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“Lots of people use movement and exercise to help them relieve stress.” with Josh Rovner

Lots of people use movement and exercise to help them relieve stress. I’ve found walking to be the best form of that for me because it’s easy to do. You don’t need any special equipment, and you don’t generally need to worry about breaking a sweat like you would with other forms of exercise. But […]

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Lots of people use movement and exercise to help them relieve stress. I’ve found walking to be the best form of that for me because it’s easy to do. You don’t need any special equipment, and you don’t generally need to worry about breaking a sweat like you would with other forms of exercise. But walking certainly still counts as exercise.

As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Rovner.

Josh Rovner is the author of the Amazon #1 best-selling business book Unbreak the System: Diagnosing and Curing the Ten Critical Flaws in Your Company. Josh has more than twenty years of experience as a leader and consultant, working with all levels of small to large corporations to grow their revenues and improve their performance. He leads change and transforms businesses by communicating clearly about complex subjects, designing effective processes, and developing and coaching people. Josh received his Bachelor of Science in Communications, summa cum laude, from Boston University, and his Masters of Management in Hospitality from Cornell University. He lives in Dallas, Texas.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Sure! I grew up in Canton, Ohio, which was great. I am lucky to have had a very nice childhood. My father was a doctor. He held many healthcare leadership positions in addition to practicing medicine. My mother was a professional therapist. I am definitely a blend of the two of them!

After high school, I went to Boston University to study communications. I started out as a broadcast journalism major and then switched to public relations. While I was in college, I did an internship in public relations at a luxury hotel, and that’s where I discovered the hospitality industry. I ended up getting a Masters degree in Hospitality Management from Cornell University. It was essentially an MBA but focused on hospitality.

After graduating from Cornell, I wound up in the corporate world. Now, here we are many years later!

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.

I have more than 20 years of experience in the corporate world. Over time, as I saw a variety of companies struggling for a variety of reasons, I began to recognize patterns among the reasons why. Given my communications background, I’ve always loved writing. I began to think that there may be enough material for a book on the topic — especially because I didn’t know of any books that covered the patterns I’d recognized so clearly. So I pursued the idea and wrote the book.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people that have helped me and believed in me along the way. Of course, I wouldn’t be who I am without the support of my family and friends.

But, apart from that, one person that comes to mind right away is Paul Elliott. He is the author of a book called Exemplary Performance: Driving Business Results by Benchmarking Your Star Performers. He and I have worked together several times over the years. He’s been a great mentor to me in the organizational effectiveness space.

When I mentioned my book idea to him, he was extremely enthusiastic about it and strongly encouraged me to pursue it. That was really the spark that drove me to become an author.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I think one of the most interesting mistakes I ever made was when I once suggested a process improvement to a group of executives. I initially focused my presentation exclusively on the logical reasons why the process should be improved and the benefit to the company of fixing it. I figured that’s what they would want to see since they were a logical, highly analytical group.

But the minute I started my presentation about the suggestion, I was immediately met with fierce resistance from everyone in the room. I mean, it was like I walked into a buzzsaw! They were yelling at me and telling me I was crazy. It was all in reasonably good nature, and they still liked me because they had known me for a long time. But they were absolutely not wanting anything to do with my suggestion, and they were very emotional about it — especially for such an analytical group.

At that point, the group leader told me to go back to the drawing board and that I probably needed to move on. I agreed, since obviously I couldn’t disagree.

Afterward, I realized that what I needed to do before anything else was help those executives connect to my suggestion at an emotional level; directly overcome their fears and concerns; and help them realize that what they took as unconditionally true was more nuanced and not as simple as they thought it was.

I had failed originally because I didn’t consider at all the emotions they would feel about my suggestion or what their reactions would be. I had good relationships with all of them and thought that would be enough, but it wasn’t. I learned that no matter what, if you want to influence people and help them change, you need to directly address their emotions before anything else.

Fortunately, I was able to revise my presentation and do it again a few weeks later. For that second time, I intentionally made sure that I only addressed things that spoke to their emotions through relatable, everyday occurrences that were close parallels of the situation I was trying to help them improve.

As soon as I presented my revised material, they instantly connected to what I was getting at, and they were immediately on board. One of them even volunteered to lead the change with me without me even asking for that.

The funny thing is that for the second round of presentation, I didn’t actually change anything about the facts, rationale, or business case behind my suggestion. I merely framed it first in such a way that it connected to their emotions and directly overcame their concerns. But the outcome was completely different (and much better, of course). That goes to show you how powerful emotions are, even in the workplace where people tend to think it’s all business — and even with executives that seem interested only in logic and data-driven decisions.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

The best piece of advice I can give here is one that took me a long time to learn and one that I still have to practice and work on actively.

That is: you are going to make mistakes in your career and life, and you are going to fail sometimes (maybe often) even when you think you’ve done everything right. While it’s great to learn from your mistakes and failures, it’s most important that you don’t dwell on them or second guess yourself because of them. Don’t be afraid of failure.

The old adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is corny, but it’s really true. Failure is not fatal. Whenever you fail, you will grow tremendously.

Growth can sometimes be painful, but you must always remember your strengths and the ways in which you can add value. Whenever you make a mistake or fail, remember to maintain your faith in yourself, and keep moving forward, one day at a time.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I love reading, and I have been influenced by countless books over the years. I mentioned Paul Elliott’s book earlier, but another one that had a big impact on me was Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath. Both Paul’s book and Switch helped me see that organizational problems are much more often a result of the situation than the people involved. That completely revolutionized my approach to helping businesses drive results and overcome challenges.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

I have a lot of life lesson quotes that help me in many situations. The one that comes to mind now is one I learned from a coach after I was upset about something I failed at due to the high amount of pressure I put on myself.

In that moment, my coach told me, “Remember…all emotions are temporary”.

That really resonated and helped me calm down. Once I heard the truth of that quote, I realized that even if something bad happens in a high-stress situation, eventually the negative emotions associated with that will subside, and everything will be ok.

Once I started thinking about that regularly, especially before high-stress situations, I stopped worrying so much. By worrying less, I wound up doing much better when the stakes were high.

And whenever I do fail, which I still certainly do often — just like most people — I know that I don’t need to beat myself up over it because that doesn’t help. Instead, I can acknowledge the emotion and then just let it go and allow it to be temporary. That’s when you’re really able to learn and do better.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

One of the biggest things I’m working on now is promoting my book and working to get it into the hands (or in front of the eyes) of the people who need it the most…top executives and other leaders in companies that are struggling — whether that’s financially and/or related to their people and culture. It’s all connected. The book is something that can really help those leaders turn things around, and I’m excited to help them in their journeys.

Apart from that, I’m actually working on another book that’s about helping business people (especially men) over the age of 40 to get healthy in an easy way. I just mentioned how a company’s financial performance and its people and culture are connected. Well, it’s amazing how much a leader’s personal health is also connected to those same topics, and that audience, my audience — is very underserved in that area. That’s why I’m working on that next book.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As a business leader, you likely often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?

Yes! There are four main strategies I use.

The first is to acknowledge how I feel and say it out loud to myself. By saying it out loud, it takes some of the power of the stress and pressure away. I also use that acknowledgement as a way to remind myself of the value I bring to the specific situation and to the world in general. I remind myself that I got to this high-pressure moment for a reason; that I can handle this, as I’ve handled many other high-pressure situations before; and that I don’t need to worry because this moment does not define who I am, whether it goes well or badly. Those acknowledgements and reminders really help to take the pressure off.

A second strategy I use to relieve stress is walking. Sometimes I tend to get stuck in my head, so walking really helps me to break free from that, think through something more clearly, and talk it out to myself if I need to. It’s amazing how the movement of walking is so helpful, but it definitely works.

Lots of people use movement and exercise to help them relieve stress. I’ve found walking to be the best form of that for me because it’s easy to do. You don’t need any special equipment, and you don’t generally need to worry about breaking a sweat like you would with other forms of exercise. But walking certainly still counts as exercise.

My third stress-relieving strategy is breathing. Again, it’s amazing how well it works, especially when combined with walking. But even if I can’t walk or focus on it for a long time, just taking a few deep breaths through my nose really helps.

Finally, I think the most important strategy I use to cope with stress and pressure is communication. Specifically, I mean talking to my support network of family, friends, and coaches.

For me, there is nothing that helps me more than talking through a stressful situation with someone I’m close to. It allows me to literally talk through my concerns. That really makes things better and often gives me great perspective on the situation that I otherwise wouldn’t have had. Plus, your support network is always great for reminding you of the value you bring.

And if somehow you can’t tap into your support network, you can always write down your feelings. Like talking things out, the act of writing can be very therapeutic.

Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?

It’s all about focusing on your presence. I actually wrote a LinkedIn article on this topic called “The Power of Presence”. There are six dimensions of your presence that you have to focus on before any high-pressure, high-stress situation. I call the six dimensions your “morning alphabet” because they form the acronym “A.M. A.B.C.D.”

The six dimensions of your presence are your:

  1. Attitude
  2. Mindset
  3. Appearance
  4. Behavior
  5. Communications
  6. Demeanor

Note that the first two dimensions — Attitude and Mindset (your “morning”) — are internal to you only. They exist inside your head.

The other four dimensions — Appearance, Behavior, Communications, and Demeanor (your “alphabet”) — are external. They’re how other people will evaluate how strong your presence is.

While other people will only be able to see your alphabet, know that your morning is the real key to your presence. To improve your Appearance, Behavior, Communications, and Demeanor for real, you must have the right Attitude and the right Mindset.

Evolving your Attitude and Mindset is probably the hardest thing to do — especially if you’ve recently had a failure of presence; or if you’ve been told that you “need to work on your presence”. But you can do it with practice.

Same thing with the “alphabet”. It will take some work to get there, but it’s very achievable.

So any time I’m in a stressful situation, I think about my morning alphabet. I make sure my attitude toward others is enthusiastic, supportive, and positive. I remind myself that I have a mindset of self-confidence and growth and that I am agile, tough, strong, and resilient. And I make sure I’m proud of how I look.

Then, in the moment of stress and pressure, I focus only on the moment. I try to make my communications clear, concise, engaging, and inspirational. And I make sure I smile. Because that relaxes me and allows me to be my most authentic self. Plus, smiling when you are under pressure helps you appear poised and confident — even if you’re not in-person and your high-pressure situation is “virtual”.

Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.

I talked about my breathing technique earlier. I tend to combine breathing with walking whenever I can. But sometimes I use a technique called “box breathing”, which is four steps (like the four sides of a box):

  1. Breathing in for a count of four;
  2. Holding your breath for a count of four;
  3. Breathing out for a count of four; and
  4. Holding for a count of four.

When doing box breathing or any other form of breathing, it’s important to focus only on that. So I make sure to count each step in my head. That ensures my mind doesn’t wander as much and keep me stressed.

If I don’t have the ability to spend time with box breathing (which is often the case), I usually just take a few deep breaths. That helps.

As for meditations and visualizations, I don’t do a whole lot of that, although I know that works well for many people. For myself, I found it hard to get out of my head for enough time for those techniques to work. That’s why I try to combine breathing with walking or some other movement.

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

It’s really just about being mentally prepared ahead of time as much as possible and reminding myself that I need to put aside anything else and just focus on the immediate moment — and nothing else.

We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

Absolutely! One of the biggest things that helped me form great habits was embarking on my weight loss journey. As part of that, I began to eat much better. I started walking and breathing regularly, and I got more sleep.

Those things may seem unrelated to dealing with stress and pressure, but they are actually very related. Getting control of your diet, exercising and moving in a way that benefits you, and sleeping enough each night really help you feel so much more in control of yourself, and that helps prevent you from feeling overly stressed and pressured. Before I formed those good habits, I was significantly more stressed, and I was unhealthy.

I built those good habits one day at a time in small steps that added up greatly over time. Certainly, I didn’t feel completely better overnight. And those habits are still areas I have to work on (and always will). But the positive impact of building those habits came much faster than I thought — within a couple of weeks for sure. Even at the very beginning, just knowing I was taking the steps to move forward in the journey of building better habits was a great feeling.

What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?

Like I said just now, the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance is one day at a time. It’s great to have an overall goal that you may be trying to work toward. But you need to start by breaking it down into manageable steps. That’s why it’s important to focus on one day at a time, especially at the beginning of the journey.

For stopping bad habits, you first need to find your own “switch” that flips inside you and gets you to commit to stopping. That can be harder to find since bad habits are things you’ve built over time, and they feel like they are a part of you and your identity. But you can find it if you think about it and look hard enough.

Your “switch” can come from a variety of different places. It could be a book or an article you read; a TV show or movie you watch. It could be a moment or event you experience in life. It could be a conversation with a friend, family member, coach, or colleague. But you need to find it for yourself. Eventually you will.

Once you connect to your switch and flip it, then you will start to move forward. At that point, it’s about building those new habits one day at a time — sometimes even one trick at a time in one particular moment of one day.

As a business leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?

This is a really interesting question. In my experience, the best way to achieve a state of flow is just to start whatever it is you’re planning to do, especially if you’ve already spent time thinking about it. Once you start, then keep going. Don’t think too hard in the moment about what you’re doing. Focus only on doing it, and don’t stop.

I’ve found this works well for my writing process. Any time I need to write something — anything from a simple email, to a team or company communication, to an article — and even to an entire book, I just sit down and start writing. I don’t worry about it at all because I know I can always go back later and change things. At that point, I just want to start getting the ideas out. That kind of stream-of-consciousness action really puts my brain in the best state to achieve flow.

I always try to make sure I have enough time to let the flow happen for a while. That’s another key. If you are under a lot of time pressure, it’s often much harder to achieve flow. Especially if you’re busy, block out a reasonably significant amount of time on your calendar to ensure you can dedicate yourself to whatever you’re doing, without interruption. Ideally, block a time when you are mentally the “freshest” during the day, whenever that is for you.

By this point in my life, I’ve used these techniques enough that I no longer worry about achieving a state of flow because I know how to tap into it for myself. On the chance that it doesn’t work, which still happens sometimes, I know I can just take a break and come back to it later, and everything will still be ok. Sometimes flow comes directly from taking a break. If I’m having trouble, I often take a walk, and that helps — just like it does in a lot of other situations.

A lot of times people get very caught up in their own thoughts and get “analysis paralysis” that prevents them not only from achieving flow but even from starting something in the first place. This happens with my fellow authors a lot.

But here’s the thing…whatever you’re doing, you are either already good at it, or you’re getting better. If you just relax and give yourself permission to start and do it, no matter what the outcome is, that will really help.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The movement I’m trying to inspire is for top executives and business leaders to lead their companies in a way that’s better not just for the bottom line but also for the people in the organization and for humanity as a whole.

The way they can do that is by learning about the critical flaws that exist in their companies and working intentionally to treat and prevent them. That’s what I talk about in my book Unbreak the System: Diagnosing and Curing the Ten Critical Flaws in Your Company.

Treating those ten critical flaws is what will create an amazing company culture with happy, engaged employees. It’s what will drive increased customer satisfaction and loyalty. It’s what will create efficient, effective operations. It’s what will drive extraordinary business results; and it’s what will lead to scalable, sustainable growth.

I would urge all executives to cure the critical flaws in their companies as soon as possible. Whether it’s individually or, hopefully, as part of a new movement, that’s the best way for them to make the world a better place!

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

There are a lot of people I admire and respect in the world, so this is a particularly difficult choice. But there are two people that I really look up to for leading their companies in a great way.

The first is Tim Cook from Apple. Not only has he continued Apple’s tradition of creating great products and grown it into one of most valuable companies in the world (if not the most valuable), but he has done it in such a responsible, caring way. It’s clear that he is not only a great leader but also a great person.

The other person I really admire is Jeff Weiner, the Executive Chairman and former CEO of LinkedIn. It’s amazing how he was able to lead his team to build the LinkedIn platform in such a way that it has filled such an important need in the world. The value that LinkedIn provides for all of its stakeholders is huge and revolutionary, and that’s why it has grown so much and become so much a part of everyone’s professional life. And, once again, as with Tim Cook, it’s clear that Jeff Weiner is a genuinely caring person.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

They can go to my website at www.joshrovner.com and also connect with me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/josh-rovner/

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

Thank you so much! I really enjoyed speaking with you!

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