important work on his family business because of his teenage daughter’s prolonged psychiatric hospitalization for suicidal thinking and self-injurious behavior. Our recent sessions have focused less on his strategic planning for his business and more on how to lead his family through a crisis. The coaching here is as much about how to handle mental health challenges as business challenges.

Executive coaching has become a billion dollar industry and helps many CEOs deal with important challenges such as strategic planning, business growth, leadership development, and management of employees across the organization. Some executive coaches focus on “wellness” and promotion of the healthy habits that can support CEOs in their day-to-day functioning, in the face of long work hours and chronic stress.

One of the things that has been missing from executive coaching, however, is adequate attention to psychiatric conditions and mental health. Some executives can benefit from working with a coach who understands how psychiatric conditions might affect their ability to lead their companies. Others may benefit from coaching on the most effective ways to deal with colleagues, employees, or loved ones whose psychiatric conditions may be affecting the health of the CEO and of the company as a whole. These situations are extremely common and at times can rise to crisis levels, threatening business stability and growth.

A growing number of executive coaches come from a background as mental health professionals, such as psychologists and psychiatrists. With dual training and professional experience in mental health and business coaching, they are well positioned to assist CEOs and other business leaders searching for solutions to the problems described above. These coaches are not functioning as mental health clinicians per se in these situations, but they are drawing on clinical experience and understanding of human psychology to coach their executive clients through some of most distressing, tricky problems they’ll ever face.

How does this kind executive coach get the job done? The approach can be conceived as an “ARCH” of support for the CEO. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an arch as “a usually curved part of a structure that is over an opening and that supports a wall or other weight above the opening.” The coaching process I’m describing provides support for the weight of mental illness bearing down on the company structure and the chief executive leading it. It is “curved” in the sense that there is a learning curve for the CEO that involves gaining awareness of mental health conditions, recognizing them in oneself or other, finding appropriate care, and restoring the health of the individual and the business.

In the context of coaching executives dealing with mental health challenges, the ARCH acronym stands for:

A = Awareness
R = Recognition
C = Care
H = Health
In my next blog post, I will discuss in detail the 4-pronged ARCH approach to coaching executives and business leaders confronting psychiatric illness in themselves, their colleagues/employees, and/or their loved ones. Stay tuned….

Call or email Dr. Brendel for a free initial telephone consultation to assess whether his Career Coaching services are a good fit for you. His office telephone number is (617) 932-1548 and email address is david@drdavidbrendel.com.