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03 JULY 2009
Executive burn out – How to recognise and deal with it
by Steven Jones and Chris Gibbons
It’s a well-studied, well-observed and well-understood phenomenon. But if that’s the case, why are so many Boards still allowing it to occur? And what does this have to do with the flurry of executives who have recently vacated top jobs? No… the global financial crisis is not a good enough answer. 

Start with a stereotype: ‘It’s tough at the top’. Conjure up an image of the jet-setting boss, packing in the long hours, pulling down the big bucks. This man – it’s almost always a man – has superhuman stamina, a bevy of pretty assistants, a couple of hard boys who do the corporate ‘fixing’, and a private jet. You know who we’re talking about, don’t you? He sends you emails at two in the morning from New York and expects you to answer them immediately. He works every weekend and fails to understand that you’d prefer to spend that time with your family or on the golf course. As board members, you probably watch him and nod approvingly; after all, he does seem to bring home the bacon!

Mr Corporate Titan has also become the pin-up boy at many a business school, especially those handing out MBAs. Ask anyone who’s done one, or read Peter Robinson’s ‘Snapshots from Hell: The Making of an MBA’ if you need proof. We are led to believe that there is a direct correlation between long hours and success, preparing the student for when he or she gets the big corner office. Would-be MBA students contemplating the degree are warned that it has broken many a young marriage!

In a 2008 survey of students at 23 SA tertiary institutions, carried out by Magnet Communications, 40% of the 19 000 students polled wanted to be leaders in their respective field, while 38% wanted their careers to be competitive and intellectually stimulating. It’s a short jump to the conclusion that here are hundreds, if not thousands, of youngsters thirsting to emulate our corporate superhero.

Examine this from a different perspective, however, and we see something very different happening. The Magnet Communications survey goes on to indicate that while 26% of professionals under the age of 41 are considering changing employers within six months, a surprisingly high number – 20% – of senior professionals over the age of 55 also intend making such a change. The main reason: a desire for greater balance between work and home life.

In other words, having reached very senior positions, more and more of our corporate superheroes are finding one of two things. Either the trade-off is not worth it: all that glitters is not gold. Or they are burning out. Which brings us back to the stereotype of Mr Corporate Titan and whether any board worth its fees should be encouraging him.

To be sure, being the head of a major organisation is an extremely stressful position to hold. Pressure from stakeholders can be enormous – and that includes board members. Ultimately, when things unravel, it is normally the CEO who has to fall on his or her sword. But let’s be clear about one thing: burnout per se is not the disease, it is the symptom!

Writing in The Wall Street Journal about the Workaholic Boss, whom he described as ‘An 18-Hour-a-Day Menace’, management consultant Jack Falvey stated the obvious: ‘It really is pointless to recommend relaxation response periods, deep breathing exercises and other “stress reduction” techniques when the carriers of the malady are breathing fire just around the corner.’ If you’re a workaholic, states Falvey, ‘you can’t be a manager’. His logic is flawless: ‘Where a manager must set priorities, the workaholic must do everything…. A manager must be patient in gaining the commitment of others… The workaholic has little or no patience with others and works unending hours to make up for their perceived lack of commitment.’

The great British management writer, Robert Heller, in his book, The Making of Managers, reminds us that that long, long hours are not necessary for success: ‘Sir Max [Joseph] was said hardly ever to work more than four hours a day or more than four days a week. Inside a decade, though, he parlayed a handful of obscure hotels into one of the largest chains in the world – and that wasn’t all, not by any means. His empire owned bars and breweries, liquor and L&M cigarettes, gambling and milk, and much, much more. Joseph had a high level of energy and drive, true. But the energy and drive were in the proper place – his head.’

So, as board members, what should you be tracking? According to the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive, there are six areas in which work-related stress needs to be managed:

Demands: This includes issues such as workload, work patterns, and the work environment. At executive level, while certain responsibilities will always remain with CEOs themselves, delegation is key to keeping work demands at a manageable level. Delegating tasks is also a key aspect of succession planning, particularly if the incumbent is approaching retirement.

Control: This is about how much say the person has in the way they do their work. While it may seem strange to consider this aspect when it comes to CEOs (after all, doesn’t the boss have the final say?), the CEO is answerable to the board, shareholders, unions, customers and, in an increasingly regulated environment, government.

Support: This includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management, and colleagues. One’s position as CEO quickly becomes untenable without these in place.

Relationships: This includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict, and mechanisms to deal with unacceptable behaviour. While line managers and other employees can turn to the HR department to intervene in conflict situations and performance issues, or an employee assistance programme when things start to unravel, CEOs often cannot access such structures by virtue of their seniority within the organisation. This is where alternative mechanisms need to be put in place to manage these issues, such as a sub-committee consisting of nonexecutive directors.

Role: This is whether people understand their role within the organisation, and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles. This sounds like another strange aspect to consider at CEO level – he or she is the boss of the organisation; what could be clearer than that? However, especially for newly appointed CEOs, a degree of orientation needs to take place. A good succession programme, where the incoming CEO can walk alongside the current incumbent for a period before the reins are handed over, is invaluable in ensuring that the role of CEO is clarified and understood.

Change: This is how organisational change, whether large or small, is managed and communicated throughout the organisation. Human beings are inherently resistant to change unless they can either see some benefit in it or their survival depends on it. Since it is the CEO who has to “lead from the front” as well as being the primary mouthpiece for communicating such changes, change management skills are vital in keeping stresses associated with change to a minimum.

Next time you have a board meeting, look around the table at your colleagues. Is there anyone who fits the stereotype and could wear the title Mr. Corporate Titan, with that ability and hunger to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week? If there is, if you don’t have a burnout problem now, it’s just around the corner. As you consider the question, remember that this kind of executive also takes a heavy toll on younger managers who try to keep up. One of South Africa’s more famous foreign ministers was just such a person, making massive demands on his younger subordinates from around the globe at all hours of the day and night, seven days a week. Like the MBA degree, he was also nicknamed “The Marriage Breaker.”

For further reading on this topic, the authors recommend ‘When Executives Burn Out’, Harry Levinson, Harvard Business Review, May-June, 1981. It was an instant classic when it first came out – it’s just as relevant today.

Institute of Directors in Southern Africa
The Institute of Directors in Southern Africa (IoDSA) is a non-profit organisation that is unique in that it represents directors, professionals, business leaders and those charged with governance duties in their individual capacities in southern Africa. Visit our InfoCentre or website.

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