Personal development might not have been a top priority for many during the pandemic, but Caroline Stockmann, CEO of ACT, explains how stepping away from your day job offers a way to strengthen your ability to cope with stress and enhance your career.
With an accountancy career that has spanned more than 30 years and encompassed roles such as CFO and CIO of Unilever Thailand and CFO of Save the Children International, Caroline Stockmann knows a thing or two about managing workplace pressure.
Currently the Chief Executive of the Association of Corporate Treasurers (ACT), Stockmann is passionate about the value of personal development. A trained coach, she leads workshops covering leadership and cross-cultural development and is speaking about personal development at ICAEW Virtually Live on 15 June.
“When I look back at my career, each role also brought its own pressures, but what really distinguishes those pressures and how I responded to them was my personal development journey,” she says.
Stockmann believes her success at the C-suite level is due to the coaching and development training she has undertaken. “I had done well academically, worked hard and had a natural interest in new things, but if you stay in that situation, you are unlikely to progress as far as you want or are able in your career,” she says. “Whereas once you start on the self-development journey and you have coaches and training, you learn about how you deal with pressure and how you form resilience.”
Simple steps can deliver quick wins
While Stockmann says her self-awareness journey has been a long one, she believes that there are lots of quick wins and wants to share them to help others make those changes. “There are practical, pragmatic things that you can do tomorrow to start to change the way you feel about things and to help you deal with stress,” she says. “While some things might take a few months to practise, if you really get stuck into the ideas, believe in them and act on them, then you can quickly find change in your life for the positive.”
One such step is to have a mantra that you repeat daily. It might sound unlikely, but as Stockmann says: “The mind does what you tell it to do.”
Often it is easy to tell ourselves things that are negative. For example, when you ask people what they remember from a performance review, they will often recall all the negatives but few of the positives.
“The danger is that if we keep telling ourselves that we’re not good enough, that's how we think of ourselves,” explains Stockmann. “Whereas if we give ourselves a pep talk while brushing our teeth every morning, for instance, saying something simple like “I like myself” over and over again, it becomes embedded in our subconscious. If you adopt a mantra for a couple of months you can notice a big change in how you feel and think about things.”
Stockmann highlights the coronavirus pandemic as a good example of the power of taking control of how we think about a situation. “If our reaction was to focus on what we couldn’t do and we kept telling ourselves how awful it was and that we were feeling low, then that's exactly how we were going to feel,” she says. “But if we turned that around and told ourselves, ‘This is challenging, but I can rise to this challenge,’ then we start thinking about the situation differently and that changes how we feel about it.”
Ultimately, while we often cannot control circumstances and events around us, we can control our reaction. “It’s an important learning that it’s something within ourselves that makes us react in a certain way, and to realise it’s not just the situation itself. It might take a bit of work, but we can choose to react differently,” says Stockmann.
Make new connections
With working from home, the norm for many and limits on social interactions imposed over the past year, it has been easy to focus only on our immediate environment and retreat into ourselves.
Stockmann argues that this is an extension of existing work behaviours for some. “You often see people with their heads down at work, they won't do anything that they see as frivolous or extracurricular,” she says. “Going to a conference or an evening function often needs to tick the box ‘this is relevant to my job’.”
“The issue with that approach is that if you don’t expand your thinking you won’t be the leader you want to be,” she says. “And when this is taken further, and we retreat into ourselves, there’s a real danger that we are reducing our own potential.”
Citing Herminia Ibarra, author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, Stockmann argues that external inputs have helped her to realise her career ambitions. “More and more, I take an interest in things that might not be seen as relevant to what I'm doing and I have found it really useful,” she says.
“You open up a whole new world of other people and the way they think. Having those external connections, broadening your horizons and learning things from people doing something quite different from yourself is so valuable.”
In recent weeks, Stockmann has made connections at the association for seafarers and with an ex-Army midwife. “You learn different ways of looking at things and how you may apply them,” she says. “So rather than always thinking out of your own little box, you've got lots of boxes that you're opening and are influencing your thinking.”
One of the positives to come out of the past year, Stockmann argues, is that it has encouraged us to connect to people in new ways. Virtual conferences and meetings mean that we can now meet individuals we might have never met in the physical world, while zoom meetings from our homes can enable us to connect with colleagues about life outside of work.
“It means we’re able to build relationships more than we ever could before because you wouldn't necessarily talk about home life and that starts to build more trust,” she says. “Making these connections opens up new worlds and teaches us a lot.”
Being open to learning from others, making time to build relationships, understanding our reactions and working to consider our mindset, are all steps that can help to build resilience and expand career options even in the most stressful of times.
Stockmann says: “When you are undertaking personal development, you're not just learning about how to be more resilient. You're giving your mind something else to think about rather than normal day-to-day stuff and that's what's building resilience in your brain. So even in the most pressurised environment, taking some time out can actually help.”
Find out more
Caroline Stockmann is speaking on Day 1 of Virtually Live. The session starts at 16:20 and she will be sharing more practical guidance and support on personal development. Find out more.
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