For women execs, using the right tools to defuse tension is a key to success

As more women are entering the executive scene, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s often a world of stress — and a growing number of women don’t know how not to eliminate it, but to neutralize it.

Some stress is important because it helps the person to reach goals, says Margaret McKenzie, M.D., head, Section of General Obstetrics and Gynecology, Women’s Health Institute at the Cleveland Clinic.


Dr. Margaret McKenzie

“But people have to have tools to defuse it,” she says.

The most frequent complaints doctors see from women executives include reducing stress; having a low sex drive; being overweight; and losing control, McKenzie says.

Echoing her thoughts is Roxanne Sukol, M.D., one of the Clinic’s Executive Health Program physicians, who says she thinks the key is better patterns for eating, activity and rest and relaxation if one is to manage stress.

“It is time to write it in lipstick on the bathroom mirror,” she says. “The way I teach about rest and relaxation is to demonstrate to people that everybody is pressing the gas pedal to the floor all the time.”

Socialization factors

Women usually don’t come into the executive world overprepared, McKenzie says.

“The way that we were socialized as women across all the cultures in the world, we don’t come to the table equipped with all the tools that we need to succeed,” she says.

Traditional roles for women as housewives and mothers have been changing for decades, she says.

“We figure out many things as we go, and we are used to pushing past a lot of barriers and challenges, gritting our teeth and sort of going along for the ride,” she says.

A traditional role for women has been as a caretaker/nurturer. McKenzie uses the analogy of an airline traveler to demonstrate a point that it’s OK to have a focus on one’s self as well as others.

“If you get on an airplane, one of the things they say is if you are sitting with somebody — a child perhaps — you need to make sure that before you put their oxygen mask on, you put yours on. That focuses on the metaphor of self-care. If you want to take care of somebody else, you need to learn to take care of yourself.”

Tools to use

McKenzie says one tool that she found effective with her daughters when they were in high school was a HeartMath heart monitor. Based on the finding that as stress increases so do heart and respiration rates, the monitor uses an earlobe clip or finger clip that sends data to a smartphone or tablet.

The app then offers relaxation tips such as visual imagery to help the user lower pulse and breathing rates.

“The bottom line is that charity begins at home,” McKenzie says. “Start with your young daughters, and let them know that their future might include being a mom, being a wife, being an executive, being a professional. And part of managing that is you need to practice my airline passenger metaphor.”

Sukol also urges a focus first on the self, especially since a person is a role model for others as well.

“Everyone who cares about us or respects us is watching every move we make,” she says. “If we convey a message that taking care of ourselves is among the highest priorities, then they internalize that message and they do it.

“But if we say it, and we don’t really do it, they get that message loud and clear. So at the end of the day, no matter what you say, it is really what you do. And that covers all the aspects of wellness.

“There is tremendous synergy among them,” Sukol says. “If you go for an amazing walk, you sleep better that night. If you get a lousy night’s sleep, you’ll eat stupid things from the vending machine next day. “Everything is connected so you can leverage that synergy to make small improvements and feel like a million dollars.”

Finding success

McKenzie agrees that leaders have to realize they are role models for others in tense situations.

“In the executive world, we have problems being thrown at us all day,” she says. “We can choose how we are going to react to them and then that becomes infectious with your team. You will start seeing people learn to say to themselves, ‘OK. I can calm down. Let’s just go back and get a cup of coffee or tea and sit in the office and talk about it’ — opposed to starting a screaming match.”

But a major obstacle to success in a career or in managing stress is self-judgment — instead of creating your own paradigm, it’s looking outside of yourself for a paradigm, McKenzie says.

“Your paradigm has to align with your values. If you’re living in that space, then you are going to choose the values that align with yours as opposed to values that align with somebody else’s. I have refused some things here at this institution because they did not align with my values.”

Sukol feels being kind to yourself is important, that you don’t get your best mileage with the accelerator pressed down all the way.

“One of my major messages is to teach people and to give them permission to be kinder to themselves. I give them a long list of things that will calm them: meditation, massage, prayer, manicures, pedicures, knitting, fishing, hiking, camping… Your job is to figure out and to try out and see what works for you,” she says.

How to reach: Dr. Margaret McKenzie, (216) 444-6601; Dr. Roxanne Sukol, (216) 444-5707


Dr. McKenzie’s seven key factors for success

  1. Practice reflection often; at least weekly
  2. Practice self-awareness: actively seek feedback and use it to change and grow
  3. Engage in practices for creativity
  4. Focus on solutions, not problems
  5. Be intentional about the relationships you form and nurture them
  6. Strategically choose commitments and avoid overcommitting
  7. Choose courage over fear