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Winning at stress

How to build your resilience in preparation for leadership.

Abstract image with a wooden puppet - dotted lines and question marks.
Helena Kim
Dr Helena Kim

Sometimes spurring us on, sometimes overwhelming us, stress is our most faithful companion throughout our careers. So how can we turn it to our advantage? Visiting executive coach Dr Helena Kim has been working with Cambridge MBAs, and here shares her strategies to take the sting out of stress.

What is stress

Stress is our body’s response to what’s going on in our environment. A difficult life event or long-term dealing with a high-pressure career can all cause our bodies to release hormones that stimulate our immune system and prepare us for action. Stress gets a bad rap, but we need it. It’s a part of any aspirational, meaningful and dynamic work that challenges us and makes us grow. It only becomes a problem when we have too much and when we catastrophise it. Stress will not disappear in our lives, so we have to get better at managing it.

What types of stress might an individual or an organisation experience?

In an individual, stress can manifest in anxiety, depression, burn out, social withdrawal, diminished focus, motivation, performance and accountability, apathy, impatience, poor communication, and illnesses. In a corporate setting where stress is endemic it will reveal itself in diminished morale and trust, a drop in productivity, absenteeism, a negative and toxic work environment, and attrition.

What’s at the root of the phenomenon of human stress?

Essentially all stress has at its heart one driver – fear of loss. Loss of status, respect, face, a job, self-respect. It’s a deep, primal fear and it’s mainly created by expectation. Expectations from your company, your role, your family, yourself – these are a big burden to carry.

You mentioned ‘catastrophising’ – what is it and why does it matter?

This goes back to the fear of loss. When we ‘awfulise’ or ‘catastrophise’ we are rushing ahead to anticipate the terrible loss we fear and this does two things – it paralyses us, robbing us of our power to act to prevent that outcome, and it makes us regress to our limiting beliefs. What if I’m really no good? What if I can’t do this?

What can we do to head it off?

You need to call to your aid self-awareness and self-appreciation. Start by acknowledging that this is a stressful situation but that you are catastrophising. Ask, ‘what is the real problem here?’ ‘What am I really afraid of? ‘What do I need to do to bypass that outcome? And most importantly, ‘if what I fear does happen, what can I do to survive?’ Reflect on previous situations like this and how you dealt with them. Take out your CV and look at how far you’ve come. Remind yourself of exactly who you are – someone who has constantly overcome challenges and learned and grown in so many ways. This exercise will put you back in touch with the real you – the one who can cope, the one who always finds a way.

So we have engaged in self-awareness and appreciation. What next?

Next you need the exercise of ‘chunking’ – cutting a challenge down to individual parts. Climbing a mountain is daunting but, if you take it five metres at a time, it is conquerable. So chunk your challenge. What can you do today to move things forward? What can you leave until tomorrow? Who can you bring in to help you? Soon you will start to see the mountain as manageable and you will stop feeling overwhelmed.

What’s the role of resilience?

Resilience is absolutely key. Resilience isn’t about managing stress but having trust in your ‘bounceability’ – regardless of what life throws at you, you trust yourself to bounce back. This ability is the major difference in people who fail or succeed in their goals. So don’t stay down. Once you have taken some time out to lick your wounds, analyse what went wrong and what you can do differently next time, get straight back in the arena. How you react to stress is habit. If you’ve learnt to see it as bigger than you, then you’re entering the battle already defeated. Most things in life are not bigger than you, if you’re resourceful.

How does dealing with stress differ from person to person?

Your coping mechanisms for stress will be strongly linked to your personality type. Extroverts, or external processors – people who tend to think and talk at the same time – will need to talk out their stress with others. For introverts, or internal processors, it is helpful to keep a ‘stress journal’ where they write out their stress. For both types, once the situation is outside their heads either by talking or writing, it becomes manageable. For both, social contact is vital. Reach out to your friends, family, or colleagues whom you trust. Introverts may only need a phone call or a quick coffee with one or two people. Extroverts may need a longer or more regular engagement. This social connection releases oxytocin (the feel-good hormone) which increases your ability to cope.

What can we do to strengthen ourselves physically?

Remember you are an animal – no coping strategy will work if you are not taking care of yourself at the physical level. Learn the power of meditative breathing. We need to breath to live and just a few deep breaths can help us feel more in control and reduce our stress hormone levels. Eat well and exercise regularly. Just going for a walk for around 18 minutes has been shown to shift our mood and change our perspective. This is nothing new – the Latin saying ‘solvitur ambulando’ has been around for centuries and means to solve things by walking around. It’s surprising how a walk can lead to a mental breakthrough, not to mention the health benefits of not sitting for long periods. Historian G M Trevelyan memorably said ‘I have two doctors. My left leg and my right.’

How can I set a good example as a leader?

Leaders need to be visible in leading their organisations to deal with stress. So, join in the workplace yoga class or the running group. I know one leader who does jumping jacks in his office! As a future leader, MBAs need to set the example of how to take time out to care for themselves. Don’t expect your workforce to do it if you don’t. And if your workforce doesn’t do it then expect to have high levels of stress and illness.

As leaders, how do we ensure that dealing effectively with stress is an integral part of business culture?

Ensure your organisation is investing in nurturing its employees. Introduce programmes such as lunchtime jogging clubs, meditation, yoga, flexible work hours, mental health advocacies etc. Successful organisations hire external coaches and counsellors where their employees have a safe place to vent, improve and revitalise.

Any final words of advice?

In any stressful situation, work for the best but prepare for the worst. Strategise around ‘how can I survive?’; ‘how can I learn from this?’. Aim for good-enough and you will find that, as with most over-achievers, your good-enough is others’ perfection. Trust your confidence in your competence – you have made it this far for a reason. Embrace your vulnerability. Accept that you are human and will make mistakes, so make a contract with yourself that you will reflect, learn, forgive yourself and move on stronger.

Above all, don’t allow stress to drive you out of the arena because that’s where all the action and excitement is! Remember that you are almost always bigger than any outcome you fear.


Dr Helena Kim is an executive coach, interpersonal dynamics expert and Cognitive Behavioural specialist. Helena has worked with a wide range of blue-chip clients over her 25 year career and now she particularly enjoys working with STEM organisations and individuals. Through the MindWorks@CJBS programme, Helena helps MBA students with personal development and resilience-building in preparation for leadership.