21 Jun 2022

The importance of wellbeing for CEOs and managers

By Samantha White

The past couple of years have been challenging for everyone. Many CEOs have been carrying the burden of keeping an organisation going and securing the livelihoods of their staff while adapting to other challenges at home. Leaders can sometimes wear the mantle of operating under increasing pressure as a badge of honour. Geoff Webb was one of them, until a heart attack forced him to prioritise his own health.

Geoff Webb

Geoff is now in his 17th year as CEO of the Grounds Management Association (GMA). With the onset of the pandemic, two thirds of the Association’s business model, including a tradeshow, membership, and education, as well as other face-to-face events, was hit by lockdown and the impact of the restrictions.

“Quite early on, we realised we needed to put a recovery plan in place to protect our employees and our business needs. We went from a record-breaking tradeshow in 2019, to postponement in early 2020, and then it became clear that we were looking at cancellation. We offered refunds to the 400 brands who had signed up as exhibitors, which obviously hit our cash flow, and accounted for a significant amount of our income. It put a lot of pressure on the business.”

Apart from these professional worries, Geoff was also concerned about his father, Warwick, who was seriously ill. Warwick had been diagnosed with lung cancer around 2016, and in late 2020, the family found out he had developed brain cancer.

“In the last weeks of his life, I found myself having to focus on my father’s care, working remotely from his property two-and-a-half hours away from home. I was also helping my family manage the emotional impact that my father’s deterioration had on all of us.

“That is quite a lot of pressure, dealing with personal circumstances on top of the ongoing needs of our recovery as a business. You’re trying to keep your head in the game and make rational decisions, when those decisions could make or break the business.”

“I’m somebody that would definitely take that burden of responsibility very seriously and feel it strongly, because as an individual you want to get it right for everybody that you have invested in. As CEO, you start to believe the decisions you make rest on your shoulders alone, increasing the stress you are under.

“But I carried on, and in November 2020, I went through the cremation of my father, under lockdown. Because of the restrictions, we had to set up video links to the service so friends and extended family could pay their respects.” Afterwards, Geoff had to deal with the administration of his father’s estate.

Relentless focus on business continuity
Geoff did not allow himself any time to reflect or recover. “We had to think about how the GMA could stay relevant during that period, given that membership bodies thrive on events and social interaction.

“Over those 18 months, we managed to move all 13 courses in our education programme online. Before lockdown, everything had been classroom-based. We did some political lobbying on behalf of the sector and got our message across to the media.

“There was no sport being played, so nobody was reporting on it. So we capitalised on the moment to promote the profession of Grounds Management across sport. We got journalists to report on sports turf professionals and the many volunteers instead. It was a golden opportunity to grow understanding of the sector.

“Our social media campaign, called #GroundsWeek, reached something like 58 million people. We also produced a White Paper to highlight a skills gap in the sector, an age profile issue, and a lack of new entrants into the industry.

The first warning sign
However, that relentless activity came at great cost. For Geoff, a tipping point had come in January 2021 on a walk around his village. “There's a busy road that you have to cross as part of that route. And it occurred to me momentarily that, ‘maybe it's easier just to step out [into the traffic] right now.’”

In retrospect, this was the first warning sign that the pressure was taking its toll and Geoff needed help. “It's an interesting thing because I'm actually quite an optimistic person by nature. I’m not somebody who classes myself as needing help or support. And in my professional life, I’ve never needed that. Yet in hindsight, I was clearly at an extremely low ebb.”

Second warning sign
The next indication that something wasn’t right came in November 2021, in the midst of preparations for the Association’s long-awaited return to in-person events. Having done a lot of walking during lockdown, Geoff and his wife could take 10km hikes in their stride. But the weekend before the tradeshow, while out on a walk, Geoff felt like he was having ‘a bit of a panic attack.’ He put it down to the build up to the event and the expectation around it, and carried on walking.

He went to Birmingham to deliver the show and oversee contract negotiations and other last-minute details. “Everybody was happy to be back in the NEC, the interactions were really good, the enthusiasm from exhibitors was absolutely brilliant. We managed to pull off what was, arguably, our most successful trade show in its 75-year history.”

From there, Geoff travelled to Newcastle to celebrate his daughter’s graduation, and drove home to Surrey on the following Tuesday. But by Wednesday morning, Geoff’s health had reached crisis point.

“I woke up about 6:30 am and thought I might have a bug, and then things started to escalate. A first responder arrived and put probes all over me. Then the paramedics arrived and repeated the process.” Even in the ambulance on the way to hospital, Geoff was talking shop with the paramedics, as they had just done a tour of Wembley Stadium and loved the playing surface (maintained by ground staff who are members of the GMA) the previous week.

“I didn’t realise I had had a heart attack at that point. When we got into hospital, one of the tests they ran was for elevated troponin levels. Troponin is a protein that is released into your blood after a heart attack. The normal range is between 0 and 0.04 ng/mL. According to the doctor, mine was off the scale. I didn’t collapse, I didn’t have any pain, there was nothing dramatic in it. I walked into the ambulance and into A&E. So I didn’t really believe I’d had a heart attack until the medics kept insisting that I had.”

Geoff was monitored over the following days in the cardiac unit, and then transferred to another hospital for the first of two stent operations.

Looking back, Geoff thinks that the earlier ‘panic attack’ was actually a tremor, the first stage on the way to the eventual heart attack. “All the pressures over that two-year period had built up to a point where it affected me physically.”

“The moment that will rest with me is seeing the stent operation happening on a big screen in HD – it’s very weird that you are awake for it. You suddenly see life being injected back into your heart. Watching the blood flowing through my veins and arteries was quite a sobering moment. You think, ‘well, you've been given a second chance here, you need to think about how you act and how you live.’”

Geoff returned to work full-time earlier this year, after a six-month recovery process, including a 16-session course of cardiac physiotherapy, as well as additional sessions via Zoom with a psychologist specialising in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for heart patients. The CBT helped shape Geoff’s recovery and helped him to get over the trauma of the heart attack itself. “It was very good because it gave you some maps and tools that gave you alternative ways of thinking and challenged you a bit as well.”

“I would recommend that if anybody's ever in that position, don't be afraid to take that step. It is okay to say ‘I am not okay’ because many men of my age don’t know how to express themselves, don't want to admit defeat, maybe, or experience shame when the pressure gets too much.

Geoff’s advice: Take time out
“It’s really important to say, based on my experience: take time out for yourself! Work out who you are, and what the parameters that you want to live your life by are.”

Admitting there is something wrong and taking steps to deal with it can be tough, but “the benefits of doing so are huge, not just for you, but your family as well, because they see the change.”

Trust your team
Geoff is keen to remind leaders that they can rely on other people while they take that much-needed time out. In his case, the Association’s chair, senior management team, and HR were all incredibly supportive. “I didn't have to worry about the business [during my recovery] because for the first time in my life, I was concentrating on me and nothing else.”

“It’s really hard to delegate a mindset, and that’s where I would urge caution to anybody else. You can get into an ever-decreasing circle where you believe that every decision you make is on you personally, and not on anybody else. And I wouldn't want anybody else in my team to have the pressure that I felt at that point in time.”

Balance ambition and resources
In membership bodies like the GMA, where resources are often limited, the cost of striving for a successful outcome is the impact it has on the individuals who have to deliver it, notes Geoff. “So, in any future work I do, looking at areas like board strategy, I’d always look at available resource in the organisation first, and make sure that resource matches the scale of the ambition.”

Listen to your body
“Many people don't speak out at the right point in their journey to say, ‘Actually, I’m not all right, I need a bit of help, or some time out.’ And that’s when it becomes dangerous.”

“If you have any symptoms in the chest area, don’t be embarrassed about calling the hospital and saying something doesn’t feel quite right. Too many people pass away because they don’t bother to seek advice. They don’t take account of their bodies.”

“I don’t want others to fall into the same trap I did. I’m a lot better off afterwards, even though the consequences were pretty dire. I know how to check for warning signs, and I won’t allow myself to get to the point I was at before. It’s a case of managing your risk factors,” concludes Geoff.

For further information on risk factors for heart disease visit BHF

For further information on CBT and how it may help, visit NHS 

Advice from Samaritans:
If you are experiencing troubling thoughts:
“We know that many people find it hard to speak openly or ask for help when they are struggling but talking can be life-saving – whether it’s with a family member, friend or a helpline like Samaritans. That’s why we are here to listen, day or night. Whatever you are going through, you don’t have to face it alone. Call Samaritans for free on 116 123, email [email protected] or visit www.samaritans.org to find out more.” 

If you are concerned about someone else’s wellbeing:
“It can sometimes feel difficult to start a conversation with someone you are worried about. You may be concerned about saying the wrong thing, or making things worse, but actually, it shows the person you care. Someone who is struggling to cope might feel very alone or that nobody will understand. Giving them the space to talk and share how they feel, often serves as a huge relief and can be the first important step in seeking help.”

Samaritans’ SHUSH listening tips are a great reminder of how to actively listen and give people the space they need to share how they are feeling.