How to Manage a High Performance Career

In diverse industries from banking to entrepreneurship and medicine to engineering, it’s no accident that those who excel share the sports analogy of being, ‘at the top of their game.’   The world is so constantly-on, so global, and so demanding- that those with an eye on the pinnacles of their industry must realise that they’re moving from simply being in senior roles to- rather- being in high-performance careers.

In my own life, I have witnessed the immense toll that the stress, demands, challenges and responsibilities of my job(s) have taken on my own health and well-being, but…. It shouldn’t always be like this!

Shared Challenges at the Top

Daniel Donachie understands, better than most, the challenges of being in this strata of endeavour. Coming from a sporting family, he rose to become the Medical Director at Everton Football Club – and has continued to advise many of the world’s most high-performance athletes and business leaders on being the best they can be.

A high-performance career usually demands your time, energy and focus within the often rigid structure of organisational life….” Says Daniel ,”Your body and brain require sleep, exercise, efficient breathing and a vibrant diet in order to thrive. Everybody knows this and yet it can be extremely challenging to thrive amidst competing commitments, travel demands and expectations of your role.

Shared characteristics also ,inevitably, lead to shared (bad) habits including high-sugar intake, rigid behaviours, and also lack of ‘emotional’ living. As Daniel notes, “Humans often begin habits that become ingrained that are not useful for our health and development. Modern habits of communication place huge demands on leaders. We are expected to be on-line all day and we are continuously bombarded by competing information. It is easy to get into habits of engaging in screens all day.

You are NOT a ‘Superhero’

The awful cult of ‘Alpha’ personalities is ever-pervasive in the business world and as Daniel told me, “We often project our ‘superhero’ aspirations onto our leaders and vulnerability, and other more human traits, are not always encouraged. Organisational leaders often experience loneliness, and the ‘truth’ within their company is often illusive to them because subordinates will often tell them what they want to hear. Combine this with hefty mental demands and the difficulty to access the physical requirements to thrive and there is a very real challenge. A high salary is often considered a pay-off for these mental challenges but it is vital that as leaders we remember our human nature and the requirements to nourish ourselves on all levels.”

First Thing’s First, Stress…

In much the same way that science has shown that Leopard’s can- indeed- change their spots, we can change our attitudes and behaviours too. Front and centre of this is how we perceive stress.

I have learnt that situations in themselves are not inherently stressful,” says Daniel “Our perception of situations is what creates stress for us. Some players thrive in the biggest sporting occasions and others struggle to cope. I will never forget the moment Wayne Rooney burst onto the footballing scene with his wonder strike in one of his first premier league games against Arsenal. I can feel the elation in my body even now, remembering seeing him express his unique talents without a hint of fear. For me, this was a moment of rare beauty.   The greatest performances arise from people who feel inspired. Athletes and leaders alike need to create lives that inspire them. We constantly strive to feel inspired and we feel the need to contribute fully.”

The Bigger Picture

Managing stress- alone, cannot transform our lives; though it’s a massive start. Daniel notes that the need to ‘develop’ and ‘contribute’ are critical to leading a fulfilling life, “Working with athletes and leaders over the years has shown me the essential nature of these needs in maintaining a high performance career. As humans we need to evolve constantly because the behaviours that got us to a certain level won’t suffice to even maintain this level let alone to take us to the next. If this sense of growth and contribution isn’t experienced in our lives, difficulties will arise. Another aspect of the challenge of growth is to slow down and be present to where you actually are now and enjoy the ride.”

He continues, “The physical and mental aspects of our lives are inseparable and taking care of the basic physical requirements is essential. Athletes and leaders rarely experience deep relaxation and this can become transformative in their lives. Ensure that deep relaxation is part of your routine because the benefits are immense.

This may sound at odds with the ‘work hard, play hard’ attitude oft espoused by business-‘gurus’ but- there is a lot of truth in it. I’ve been immensely lucky to travel around the world, and meet many people from science to business who are very much at the top of their careers- and in the overwhelming number of cases, the effort they put into their physical and mental health is often as great, if not greater, than that which they put into their own discipline.

I remember once flying across to California to meet an investor, perhaps one of the most successful people I’ve ever worked with in my life, a genius in fact. His advice to me, “It doesn’t matter how busy I am, I start the day with half an hour of meditation, and finish it with a walk. That’s when I have clarity to make my best decisions..” For whatever reason, perhaps jet-lag, his advice stuck with me – and applying yoga, mindfulness, and health into my routine and protecting it fiercely has not just made me a better businessman, it has also made me a healthier person!

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.