March 16, 2018

Urgent Call for all the CEOs: How to be a Mindful Boss in 5 Easy Steps.

Just over four years ago I left a well-paid CEO position at the Better Cotton Initiative, an organization with a global sustainability mission that I had the privilege to create.

During this time I met and contracted many fabulous people, some who will be friends for life. I learned intensively and grew as a human being in ways I will always be grateful for.

Yet despite this, I was exhausted. I was lost. I felt like I had lost a whole part of who I was in those seven years.

My determination, emotional engagement, and high sense of responsibility meant I had tied my whole self, my whole identity, my whole being, to my work—to being “the cotton lady”—a rare female leader for sustainability in the cotton industry.

And that seemed right. It was important work that deserved all my energy: cotton farmers living in poverty, lakes drying up from irrigation, chemicals poisoning water resources, child labor in the fields, suicides with pesticides…and the list continues.

But after all the good work, I felt bereft.

Now, I believe I was one of the lucky ones. I had regular leadership support and personal development opportunities—with training, coaching, and a variety of kind and good leadership modelers in my board. Even though I paid for the first round of coaching out of my own pocket, at least someone had the wherewithal to suggest I needed someone to talk to!

My experience of working for and with many not-for-profit organizations, which is most of my 20-year career so far, is that people deeply care about their purpose and the mission. It is their source of energy and their life’s work.

People go above and beyond the call of duty, in terms of hours worked, costs eaten by personal funds, and risks taken in global travel. According to the 2017 Charity Pulse survey, only 47 percent of charity people think the workload in their role is reasonable.

Meanwhile very few trained managers are on the payroll. Instead most people are smart, technical experts but they are not trained to or inclined to focus on supporting a team, and this is true all the way to the top. In the same 2017 Charity Pulse survey, results show that only 35 percent think their organization’s process and procedures help them to do their job well.

There are very limited talent or career development pathways in place, if any at all. According to the Charity Pulse report, only 36 percent felt happy with the personal development opportunities they have. In most cases the training and personal development budget, if it was ever there to begin with, is always the first to get cut.

And then we can add to this the high levels of stress professionals in the not-for-profit sector experience that lead to high rates of burnout.

In Australia, a 2014 Third Sector report revealed that the not-for-profit sector has the third highest ratio for stress experience of any career, with 30 percent in the humanitarian and development field reporting post-traumatic stress.

We have enabled of series of bad ingredients for a recipe that’s meant to make the world a better place.

It just doesn’t make any sense!

This is a call, a serious request, to all funders of not-for-profits, to all board members and CEOs of not-for-profits, to all COOs and HR directors in the not-for-profit sector: please put the well-being of your people first.

Your team is the path, the means, the spirit that leads to your mission. Consider each person a brother or sister.

More specifically, if you want some ideas to chew over, try these:

  1. Bring mindfulness practices to the office. Anxiety is one of the biggest inhibitors to effective problem solving. Meditation releases stress in the body, trains our attention, and brings greater clarity to the mind.
  2. Give everyone a six-month sabbatical after five years of service. There is increasing evidence that a “creative disruption” provides enormous benefits to productivity and problem solving in the not-for-profit sector.
  3. Allocate a reasonable training budget ($2,000 perhaps) for each person, every year. Effective leadership is a skill, not a given.
  4. Give people time to volunteer or mentor outside of the office. A 2012 study by Health Psychology claims that altruistic volunteering can lead to improved health and even increased life expectancy. Give everyone an extra day off on their birthday. We cannot afford to compensate for extra hours—so why not?
  5. Organize a collective conversation with funders and senior management about how grants can contribute better to staff care and development. It is in their best interest after all.

After I left my CEO role, I took an eight month break, did yoga, learned to meditate, read the pile of books I never had the eyes to read before I fell asleep, changed my diet, got fit, volunteered, and felt the most alive since I could remember.

Four years on and I have developed better boundaries, resilience, more wisdom, and skillful approaches to leadership, and compassionate coordination with others.

I have learned that the sustainability of our self will lead to the sustainability of everything else. Think of it like the oxygen mask principle: you must put on your own mask before you can effectively help others.

Our ability to face systemic global challenges and work together skillfully to create solutions is only as good as the people who are tasked with leading the charge. Providing a healthy working environment in the not-for-profit sector that puts peoples’ well-being first will be a giant leap in the right direction.


Author: Lise Melvin
Image: @elephantjournal Instagram
Editor: Sara Kärpänen
Copy editor: Catherine Monkman

Bonus: 5 Mindful Things to Do Each Morning.

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Lise Melvin