If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed and worried that you have too much to do at work, it’s time to drop some balls.
Surprise! There’s a success strategy in doing less, without missing out on opportunities, being thought of as lazy, or feeling guilty for not acting like a “team player.” Hard for you to imagine? Then watch this video with Susan Oucharek, a leader at Mondelēz International and a member of one of the leadership groups I coach.
Susan might be a lot like you. Listen in as she talks about the balls she never thought she’d be able to drop at work—and how she’s done it.
P.S. If you’d like subtitles as you watch, hit the CC button after you hit play.
Here’s a transcript of our chat
It’s slightly edited for readability, but since we humans speak differently than we write, I’ll ask you to forgive errors of grammar or repetition.
Hey, everybody, I am here today with a story that I know is going to resonate with so many of you out there. Please meet my friend, Susan Oucharek. Susan is part of a women’s leadership advancement roundtable that I teach for a major global company. And Susan had a story that she shared in one of our groups that resonated so strongly not only with the group but also with a lot of the things that I think many of you are wrestling with. I invited her to join me and I thank her for taking the time to kind of tell us a little bit about some of the things that were happening for her, and how she moved forward into a better place. Susan, welcome to Red Cape Revolution.
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Susan, your story really hit a hot button for me because one of the chapters in my new book is called “Drop Some Balls.” It’s an illustration of something that we can take control of to take back control of our career, and there’s so many things that we’re all doing today yet I hear a lot of times from people, everything’s important, everything’s a priority, I can’t possibly drop some balls. You were in a situation like that, so I wonder if you would tell me a little bit about what was happening for you before you had to make some changes?
Yes, I wish I had read your “Drop Some Balls” before all of this. I think everyone is under a lot of stress, I’m not the only one. But it just seems there’s more and more that is coming at us on a daily basis. I work in IT, I’m an Engagement Lead for the sales organization for North America. So I am involved in day-to-day activities that happen for sales were systems related or any projects that have new solutions that are being implemented. I am part of those, and it’s a big agenda in North America right now. Sales are going through a major transformation. I’ve been involved in almost every aspect of it.
And I’ve been trying to keep up, for months and months, trying to keep up with everything. Plus, I still have the day-to-day to look after. I’m inundated every day with meetings and pings, in teams, and in meetings. It just got to a point I started feeling kind of like I was burning out. Not physically where I felt anything physical that was happening. But mentally, I was feeling burnt out.
And I mentioned it in a focus group within our function that was addressing some engagement survey results that Mondelēz does annually. We had a little focus group with my manager and I happened to blurt out, just out of the blue, I’m burnt out, I said I can’t keep this pace up. I don’t see a light at the end of this tunnel. It just seems to be getting worse and worse.
I have to give my manager credit. I mean, he’s very supportive. Not everybody maybe can say that. But I wasn’t the only one, the other colleagues in the call said the same thing. They were working 14, 15 hour days and they just couldn’t keep it up.
He basically told us, listen, that’s not right, we need to address this now. You guys need to come up with some plan on how to address this. He said I can’t tell you, prescribe for you what you need to do. It’s easier said than done. Right? So after that, we all know we have the support of our manager. But the day-to-day things started up, who even had the time to look at what we can do differently? So we just continued on.
Then one day I had just so happened to have a dentist appointment. That day was horrific, I was running out to my dentist appointment and because I was a new patient, they took my blood pressure. My blood pressure was off the charts.
I thought there was something wrong so they actually put a different blood pressure machine on me. And it was significantly high. I was deeply concerned and they were concerned. When I came home, I have a blood pressure machine because I’ve had elevated blood pressure in the past but never as high as that. I thought it was something wrong with their machine. When I hooked mine up, I was at a dangerous level of hypertension. My husband basically put me in the car and said, I’m taking you to the hospital.
When I got to the hospital, they were concerned that I could have a stroke. That’s how high my blood pressure was. They gave me medications and kept me, trying different things to bring it down and it wasn’t coming down. They weren’t able to bring it down too quickly, because that was too dangerous. So I ended up staying in the hospital for two days for them to bring my blood pressure under control.
And just because you’ve gone to the dentist! You’d gone to the dentist on a busy day and the dentist took your blood pressure, which doesn’t happen with every dentist, and found that happened. Wow!
I thank goodness for that dentist appointment. And I’ve told them at the dentist’s office as well, that they helped me, because if I had let that go…..I wasn’t feeling anything, that was the thing. My doctor asked you had no symptoms? And I said no. And she said, well that’s why they call it the silent killer, especially in women. We don’t know the signs, sometimes there are no signs. So I was lucky I got there when I did, they were able to address it. I’m still working through it. I’m under doctor’s care, but at least I feel like I have a second chance because it could have gone so totally wrong. I’m grateful for that.
It sounds like that was a wake-up call in many ways. You’d had a boss who said, yeah, sure. absolutely, I don’t want anybody to burn out. The ideas were there. I don’t want somebody to get sick. I don’t want somebody to be so stressed. But there were no easy solutions as it seemed. What I hear you saying is that the invitation by your boss to give him other ideas actually seemed like it added another thing on the to-do list and just felt impossible. Is that accurate?
Yes, and after he told me, after he knew I was in the hospital, I was going to come back to work a couple of days later, once I got on my medication. And he’s like, no, you take the week off. And as soon as you come back, we’re having a heart-to-heart and you will put something together. We will work on a plan for you. And he said you know you’re not getting out of it. He tried to make light of it. I was again very lucky how supportive he was.
When I came back to the office, or in our virtual office, we had a one-on-one right away. And he point blank said, I opened the invitation before, but now I am demanding that you have to take the time to do something. He said I will support you. And that’s where one of the things that really resonated with me is, he told me you need to be selfish. This is about you, stop thinking about everyone else! Because as we talked, I said I can’t burden other people, that’s throwing it over the fence to someone and he said STOP! He said, be selfish. He said we’ll address it with other people. He said, but you need to look after yourself right now. And that really resonated again, knowing that I had that support. And he said, Only you can tell me what you think is important work, and what’s not.
And I think I told you in the meeting that we had, at the end of the day, you had to put in perspective our company, we manufacture and sell snacks, cookies, crackers, and chocolate. It’s all supposed to be fun products. Why should we allow that to affect our health? I’ve really tried every day, I tell myself, it’s cookies and crackers, we will make cookies and crackers, we will sell them. What I do is not the end of the world. It’s not life or death. It really puts perspective into things.
Then I read your article about Dropping Some Balls. It really resonated with me because I started looking at my day-to-day calendar, things that maybe I thought were important. I had to again go back to if it’s not helping grow the company, if it’s not helping us manufacture product, if it’s not helping our sales organization to sell the product, then how important is it?
When I mentioned that to my manager, he totally agreed, he thought that was a great perspective, that’s a good way to look at it. That helped me figure out what is truly important. I’m still learning, it’s still a journey, there are times I still get caught up in doing things. I have to stop myself, ask why am I doing this? At least I’m conscious of it now. I am taking a lot of time and effort just to make sure that I’m only doing what I feel is value-added. To be honest, no one’s come back to me yet. But in your chapter that I read, Drop Some Balls, half the time people don’t even notice if you’ve dropped those balls.
This is a fascinating thing. And I would love to get more specific about one of those balls that you dropped. And again, you have the backing of your manager, not everybody does. But still, he couldn’t tell you, he couldn’t give you a prescription and say, Take these things off, right? He still needs you because he trusts you. You’re the expert in your work. And you’re not some junior person who needs everything handed to her like, you’re figuring out your work. So some of this is your own decision. But tell me about something that you thought was very important that later looking through a different lens, you knew you could drop and nobody cared.
We’ve got meetings that happen weekly or bi-weekly. I wasn’t getting a lot of value out of those meetings. So I decided I wasn’t going and many times I’m double or triple booked on my calendar anyway. I just stopped going. It got to the point where I think others started questioning, are these meetings really doing anything for us? They’ve been on our calendar for so long, we show up, there’s no agenda we half the time, we’re just talking about other things, not even the topic at hand. I think others started questioning it. Some of those meetings got taken off of our agenda. That was one thing.
Another area was delegation. I have a direct report. He and I have been very open and honest. We have had this conversation, we actually both work together, looking at our calendars. I helped guide him on, that’s not important, this is the priority, don’t get overwhelmed. I tell him, don’t become me, what happened with me.
Also, I noticed, he’s thriving, the more I’m exposing him to, he is learning so much more. If I’m taking care of it, he never gets that experience. That’s another big eye-opener. The delegation, which I know a lot of people struggle with, but I’ve just seen how he has been blossoming. He is going to do fantastic in his career because he has been exposed to so many things. When I’m not there, he’s able to take over for me. I’m also looking at this as an opportunity for succession planning. We do an injustice to our people, we think we’re helping them. But we’re not we are not allowing them to get that experience so that someday they can be making those decisions and doing those things on our behalf.
I think this is a great counter to the person who you said it’s okay to be a little selfish, that their hackles went up and they said, Oh, I couldn’t possibly be selfish. I’ve been taught all my life, all my career to help others, give give give, to be in support, to be a team player. Yet, not seeing that, when we’re trying to take care of everybody else. We don’t give them the opportunity even to struggle and fail. I’ve been having some conversations with leaders lately around, how do you just let someone struggle and be uncomfortable because that’s the only path to growth? Instead of feeling like I’ve got to have all the ducks in a row and hand it to them. It’s okay for them to go to that meeting, and flail a bit because that’s the only way they’re going to learn what they need to prepare in advance next time until they actually experience it. Does that sound like what you’ve been finding with your direct report?
Yes, definitely. And I mean, as leaders we need to allow them to fail and we need them to know we’re going to support them and have their back no matter what happens. I mentor and coach some other peers within and some junior people within the company. A lot of times they lacked confidence and they will come to me for my advice, asking should I do this? Should I do that? I turn it around and say, well what do you think is the best option? Whatever you think, you’ve got this. I tell them that often to boost their confidence, because if I just made the decision for them, then they will never gain that confidence. There’s an individual I work with that I do this all the time. She constantly asked for my advice on things. and I’d love to give it but I keep telling her, you’ve got this, you don’t need me, you know this area better than I do. I totally support you, I have your back, whatever you decide, I will be behind you 100%. And I think people need to hear that from their leaders.
I think that the mistake, maybe the old assumption people make sometimes is that confidence comes when you truly feel something, but really confidence comes out of action. Taking the action, taking imperfect action, or just moving forward. And even when you don’t get it right the first time, the fact that you could take the action. I do think that so often, especially when we’re feeling overwhelmed. When we’re feeling like we’re burned out that we get into the place where we freeze. We don’t know what to do. Overwhelm is not a matter of really having too much to do. It’s a matter of not making choices. One of the things that I love about the story that you’ve made is you’ve started to make some intentional choices, again, in partnership with your manager and others. But even if that person hadn’t been supported. Making choices about what’s right for you, and what’s the work, where you’re at your best and highest use for the company to make cookies and sell cookies.
I’m curious. For someone out there who’s getting a chance to watch or listen to this, and sees themselves in where you were and says I’m feeling overwhelmed. Even enough to say, maybe I should just quit and move to the mountains and be a hermit. They’re just like people who just want to give up this because they think that there’s no fix to this. Everything’s coming at you. There’s so much going on. Especially your world, I mean, IT, my gosh, how does anybody keep up? Right? What kind of advice would you have for that person who’s in the place where you were a while ago?
Talk to people. I think that’s what it is, don’t feel you’re alone. There are so many people that are in the same situation, especially nowadays, with COVID. Everyone’s feeling it around the globe, not just locally or regionally. Talk to people, find people who can mentor you or that you respect and have high regard for, and just talk it through. I think once you find more and more people are in your situation, you can help each other From this, I think I was telling you, Darcy, that the cohort that we’ve been having, the women that are in this, we’re starting to set up our own sessions as a support network for each other because my story resonated with them as well. Now they want to provide guidance, coaching support for others who might be experiencing this. I would say, talk about it, don’t hold it in, don’t keep it back. If you have a good leader, talk to your leader. You may be surprised how supportive they truly are. I just feel people are afraid to speak up because they think that it will be a mark against them. It’ll show vulnerability. You know what, that doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, you’re either going to end up in the hospital, or show some vulnerability and get some help. That’s the best advice I can give.
I think that that’s so important. That we don’t keep things that are not going right for us in our work as our secret shame. That we’re we think, Oh, I’m smart. I should be able to figure this out. This is probably 99% of people who come to me for private coaching. It took them a while because I’m smart. I should be able to figure this out, but they’re not having a colleague, a coach or a mentor, a good boss, somebody to just be able to walk through it with and to say, here’s all the stuff that’s on my plate. What could shift and move because a lot of times we can’t see the label from inside the jar? Every meeting seems valuable. I don’t want to miss anything. Every opportunity seems like one we have to take, but the truth is that our companies aren’t healthy if we are not sustainable. We’re not healthy if we’re not making work better for us. Susan, I really appreciate you being willing to share your story more publicly. What’s ahead for you? How are you going to keep sustaining this?
Actually, one of the exercises in your book is to sit down, take four minutes and write down and try to prioritize. I want to do that exercise. I’m looking for ways, things that will help me. Like I said, I’m still on the journey. Some days, I still get caught up going back to my old ways, and I have to bring myself back. I’m really consciously making an effort now every day. I made sure first thing in the morning I’m looking at my calendar. Or the day before, planning things out and just making sure that what I’m doing is not only value-added but it’s fulfilling. If you’re doing something that you’re not fulfilled doing and you hate it and I think again, in your chapter you talk about this. Is it even worth doing or find a different way of doing it? I kind of like what some of your words said. If you don’t like doing presentations and decks, why not just record? You could still get the same message. I never thought of that. But that’s an awesome idea. I’m just looking for ways to help me on my journey. That’s what I’m gonna keep doing.
It’s all a journey. We’re all experimenting. We’re all making it up no matter how polished or how professional a person is, we’re all making it up. I’m so glad that life intervene, that the dentist took your blood pressure that you are able to share your story with us and kind of throw another rock in the ripples, where somebody out there who needs you and needs to hear that story is going to take a step today and say, You know what, I don’t need to be overwhelmed. I have choices. I can take control. I can drop some balls. Susan, I really appreciate you being here today with me on the Red Cape Revolution blog.
Thank you, Darcy.
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