Arianna Huffington on how sleep can awaken opportunity

Interview May 2014 Cover Arianna Huffington Huffington Post

Arianna Huffington grew The Huffington Post into a $300m media giant. But the news website’s early years of expansion came at a high cost to her health. Now she’s urging leaders to set new rules of success, promising that more sleep can awaken opportunity

Cast an eye down the Forbes list of The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women and you’ll find Arianna Huffington at 56 – rubbing shoulders with the likes of ex-Burberry boss Angela Ahrendts and Oscars host Ellen DeGeneres, and not too far behind the Queen, Oprah Winfrey and Angela Merkel. The founder of The Huffington Post – still editor-in-chief of the news and blogging website she launched in 2005 and sold to AOL for $315m (£188m) in 2011 – has been awarded her place based on her mighty media influence and wealth.

But Huffington doesn’t agree with the ranking. In fact, she now fundamentally disagrees with society’s emphasis on money and power when measuring success: “I would love to see a list that includes not just those first two metrics,” she told Director. “But that also includes the metric of ‘how fulfilling is this life?'” And it is this ‘third metric’, as Huffington terms it, that she outlines in her new book, Thrive, which argues that factors including wellbeing, intuition and empathy should rank as highly as bank balance and impact when defining high-achievers in society, and particularly in business.

Huffington knows a thing or two about conventionally defined high-achieving. The Athens-born 63-year-old (she still has her Greek accent) was the first foreign president of the Cambridge Union and dated prominent British journalist Bernard Levin before moving to New York in 1980 and becoming a US citizen. She was married to congressman Michael Huffington until 1997 and ran for governor of California, losing out to Arnold Schwarzenegger, in 2003.

When she set out to launch The Huffington Post, equipped with 30 years’ experience as a writer and political commentator, some scoffed she would never gain a foothold in an industry already dominated by media mega corporations. Today The Huffington Post has offices in 11 countries, employs 850 people and is in the top 100 most popular websites in the world. Suffice to say, no one is laughing now. But Huffington is the first to admit that, until 2007, this ‘success’ was coming at too high a personal cost.

No recent article about her is complete without the wince-inducing tale of the moment that changed her world-view, so here it comes again… In April 2007, nearly two years into The Huffington Post’s remarkable growth story, Huffington awoke on the floor of her home office in a pool of blood. Collapsing from exhaustion and lack of sleep, the mother of two hit her head on the corner of her desk, breaking her cheekbone in the process.

“I was working 18 hours a day, seven days a week, trying to build a business, expand our coverage, and bring in investors. But my life, I realised, was out of control…” she writes in the book’s introduction.

“My wake-up call taught me that a sane definition of achievement and success has to go beyond how much power we amass, how much money we can make, or how high we can climb up the career ladder,” she tells Director. “Jobs and financial security will always be important, but when we fall into the trap of chasing only the successes built on money, fame and power, we miss out on the happiness, purpose and meaning that come from reaching out to others, pausing to wonder, and connecting to that place from which everything is possible. Focusing on that is my target right now.”

A third revolution

Huffington’s newly realigned priorities mean she now insists on sleeping more (“sleep your way to the top,” she quips in the book), shutting off her work email and devices outside conventional working hours and regularly taking time out of her day to meditate. A reason, perhaps, that Director’s scheduled phone interview with her is put back at short notice on two occasions. But, when she finally does call, she is hugely apologetic and every bit as genuinely friendly and accommodating as those who’ve met her before promised we would find her.

It’s a warmth that persists even in the face of more challenging questions about her new leadership philosophy. Like: is this work-life balance approach realistically within the reach of start-up entrepreneurs who don’t have the money and support that you have? “Absolutely it is – just as much,” she says.

“Three out of four [VC-funded] start-ups [in the US] fail. And the delusion is that you need to burn out and work around the clock to make a start-up work… Maybe it’s one of the reasons they do fail; burn-out is not conducive to being creative and making the sharpest, clearest decisions. I think if start-up entrepreneurs allowed more time in their days and at night to unplug and recharge, they could be more effective.”

And it is this point – that directors who focus on wellbeing will see tangible results in the bottom line and growth of their business – that Huffington is eager to stress as we talk. “I feel that, because I’m more recharged and less burnt out, I’m much better at what I think are the two main aspects of leadership – one is seeing the icebergs before they hit the Titanic, and the other is seeing opportunities which may not be obvious,” she says. “We had no presence outside the US two-and-a-half years ago, we’re now in 11 countries and 44 per cent of our traffic comes from outside the US. Just one example of business growth which I think is partly the result of me being much clearer where the opportunities for us are.”

It’s a sharpness that she also believes has permeated her ability to recruit the best talent: “I see the red flags and don’t hire the wrong people,” she says. “I’m definitely now looking for people who themselves are aware of the importance of recharging and renewing themselves, and who are truly team players… both my own leadership style, and that of the other leaders at Huff Post, is very much like being in the middle of the circle, rather than at the top of the mountain shouting down. I’m also looking for people who aren’t too reactive and easily affected by the challenges the business faces every day.”

And, when it comes to the detrimental effects the daily stresses of leadership can have, Huffington points out that female executives are at greater risk than their male peers: “A growing body of data shows that the price of the current false promise of success is already higher for women than it is for men,” she writes in Thrive. “Women in stressful jobs have a nearly 40 per cent increased risk of heart disease, and a 60 per cent greater risk of diabetes. In the past 30 years, as women have made substantial strides in the workplace, self-reported levels of stress have gone up 18 per cent.” So, what would she advise female execs in the UK to do now to combat this?

“I think they can be pioneers in bringing change,” she says. “Instead of what women have done up to now, which has largely been trying to imitate men and being even more extreme in their work-life practices – never disconnecting because they felt that’s how they could prove that they were more macho than the man – they need to lead the third feminist revolution. The first one gave us the vote, the second – still incomplete – gives us equal pay and equal opportunities, and the third one has to be about not just getting to the top of the world but changing [the definition of what that means]. And that’s not just critical for women, I think men will be grateful to us for it too.”

And how could they start bringing this about? “By putting forward alternative role models,” says Huffington. “For example, the chief technology officer of Cisco, Padmasree Warrior, gets eight hours’ sleep, meditates every night and takes a digital detox on Saturdays – and she leads thousands of engineers and is a very successful CTO. The more of these role models we have, the more that people – especially young people – will have alternatives that can convince them there is no trade-off between business success and wellbeing, far from it.”

Interview May 2014 Cover Arianna Huffington Nap Room

Nap pods, which are used in the Huffington Post New York office

Arianna Huffington on risk-taking mentality

In her own business, Huffington is ensuring she sets the example with two ‘nap rooms’ for staff at The Huffington Post’s New York office (the UK office has recently requested the same, she tells us), along with weekly meditation and yoga classes, healthy snacks and an email policy “which makes it clear that employees are not expected to be on or checking email after hours, unless it’s their shift”. And, she says, she’s been impressed with UK institutions taking a similar approach: “I love that the Bank of England has offered meditation courses. We’ve seen too many examples, like the Lloyds executive who burned out and had to take a leave of absence [Lloyds Banking Group chief exec António Horta-Osório, who was signed off with exhaustion in 2011].

So how does Huffington approach that other big source of business stress – the fear of failure? And does she think there’s more of a stigma surrounding failure in the UK than in the US, where unsuccessful entrepreneurs are perhaps given more respect for having a go? “I think this is changing a lot,” she says. “In my trips to the UK, I think a lot of the young entrepreneurs are more willing to accept failure as part of the journey… My mother taught me early on that failure is not the opposite of success; it’s a stepping stone to success. I think failure is very much part of every successful life. Being comfortable with failure allows us to take risks, and taking risks means we are willing to go beyond what is easy.”

But what about keeping your nerve when doubters are convinced you are going to fail? “I’ve got better throughout my life at coping with that,” she says. “I don’t believe in developing a thick skin, I believe in being completely permeable. You know, like little children – they can get really upset and then two minutes later it’s as though nothing has happened. That’s increasingly how I live my life. I can get upset, I’m human, but then two minutes later I’m just over it and have no remnant of it – no grudges, no anger, it’s just done. For me, that’s the most important advice I can give anyone in business who faces criticism, naysayers and doubters…”

While we’re on the subject of doubts, did she have any when selling The Huffington Post to AOL? Could it have jeopardised her ability to lead the business in the ways she sets out above? “This is a really important question,” she says. “The reason the AOL acquisition has worked is that [AOL chief executive] Tim Armstrong and I were very clear that The Huffington Post would retain its own culture and operate as a stand-alone within the parent company. When MySpace was bought [by News Corp], it was basically destroyed. It is very easy to destroy a thriving start-up if it’s absorbed into the larger culture and you lose the ability to move fast – which we’ve tried to maintain even as we’ve grown dramatically.”

So, given the way she has redefined ‘success’, what are her next targets? “We will continue to expand The Huffington Post across the globe, expanding our editorial coverage as well as our video and mobile offerings. But I’m definitely planning to do all this without burnout,” she says. “As I write in Thrive, it’s critical that we don’t define ourselves in terms of our business, no matter how successful it may be. I love The Huffington Post – it’s my third baby – but my life and who I am is not defined by it.”

And, knowing what she now knows, if she could give her younger self a single piece of business advice, what would she say? She answers without hesitation: “Get more sleep!”

Thrive: The third metric to redefining success and creating a happier life is published by WH Allen (£16.99)

About author

Chris Maxwell

Chris Maxwell

Director’s editor spent nine years interviewing TV and film stars for Sky before joining the IoD in 2011 and turning the microphone on Britain’s business leaders. Since then he’s grilled everyone from Boris to Branson and, away from work, maintains an unhealthy obsession with lower league football.

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