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Trial by fire?
January 24, 2012 8:38 PM   Subscribe

I panic at work when the stress is on. Can you help me handle the fire more gracefully?

(Anonymous because I don't want work poking around. But I'll be pretty transparent and include as much info as possible due to anonymity.)

I've been a Senior Writer at a large New York ad firm for some number of years. I’ve been pretty successful to this point—am well-liked by my coworkers, clients, and the Brass. My opinion is well-regarded, I feel respected, and I’ve been very good at leading brain storming sessions.

Recently, there have been changes in the Creative Department that are causing pretty much everyone to step up and lead, especially the Seniors on up. The hours have gotten longer, the politics a little more tricky, the work more challenging, and the deadlines tighter.

And it’s great! I feel extra needed and I feel like I’m learning a lot. I’m working directly with the Top Brass Man and he really trusts me. He really just wants it done and done right. I’ve had to cobble together an unofficial team during this transitional phase, and I’ve been doing an ok job shielding them from extra stress and madness.

But I don’t trust myself—because I have the tendency to panic under pressure.

Long about 1 pm, the Account Team from multiple clients/accounts start hounding me for things from my team(s) or from me personally. (What’s adding insult to injury is that they don’t really know what is going on either—the target keeps moving, the client is quick to change their mind but slow to give feedback, etc. Hell, sometimes the entire creative brief changes at the drop of a hat. Suffice to say, we’re all trying to work it out.)

Regardless, from 1 pm to about 5 pm, I’m in a complete panic. I am literally running from Art Director to Art Director, Project Manger to Top Brass Man, and so forth. It’s worse than herding cats, and on top of that I have my own stuff to work on.

Like I said, I like this new role and challenge of stepping up into a slightly larger leadership role. But I don’t feel like I’m leading too well, because I’m spending too much time panicking. Something I love about our Top Brass is that they are so calm under pressure. They’re handling much more than I am, but can switch gears like a machine and handle multiple fires with ease.

Eventually, I want to be the kind of leader that keeps people calm and focused. But I know I need to feel that calm and focus myself before I can instill it in others.

Contributing factors:

* I do have diagnosed ADHD – I am going to speak to my psychiatrist about my medication options. I realize that this could have something to do with it

* I have had panic/anxiety problems in the past, but this feels very different. It’s not the irrational, lump-in-throat type. It’s more like WE ARE IN THE LAST QUARTER OF THE SUPERBOWL OMG NAIL THAT KICK type of anxiety

* I have tried full coffee, only one coffee, no coffee. And now black tea. It really doesn’t quantifiably make a difference in the anxiety level.
*I’ve tried meditation at my desk or in a conference room. I just get interrupted, and I frankly don’t have time at this point

* Going for walks occasionally helps, but I really don’t have time to be away from the office. In addition, I don’t actually clear my head when I’m walking. I only seem to think about each situation even more. Besides, it’s cold out right now

The question:

I really feel like this is something I need to get under control to be an effective, brand new leader. The first step if you will. Can anyone give tips, anecdotes, or anything else that might help?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (5 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
It sounds like regardless of your ADHD/anxiety, your company is undergoing some swift changes. Instead of thinking about it as you're the one that is crumbling amidst a sea of professionals, perhaps it is a sign that things are going to need to change around the office so that you're not spread so thin all of the time.

Too often I think we praise that go-go-go! attitude so many people strive for. At my office, we've had complaints about execs praising long hours and going into incredible length about how the stress is necessary to compete at a high level and get things done. To a degree that's true, but if you have the right people in the right places (as it sounds you do, minus someone to even you out some), it shouldn't have you spinning every day after lunch and manifesting itself into your evenings and weekends.

You sound like an incredibly effective and admirable leader, so much so that even in this moment you are trying to better yourself. Can you talk to someone about how things around the office are affecting your health and the quality of your work?
posted by june made him a gemini at 9:27 PM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Eventually, I want to be the kind of leader that keeps people calm and focused. But I know I need to feel that calm and focus myself before I can instill it in others.

Find it in yourself and people will follow it if they want to. The pressure of "instill[ing] it in others," even if not an immediate priority, adds to the anxiety. Forget about other people.

Except for the Account People. You should figure out some tactics for pushing back against them. If a client is slow a client is slow, tell them to chew pencils until further notice. You could even start keeping record of these turnaround times to keep yourself occupied and to be able to say, "Yeah, every time Joe at WidgetCo gets an email it's 40 new things to do." "You know how ThingCo is, they have to schedule a board meeting to decide on a serial comma."

It doesn't sound like coffee or even ADHD much (save its usual tangling role), just that you have a zillion people pulling you in all directions, a different group for each half of the day. The department(s) are in flux, start showing eye-blinking leadership by scheduling the heck out of these insistent blobs and communicate some understanding and structure. Decide whether morning-to-afternoon is a reasonable turnaround time, or maybe morning meetings are consolidation time: all due dates can be 8am, so if someone needs to stay late to finish something, it's guaranteed (quote-unquote) to be ready by the opening of business the next day. Maybe "Top Brass Man" doesn't really need to be involved so much, stuff like this, all just wild-haired ideas, but it really sounds like you guys need some process, and you're the one asking the question about what to do. So why not be the one to start instituting it? :) It certainly sounds like you have the aptitude for that kind of role and responsibility.
posted by rhizome at 9:51 PM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]



Like I said, I like this new role and challenge of stepping up into a slightly larger leadership role. But I don’t feel like I’m leading too well, because I’m spending too much time panicking. Something I love about our Top Brass is that they are so calm under pressure. They’re handling much more than I am, but can switch gears like a machine and handle multiple fires with ease.


Well, first of all, the Top Brass can be panicking too ( I know my large NYC ad firms and their structural changes). They might just hide/manage it better. You probably do a better job hiding it than you think, if the Senior Leadership has so much faith in you. But I know that sometimes just managing it takes too much time away from actually doing the work, no matter how well you're hiding it.

I have TONS of experience with panic at work, and sometimes I've handled it well and sometimes terribly. For the most part, it really depends on the team I've been working with, and their ability to step up along with me. In team environments, you really need everyone pulling their weight.

I'm a project manager (producer), and I think the PM can be your ally in these situations. Sometimes with creative teams I find I try to help and people get so overwhelmed they just shut down and don't share what's going on, what's going wrong, what's going well, who's giving you what you need, who's not.

Sometimes I'll have no idea that the account team changed direction on them because they didn't tell me. Or some super senior person came and told them to work on a pitch and it took them off task If they had told me, I can run interference for them. I think good project managers should be pretty indifferent to the politics ( which there always are, especially in NYC ad firms my goodness) and just help do whatever it takes to get the project done on time and budget. Even if it means telling senior leadership they can't get their pitch.

However, it's hard to help if you don't know what's going on. Let your boss know, but also the project manager.
posted by sweetkid at 9:56 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't manage a team right now, but I do know about managing expectations, and it seems like you need to push back on the account team a bit.

Perhaps you can them to make sure that what they're asking your team to work on is what the client wants and have them give you written specifications about what the end product should be when they ask you for something. This will actually help them, too - they may realize that want they're asking for is not going to be the best for the client sometimes.

When they ask you to make a big change, respond with estimates and alternatives for them. OK, you want to make a brand new feature Y to replace feature X? That will take two days. Or we can change sections A and B of X in three hours. Which would you like? This helps them realize that things have costs and giving them a choice lets them feel invested. In a sense, this is like saying no to feature Y, but without sounding like you're stonewalling.

Also, this is hard, but try to detach your worth from the work. Think of it like a game that you care about, but a game nonetheless. You want to make as many correct decisions as possible, but sometimes you'll make bad decisions. That's part of the fun of it. If you got everything right all the time, it would cease to feel rewarding. So, the next time you decide incorrectly, laugh at yourself. Maybe not out loud and certainly not around top brass, but definitely say to yourself, "Ha, I fucked up!" It'll be less of a big deal that way, and you'll be able to move forward with less fear.
posted by ignignokt at 10:28 PM on January 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


I have had panic/anxiety problems in the past, but this feels very different. It’s not the irrational, lump-in-throat type. It’s more like WE ARE IN THE LAST QUARTER OF THE SUPERBOWL OMG NAIL THAT KICK type of anxiety.

I'm super super junior in advertising, but this sounds like every day at my last agency and it never struck me as a problem. In fact, I kind of liked the clarity of all these OH SHIT moments. But it is super draining.

It strikes me that the problem here isn't you, it's your working conditions. I got the sense from your question that there are some issues with management in your agency. This really struck me as a problem:

What’s adding insult to injury is that they don’t really know what is going on either—the target keeps moving, the client is quick to change their mind but slow to give feedback, etc.

Working towards a moving target is crazy-making. It's much easier to handle stress when you feel like you're making progress. I struggle with this daily in advertising. Would if help to have some conversations with the ECDs about what's going on? At the very least you could ask them how they manage to keep their cool, but I'd definitely try to slip in that you're finding the current pace unsustainable.
posted by nerdfish at 3:07 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


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