Avoiding the ravages of female leader burnout: Three Steps to Giving Yourself What You Need

As women, we were born with a nurturing drive. This means that we have a highly aware external focus. So, when it comes to others in our lives, we’re unwittingly connected to what they may need and ready to make that happen.

This capacity to dedicate ourselves to others is possibly one of the most beautiful qualities of women.

However, (and it’s a mighty big ‘however’) as women, we take that quality wholesale into our career journey, which at worst results in burnout, loss of focus, poor sleep… the list goes on!

So, I’ve written this blog to help you make sure you’re spending time making sure you’re getting what you need; for the benefit of you, and perhaps surprisingly, your business.

Giving Yourself What You Need Isn’t Selfish.

It bears repeating. Giving yourself what you need isn’t selfish.

That natural state of being externally focussed means we frequently prioritise what others need (teams, peers, bosses, boards – you name it) ahead of our own needs.

When it comes to our success journey its a fundamental responsibility is to ensure we get what we need as we need it.

We use words like ‘selfish’ to preface requests from others – or even ourselves. ‘I’m not trying to be selfish but…’ or ‘I didn’t ask for time off to do that mentoring session because it felt selfish’…

This is just one way we fail to prioritise our needs and end up in burnout. But to be clear, it’s for a very positive reason (the nurturing drive). And fortunately, the habit of getting what we need, as we need it, can be learnt and it can become habitual.

It’s Time to Understand Your Power.

Our power is undoubtedly immense. But it’s important to distinguish it from our standard definition of masculine power to know what we are working with.

Understanding and clarifying this is something we are proactively involved in at Co.OfWomen, but we don’t expect to do this work alone.

Every woman has their power, experiences this power, and can help on this journey.

We’re proactively reaching out to women to share their understanding and look forward to the research that’ll also expand our knowledge of this hugely important subject.

My first go at clarifying this myself is summarised in the phrase ‘female power is people power’.  This speaks to the essence of this blog. It’s a powerful motivation to prioritise what we need. So, without further ado, here are three steps to making sure you get what you need.

Step 1: Find Your Why.

The first step in creating a habit is to clarify why we would do this.

This seeks to discover where our genuine, natural motivation regarding the outcome we are going for lies. And to cut to the chase with that, ladies, this is where we can return to that nurturing drive and intentionally harness it for our own good.

A great source of joy as women is in what happens when we connect, share, collaborate and even work. Our brains reward us for helping – it produces a cocktail of brain chemicals that also (as a massive side benefit) produces an optimal brain state. We literally work better when are feeling good, science says so!

There have been many challenging – and utterly gruelling – moments over my leadership journey. But, one of the most powerful motivating sources for me in these times has always been my mission (read: my Why) to ensure women have THE best resources available on their success journey.

So, do some soul searching and find your Why. Remember, your Why is not made to impress anyone. It’s for you. So, I’m challenging you to take the time to really find the root of what drives you.

Step 2: NEVER Let Go of Your Why – or Yourself.

Great. Now you’ve found it – hold on to it, tight!

For me, I love making success less ‘hard’ and more enjoyable for women. Success cannot (and should not) be at the sacrifice of every other part of our precious lives.

My desire to do this good for women is so powerful that I’ve sacrificed greatly to that end – no hesitance ever in doing so. This ‘Why’ is so powerful that if I connect it to any outcome I desire, I will be all in, all day, always.

But it’s also important to remember there’s a limit. Being all in, all day also created the most disconcerting burnout I have ever experienced. I wasn’t giving myself what I need. Failing to do so meant I wasn’t doing the job I was so passionately committed to. I had, by my own hand, limited my capacity to do it effectively.

The path to discovering how to remedy that for me took three years, but every step was worth it. I can now share this and get to partake in the transformation in a multitude of other women’s journeys.

So yes, I found my female power in applying my innate nurturing drive for my own good. I found it in giving myself the same care I had been so dedicated to giving other people. It’s one of the most liberating I’ve learnt to do, if a little uncomfortable at first.

Step 3: Reinforce Your Why. Daily.

The most practical expression of this my daily practice of a closing work-day reflection. It’s a tool we developed over a decade ago called ‘The 4Qs Review’ and it’s indispensable to leaders.

Why the 4Q’s Review is just that good:

  • It makes you focus on what’s been successful in your day & study why
  • It makes you to deal with unresolved issues
  • It draws a finish line across your working day (say hello to the rest of your life!)

The 4Qs Review*

What worked today?

List as many items as you wish, but at least 3 things that really went well about your workday.

Why did that work?

You’re looking to identify the success formulas, traits or qualities that you brought to those positive outcomes. Do the double-duty of having these in your conscious awareness. Have them ready for you to use any and everywhere you would benefit from.

What would I like to do differently/remedy tomorrow?

This question addresses the small number of gnarly or unresolved items that occurred in the day – because of the way the brain works, it will have kept these items (which on most days you’ll find are few) in our conscious minds – all day!

4. What are MY needs (so that I can continue to be optimal)?**

This commands us to note what we need to be utterly optimal – be that sleep, family time, skills, mentoring conversations, tighter focus, or better routine etc. Prioritising ourselves as humans helps us to be better leaders and, of course, wave goodbye to burnout.

I’m happy to confess that for me, I have to really resist the urge to write my natural response to this question which is ‘I’m fine’…

On behalf of us all, don’t settle for “I’m fine.”

The planet needs the immense good we’re committed to achieving. To truly excel on our missions we must prioritise what we need and with that, harness our female power. Bring it on ladies – and let’s be the good we are so determined to see in our world.

tara x

* All Co.OfWomen teams and now many of our member’s teams use this tool to close off their day. My team sends theirs to me and it’s a powerful source of inspiration. It’s a practical way to stay connected to what’s happening in their roles, allowing me to help them and their needs as they need it.

**With Q4, in the early stage of doing this, you may tend to list ‘must do better’ items (aka telling yourself off). Some coaching around the process is often called for to identify what you need to GIVE to yourself – it can be useful to ask ‘if you were answering this for your friend – how would you answer it – what would you know she needed’ – then encourage them to give that to themselves.  

Header image owned by the incredible talent that is @jessicavwalsh on instagram


How to Use Y0ur Time as a Leader – The Leadership Series

One of the major considerations circling around my brain at present is what leadership requires from me. About what it needs from any of us who are dedicated to something bigger than ourselves on our success journey.

It brings to mind a quote from a less than well-known philosopher Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov that succinctly puts one fundamental belief I have about leadership: “It is time you understand that true spirituality means that you yourself become the living expression of the divine teaching you follow.” 

I can still remember the first time this thought occurred to me as I stood in front of my whiteboard, seeking clarity about the future.  As I considered the distance between where I was and that distant shore, it struck me that while I could so clearly envision where I was going, I realised that it was mine to have, if (I truly got that it was a big ‘if’) I was prepared to become the person who could deliver it.

Along my founder journey, I have had many, many moments where I again realised that Co.OfWomen was where it was because of me. For all a founder lacks, what we have in abundance is belief, dedication, and commitment to the cause. Which reminds me of another awesome quote by Friedrich Nietzsche – “He, who has a strong enough ‘why’ can bear almost any how”.

I eventually worked out that in moments of ambiguity, these traits are exactly what I need. Belief in your mission will take you very far indeed – through much pain.

I should add that it took some years to embrace the fullness of my impact completely. Such was my focus on where I was/we were not, that I rarely noticed that where we were was also because of me…

Quite possibly one of the most enlightening clarifications about the female success journey came as we clarified the fact that as women, we are biologically wired to forget ourselves. This innate capacity, however, is designed for the role of mothering, where it can flourish with the most awe-inspiring beauty. What a mother will sustain is far beyond what is called for in almost any other aspect of life.  The problems occur when we take this innate capacity wholesale into our success journey – that doing so becomes a fatal flaw. It is something that every woman will deal with, regardless of whether children have been part of her journey. It is also true that selectively harnessing what is useful from this huge capacity is a powerful propellant for our success. The important thing is that we do the job of selecting what will serve us.

I have been aware of this behaviour for many years, given the work we do at Co.OfWomen, but I continue to be in awe of how readily I will forget myself in favour of others or other things. Allowing myself to lack essential resources consistently is what led me to what I now call my soul burnout experience of a few years back. I call it soul burnout because it wasn’t a physical thing – it was emotional. It was stark in its expression as it was the first time that I could not connect to my vision, that had always called me forward. But it was not sudden in its onset. Thankfully, what got me to the other side of it is my curiosity and also truthfully a bit of desperation. I did what I learned to do when the path is unclear – I started researching and trying things. Repeating that process ultimately led me to clarity. That clarity showed me so clearly in hindsight that the stage we were at as an organisation had shifted, but I had not. Specifically, I realised that the habits that served me previously were no longer doing so. My low focus on myself as a leader, came into light, and that self-negligence was at the heart of the soul burnout.  

A truth I am delighted to have learnt before this happened is that the journey, yours and mine, is perfect.  My soul burnout was not something to regret, but it was the way that I would find my next level. Light and darkness work together. Darkness is not innately bad. Granted, darkness is uncomfortable as we grapple with being outside our comfort zone. This is the stretch zone where we ready ourselves to make our previous best, our new normal. 

So what does it actually mean to have a Leader focus. Firstly, it’s acknowledging that I am responsible to continue to develop myself and to prioritise that – that It’s equally important to spend time with our leader peers who can provide invaluable insight, resources and intelligence. Importantly we need to carve our time up so that we have sufficient time to be reflective, to learn, to do that complex or new work that is our job to do, to envision the next frontier, what it will take to get there and when we may be ready to take that leap… So developing a habit of daily Leader Time is what’s required.

It took me about three months to get my upgraded workday in place, and it’s something that I now continuously make micro-refinements to. 

For my workday to go well, it starts the night before with a good sleep. I cannot recommend highly enough the utterly transformational book ‘Why We Sleep’ by Matthew Walker to explicitly understand this. I rise at four in the morning, meditate and do a yoga sequence for 30 minutes.  In case you’re wondering, I’m not one of those early birds. I promise. But such was my motivation to get myself to my next level as a propellant for Co.OfWomen’s next level that I have come to love my early start. I’m also motivated by knowing that I will have four hours to myself before any team or customers etc. need me. Bliss.

I arrive at the office by five in the morning. First up is planning my day. I now have a relatively detailed Day Plan template that I’ve developed for myself. I honestly find the plan boring to fill in, but I love when I have completed it. It runs my day to ensure I’m optimal and that I have a high-performance day, usually. There are no ‘perfect’ days for any of us, no matter how focused or disciplined. I embrace this fact by storing my day plans in a folder called ‘start again’. 

As well as my business activity for the day ahead, where I start with the question: ‘what’s THE most important things to achieve today?’, my plan also has a place for tactical things including my meetings.

If I’m busy, I may not have time to consult my computer and having everything in one place is super useful. 

My plan has a range of other items that relate to energy management. It ensures that I nourish, hydrate, meditate (yup, directly after lunch – just ten slow breaths in and out through the nose to reset my brain and body chemistry for a fabulous afternoon) and last but not least, move my body regularly. 

By studying the impact of the sedentary nature of most of our modern work time, I stopped doing ‘fitness’ and focused on regular movement. As part of my planning, I set alarms every hour (depending on my commitments) to go up and down the stairs. Taking part in a Spartan race the first year I made this shift was ample evidence that my new regime was working fantastically for me. Ensuring each of these are featured on my plan has been transformational for my energy. They also mean I finish my day with energy left to honour the rest of my life. 

One of the items included in my daily plan is the time of day I will finish work. Eyeballing and recommitting to this each day ensures my commitment to honour my whole life, so I work no more than 12 hours a day and usually 10.  I have come to understand that the oscillation of high intensity and low intensity or work and rest are critical couplets. It’s the considered downtime that gives me the awesomely productive uptime.

Next on my ‘Leader Time’ agenda is Learning. I dedicate between five minutes and one hour to fuel my knowledge and understanding in any area of my choosing. 

Following this, I do a Deep Work block of between 2-3 hours. Check out Cal Newport’s incredible book ‘Deep Work’ about the practice of dedicating your best thinking to your most important work – I love everything Cal has produced.

Those three activities are the core of my Leader time, and there is one activity that I include once each week – Strategic Reflection. This is a constructive time where I consider our overall progress and aim to observe things that can be easily missed in the business of delivery on a day-to-day basis. I do this quietly with some key questions such as:

  • ‘How are we winning and why?’;
  • ‘What am I missing?’;
  • ‘What happened this week that needs more of my attention’;
  • ‘How am I in the way?’;
  • ‘What’s one change we could make that could have a big impact?’.

These questions that evoke non-linear thinking and often reveal what’s there but, in the busyness, was missed.

My thinking on how to improve the quality of my Strategic Reflective time has been recently reinforced by reading the book Lead Yourself First – Inspiring Leadership by Solitude by Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin. The book shares a raft of examples of how people do this, many of which were truly interesting and useful. While getting away may not always be a possibility, I have found that the times when I have done so been truly rewarding in terms what that additional time to reflect delivers back to me by way of insight, clarity and direction.

I do my entire Leader Time slot before I open my emails and my phone—the reason being that these activities rapidly diminish our optimal brain resources. We are reliably informed that the human brain has circa 2.5 optimal hours each day. For the large majority of us, our optimal hours are at the beginning of the day. As Leader Time is dedicated to using our best thinking on our most important work, I don’t tempt myself into micro-activities like the pull of my phone or email. I can guarantee that this practice has never harmed any customer, boss, stakeholder or teammate.

One key thing I check in with myself on is how I am keeping pace as a leader. Doing this means that I continue to refine my Day Plan and how I use my time as things are constantly changing. I now expect that. It’s part of the reason why when the New Zealand government announced  Level 4 lockdown in early 2020, I was genuinely excited, but that is for another blog.

Sending you love as you morph along your Leader journey.