Most animals can experience stress, whether it’s a wild creature in the forest or a person in an office. But what makes humans unique is that they can ruminate about the stress, adding an additional layer.
Rick White calls that the second level of overwhelm. It happens when you’re compounding stress in a way that’s all in your head, as the saying goes.
“We’re the only creatures on this planet that can have feelings about feelings,” says White, who is a business coach for automotive leaders and president of 180 Biz.
Justin Strickland knows what that’s like. He’s gone through an impressive period of expansion and change at his company, Strickland Brothers 10 Minute Oil Change. And that growth came with growing challenges. Three and a half years ago, the company had seven employees. Today, there are 425 on the corporate side with many more in franchised operations.
Strickland is a proponent of structured processes, and stress management is no different. He recently reflected on how those processes have evolved at each stage of business growth. He started a quick lube brand in his 20s called Tater Bugs, learned a lot, and sold the company. Soon after, he launched Strickland Brothers, first as an independent network and then as a growing franchise brand. Along the way, he worked to put a process behind stress management.
“I think that at some point, it clicked,” Strickland says. “I had not quite a year between Tater Bugs and Strickland Brothers, but I had a lot of time to self-reflect. My reading picked up a lot.”
As the head of the company, his work paid off. Strickland says that he’s passionate about his business, and he’s found a driving force after identifying his “why.”
This month, take a dive into the perils of stress and how operators can identify their levels of anxiety. Plus, get strategies for keeping a level head in this fast-paced industry.
Waltrud Unger is an expert on the intersection of physical and mental health. She’s a health coach for entrepreneurs, and stress management is a common theme.
It’s the go-getter, the driven personalities of entrepreneurs that make them susceptible to added stress. Business leaders are constantly working toward a better operation, tying up loose ends and spending long hours in the shop or office. It can be tough to see when you’re pushed too far.
“There’s this fine line between pushing forward and achieving and then going into over-achieving,” she says.
Reflecting on his stages of business growth, Strickland says that there’s a point early in the startup phase where that driven attitude can turn sour. It’s after the initial excitement has passed, when you’re settling into the normal rhythms of running a quick lube operation. You realize that it’s more than a 9-to-5 job, and then life throws a curveball.
“This is where, from an owner’s standpoint, things aren’t quite panning out like you had in your head,” Strickland says. “Maybe some calculations are wrong. There’s COVID.”
Unger says that this is a point when entrepreneurs might be tempted to push through it—barrel ahead at full speed. The danger is when work takes priority over everything else.
“The other part is chronically putting work first,” Unger says. “And then when you start neglecting yourself and your health. It could be the mental, and after comes the physical neglect.”
Taking opportunities to slow down and realize your stress level is important. White says that he likes to take his own stress temperature each morning. Look in the mirror and think directly about your stress level on a scale from 1 to 10.
That’s a helpful exercise, but the real work begins after that. White says that if a business owner is being honest, their goal isn’t to eliminate stress. It’s to manage it.
“We keep waiting for the perfect time when there’s no noise, no distractions, no pain, no pressure, to get things done,” White says. “And the reality is that this never happens. We’ve got to create a great life among the noise.”
Find Your ‘Why’
For Strickland, that stressful time in business growth where life throws you a curveball is a crucial juncture. He calls it a breakdown or breakthrough point. He learned that it’s important to fall back on what’s important, and to do this, he learned to define those important details.
Those details are his “why.” It is the basis for his business. It’s something that drives you through the tough times into a breakthrough rather than a breakdown. The ‘why’ is also the fundamental piece of leadership. It dictates how you run the business. In terms of stress management, it’s the reason that you push yourself to achieve, and it can be the reason behind taking steps to de-stress.
For Strickland, the ‘why’ needs to be bigger than the business itself, even though it directly influences a business.
“If somebody tells me that they want to get rich quick, get some money, that’s not my cup of tea,” Strickland says. “If there’s something bigger than you that’s going to be very powerful for the phases that you want to go through.”
A breakthrough in those tough times helped Strickland reach that next phase of the business, which is the most rewarding. That’s when operators begin focusing on sustainable growth, being able to manage whatever happens in the meantime.
A big factor in Strickland’s pathway to that point was learning to love a style of servant leadership. That’s where everything intersected. When he put together a strong team and learned to delegate duties, the business was set to grow. It became part of his “why.”
“That’s my ‘why,’” he says. “My ‘why’ are the owners in our system, the investors, the staff in our stores and corporate office, our board of directors.”
Now, when Strickland rises to meet challenges and manage stress in his work, he falls back to reflect on his ‘why.’ It’s the basis for his next step.
White, who works with automotive leaders for a living, knows how process-oriented shop owners can be. So for operators who have identified a high level of stress, he has an action plan to use.
You’ll see the steps listed to the side, but one highlight that might be profound for many operators is step No. 3: Realize what you cannot control. White says that, if you’re being truthful, this list should actually be quite small.
White uses the pandemic as an example. Shop owners couldn’t control the onset of COVID-19 or the resulting closures of other businesses. But you can control your reaction and how you influence your teams. Internally, you can control your attitude and ability to take action.
As a result, White says that shop operators who worked on productive reactions had great business years in 2020 and 2021. Those who simply waited for things to improve didn’t have great years.