Nashville Post Magazine Mar 01, 2018

Recharge, prioritize

Nashville execs beat burnout via work-life balance

authors Lena Anthony

When John Mark McDougal accepted the position of shareholder in charge of Brentwood-based LBMC’s audit and advisory practice in 2010, he did so with a stipulation. “I didn’t want to give up my clients and I didn’t want to give up business development, so I chose the route of doing all three,” he says. “It makes for a pretty wide variety. When it’s working, it sure is enjoyable because it’s never boring.”

And when it’s not working? Well, McDougal isn’t ashamed to say he knows a thing or two about that. Over his 22-year career, which also included stints at Arthur Andersen and LifeWay Christian Resources, McDougal has had to make multiple attempts at improving his work-life balance.

Of course, what works for him — like scheduled family time, Predators games and weekends at the lake house — won’t be doable for every busy executive. But McDougal and virtually every other leader who cares about work-life balance know this: Bouts of burnout are inevitable but too much is unsustainable. So, heed this advice — for you, your business and your relationships.

Maximize your productivity

As CEO of Nashville-based XMI, a business process outsource partner for emerging growth businesses, Jim Phillips routinely works with startup leaders on issues related to productivity.

“The very first thing we talk about is how they spend their day,” he says. “The goal is to start figuring out which of those things are helping move them and their business forward. The reality is [that] usually half of it’s not.”

Phillips challenges his clients to focus on their highest and best use of time, and to rely on delegation for completing lesser tasks. “The entrepreneur, then, is focused on things they do well and enjoy doing,” which will have a trickle-down effect on their business, team and personal life, he says.

For McDougal, prioritizing the most effective and productive use of time sometimes means rejecting meetings when objectives are not clear. “My calendar is pretty much fair game to my team, because they want my time and, because I’m the leader, they deserve it. But at the same time, there must be a measure of fairness,” he says. “I’m not willing to walk into a meeting unless I know I have good purpose, I see the right people will be there and there are clear ends and objectives.”

Maximizing productivity for McDougal also means taking fewer morning meetings and getting into the office as early as possible, taking advantage of his most productive time.

Since productive times are different for everyone, identify yours and complete the most difficult, focused tasks during that time, he suggests.

Find the power to unplug

In today’s 24/7 world, it can be tempting to make yourself always available. But McDougal has a theory about that. “People will send you stuff as long as you’re willing to look at it,” he says. “We’ve got a lot more control over our accessibility than we want to admit.”

With rare exception, McDougal doesn’t check email between 8 and 10 p.m. “That’s recharge time, and I’m usually spending it with family, reading or watching TV.”

What you do to recharge matters less than how often you do it.

Kerry Schrader, CEO of Franklin-based Mixtroz, calls her life “cuckoo crazy” right now, as she and her daughter and cofounder, Ashlee Ammons, juggle clients, a rigorous accelerator program in Birmingham and an upcoming appearance on a national investment show. Still, she knows the importance of unplugging, even if she’s only able to do it in small ways.

“It can feel like every minute of every day is taken,” she says. “My non-negotiables are eating lunch and taking a walk every day. It may not sound like much, but it keeps me from feeling overwhelmed.”

Traci Snowden, CEO of Nashville-based startup Apto Global, recharges by playing her keyboard, cooking (she calls chopping vegetables “hugely cathartic”) or hanging out with friends (which she tries to do once a week).

“All of these activities take me out of work mode and put me in human mode,” says the startup founder who routinely works 12-hour days and travels an average of 14 days each month. “I’m also big on mind-body-spirit, and I reserve my mornings for gym time, yoga, coffee, journaling, whatever I need to boot myself up.”

Phillips of XMI dedicates the quiet early morning hours, before his kids wake up, to personal time and contemplation, a practice he has honed at quarterly weekend retreats to the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

“When you are busy and there are a lot of things on your mind, the chatter in your head can get overwhelming and lead to a place where you are indecisive and stuck,” he says. “The monastery clears away all that chatter by giving me a chance to remember what’s most important in life.”

Health matters

Not sleeping, skipping meals, finding an outlet in bad habits — busy leaders make poor health decisions every day that can compound an already stressful job. But staying on top of your health can be as effective at beating burnout as reducing your workload — especially when it comes to sleep.

“Get up early or stay up late, but don’t do both,” Schrader says. “That’s something I learned 15 years ago and I have never let go of it. Even when I’m crazy busy, I always go to bed at a reasonable time.”

Apto’s Snowden says she can tell when she needs to recharge — she simply looks at her team. “I always notice a dip in morale if I’m not modeling a good work-life balance,” she says. “It’s a real struggle, and the team can definitely feel it. That’s why it’s better for me to stay charged.”

Peer mentoring for accountability

McDougal of LBMC admits that for all of his achievements as a leader, he still struggles to prioritize health and wellness.

“That’s still on the list to conquer,” he says.

Rob Ivy, CFO of Franklin-based Lee Co. and McDougal’s peer mentor, meanwhile, struggles with unplugging and spending quality time with his family. Together, they hold each other accountable in these areas through their informal peer mentoring arrangement.

Previous colleagues at Arthur Andersen, Ivy and McDougal meet quarterly to check in with each other on career, relationships, health and spirituality.

Ivy says the meetings are invaluable.

“We are in a similar place in life and face similar struggles,” he says. “I know that he is walking or has walked a mile in my shoes. That gives his advice a lot more credibility.

“Most of the time, we know the practical things we need to do,” he adds. “That’s not the issue. It’s having the conviction and motivation to get it done. That’s what peer mentoring gives me.”