Anxiety Solutions From the C-Suite

Chester: Welcome to the Anxiety at Work podcast. I’m Chester Elton, and this is my co-author and dear friend, Adrian Gostick.

Adrian: We hope that your time with us will remove the stigma of anxiety and mental health in the workplace and in your personal life. And so we invite experts from throughout the world of work and life to give you ideas and, most importantly, the tools to deal with anxiety in your world.

Chester: Today, our guest is an old friend, Kevin Cox. Let me tell you a little bit about Kevin and his remarkable career. Kevin is the chief human resource officer for General Electric. He assumed this role in February of 2019; he’s responsible for leading GE’s global HR organization, including talent management, leadership development, learning, compensation and benefits, employee relations, and security. Kevin has been an HR leader for nearly three decades with a distinct focus on leadership. His areas of expertise include developing top talent, Succession Planning for Critical Roles, helping organizations thrive, and leading large-scale complex change. Before joining GE, Kevin served as the CHRO at American Express for 14 years. And before that, he spent 16 years at PepsiCo Pepsi-Cola and Pepsi Bottling.

We have known Kevin at Pepsi, American Express, and now GE. Kevin, welcome to our humble little podcast. We are delighted to have you here today.

Kevin: Hey Chester. Hey Adrian. A pleasure to be with you today.

I’m looking forward to this, thank you.

Adrian: Well, we’re delighted to have you, Kevin. You know you’ve worked at these large iconic brands for three decades, but you’d have to agree that 2020 was like nothing you’ve experienced in your career. How has this past year affected hundreds of thousands of General Electric team members worldwide? What are you doing to focus on them and their mental health, especially now that many people work remotely?

Kevin: Adrian, I think you’re right about everything you said. Over these 30 years, I’ve seen a lot, as I’m sure you have, and as your audience has—uncertainty for sure. Challenge for sure. And in a pandemic, we’ve seen other kinds of, whether it’s the earlier kinds of concerns about other viruses and whatnot, we’ve seen all that. The 911 crisis came to mind early, and the great financial crisis came to mind early, and even as horrible as both of those events were on their own, I don’t think there’s anything that quite compares to the pandemic that we’re in the midst of right now. The most significant difference is how intimate and personal this pandemic feels to people, teams, family, and friends. Before COVID, people, to the point of your podcast, deal with stress, anxiety, working parents, aging parents, and sandwich generations. COVID, to me, has put all of that under a high-powered microscope. And everybody is looking literally into your home, seeing the stress you are carrying in your everyday life, and seeing an impossible-to-see boundary between what you called your professional life and your personal life. And I think that’s what’s triggering a lot of the stress and anxiety. There’s not a single event here. As horrible as it is, it’s not the loss of a loved one, things that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s this insidious, ongoing, desperate plea people have for when this will be over? And I think that that question, that kind of pregnant question right now, is causing this to be tough for people to deal with and manage.

Chester: That lack of consistency as well, right? In those other pandemics or critical events, there were certain things that you could count on. You could rely on sending your kids to school. Those crises didn’t disrupt family holidays.

How are you coaching team members to handle those, like you say, the personal changes, the lack of consistency, sending kids to school, and being together as a family? So have there been certain things you’ve done that have been helpful to your employees and your teams?

Kevin: Well, we’re all in this together, and I will say this with, hopefully, a huge dose of humility, helpful, I hope. Enough, I’m not sure what is enough right now. But Chester, two things come to mind, two phrases that we’ve been using as touchstones since this began, and I feel like they’re as relevant here in January as last year. The first one is controlling what you can control, and the second one is, getting the job done, and I’m going to unpack both of those if you give me a minute here. Control what you can control. One of the challenging things to deal with in any stressful or anxiety invoking situation is that I feel out of control, something is happening to me, and I can’t do anything about that. I’m not a psychologist, by the way; I’m not a doctor. I’m just a kind of a humble HR guy. But I would say in my personal experiences with this, the lack of control can be pretty disabling, and so to your question at GE, what we’re trying to signal to our colleagues is, control what you can control.

For example, many of us cycle through the holiday season, and you do have some control, or you did have some control about where you spent that time with whom you spent that time. Did you enlarge your bubble, as we call it, or did you not enlarge your bubble?

And you had choices that you made about that, and in my mind, you had control about that, and people made different decisions, and they will continue to make other decisions. Still, there’s an element of control about that in my circumstance. I kept my bubble small, and I felt like that was something I could control. Especially with all the data you’re reading about and hearing about getting worse. I felt more in control of my situation because of my choices, so this control what you can control, whether that’s face protection, physical distancing, hand sanitation, whatever that might be, those are extensions of this root point about control what you can control. The more people feel about that, the less anxious you feel. The less stress you tend to feel, the second one is that it gets the job done.

Chester: These are not normal times. That would be the understatement of this podcast so far, I guess. But there’s just sort of no way everything is as good as it once was, and we can be heroes, leaders, and managers and people. Still, a video conversation is not as good as a three-dimensional in-person conversation. It just isn’t. A team meeting can be effective on any platform right now, and does it get the job done? It absolutely gets the job done. Is it the same? And my main point is, are we holding ourselves to an unfairly high standard right now, which I think also produces anxiety and stress, and what I’m trying to say with this, it gets the job done is be good to yourself, take it easy on yourself. Don’t shoot for an A-plus on every paper because we’re living in a time where that’s just not possible, and I don’t think we ought to have a right to expect that of our team members. I don’t think we had a right to expect that of ourselves, so control what you can control.

Kevin: It makes me feel a little bit better. It gets the job done, is sort of my slang or my mantra for good enough, and good enough to get on to the next challenge and whatnot, don’t beat myself up. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Those are the signals that we’re trying to send here at GE, and I would say it probably is adequate with some benefit. But it’s getting the job done.

Adrian: And I love that, Kevin. Those are good ways to reduce stress and control what you can control. I love that, and it gets the job done. In our new book, Anxiety at Work, we have a chapter focused on perfectionism and how that can be a detriment, as you know. Of course, at GE, there are times when you want your products to be perfect, but holding ourselves perfect on everything is an incredible frustration, and it can ratchet up anxiety when we’re just going about our day-to-day activities.

Kevin: I think you’re absolutely right. We’re all operating with an arm tied behind our back. It’s just not the same, and again, the antidote to this perfectionism is to have some perspective. My main point is to be good to yourself and for those in the audience who are leaders, be good to your team. Take care of your team. They need it, crave it, covet it, and need it now more than ever, so it’s both to yourself and those you’re leading and working with.

Adrian: And that’s terrific to be good to your team members. And one way we’re good to our team members is to communicate. You’ve probably had to amp up the level of communication as you’ve gone through this pandemic, so how exactly have you done it? maybe a clearer picture, not only the pandemic but of civil unrest that’s gone on, riots that have gone on, all the amazing things that have gone on over the last year, how have you and GE responded to this, maybe that we can learn from as leaders ourselves

Kevin: A long time ago, in the first phase of that career that the Chester so generously talked about in the introduction, a couple of guys I worked for taught me some important points, one of them said quite simply, people expect big things from big companies, and that phrase has always stuck with me. And GE is a large company. You have large, diverse company audience members and small company audience members alike. One’s not better than the other; they’re just different. But I would say that right now, and in times of great uncertainty, people look to leadership wherever they can find it. If they feel like their political leaders are not giving them the clarity they’re looking for, they look elsewhere. If they feel like their spiritual leaders aren’t giving it to them, they look elsewhere. If they feel like their business leaders aren’t looking, they look elsewhere, but when you’re confused, when you’re worried, when you’re concerned, when you’re uncertain, you’re looking for some guidance. So we did decide, Adrian, to amp up the communication, and I started to do something last year that I’ve never done in any of those 30 years Chester mentioned.

I started to write an email, or it might look more like a blog these days, to the GE population worldwide, and I originally wrote it weekly. I’ve now settled back to writing it every other week, and I work hard to stay in the middle of the road in terms of opinion. Because there’s plenty of that out there, I try to go hard with science and facts, and I have a tremendous amount of reliability and humanity. I talk about my mother. In this week’s blog, my 87-year-old mother was able to get her first vaccine first of two vaccines on Thursday. I’m delighted for her because I haven’t been able to see her, and I hadn’t felt that I would be seeing her until that happened. She’s 20-something days away from the second shot, which puts me about 30 days away from a trip to visit with her, and I can’t wait for that so that I will tell that story in this week’s blog.

Because I want to make it real, I want it to be relatable. I want to be honest.

It would be best if you got a vaccine. I want to say, for my mom, this is a choice she made that I celebrate. I bet you’ve got family members going through the same kind of thoughts yourself, so one guy told me that people expect big things from big companies, and another person I worked for told me you simply cannot over-communicate. There’s no such thing. It’s an oxymoron that whatever you think you’re saying isn’t enough. And so the repeatability of this and the consistency of this. And I have to tell you, and I get notes back from people I have yet to meet at GE worldwide. And they’re touching. Most of them are thankful and appreciate what I’m trying to do and what I’m trying to share occasionally. They’ll disagree with me on a point that I might make, but I think this connection is what people value right now. It’s the relativity, and [people know] there’s a guy there thinking about this. He’s thinking about me. One person wrote back and said, ” We look forward to your blog, my wife and I get together and talk about it over dinner.

Making me think that there’s probably other stuff his wife ought to be talking about, but I’m flattered that I’m at least in the consideration set. Anyway, Adrian, this constant communication is predictable, repeatable, relatable, and as human as we can make it.

Chester: I love your mantra, they’re predictable, repeatable, and relatable, and you’re right. Sharing those personal stories doesn’t have to be an opinion piece. It can be a personal piece. I love what you said about if people don’t get leadership, they go to find it, and people are hungry to be led. And led by good people is what you’re hoping. It brings me to the whole purpose of this podcast and the community that we’re trying to build. We call it we thrive together. People can get to a place where they can have those conversations and get help. And what we love about our community is that people are so eager to give that advice, so my question for you as we commune the conversation has to do with resilience. You’ve talked about resilience throughout your career. What are some things you’re doing to help people with that resilience piece? How can people increase resilience because they’re getting worn out? When is this going to end? And they were resilient in March, in April, and maybe May, and then after that, it got tougher and tougher and tougher. What are you doing now to bring back resilience? What tips and ideas have you been using with your colleagues at GE?

Kevin: We’ve done a good bit with resilience here. I love that term. I love that word. To me, it’s nowhere near in danger of being overused because I think it’s so critical to what I would call more of a marathon than a sprint. And again, one of the tricky things about this pandemic is that if it was a foot race, you don’t know how to pace yourself because you don’t know when it will be over. That’s exhausting mentally and physically for people, So resilience is an excellent term. And we have tried to do a good bit of it here. Once again, let me disclose that I don’t regard myself as an expert or a psychologist. Still, I’ve gone to school pretty heavily on those who are. The most impressive work, and frankly, the most relevant work I’ve found, comes from the University of Pennsylvania. They’ve done a tremendous amount of this, in particular, to train the US Army to be more resilient. I thought some of the learnings that I picked up there were relevant to thinking about this pandemic.

One of them that I remember is how you frame the subject. Literally, how you frame the subject, you can say I am in a very tough predicament right now, and the chances of me getting out of this predicament are not high. It is tough to pull out of that tailspin if you frame it that way. It will take you to a fairly bad place, an example of reframing the pandemic. I don’t want to sound like Pollyanna about this, but I have spent more time with my adult children because of this pandemic than whatever has been the case. They’re college age, and I will forever be grateful for that time I spent with them when that wouldn’t have been the case otherwise. I don’t wish for the pandemic. I don’t want it to stay around one more second. Still, I think about what are the things I’ve learned about myself and my family and what’s important to me as a result of having to live and lead through this pandemic. That’s an example of reframing, and that’s a way that I think you can build some resilience. Gratitude is getting a lot of ink and air and soundbites these days.

Chester: Who among us has not been guilty of taking a whole lot for granted, like the ability to gather with your friends at a restaurant when that’s all you want to do and hang out, and now you either can’t do that, or you don’t feel safe to do that the same way. Gratitude for what you can do is a vital part of resilience. Experts would back me up on that point, that to start your day thinking about what you are grateful for is a way to frame your day to the positive as opposed to the negative. I believe that helps your immune system fight off the bad stuff, and it helps your attitude. In your mindset, I think it helps us as leaders to be more connected to our people, so reframing and gratitude would be two of several tips and techniques that I have seen have a lot of applicability in the workforce right now.

Adrian: Yeah, we did cover the University of Pennsylvania’s work with the US Army quite a bit in our new book, and you’re right; this idea of reframing is right. It’s not just ignoring the problem, and it’s not just putting on a happy face. It is reframing it so psychologically that we can see the positives. These opportunities come from this, and as you know, we’ve written a lot about gratitude as well. So I love where you’re going here, Kevin. Now, one of the challenges maybe, you know, somebody may be listening to this, I think if they’re a manager listening to this. They don’t buy in, they wouldn’t have gotten this far, but some people say, “I wish my manager got what Kevin’s talking about.” How do I convince my manager to take this seriously? Anxiety is a big issue and cause for concern.

I feel bad for those listeners, and I know they’re out there because this isn’t very easy, and not everybody gets this right, whatever that means. Because, again, I learn every day, I’m grateful to talk to you guys about this and contribute something, but I’ll learn something as a result of the time we’re spending together today, so there’s a lot of learning to do. We know that people are struggling with sleep; among other things, they’re not getting enough of it, and its quality is poor, creating a cascading effect. We know that people feel vulnerable and not comfortable disclosing all that they’re going through to their leaders because they want to appear superhuman. They don’t want to be judged, and they don’t want to be de-selected or not given a pet project, or maybe not even allowed to keep their job. So the conditions exist where this is quite real for people. I worry about everybody. I fear the most about working parents of young children who I think are doing double duty, particularly women who often bear the additional burden, the child-raising burden, sometimes as there the chief educational authority. In their house, if they have to do some in-home school teaching, and they’ve got to manage big jobs as well, and how they do that and how they deal with that, I feel a special bond or a special duty to try to make that a better situation for that population.

Kevin: The best advice, Adrian, I could give is to wade gently in the water. Let’s not give people advice here where they might have their situation be made worse, but to try to connect with their leader on a personal basis, to take a little bit of a risk to say, “Hey, I’d like to talk a little bit about some of the challenges I’m facing. I’d like to tell you what I’m doing, the best I can personally, and I would love any advice or any help you might give me as a leader to do that maybe a little bit better.” Leaders love to give advice, and by asking them for it, you’re not only likely to get some that could be helpful, but in so doing, you’re letting people know, “Hey, I’m struggling a little bit right now. I’m suffering a little bit right now, and while it’s not your fault, I sure could use a hand or a shoulder or some support to help get through this together.” That’s how I’d like to do it. That’s how I think about it, Adrian.

Chester: Yeah, such great advice. Make it personal. Ask for that advice. I love your comment; managers love to give advice, so don’t worry about that. [laughter] They will pop into that. You know, you’ve been great about self-care, I’ve known you for a long time, and you’ve gone through a whole lifetime of figuring out how to stay in shape, how to eat well, how to take care of yourself, and this idea of self-care in dealing with anxiety, we’ve found it to be effective. To your point, are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating well? Are you exercising? Are you keeping a positive mindset and expressing gratitude, as you said so well? Why don’t you tell us a couple of things you’re doing that have helped you stay on track? Because not only are you worried about hundreds of thousands of colleagues, you have to worry about yourself, so I’d love to hear some of your tips if you’d like to share them with us.

Kevin: Chester, you have known me a long time, and I haven’t always lived a healthy life. I’d be the first to admit that. But I’m going to go back to something you asked about earlier, and it all comes back to controlling what I can control. So here are some things that I can do that I believe will be helpful to me in this. And the starting point, believe it or not, is I’ve always prided myself in not needing a great deal of sleep. I like to get up early and get at it, and the result that I might have gotten six hours of sleep would have been pretty typical for me, and perverse-ly, I was proud of that for some reason. Even though that might be all I “need,” I concluded that more sleep and more intentional sleep would help my immune system and help my outlook and attitude, and I might be a more effective leader if I paid more attention to that. So, I would say in a word; I’m more intentional about my sleep. I think a lot about the temperature in the bedroom, I think a lot about the ambient light, and I think a lot about the routine of trying to go to bed pretty close within 20 minutes at the same time every night. I believe that by doing that, I give myself a chance or an edge to be healthier.

That’s one. And it’s in my control. Step two is I am thinking about fuel. What do I put into my body? All these things are connected to me, whether that’s enough water and hydration, not too much caffeine, or a whole lot less alcohol than I would have ever consumed in the past. Alcohol is not going to help me sleep better. It might help me feel better the minute I have that glass of wine. Over the long haul, liquor stores are booming right now; alcohol stores are selling like crazy, and people are worried about putting on the quarantine 15 or whatever.

I’m trying to go hard the other way, not to make a nobility point, but to keep the fuel that’s going into my body of a higher quality to defend what I need to protect and worry about. And then the third one to me is exercising and keeping those appointments, I’m fortunate enough to be able to have a trainer in my life that I feel is accountable to him as I do to myself, and we have a lot of fun. We push each other, and I understand that that’s both physically useful. Still, it is mentally beneficial, too, I need to burn off that bad stuff and stress and anxiety and cortisol, and I need to find the feelings that you get when you push your body in a healthy way to exert itself a little bit. So those are the big three to me, kind of sleep, fuel, and exercise, and I can control all of that. If I’m honest as I try to be with myself, those are choices I can make, and they don’t guarantee anything, but I believe they improve the odds and help me hedge against the negative. So that’s how I go about it.

Adrian: And I love that you’re controlling what you can control, Kevin. This conversation has been great. We have learned so much from you today. If you’re, you know, you’re a GE headquarters when this is all over. You’re riding down the elevator with somebody, you’ve got just a minute, and they’re asking you about this idea of anxiety at work. What are two or three things you would want our listeners to take away from today’s conversation, sort of on that elevator ride? What would they be?

Kevin: I will go back to a comment about the leaders in your audience today. I would say in the elevator, hey leader, you and I probably get an A-plus in productivity management throughout this pandemic. I bet you are getting a lot out of your team and a lot out of your people. And if that’s the measurement, A-plus, well done, mate. But we probably, starting with myself, might get a C-minus in the quality of connection with our people. We can call lots of meetings these days through video technology, but when people need a personal connection most, we as leaders may be guilty of giving it to the least. And so I’d like us to reflect a little bit on that. I disagree with those who say, “Work from home and remote work will be a huge wave shift” I disagree with that. I think the pendulum will move a little, and people will do things they didn’t know possible, but people need humanity. We are social creatures by definition, some more than others. We want to group, be together, work together, and I believe as soon as it feels safe to do so, you’ll see most of that trend continue. But my first point, Adrian, would be to think about the connections with people.

And this is a golden opportunity. People will never forget how leaders led in this horrible, horrible, difficult, challenging time, both ways. And if you are a magical leader, full of humanity and full of grace and compassion, that will be rewarded to you many times over. If you are perceived to think more about the bottom line, the output, and less about the customer, I worry about that. The second thing I would say is goals remain important. Setting goals is essential to resilience, but setting realistic goals may be related to getting the job done, being kind to yourself, and being kind to your team. People do need goals. They need to know what we will accomplish and how we might come through this? But those goals need to feel attainable and realistic. They need to feel fair. And the third and the last thing I would say is, please be mindful of how deeply personal this pandemic is to people, and be careful of projecting how you feel onto someone else. My wife is a huge extrovert, and I have probably concluded that I’m maybe in the middle or closer to an introvert. This pandemic has been much harder on her than it’s been on me. Her energy comes from the energy of others. She feeds on it, and she needs it.

And while it’s been taken away from her, I’m experiencing it a little differently. I may have more time to myself, more time to think, more time to think big thoughts or write big things, living the life an introvert often wants to lead. I’ve got more of that space right now. It would be wrong of me to take how I feel and pour pot over her. And as leaders in companies, I think it’s dangerous to take how you’re feeling about it and expect that that’s how your team thinks about it. It’s a custom one-by-one, one at a time game in this world we call leadership, and it’s a good time to remember that leadership has never been about us. It’s never about the leader, and it’s always about the people we’re privileged enough to lead. The pandemic reminds me of that repeatedly, so if that’s a long elevator ride, I appreciate you bearing with me. Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.

Chester: I love that great leaders are forged in hard times. We remember the leaders that led us through hard times. It’s so interesting as I’m sitting here listening to you talk about you and your wife; it explains the relationship with Adrian that I have. I am an extrovert, and Adrian is living his best self through the pandemic, and I have struggled mightily.

I can’t thank you enough for being on the show. You know, we’ve known you for a long time. We know you’re super busy. I know this conversation is going to help a lot of people. I honestly believe that people who are listening in and some of these tips will help them. I think it’s going to ripple through generations. This pandemic is a time where we’re spending, as you say, more time with our kids and hopefully getting to know our neighbors and helping out and relating to them.

I can’t thank you enough for your time. I’ve known Kevin a long time, and not only professionally. He and his wife do great charitable work, so he’s talking about the good things in the workplace: he does ten times more for charities. Thank you for pulling Adrian and me into some of those charities and some of those good works. You’ve made us better people through your leadership. So thank you so much.

Kevin: Thank you both for having me. As I thought, you’ve made me think, and I’m grateful for that. And if it helped a little bit, it was a pleasure to do it. I wish you both a Happy New Year. Happier, more helpful, and healthy New Year. I’m optimistic, we’re going to get through this, I’m a big believer in science, and we’ve just got a little more choppy water to get through here, and we’re going to get to the other side, and can you imagine how great that other side is going to be. That’s what fuels me. And that day will come, and it won’t come soon enough, but it will come. I can’t wait for that. Thank you for having me both, and I wish you all are happy 2021.

Adrian & Chester Wrap Up

Chester: So Adrian, everything we knew or what happened with Kevin, his experience, his insights is wisdom. What were some of the things you took away? Kevin is the Chief Human Resource Officer, one of the senior officers, and one of the top ten officers of one of the biggest companies in the world. You can see how he got the roles that he’s had at GE and American Express, and Pepsi. He is so incredibly compassionate, understands people, and understands the role of leadership. Still, it’s not just about productivity but compassion and care for the people you are privileged to lead. And I love your line about when people aren’t being led well, they will look for leadership, people crave it, and hopefully, they can find it with you as a leader because you are compassionate and you do listen. I love how he made it personal to Adrian when he said, Look, I’m writing every week, and I’m sure it’s as beneficial to him as it is to the people who read. And he said, My wife and I, we gather around the dinner table and read your blog every week.

Adrian: That’s a personal connection. It’s extraordinary. It really is, and it comes back to what he said about leadership. What he’s getting at is that you have to be strong, but you have to do it with the velvet gloves. You’ve got to be compassionate. I loved a couple of things he said. First off, as a leader, control what you can control, you don’t jump up and down about things you have absolutely no control over in this pandemic, and secondly, I love this. Getting the job done, which comes back to what we wrote about in Anxiety at Work, is that perfectionism has a place if you’re a pilot or a brain surgeon, but 99% of the things we do in this life can be good enough. Especially in the most challenging times. Yeah, good enough can be good enough. The other thing that he talked about that I like was reframing in gratitude, reframing it so that there’s a positive spin; certainly, it’s the worst of times.

Chester: It can be the best at times in other areas of your life. He mentioned spending more time with his adult kids. You and I are both getting to do that. He said gratitude. Our last two books, “Leading with Gratitude” and “Anxiety at Work,” fall right in line. Let’s be grateful for the simple things we took for granted before. And to wrap up my takeaways, I literally got chills at the end. You’re talking about an inspirational leader when he said, won’t it be great when we’re finally through this and we can meet again, hug each other, go to dinner, and travel. That’s a leader. That’s a guy that’s painting the positive future, and literally, I got chills. And I think you’re exactly right; that probably is the best place to wrap up because we’ve seen it in our research over the years, great leaders, they’re not Tony Robbins, high-fiving inspiration. Still, they are inspirational and set a vision for the future. And I loved what he said that people never forget how they are led during the tough times in their careers. I thought How profound that we will never forget how we are led as employees and as team members. So as leaders, are we being the leader that our people need right now? Will we be compassionate? Are we caring? Are we setting realistic goals and realizing that our experience is not what our employees’ experience is? We have to be very compassionate and very understanding.

We want to thank all of you who have listened in today. Share it with family, friends, and others if you like the podcast. We invite you to join us online and on LinkedIn and join our community. If you are suffering anxiety, need a community, and need a safe place to talk about wellness in the workplace and the anxiety you’re going through, please join us. We’re going to have events; we’re going to have guest speakers. We can help, and you can help us. We learn from each other in our community.

Until next week, find some peace and calm in a world that is often a sea of anxiety.

Adrian: Thank you, everybody, for joining in today.