MANAGING EXECUTIVE BURNOUT

“I’ve tried yoga, tai-chi and meditation, but I find stress less boring.”

I had an interesting comment posted by a colleague in response to my last blog post, which was about Leadership (see “Leadership is a subtle art” posted July 22, 2013. He felt strongly that expecting an executive to be both a leader and a manager created too much stress in an individual, often leading to executive burnout.

Author: Rexrodo (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Rexrodo (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


Whilst I do not necessarily believe that this is the main cause of executive burnout, I do acknowledge that burnout is a real issue in the business world and that, according to all that I read, its incidence is actually increasing.

Even in a country as laid-back as Australia, it is estimated that the cost of executive burnout costs local businesses over $20 Billion annually. (see Executive ‘burnout’ costing billions).

David Lassiter, founder and President of consulting organisation, Leadership Advantage, summarises the reasons thus “The atmosphere at work has changed in recent times. The pace of change keeps accelerating. As companies continue to search for ever higher levels of quality, service and overall business agility, the pressures are felt on individuals at all levels of the organization. The treadmill moves faster, companies work harder, improvements are made only to be changed again and again. Today’s managers are experiencing a whole new order of exhaustion. Performance targets become tougher to meet in each succeeding quarter and fiscal year. Managers have ever-widening spans of control. In the boundary-less organization, work goes on round the clock. The post-dinner time zone has become prime time for answering e-mails, voice mails, faxes and the rest of what didn’t get done during office hours. Thanks to technology, work is now very portable. It’s easy to see why many managers feel overwhelmed. The only way they can get it all done is to take the writing, reading and reviewing tasks home. Finding personal fulfillment through one’s work is becoming more of a challenge. Job burnout is a reality for many people”.

The average life expectancy of the average CEO is now estimated to be between 30-40 months and one in four CEOs of UK businesses with sales of over £500m leave before planned. This is twice the early departure figures for 1990, and this trend is continuing to grow today (see CEO: A Life on the Brink).

However, not all executives burn out, and they don’t all succumb to allowing the levels of stress mount to a point where it all becomes unbearable.

So what are the secrets to sanity and survival as a business executive ?

Here are some that worked for me in my 40 years of frantic, stress driven life in the Hi-Tech industry.

– Don’t do a job you hate, no matter how much they pay you.

– Don’t work for a boss, or a board, that you cannot respect or that isn’t supportive.

– No senior executive should be allowed to stay in the same role for over 5 years without rotation. Make it part of your career plan.

– Play truancy occasionally, like sneaking off to a movie in the afternoon during a busy work day. It feels deliciously mischievous, and gives you the stress relief similar to that provided by a long weekend.

– Laugh long, laugh hard and laugh often. Fortunately there is much to laugh at in the business world. Work is meant to be fun.

Author: White House Photographic Office; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: White House Photographic Office; via Wikimedia Commons


– Don’t procrastinate on tough decisions or tasks, as they will not get easier with time, and doing them straight away gives you something less to dwell upon to create another sleepless night.

– Build a team of skilled people that you can rely on to do their job without constant supervision.

– Delegate whenever possible and sensible to do so. It will give good people a challenge and a chance to grow.

– Remember that control freaks tend to burn out faster than collaborators. Let go the reins and rely on your people to deliver. They will surprise you.

– Build a support group of peers (not current colleagues) with whom you can mutually share issues and challenges that you face. 5-6 ex colleagues that you respect and trust works well.

– Get an executive coach that you can regularly dump on in confidence. Knowing that you need help is a sign of strength not weakness.

– Build habits. Doing 30 minutes of exercise when you first get up in the morning works, whereas telling yourself that you will get to the gym as soon as you finish your priority and past-due list doesn’t.

Author: NPS Graphics, converted by User:ZyMOS; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: NPS Graphics, converted by User:ZyMOS; via Wikimedia Commons


– Manage your time to minimize interruptions. Schedule specific times when you will check your email, rather than doing it on demand. The same with when/how you make phone calls. Doing one thing at a time takes too long. Doing many of the same things in a batch makes you more precise, succinct and bloody minded.

– Limit your attendances at meetings to only those that you determine are necessary because you are needed for a group decision. For all others, apologise for non-attendance and ask to be copied only on any resultant action items that will impact you or your organization.

– Celebrate victories and successes often letting people know that you appreciate their contribution and commitment, both to the company and to you as their manager.

– Acknowledge failures, learn from them and move on. Do everything possible not to repeat them.

– Understand your strengths and weaknesses. If they don’t closely match your current job requirements, do something about getting the skills needed, or ask for reassignment to a different role where they match up.

– Grow and develop your people to make the business goals easier to achieve each year. The better that your people are, the easier will be your job to lead them.

– Share your situation with your family. Sharing with them up front, for example, that you will be working 12 hours per day, and travelling a lot for the next 3 years, and why this is important for all of you, is better than letting them work it out themselves through your continual absences. However, commitments you do make to them for your availability must be met.

Just remember that “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” Bertrand Russell (1872-1970).

LEADERSHIP IS A SUBTLE ART

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism.

Author: Page 72 of Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner's Myths and Legends of China on Project Gutenberg; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Page 72 of Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner’s Myths and Legends of China on Project Gutenberg; via Wikimedia Commons


I generally try to keep out of the academics’ desire to differentiate between leadership and management (see “Management or Leadership” posted March 7, 2011), as I believe that the two have become mostly inseparable in real life, both being areas of skill needed by everyone in an executive role.

However, I am increasingly asked to give my definition of what constitutes good leadership, so with the caveat that I still believe that great management skills are an integral part of successful leadership and vice versa, I do believe that there are some measurable key elements that when taken together constitute skilled leadership.

The best general and concise dictionary definition of leadership I have found is that it represents “a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.”

Here are my three elements of leadership that I feel are needed, and that I would use to expand this definition:

Inspiration … Many people tend to equate the ability to inspire people mainly with charisma, verbal skills and extroversion, and while I agree that these can help, I do not believe that they are necessarily the only criteria. There is no question that a good leader needs to be able to paint a compelling vision that people want to be a part of, and thus want to contribute to, its attainment. However, this may in many circumstances need visible expertise in the key individual elements of the “dream”, such as product (Apple) or go to market (eBay), even more than the unbridled enthusiasm and oratorical skills of someone like a Steve Ballmer of Microsoft. Steve Ballmer going crazy on stage when he starts his presentation to the Microsoft developers may, to many of us, look like a man who has lost the plot, but would have been seen as inspirational and enthusiastic to his audience of software developers. (see video). Compare this with the quite confidence of Lee Kwan Yew, founding father of Singapore, who I consider to be one of the great inspirational leaders of our time (see Lee Kwan Yew’s National Day Rally speech 1984). Style may vary, and will depend on the leader as well as the makeup of the team, as inspiring a group of sales people will require a different approach than inspiring a team of techies. However there are some common elements in good inspirational leadership such as setting stretch goals, growing and developing team members, encouraging innovation and creativity, being even-handed with people and creating a culture of high integrity and honesty.

Author: Microsoft Sweden Flickr - http://www.flickr.com/photos/46411239@N05; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Microsoft Sweden Flickr – http://www.flickr.com/photos/46411239@N05; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


Collaboration … Successful leadership is never about going it alone, as by definition, it requires people who are keen to follow. Getting team buy-in and commitment is critical, and the starting point needs to be the right of the key team members to be an integral part in the development of the vision, direction and actions needed to achieve the goal. Successful collaboration requires skilled “social intelligence” in the leader, being the ability to have a basic understanding of people and having the skills needed to interact with them. This has been defined as having the 5 key dimensions of presence (external image or sense of self as perceived by others), clarity (using language effectively while persuading with ideas), awareness (ability to read situations), authenticity (behaviour that shows honesty and integrity) and empathy (ability to connect with others which encourages co-operation). Ultimately every leader must be able to lead by example.

Author: Berdea (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Berdea (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


Concentration … Good leaders have the ability to focus their time and energy on what is critical, and have the discipline to be able to either disregard or delegate everything else. Being a “control freak” that gets involved in every decision in every piece of the business will generally only work for a short time, a small group or a simple task. The 26th President of the USA, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) had it right when he said “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and the self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” Those in Leadership roles today are under growing pressures of speed, complexity, changing markets and competition, financial pressures and the need to do more with less. It is critical for success not only of the individual executive, but of the entire organisation that those in leadership positions have an ability to focus on what is critically needed for success. By this definition (and I believe few others, see “Are Fanatics or Fools the problem ?” posted April 23, 2012) Steve Jobs was exactly the leader needed to bring Apple back from the brink of disaster by focussing on “gadgets” based on his own skill-set, and on his belief and understanding that the market was ready for this. Focus involves taking “calculated risks”, and this is a key element of successful leadership at all times, as it is of any successful business. Ultimately the ability to focus on driving the execution of a widely committed strategy is an integral part of success.

I am sure there are many others elements needed in a good leader, but I do see these three to be common in successful leaders, whether in sports, business or politics, remembering that “No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organised in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings”. Peter Drucker (1909-2005), management guru.

Author: Jeff McNeill; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Jeff McNeill; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


CHARACTERITICS OF A BAD SPEECH

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), 28th President of the US was once asked how long it took him to write a speech. He answered “That depends. If I am to speak for 10 minutes I need a week for preparation. If 15 minutes, 3 days. If 30 minutes, 2 days. If an hour, I am ready now”.


In my time, I have heard some really terrible speeches both in business and in private gatherings. These have included a large number of people who just stood there and read out every line on their vast collection of PowerPoint slides, many with their backs to the audience, as well as those who had little to say but felt compelled to say it anyway. Gladly these passed into the obscurity regions of my brain fairly quickly, unlike some that I will carry to the grave, not only because they were really terrible, but also because they taught me something worthwhile about what was important in delivering a speech.

Here are my four most memorable awful speeches, including one of my own.

Lesson 1: Don’t leave control of any aspect of your speech in someone else’s hands.

“The closest to being in control that we will ever be is in that moment when we realise we are not.”
Brian Kessler

I had the honour in 2001 of being one of the first Western businessmen to address the Russian Parliament, only due to the fact that SAP had been invited to address the Duma on the subject of Electronic Government. Even though my 20 minute speech was simultaneously translated into Russian, my team in Moscow had prepared about 5 PPTs in Russian around my key points. For some strange reason they wouldn’t allow me to control my own PPT management, and I was introduced to a young man who was to sit at the back of the vast Chamber of Deputies, with the laptop which held my presentation. Our plan was that my right hand wave would initiate going forward and my left hand wave would result in a return to the previous slide. The problem is that I speak with my hands, and with such a vast distance between us this young man could not tell the difference between a forward-wave and an emphasis-wave. As a result, the PPTs behind me were whipping backwards and forwards faster than a myopic Scottish sword dancer who had forgotten to pack his shoes. I found out afterwards that he had reached the end a number of times, so felt that he had little choice but to go back to the beginning.

Author: John Benjamin Stone; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: John Benjamin Stone; via Wikimedia Commons


Lesson 2: Stick to the topic and the timing.

“Everything that is ponderous, vicious and solemnly clumsy …. is developed in great variety by the Germans”.
Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher (1844-1900).

At a major customer event about 15 years ago, with over 10,000 attendees, the opening keynote was planned as a 40 minute overview of our technology directions to be presented by one of the company founders. Unfortunately he arrived at the conference incensed about the unsportsmanlike behaviour at a major yacht race the previous day, which had been shown by his counterpart at a major competitor. While he started his keynote following the intended script, he very quickly launched into a diatribe about this particular competitor and his company that went on for over 2 hours. It would have gone on for even longer had not the conference organiser walked onstage applauding as he did, and thus generating a spontaneous audience ovation, having all heard enough on this topic. This not only meant that our customers were confused and surprised, if somewhat bemused, but it also meant that our next two speakers, both senior externals, immediately left the conference heavily displeased, having not gotten a chance to take their place at the podium to address the gathering.

Lesson 3: Preparation is everything, and so is sobriety.

Mark Twain, American author and humourist (1835-1910) said “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech”.


Some years ago I was asked to propose a toast at a close friend’s 60th birthday party. I worked long and hard preparing a 15 minute light-hearted look at some of his obvious, but endearing, idiosyncrasies. As I was aware that I would be speaking after a rather long and alcoholic lead up to the actual dinner, I was very careful to regulate my own alcoholic intake, figuring that I would still have a significant amount of time available to indulge myself after the toasts were concluded. Sadly, this was not the case with the birthday boy, who imbibed with vigour but felt challenged and honour bound to reply to my toast, despite being totally unprepared and in an advanced state of brain function impairment. What followed was 40 minutes of unrelated, mostly incomprehensible, ramblings, platitudes and drivel, which only ended when his wife walked over and took the microphone out of his hands.

Lesson 4: Lose any anger before speaking, in all circumstances.

Ambrose Bierce, American author and journalist (1842-1913) said “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret”.

Author: John Herbert Evelyn Partington; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: John Herbert Evelyn Partington; via Wikimedia Commons


I attended a wedding where no-one had previously bothered to tell the mother of the groom that the bride (a rather large girl) was actually about 6 months pregnant, with twins as it turned out a few months later. When she realised this situation on the actual wedding day, it so angered the MOTG that she spent the entire wedding breakfast drinking heavily and heckling every single speaker, until she lost any last modicum of self-control and wrestled the microphone from the groom’s hands. She then spent the next hour telling the guests every sordid detail that she could dredge up from both sides of the wedding party, including commenting on the Bride’s sluttiness and the Groom’s low intelligence to have been suckered into marrying such a slattern, because he was obviously too stupid to use contraception. It was like watching an episode of “Peyton place goes bridal”, and was so memorable that we still talk and laugh about it 30 years later.

We can learn much from endeavours that have gone well, but we can learn so much more from things that have gone badly. If nothing else, we can at least learn to make sure that we try hard not to repeat them.

FEAR OF PUBLIC SPEAKING LOSES POLE POSITION

“A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”
Winston Churchill (1874-1965), ex UK Prime Minister

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons


As someone who has planned some of their retirement based on a late onset career as a public speaker, I have always welcomed the almost universal fear of public speaking.

This widespread dread of having to stand on a stage to share one’s thoughts and ideas with an audience of strangers did help to limit my competition for speaker slots, though I was also helped and kept busy in my speaking endeavours by the fact that many speakers still tend to believe that a great speech is made greater by the use of a large number of PowerPoint slides (see “How to give a great speech” posted 21 March, 2011 and “How to really give a great speech” posted 24 March, 2011).

However, most recently, the fear of public speaking, which has long held the #1 position in “human feardom” in the western world, appears to have been deposed, and relegated further down the list of top-10 fears, according to most current surveys that bother to worry about what bothers humanity.

It now seems that due to ageing populations in the western world, the number one fear these days has become the actual fear of ageing, closely now followed by the fear of death.

Author: GregRShaw (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: GregRShaw (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


I recently had to visit the ophthalmologist due to small flashes happening in my left eye. After extensive testing he told me that it would go away and that there was nothing that he needed to do, or even could do, as it was just part of the ageing process. I told him that this was a bit worrying as at age 68 this was the first real sign that I had had that I was getting old. My wife, who was with me at the time, quickly quipped that it was “obvious that I hadn’t looked in a mirror recently”.

Andy Rooney said “It’s paradoxical that the idea of living a long life appeals to everyone, but the idea of getting old doesn’t appeal to anyone.”

Since this warning shot across my bows, I have thought long and hard about the whole question of ageing, and realised that this “fear of ageing” is too broad a category, and that it really needs to be dissected into some of its more specific components as follows:

Fear of having an incurable disease with the family sitting on vulture-watch with their fingers on the life support switch.

Fear of forgetting where you live and thus having to wander the earth like David Carradine in his role as a warrior monk, but without the benefit of being a Kung Fu master.

Fear of moving more than 100 metres from a restroom, in case your brain registers that you only have 10 seconds before needing to desperately use one.

Fear of falling and thus actually testing the 20 year guarantee that comes with an artificial hip.

Fear of forgetting where you parked the car, and so having to search all the levels, or the vast acreage, of the shopping mall, having anyway completely forgotten what it was that you actually came to buy in the first place.

Author: Gloumouth1, http://gloumouth1.free.fr; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Gloumouth1, http://gloumouth1.free.fr; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


Fear of forgetting people’s names and then having to call everyone “Bud” in the USA, “Comrade” in Cuba and France, or “Cobber” in Australia and “mate” in New Zealand.

Fear of having to drive at high speed, thereby keeping you off all motorways and ensuring that you clog up all the small roads through villages in the French (or any other nation’s) countryside.

Fear of the elastic breaking on your “sansabelt” trousers and hence rendering you immobile and incapable of any forward motion.

Fear that one your children will get divorced, or find some other reason to have to come and live with you.

Fear that you will forget any/all of the pin numbers that you have accumulated over the decades making access to your bank, and simple electronic mail accounts totally impossible.

The fear of death, which has resolutely sat in the second slot for a long time, continues to do so, no doubt also helped by steadily ageing populations, though many attribute this to the fear of what is unknown rather to a fear of death itself. However, as so well put by Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics “Dying is easy, it’s living that scares me to death”.

Author: nemahziz; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: nemahziz; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


As well as fear of ageing and the fear of death, the fear of failure has now moved ahead of the fear of public speaking into the third position on the feardom ladder, relegating the fear of public speaking into the fourth slot. Sadly this particular fear is instilled into children at an early age, when they are taught that to be right is more important than to be different, and that to succeed is more important than to have a good try, and this is even more pronounced in the business world. (see “Every company needs people who can regularly fail” posted 27 May, 2013).

“In the world today, failure is not an option. We need to change this attitude toward failure – and celebrate the idea that only by falling on our faces do we learn enough to succeed ”. Naveen Jain, business executive and entrepreneur.

I am pleased that the fear of public speaking, which is something that can be overcome with practice and coaching, has lost its position at the top of the fear table, as I have never really understood why it was ever accorded this ranking in the first place. I can also understand why ageing and death have moved up in the rankings though these are inevitable for all of us, so we may just get on with living life for as long as we have it.

I do however worry about the growth in the number of people who are scared to fail, as that will have an impact on people being prepared to try new things, which is one of the things that makes the whole journey of life so worthwhile in the first place.

WHY MANAGEMENT TRAINING RARELY WORKS

It’s what you learn after you know it all that really counts.

I have long been of the opinion that most formal corporate management training sessions actually deliver very little real benefit to the participants, beyond making them feel good about the fact that their company has been prepared to spend some time, money and energy on letting them get away from their normal work for a short time.

Corporate management training whether it is for negotiation skills, time management, conflict resolution, how to do a performance review or any other topic deemed to be important for today’s managers, is generally done via a lecture process, despite the fact that studies have shown that the average retention rate of a lecture is only about 5%, which is even less than just reading about the topic at 10% (taken from “The Learning Pyramid of the National Training Laboratories Bethel, Maine”).

Author: Vaibhavgang (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Vaibhavgang (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


Also, quite interestingly, in 1996 Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger of the Centre for Creative Leadership developed the 70/20/10 Learning and Development model. This concept states that about 70% of true learning comes from on-the-job experiences, tasks and problem solving, about 20% from feedback, reinforcement and mentoring, and about 10% from courses and reading, and this model has since become well accepted as the basis of how people really learn.

Despite all this, many companies still use the approach to training of issuing a directive that mandates that everyone in the company will receive 2 weeks training per year, and to then proceed to cram as many people as possible into a pre-set series of fairly generic courses, enabling everyone involved, especially HR, to feel good about the fact that the directive has been met.

The problem is that beyond the short-lived “feel good” factor, this achieves very little in actually developing sustainable new skills, knowledge or understanding.

If most of our real learning is done on-the-job with the support of some worthwhile hand-holding, it also does not mean that people should just be left alone to ultimately work it out for themselves. I worked for one large company that believed that management training in any form was basically unnecessary as smart people, once promoted, would ultimately work out what was needed in any management role. Possibly some of them might with time, but I believe that it would have sorely impacted their subordinates while they did so.

Management training is important, but there are some key elements that are critical if any training and development programme is to deliver some worthwhile results.

Training needs to be personalised rather than generic … Just having a generic course for a large number of people may be the most cost effective approach, but it is rare that every sales manager in a company, for example, needs the same level of training on any given topic. Throwing everyone into the one course for say “Major Account Planning” may give some measure of consistency for a short time, but I have never seen any programme like this that actually survived more than about 12 months, and that delivered serious benefits to the company. Training needs to be specific to the individual, their development needs and their growth and progression plan if it is to have even just a valid starting point.

Reinforcement from above … there is no point teaching people how to better do some element of their job, if their manager has not had the same training or if s/he doesn’t reinforce the new behaviour. I have seen training programmes where the attendees come back into the office with the flush of enthusiasm of new converts, only to be shot down by a boss who has not been through the same epiphany, and hence does not support the new behaviour. I have also seen a dysfunctional executive board where politics and backstabbing were cultural standards, but who nonetheless insisted on teamwork training for those below them, in the misguided belief that people would “do as we say, rather do as we do”.

Author: Graeme Campbell (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Graeme Campbell (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


Training works better when it’s real world … Theoretical training, no matter how interesting are the case studies, has less value than working on real live problems that face the company. One of the better corporate management programmes I saw was where people were put in groups made up of geographically spread, diverse individuals from various parts of the business and given about 4 months to solve some serious issues facing the company at that time. The programme was run in association with a leading business school, and all teams also had a board sponsor and mentor. The team task was over and above their normal management job responsibilities and it was designed to teach them how to work across disparate divisions with differing priorities, across multiple time zones and cultures, and under considerable time and budget constraints, all being the realities that the board members had to face daily. Their goal was to present their final team-developed and team-agreed solutions and recommendations to the board and the other teams, and to convince the board to accept these for implementation in the company.

Beyond these, successful training also depends on ensuring that the course purpose and outcomes promise and deliver real benefits to the attendees, that the styles of the trainers are a good fit with company culture, that the content is exciting, interesting and results in some epiphanies and awakenings, that participants have the opportunity for involvement and contribution, that the atmosphere is conducive to learning and not just a Powerpoint-fest, that the participants are well selected for cultural mix and that there are some important takeaways that can be measured and reinforced afterwards.

However, it is also important to remember that “Creative minds have always been able to survive any kind of bad training”. Anna Freud (1895-1982), founder of child psychoanalysis, and daughter of Sigmund Freud.

Author: Simon Harriyott; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Simon Harriyott; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons