To be a happy and effective CFO, take care of yourself!

By Andy Burrows

Probably the most important thing to recognise as you develop in your career (and in your life) is that continued progress takes continued effort.

It’s not one-dimensional, either. Many people think – and I’m applying this to Finance people, but it can equally apply to anyone – that continued development is just a case of learning more stuff. We learn accounting, pass accounting exams, and then we progress in our careers by learning more stuff about accounting. Wrong!

Or, worse, we believe that once we’ve got the qualification then it’s just a case of accumulating years and automatically going on up the ladder. Nope! It doesn’t happen like that!

No, to be “the best version of you” you need to attend to four dimensions. And I’ll come on to those in a minute.

And the other element that is important in personal and career development is intentionality. Making effort, even if balanced in the four dimensions, will get you so far. But without intention – in other words, without knowing what you’re aiming at or what you want to achieve – your progress will be random and patchy.

So, what I’m going to present in this article is hopefully enough of a flavour to get you going, bearing in mind that whole books are written about this one topic!

And talking about books, let me right away mention two. Because if you don’t have time to get any further reading this article, write down these two books, buy them and read them (preferably more than once). If you put what you learn into practice, it will change your life. And I am not exaggerating!

First, Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Second, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s The Power of Full Engagement (the UK title is On Form).

The four dimensions

Both of the two books I’m recommending speak about the makeup of human nature in the same way. We are made up of these four dimensions: spiritual, mental, social/emotional and physical.

The physical side is kind of obvious – exercise, nutrition, (physical) strength, stamina, etc.

The spiritual side is your core, your value-system. It’s the dimension that controls all the others, because it holds your priorities, your desires, your likes and dislikes, your moral compass.

The mental dimension is about clarity, (mental) strength, dealing with stress, and using all of our brain’s capability and not just some of it (e.g. not just being analytical, but showing imagination and intuition).

And the emotional/social side of our nature is about the quality of our relationships, how well we live in our communities as interdependent human beings, and the cultivation of positive rather than negative emotions (e.g. happiness rather than anxiety or anger).

It’s about energy, not time

The quality of the way we live our lives, or the personal effectiveness that I’ve been talking about in the articles in this series, is a function of the amount of energy we have in each of those four dimensions.

We all know this deep down. However good we are at planning our calendars and scheduling our days, if we are tired because we’ve been “out on the razz” the night before (or binge-watching Netflix TV series’), we’ll tune out of the 9am strategy meeting and we’ll be ineffective.

Likewise, if we’re in the middle of a text message battle with our spouse and he/she’s just told you they won’t be there when you get home... just as you’re trying to write an important report... you’ll be too distracted and upset to concentrate.

It doesn’t matter how much time you put into things, or how much time you have available, if you haven’t got the right amount of physical, spiritual, emotional and mental energy, you won’t do the best you can.

What we need are ways of ensuring that each dimension is able to give us the right amount of energy at the right time to make us more effective in every sphere of our lives. Stephen Covey calls this “sharpening the saw”. Jim Loehr calls it “energy management”.

The phrase, “sharpening the saw”, comes from the story that Covey uses to illustrate the importance of taking time for intentional energy management or “self-renewal”.

He pictures a lumberjack trying to cut down a tree with a blunt saw, and it’s taking him all day.

Someone comes along and says, “you’d get that done a lot quicker if you sharpened your saw.”

The lumberjack replies, “I haven’t got time to sharpen the saw! I’ve got to get this tree cut down!”

Absurd, isn’t it, when put like that? But we pretty much all do it every day in different ways to some extent.

So, here, very briefly, are Jim Loehr’s principles for managing energy more effectively:

  1. Draw on all four sources of energy – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual;
  2. We need to intentionally balance energy expenditure with energy renewal;
  3. To build increased capacity in any of the dimensions we must push ourselves intentionally beyond our normal limits;
  4. Positive energy rituals (or habits) help to give us consistent and sustained high performance.

I’ve spoken enough about the first point already. So, here’s the way we should be thinking about the others.

Energy expenditure needs to be balanced with energy renewal

The key insight under this heading comes from using the physical dimension as a guide to the way that energy management works.

What I mean by that is that we know that, in order to have the physical energy to spend on what we want to do, we have to have bodies that have that energy.

And, given that our energy is reduced throughout each day by spending it on what we want to do, we need to renew our energy each day.

Physically, our energy renewal comes from eating right (foods that build energy rather than deplete it), exercising to give us physical strength and stamina, and through recognising a rhythm of work and rest.

The work/rest rhythm, in particular, is an interesting one.

Physically, we can think of it in terms of getting enough sleep each day and balancing working days with holidays and weekends.

But, the same applies in the other dimensions. Just like running for eight hours would leave us physically worn out and probably broken, mentally focusing on the same task for hours makes us mentally exhausted.

We need to take regular mental breaks, which can mean switching off or just switching to a different kind of task.

Socially and emotionally, too, we can spend emotional energy being there for people and getting the best out of people. Perhaps we can renew that energy through spending time away from people, reflecting on how we can better understand people or work for win/win situations.

Spiritually, we renew our energy by regaining our clarity of purpose, through spending time reconnecting with our values, our personal mission, and our deepest reasons for doing things. Daily grind often pushes our values and purpose into our subconscious, and we lose the power of that energy source. So, we need to take time out to bring them back to the forefront of our minds, and to continue to work out their implications in our lives.


We can increase our capacity by deliberately pushing ourselves

Again, this principle comes from observing the way that physical capacity is developed.

When you want to get physically stronger, or fitter, or to get more stamina, you would do training.

Each training session you would do a little more, and then a little more, and build up – the weight you can lift, the efficiency of your heart, the time/distance you can keep going.

The thing is that you don’t build up if you’re not regularly pushing past your existing limits. Bodybuilders build muscle by lifting more than their muscles can cope with. They, believe it or not, cause their muscles to tear slightly. The body then self-heals (during the recovery/renewal phase) and the muscles end up stronger, because the body recognises it needs that new capacity.

Note: that means that good physical training always pushes past a pain barrier. It always hurts. (Remember Adam Sandler in Happy Gilmour, standing in front of the automatic baseball thrower at close range trying to toughen himself up?!)

The same is true in the mental dimension, where we seek to always stretch the limits of what we understand, learn new skills, etc.

And in terms of mental strength, we push ourselves past failures which hurt.

And you could also think about exercising your creative skills, your analytical skills, and so on, by intentionally trying to apply them in new and increasingly complex areas.

You get the picture?

Building rituals and habits will help us continue to improve

And just as muscles lose tone, and the body loses fitness, through lack of physical exercise, unless we’re regularly “sharpening the saw” across all four dimensions we will see our “production capability” steadily reducing instead of growing.

The thing is that maintaining focus on spend/renewal, getting the right exercise, across four dimensions of human nature, is quite complex unless you have a system.

What we need are habits and rituals that mean that we don’t have to overthink (spending mental and spiritual energy) by rethinking every day the way we manage our energy.

There are so many helpful things that can be said about making new rituals for ourselves and changing our habits, but we don’t have space in this article to go deep.

So, what can I helpfully say in the remaining space?

In Stephen Covey’s terms, habit forming is a process of “making and keeping commitments” to ourselves and others. There’s an “upward spiral” of renewal that continually goes through the cycle of “learn – commit – do”.

But let’s be realistic. New Year’s resolutions are effectively new habits that we want to introduce into our lives. Most of them fail to stick. Why?

I wrote an article on my personal blog recently about what I learnt from my quest to regain physical fitness during my recovery from cancer treatment. That has some very relevant observations. But there are two that are worth focusing on here:

First, don’t try to do too much too soon. Start embarrassingly small!

When I started using an exercise bike to get fitter, I did just 10 minutes and just over 2km (virtually) on the first day. I barely broke a sweat any day in the first week or so. But, I was then able to do more each day (which was motivating), and I got used to what the pain barrier felt like. After a couple of weeks, I was into the habit, and only a few weeks later I was doing five times more virtual distance and three times more time.

Don’t be afraid to start small. It’s amazing how quickly small incremental gains mount up into something impressive.

Second, you have to really want the result, and really believe that your new habits will get you that result.

What got me on the exercise bike day after day even when my body complained I was overdoing it?

It was the desperate desire to be able to do the physical things I’ve done in the past – distances I’ve walked without getting tired, weights I’ve been able to lift, etc. And that was coupled with the belief (from experience) that habitually pushing past my limits and then allowing recovery would slowly but surely increase my physical capacity.

Many people give up on new habits and resolutions because they either try to do too much too quickly, or they haven’t given themselves chance to prove their habits work, or they just don’t really want the result enough to justify the inevitable pain barriers.


To conclude, I just want to reemphasise that unless we’re regularly taking time to intentionally work on what Covey calls our “production capability” it will shrink rather than grow.

If we’re not moving forwards, we’ll be moving backwards. Perhaps slowly and imperceptibly. But at some stage, when you find yourself exhausted, or grouchy, depressed or disconnected, you’ll realise that lack of exercise or lack of balance (either spend/renewal balance or balance across the four dimensions) has led you there.

Have a think about which areas of your life are struggling for energy. And think about what habits and rituals you can introduce into your life to keep you in a “virtuous circle”. And don’t be afraid to start small and tentative...

... but do keep going!

Related Posts

This is the last in an eight-part series focusing on “personal effectiveness” as the core of the behavioural skills needed for Finance business partners and CFOs. The previous ones focused on:

Having a can-do attitude

Setting our destination and direction

Choosing the important over the urgent

Relationship building skills

How to listen really well

Having a win/win mindset

Delivering more than the sum of the parts

Free download available

However, rather than clicking on each of the links above, I’ve put all the articles together into a book, which you can download as a 90-page pdf for free just by clicking the link below:...

An introduction to personal effectiveness for CFOs and Finance professionals

(NB: it’s also available to buy on Amazon as a physical book or Kindle version)

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