High Performance Under Extreme Pressure

How to simultaneously maintain personal energy and leadership effectiveness

As a CEO, I am often asked two questions:

  • What is the secret to strong performance?
  • How do you maintain strong performance under extreme pressure?

They’re both toughies. As the boss, I sometimes find myself exhausted juggling the responsibilities of a global organization while ensuring that our team also maintains the type of high energy and performance that sparks our next breakthroughs. Most senior leaders will also agree the additional tension of family responsibility, the commitment to influence your employees’ prosperity and the personal need to stay healthy and energetic also exist.

It’s hard enough to outperform your competitive set – yet even harder to do it under extreme pressure. Some will say such strains have intensified in all lines of business. Everyone is challenged to drive performance and achieve anticipated results under great pressure. As a general rule, this is true. Today’s world encompasses instant dissemination of practically any information (true or false), fierce market competition and investors with sky-high expectations for both top- and bottom-line growth.

Let me share several techniques to maintain leadership effectiveness and personal energy that work across many situations – even the most intense turnaround challenges, such as the one we faced at Merisant. When I joined the company, profit had declined 30 percent, balance sheet net debt stood at nearly $600 million (or two times revenue), interest expense exceeded $30 million and our debt instruments were set to expire, triggering an almost certain balance sheet restructure. That’s pressure. Today in fiscal year 2013, we anticipate profit growing 15 percent-plus, debt dropping below $100 million and interest expense at less than $3 million.

While we confront significant competition, we possess an impressive new product pipeline that introduces constant innovation into the marketplace and builds a high-performance environment.

To achieve this, three key critical themes emerge:

One, the constant ability to be stimulated by change. We all know the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. When I contemplate our successful transformation, change always springs to mind as delivering a different path to a better result. Perhaps this reflects my personal belief that constant constructive change shapes a better result. This keeps me enthusiastic and, I believe, the troops motivated. Change impacts an enterprise positively in several ways.

First, change creates a break from the status quo. The very nature of change delivers a platform for a new approach. It stimulates participants to think and act differently, and it furnishes a form of constructive disruption that offers a fresh perspective.

Change also can trigger a crisis that requires the best leaders and teams to rally together to confront new scenarios. While it’s said problems and crises are useful because they provide the opportunity for the best leaders to display their best skills, an external crisis provides an opportunity for internal alignment. Further, change is required to succeed and perform at the highest levels. As organizational guru Peter Drucker advised: “innovate or evaporate.” He meant businesses must change or they will die. Sounds dramatic, but it proves true. If organizations don’t change, adapt, differentiate and excel, their rivals will eat them alive.

Finally, change serves as the catalyst for belief in the future. If we wake up each day doing the same thing, the same way, with the same result, we limit our ability to achieve extraordinary goals. Being stimulated and motivated by change helps me perform under constant pressure.

The second theme: to be motivated by creative expression. One of my greatest business satisfactions is expressing ideas and working where ideation is encouraged. I find the opportunity to be inventive and to add value a constant inspiration in a difficult environment. And others become energized and motivated when offered the opportunity to be creative.

Besides having a positive personal effect, creative expression adds tremendous value to the evolution and differentiation of the enterprise. The best creative process requires a propensity to inquire, discover and work with diverse participants…all leading to a better culture and performing organization. High-performing individuals and teams desire to generate value via personal expression. These extraordinary individuals and teams know that real high performance begins with a successful creative process and ends with unique actions that generate the best results. Many see creativity as a process for artists, advertising agencies or actors. In reality, it serves as the foundation for a disciplined path to strategy, action and results.

Third, the constant demand for clarity is personally motivating and helpful for the entire organization. Most executives believe “what they know” makes them effective. They often wax poetic and pontificate about what they know to those who need to know. They believe their knowledge is critical for effective leadership. I contend this adds little value, stems from personal insecurity, creates ambiguity and contributes to inferior performance. Great performers have great coaches who facilitate clarity and bring focus to their game plan and technique. They don’t fill the conversation with content; rather, they provide context, examples and demonstrations that allow clear strategy and execution.

As a coach and leader, the ability to set context, provide clarity and establish focus brings a great deal of personal satisfaction. It also energizes the organization. Employees can learn from examples and take ownership of their work; that proves powerful. Clarity and focus supersede pressure, deliver superior results, take less effort and achieve high efficiency. It simply feels good to have clarity and direction.

Because clarity endures constant challenge and, once established, even diminishes over time, it is critical to make this a constant objective and a continuous process embedded into the company’s culture. In my opinion, the ability to set context and lead by example to achieve clarity ranks among the greatest assets a leader possesses to build high performance under extreme pressure.

What are your three most critical elements that deliver high performance under extreme pressure?