Is there a cure for managerial burnout?

When “leadership fatigue” sets in, develop an action plan to get out of the rut.

By James E. Barrett

Even successful, affluent, healthy CEOs can lead (in Henry David Thoreau’s words) “lives of quiet desperation.” They’re fresh out of challenges. They hate the business. They don’t like the community. The family ownership situation is intolerable. They don’t want to spend the rest of their lives doing what they’re doing. They feel trapped.

The underlying causes of this malaise may be deep-rooted and not easily curable. In cases of extended “blues,” loss of interest, or declining energy, a medical exam should be the first step to investigate the possibility of clinical depression. Often, however, the problem is simply leadership fatigue—burnout—a loss of what Marvin Bower, longtime leader of McKinsey & Company, has called the “will to manage.”

Some business owners who in the past have had the will to manage may no longer have it. For others, it can be restored. Still others may have decided they don’t want it; the game is no longer worth the effort.

The key to curing boredom or burnout is to recognize that there is a problem and get on with solving it. For that, an action plan is needed.


How burnout begins

A man in his 40s goes through emotional struggles as he assesses his life up to that point and compares it with his early dreams. Initial career choices may not have been handled well. That’s true of the whole population. But in families that own businesses, there are special pressures, real or imagined. For example, younger family members may have joined the company without a clear career path in mind. Years later regrets may emerge about roads not taken. Just as frequent are cases in which a young person joined the family firm because a secure job was certain. The job market might have been rough, and the chance to avoid rejection might have been welcomed.

Family members who don’t test their wings early in life may find themselves short of confidence when facing problems later on. Their confidence may be shaken by criticism that they are responsible for allowing the business to become vulnerable. If the family company has to be sold they will be out on the street looking for employment.

Having been the boss for a long time often leads to leadership fatigue. It can appear because of continued worry over money or market matters. But fatigue in dealing with people can also arise. One CEO told me: “I got home and my wife was telling me of her tough day with our three teenagers. Then I told her about the children I have at work! Don’t they ever become full-time adults?”

Gradually, this fatigue may be relieved by an unconscious strategy of avoidance. Outside activity (sales, travel, community involvement) takes the burned out manager away from the nonsense at the office. But the knowledge that those annoying problems are still there continues to drain the manager’s energy.

Several years ago while in Boston I had lunch with a man who owned a local family business. My firm had done some research for him a few months earlier, and we were meeting to follow up on his team’s implementation of the results.

“Bob,” I said, while soup was being served, “you were planning to take the family to Europe this summer. Tell me about your trip.” He gave me an enthusiastic report of their three weeks abroad. It had been a long-awaited adventure.

“That’s a great way to recharge your batteries,” I commented. He shook his head negatively. “No, it was awful after we got back. I realized how long I had been doing things I don’t want to do, or don’t enjoy, just to please other people. There’s so much out there and I’ve wasted so much time.”


What To Do?

Some people are able to work through these down periods by themselves. They can be dispassionate observers of themselves. They read, listen, develop a program for themselves and carry it out.

Others benefit from talking with old friends, directors or advisors, or outside consultants. Whatever the outcome of these talks, an action plan is the next step. If the will to manage isn’t present, and there are no pressures that can be changed, the executive may just remain bored and underproductive. Let’s be optimistic, however, and review three scenarios I’ve been involved with that show how a family business owner can work out of his burnout. Although the situations and solutions differ greatly, the underlying point remains the same: You have to do something to pull yourself out of your rut.


Bored Harry

The longtime head of a local service business with demanding hours and many crash projects, Harry regretted not having tried other kinds of work. A man with a good perspective, he told me: “I’m having too many lunches with suppliers just to fill up the day. And they’re eager to buy me more than I should drink.”

We talked about three possible activities that might offer Harry new challenges. Harry then explored them on his own. After a couple of years of volunteer work, he wound up on the board of the community hospital which badly needed someone who understood how to manage customer service and crash projects.

Now Harry has a new problem. As chairman of the hospital board, he’s so busy that he called me to chat about complaints that he’s neglecting his business. Moral: The solution can become another problem—a positive one, which energizes you for all your activities.


Frustrated Charlie

CEO of a manufacturing company, Charlie had been working like a dog for years to stave off dissident relatives, who held some ownership and positions on the family company’s board. Looking for more personal income, the relatives had threatened to force Charlie’s company into public financing or a sale. The board had not put limits on how much of the closely held stock could be redeemed at one time, nor had it spread payouts over several years.

With great effort, Charlie arranged expensive financing to buy out the dissidents and keep the company private. “For 10 years,” he lamented, “I’ve taken a low salary, worked for the creditors, and passed up growth opportunities because all our spare cash went to debt reduction. Covenants on the loans kept me hogtied.”

Charlie believed the business would have grown to twice its size if he had carried normal debt and had freedom to manage. Now, at age 52, with the 15-year financing paid off in 10 years, he was exhausted.

My advice to him was that, with good health, full control, and a dozen years to work, he needed to do something for himself that would blend with something that would help the business. As we reviewed his objectives and the needs of his wife, himself, and the business, an intriguing option emerged.

Charlie would devote 40 percent of his time for the next year to exploring international expansion. He’d use the other 60 percent of his time for his CEO duties. To get the CEO job down to 60 percent, some of his repetitive activities would be delegated to others. Charlie went to school to learn how to handle a computer and to obtain information from on-line databases.

One side effect over the following year was increased self-esteem. Charlie felt like a modern manager. Another benefit was that he became more aware of added opportunities to improve information-handling in the business.

After three months of office and school preparation, Charlie was ready for field work. He and his wife headed to Europe for a month of trade shows and visits to three major cities. Charlie’s “blend” on the trip was four days work and three days vacation each week. Advance planning had led to appointments with product users, distributors, and government officials. His pace was active but not blazing, so he was able to spend enough time with his wife.

Four years later Charlie is a vibrant CEO. International sales are 10 percent of total sales. A manager is being hired for the European business and Charlie and his wife are heading for Asia. Moral: Take care of yourself, your marriage, and the business while diversifying your activities.


Angry George

George, a talented executive, was a dozen years younger than his older brother. Although each brother owned 50 per cent of the family firm, the older brother was CEO of the company and George’s responsibility was limited to one department. When he complained of a lack of growth opportunities, his brother diverted him into trade association activity.

George spent a dozen years contributing to their industry at local, regional, and national levels. He learned and grew but remained restricted in his own firm. His efforts to change the situation were fruitless. His brother had the controlling vote proxies and wouldn’t budge. Board meetings were a charade.

After investing a lot of effort in studying alternatives to quitting (split the firm, buy another business, sell stock to the brother), George was still stuck. Then the older brother died suddenly. George became CEO, did all the things he had wanted to do for years, and the firm prospered. Moral: Not all problems can be solved; sometimes it simply takes patience and guts to wait them out.


Getting Results

As our three leading men have shown, there are various ways to overcome leadership fatigue. Some people can remain in a depressed state for years. While they suffer quietly, the business suffers too, usually by erosion. The unique position of the majority owner of a private business is that nobody can make him or her do anything—as long as cash flow is positive.

The suffering is needless. The key to solving burnout problems is recognizing there’s a problem and working to solve it. Through an action plan that presents new challenges, an executive can regain the will to manage and prevent drift in the company.


James E. Barrett is managing director of Cresheim Management Consultants in Philadelphia, where he heads the company’s family business practice.