Don’t Pause Life: Leadership Insights from a CEO/Business Owner Retreat

By Melissa Karz
Partner, Next Step Partners

Next Step Partners Don't Pause Life

“What’s been one of your biggest failures?” the facilitator asked during the recent weekend UCLA Anderson CEO/Business Owner Retreat, as we stood in a big circle during a “Speed Connecting” exercise. The facilitator asked questions of us in groups of two, and we switched partners after each prompt.

Paired with a complete stranger, I shared what came to me in the moment: “I wish I had been even more focused on balancing ‘climbing the mountain’ with being truly present for family and friends earlier in life.” I blurted it out; it wasn’t something I had ever articulated before. But sometimes, the truest things emerge from within us when we don’t have time to filter our thoughts, and don’t have the opportunity to erect the walls which would otherwise prevent us from saying them. 

I do believe it: All we truly have is the now. We can’t – we shouldn’t – delay working on the quality of our relationships and connections until we reach the top of the mountain professionally. I thought, “we can’t pause life.”

"Don’t pause life" means that no matter how hyper-focused we are on achieving in our business lives, we must ensure we are putting as much if not more energy into maintaining the quality of our relationships as we do into our companies, no matter where… Click To Tweet

 It’s too easy to get sucked into the urgency trap and the deadlines. We must make sure we have rituals in our lives that bring us back to ourselves and keep us present and grounded in what truly matters most. What are we waiting for? 

Research supports this. An 85-year longitudinal study conducted at Harvard found the number one secret to a long and happy life is having and maintaining positive relationships. It’s less about financial success to the exclusion of other important things in life. It’s really more about making the time for forming and being present for relationships, building meaningful connections, and fostering a sense of belonging. 

So: the retreat. UCLA Anderson School of Management, where I received my MBA, hosts a CEO Forum consisting of a number of local chapters throughout California. Each chapter consists of approximately 12 CEOs or business owners, all of whom are Anderson alumni. We meet monthly, in person, for a half-day moderated discussion on different topics of interest to us. We learn together, share the challenges we are facing in owning our businesses and in our lives, and receive feedback and support from each other. I look forward to and feel energized by those five hours every month.

Members of each chapter were invited to this annual retreat. Four dozen CEOs and business owners from a variety of industries attended. The retreat was a mixture of presenters, panels, group activities, networking and “downtime” giving us a chance to connect—including wine tasting and a cooking challenge.

What was most meaningful about the retreat was connecting with a diverse group of professional peers on a personal level, and going deeper than the standard professional conversations. Though most of the attendees were strangers, we built rapport quickly. I felt psychologically safe to be in vulnerable conversations. When we really open up, that’s when we come alive and when we have the most authentic conversations. It was incredibly energizing and re-charging! By prioritizing this time for myself away from the business, I gained new insights and made connections in a way that I wouldn’t have by only working in the business day-to-day.       

It can be lonely for executives and CEOs. Taking time for the forming and maintenance of relationships has to be treated as an essential; fostering meaningful connections builds resilience in a leader, making one less likely to burn out. It’s just as important as the “actual” work going on in the business. 

Here are a few ways to get started not pausing life:

  • Assess your current relationships in your life: which are the most nourishing? Most energizing? Which ones need more attention? Choose some relationships you would like to build or deepen. 
  • Work “on” the business, instead of only “in” it.  Create opportunities to get out of your normal environment. Whether it’s for a few hours, a day or a weekend, schedule time in a new place, perhaps with a different mix of people. It’s amazing how you can work on the business and yourself more effortlessly by getting some healthy distance from it.       
  •  Look for professional communities and professional networks, as well as conferences or retreats you could participate in.
  • Once you determine where you want to focus, build rituals into your week, month and year both for time for yourself and to connect with others. 

I am proud of my professional accomplishments, and I feel incredibly blessed personally, having built deep and wide relationships with both family and friends. But, life goes by fast and at the end of it, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be thinking “I wished I’d climbed that mountain faster or climbed an even higher one.” Rather, I’m hoping I’ll be celebrating and be celebrated for the mother, wife, daughter, friend, business partner and colleague I’ve been and those deep and meaningful connections I’ve formed. And, for the people, clients, companies and communities I’ve impacted and who have impacted me.



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