Leaders, Don’t Be the Cheese in the Panini

Try one or more these strategies that will help reduce the pressure and allow you to lead and live at your best.

You can consider this post an update of one I wrote back in the summer of 2009 about how middle managers can feel like the meat in the sandwich. I’ve used that analogy for years with my clients in middle and upper middle management. It really applies to any leader who is not working in the C-suite equivalent of their organization. When you’re the meat in the sandwich, you’re adding a lot of nutritional value while getting squeezed from the pressure of the slices of bread above and below you.

My experience since 2009 suggests the meat in the sandwich dynamic has become more pronounced. Since then, I’ve asked hundreds of audiences of executives to give me a show of hands if they’re in the same job they were in a year ago, but the scope of the job has gotten bigger in the last year. Invariably, including in an audience of around 100 executives in a presentation I gave last week, 80 to 90 percent of the leaders raise their hands.

A couple of weeks ago, in a session of the Next Level Leadership® group coaching program, I was talking with my clients about the meat in the sandwich phenomenon when one of them laughed and said, “Yeah, and the sandwich is a grilled and pressed panini!” We were all laughing about the image when another participant added to the picture by exclaiming, “And we’re not even the meat, we’re the cheese!”

Now that’s an image—the cheese in a panini getting so hot and gooey that it’s dripping out of the sides of the sandwich. Sounds pretty tasty in real life actually, but, metaphorically speaking, you do not want to be the cheese in the panini. So how do you make sure that you’re not? Here are some field-tested ways to make sure you can deliver nutritional value over the long run and not be under so much heat and pressure that you get squeezed out of the sandwich.

Focus on the things that only you can do. When you’re in a designated leadership role, there are certain opportunities that accrue to you because you’re the incumbent in the role. Examples of these things include goal setting, resource allocation, team selection and development, information flows and relational access. Pretty much all of the things that give you leverage in your role are related to leadership activities. Your leverage will rarely if ever come from your subject matter expertise. Focus on the things that only you can do as the designated leader.

Sequence the work. It’s a fact of life that everything can’t be done at once. One of the key things that only you can do as a leader is sequence the work for your team and yourself. Doing that successfully will require that you create enough bandwidth in your calendar to take a deep breath a few times a week and then check that you and your team are still working on the things that matter most and redirect everyone’s time and attention if you’re not.

Communicate the plan. When you sequence the work, you end up with a plan to do the work. When you have the plan, communicate it. Communicate it to your team so they understand what everyone is trying to do, by when and how they all contribute to the plan. Communicate it to your peers so they can coordinate their work with yours and so you can catch any bumps that are going to make things difficult if not addressed. Communicate the plan to your boss so there’s clarity and no ambiguity about what you’re working on and why. Ambiguity creates micromanagement. The more of that you have, the more you’re going to feel like the cheese getting squeezed out of the panini. Reduce ambiguity by communicating and confirming the plan.

Quit thinking so much. If you’re feeling squeezed, quit thinking so much. I don’t mean quit thinking about being squeezed (although that’s probably a good idea), I mean quit thinking constantly about all the things you have to do and problems you have to solve. As I wrote in this article for Fast Company, your best ideas come when you’re not actively thinking about the problem. Your brain needs time to pull the threads of ideas together and that usually doesn’t happen when you’re sitting at your desk working on your computer, in a meeting or on a conference call.

Take frequent breaks. Get up every hour and walk around or stretch for 5 to 10 minutes. You brain and your body both need breaks. When you get away from your desk and move a little every hour, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system. That helps clear away the stress hormones that build up from grinding on a problem. When you do that, you rest your perspective and things that previously felt hard seem a little easier.

Don’t be the cheese in the panini. Try one or more these strategies that will help reduce the pressure and allow you to lead and live at your best.