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A CEO opens up about how he deals with anxiety in a high-stress business

What happens when a former investment banker decides to run a start-up?

A CEO opens up about how he deals with anxiety in a high-stress business
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US-born Pat Garrett began his career in investment banking straight out of university. He worked for business leader and former JP Morgan Australia chairman Brian Watson in New York before moving to Australia almost 17 years ago. Together, they founded Six Park in 2014 in an effort to make professional investment management affordable for more Australians. The Melbourne-based company has seven employees, including a yoga instructor, three Iron Man triathletes, an ex-AFL player, a newbie runner and an ex-rugby player.

What have you learnt over the years working with Brian Watson AO?

I've worked with Brian since 1995, and he's been instrumental in teaching me about leadership. 

I had the good fortune to work at JP Morgan for 10 years. I learned that good leadership does not come out of a box or template. It's a combination of things and comes in many forms, but shares some common themes.

Brian is more the introvert –  tough on the exterior, demanding, and he doesn't sugarcoat things much. But the themes that I learned from Brian are that good leaders treat people fairly and with respect, challenge them and push hard for results. They empower staff and compensate them for success, but hold them very accountable for their performance.

They have conviction and confidence, but humility and smarts to realise that no one is perfect. As soon as you think you know everything, you're not much of a leader. I don't think people like working for "know-it-alls". 

I'd also admit that I've had some flat spots in my life, and in typical Brian fashion, he basically said "Get to work dealing with them"; but at the same time showed real empathy.

I think empathy in the work environment is underrated and a vital ingredient for good leadership.

How have you managed anxiety with the pressures of running a start-up?

I've been prone to bouts of anxiety since I was a kid. I still probably worry a lot more than I should about things, which can be a blessing and a curse. I don't consider myself a perfectionist – I don't think you could be a perfectionist and manage a start-up business.

But there is a certain level of stress and anxiety that comes with the role. There are a few ways I deal with that. 

In a personal sense, it's looking after my physical and mental health. For some people that might be yoga, meditation, cooking or travelling. It's a lot of those things for me. I also like surfing and running. It's about having the correct amount of balance in your life, which is not always easy in start-up land. 

How do you manage stress in the workplace?

For me, stress and anxiety come when I feel like I don't have control or clarity, which has happened in the past. Those two words really resonate with me – control and clarity. That doesn't mean perfect clarity and perfect control, but enough of each that you are on your game. Personally, there is a variety of ways I try to manage that. 

A lot of it has to do with the way I interact with my co-workers and my friends. In any business, there are moments of conflict, and conflict can be a source of anxiety. You have different personalities and roles; people in sales, people in IT and people in finance - different people have different roles and agendas. 

I had never managed a team before I started this business, so that put me way out of my comfort zone initially. I was either going to figure out how to deal with it or probably implode. I'm happy to report that I figured out how to deal with it, but I still have my moments, like anyone does. 

One thing that is essential is to have open lines of communication amongst those around you. Another is trying to build a strong sense of respect and letting other people's voices be heard. We're a young business so things can change on a weekly basis, which means we need to embrace change and potential conflict as a healthy process that can lead to a better result, rather than ignoring issues. We try to get everyone in the company to have input into the long-term goals of the business. 

We've tried to create an environment where those things that can create anxiety are actually discussed and managed. 

How do you promote a sense of health and wellbeing within the business?

I'm pretty fortunate in that I have a team that includes an ex-AFL player, a guy who has gone to the Iron Man triathlon world championships, a runner, a yoga instructor, a rugby player, and I myself have done a fair bit of sport in my life. 

I'm fortunate to work with a team in which health, exercise and being active are very important in each of our lives. 

To promote that, I make sure we have a flexible working environment. People can go exercise during the day, go to a yoga class or go for a run. 

Having said that, injury can halt exercise on a dime. You don't want a working culture based solely around exercise. In times past when I've been training for an event and sustained an injury, it can be a real challenge as you're left thinking 'Well, what do I do now?'. You need an element of diversification on the wellness front. It could be taking an hour out of your day to read something non-work related, or use cooking as a form of meditation. 

One of the problems with society today is technology. It's enabled a lot of things, but it's also created plenty of what I call "white noise" - the constant need for connectivity and to look at your phone. I think it can be a bit of a trap, where all of a sudden you can lose sense of yourself. 

We encourage our staff to engage in any activity that keeps them grounded. For me, surfing and cooking are great forms of meditation.