How CEOs can defeat executive burnout
Many business people strive for promotion to the top without ever considering what the top looks like. In many ways, it’s like climbing a real mountain. Whether it’s Mt Kenya, Kilimanjaro or Elgon … or ascending one of the Mountains of the Moon.
Over the years I’ve climbed some of these, and I can tell you the anticipation of the summit is always wonderful. It drives you forward, every aching step. But once you reach the summit it’s always the same. You take a few pictures to prove you were there and then all you want to do is get down again; quickly and safely.
Reaching the top job feels wonderful, but soon two new companions – isolation and performance anxiety – arrive to become your constant companions. You find that the vocational qualifications that elevated you aren’t enough to consolidate your position. You need new skills; you need to learn how to work through other people. And that takes time.
And when the time pressure bites, where can you go to for solace? You can’t turn to your parents for support. Their generation thinks you’re a workaholic. The millenials you have hired don’t aspire to be like you. They don’t want your life. They see that you’re disconnected from your family and friends. You look terrible because you never have any time to exercise; you may drink too much and sleep too little. Millenials say: “I don’t want to end up like you.”
I may be painting an overly bleak picture here. But if you are not mindful of the pressures of leadership, you risk executive burnout. Richard Jolly, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, suggests three useful stratagems to help you survive:
Ask yourself, what three things do you need to achieve to be successful in your role? Three is a powerful number and it happens to be the limit of absolute priorities a human being can manage. Keep track of how much time you are spending on these.
Protect time to think. No-one’s going to give you that time, so take it. Go for a long cycle ride, block out time for fake clients or work in a café without your phone for half a day.
Accept that your energy is finite. Eat well and get enough sleep. Most senior executives are constantly exhausted, which affects your ability as much as if you were drunk.
I would add a couple of other tips from my own experience. First, look beyond the professional. Create boundaries around the things you really care about. Make time for your family, friends and fitness. And second, don’t be afraid to call in a professional. An experienced coach will help you create space to think things through. They’ll also challenge you when no one else is telling you what you need to hear… because you’re the CEO.