EXECUTIVE BROWNOUT'S STEEP SLOPE
As Printed in Human Resource Executive Online on March 5, 2015
By Kristen B. Frasch
In almost every instance, Michael E. Kibler knows executive brownout™ when he sees it. Not that it’s visibly apparent, mind you, but as a longtime executive coach, and founder and CEO of Chicago-based Corporate Balance Concepts Inc., he’s been seeing the telltale signs in his clients for years.
Once rising stars, driving the growth and brands of their organizations with passion, collaboration and a desire to make a difference, these executives with brownout, the term he gives them, become silently diminished by years of increasing complexities—such as cross-cultural and virtual teams, disruptive technology that changes their business or industry and perhaps dispiriting corporate politics. They’re also worn down by diminished or lost personal relationships and years of physical and emotional wear and tear, or what he calls the “sub-optimal self-care” necessary for the sustained trajectories to the top positions they now hold.
What does brownout look like? According to Kibler, these executives are the ones artfully protecting their turf, subtly killing innovative new ideas, losing track of talented staff and expressing neutral-to-negative attitudes toward build-the-firm initiatives.
“This is a big and expensive layer of executives who have a major influence on the success or failure of any company,” he says, and unfortunately, when executives have descended this far, it’s the latter.
In order to understand this phenomenon, Managing Editor Kristen B. Frasch conducted a Q&A with Kibler, who recently authored a piece about this phenomenon in the Harvard Business Review, titled “Prevent Your Star Performers from Losing Passion for their Work.” Excerpts from that Q&A follow.
How prevalent is brownout in corporate America, or even the corporate world at large? Is it more of a U.S. phenomenon?
Our experience in working with executives around the world is that brownout is a global phenomenon. Blessing White’s research on disengagement globally—showing 65 percent of employees actively disengaged, with the worst numbers occurring in China—certainly bears this out. But at the executive level, it’s not as severe an issue in emerging markets as it is in mature markets.
Why is that?
Because many executives in emerging markets, and also in start-up firms elsewhere, feel they are helping to “change the world”—and that is a very powerful motivation that acts as a shield to brownout. The downside is that, just as in a start-up environment, many professionals stay as rising stars, then suddenly plummet straight to burnout.
In your HBR opinion piece, you describe PIMCO chief Mohamed El-Erian as one example of this phenomenon. Are there others you can mention and name?
Part of the nature of brownout is that executives rarely show signs of obvious crisis. These professionals fly under the radar of their firms until something dramatic happens that takes the company by surprise. In fact, executives in brownout most often look like the “winners” in any firm—occupying important positions, leading teams, having significant organizational influence and so on. But they are operating in a state of silent overwhelm and diminishment. Most don’t leave their firms in such a sudden and dramatic way as Mohamed El-Erian. Most endure in this state of brownout for 10 years or more. And of course, for an organization, that’s not a winning scenario either.
Our C-suite-executive clients often complain to me that the difference between an epic corporate success and a job-killing, multibillion-dollar failure, is the discretionary effort, collaboration and teaming of their most influential people. When you have leaders in brownout, it creates major problems for firms, at a time when they’re making huge bets on globalization, technology and acquisitions.
In terms of the costliness of this type of drain, are there any metrics to support this?
Other than repeating what we hear from our C-suite clients about failures, there’s not a lot out there. It’s sort of, how can we calculate the cost of missed opportunity? When you have leaders leave—that’s obviously costly and you can come up with numbers on replacement costs, etc. The bigger cost, though, is the leaders in brownout who stay that way, dragging down the best and brightest and turning off your talented young people along the way.
What specific tips can you offer business leaders, primarily HR executives, for how best to spot this and address it before it results in a costly talent drain?
Spotting brownout is a difficult thing and here’s why: One of the clearest common denominators amongst executives is the ability to “look good.” We all know it’s true. And in fact, on many levels, these executives are not just looking good, they’re doing good—in a position of significant status, being compensated very handsomely and, in most cases, doing important work. But the dark side of this success is that it often comes at a tremendous price—one that slowly erodes the special qualities that made the individual a star in the first place.
Can you give an example?
Sure. Early in my career, I found myself face-to-face with the CEO of a very successful law firm in Chicago. We began a one-on-one conversation that really went well. The chemistry was fantastic and I could see we were going to work well together. Then, all of a sudden, he got a faraway look in his eyes and he said, “Mike, I have to share something with you because I can’t really tell anyone else.” He said, “You know, I’m 39 years old and I’m running one of the more successful law firms in Chicago. I live in a house and a neighborhood that I never thought I would be able to. I make close to a million dollars a year and I have a wife who loves me and a 5-year-old son whom I adore. In some ways, I’m the most blessed person I know.
And then he got a little emotional and he said, “Now here’s the other side of the equation. I haven’t slept more than four hours in three weeks. I haven’t seen my son awake in 10 days. We’re meeting in this conference room because my office is piled, floor to ceiling, with client files and I am completely overwhelmed. There is stuff—important issues—that I know I’m not dealing with because of how fast new things come in. And then he said something that I will never forget. He said, “Sometimes it gets so bad that I find myself actually hoping I have a heart attack—as an honorable way out of this situation.”
This was a guy right on the edge of the black hole of burnout. But in terms of how his organization saw him, how his clients saw him, he was a star and he was on top of the world. That was my first taste of what I would come to recognize as the “duality” of success in today’s world—on one hand, tremendous success and accomplishment, and on the other, a slow erosion of what made the individual a star to begin with. We need to find a way for companies to make high performance sustainable in the 21st century.
Are there any telltale signs to look for?
Yes, there are some developments, and signs, that increase the risk of brownout. Career stasis, for one. After a steady cadence of new opportunities and responsibilities, the executive has not progressed in his or her career for four or more years. Then there’s distance from the “core”: an executive who’s recently lost connection to a source of influence or power, like when a new senior leader comes on board. Also watch for visibly reduced levels of motivation—limiting his or her impact to only issues in his or her immediate span of control. This is the one who avoids challenges for growth, impact or collaboration. Lastly, there’s unexpected or seemingly unwarranted emotional reactions to professional challenges or personal events.
What can HR do about this?
I think HR leaders should be thinking very carefully about how their future is tied directly to the emerging millennial generation—and this is a population for whom what I call active partnering is a perfect fit. Boomers relaying their knowledge, one-on-one, and millennials helping with new ideas and technology, for instance. But it also involves working together to lay out plans that support both professional and personal goals for the executive. Oftentimes, personal goals are tied to health, a need to lose weight or exercise, or relationships, as in getting away with a spouse or being there for children. Without [these two-way commitments between executives and their organizations], we are going to see—make that, we are already seeing—a disturbing percentage of millennial “opt-outs”—highly regarded young professionals who see their bosses in brownout and say, “Thanks but no!” when presented with opportunities to advance to a senior post. So, while active partnering is a great tool to help boomer leaders sustain high performance, it will represent the most important currency for the best of our millennial population. HR leaders should consider how they can develop a vision for active partnering that best fits with the tone and the culture of their firm; a vision that one or two “line” executives can also embrace and become sponsors for. HR leaders are brilliant at knowing their cultures, knowing the key influencers and making the connection of a strategy like this to mission-critical outcomes.
Is work/life a significant part of active partnering?
Let me put it this way. Active-partnering efforts will not result in reduced workloads … [or the addition of] foosball tables, free-food cafes and take-your-dog-to-work days. Winning companies will continue to demand ever-higher impact from their leaders and professionals; it’s simply required in a global, hyper-competitive business environment. But the smartest ones will help their hard-working, valued professionals accomplish what they say is most important—and in doing so, will tap into a primal source of sustainability and energy—human reciprocity! Think about how excited you would be to work for a firm that provided you with the opportunity to do challenging, groundbreaking work—and also supported you in achieving something you identified as most important from a personal perspective.
It appears the biggest contributor is a seeming inability to pursue objectives important to the star, be they personal or professional. Is this “brownout,” indeed, the result of lost dreams and lost relationships?
Certainly, the lack of meaning in work—through fading career dreams or lost relationships—can be a trigger for brownout. But often it’s a simple combination of mundane but meaningful factors—a perceived loss of status or influence, a crushing upsurge of “more of the same” work, a personal health issue or family concern—such as aging parents or troubled teens.
One thing I would add to these is the dynamic at play in so many of our biggest companies these days—feeling like a cog in the machine. Industries as diverse as building materials, accounting firms, legal services, healthcare providers and airlines have all pared themselves down to a small handful of global giants with the capacity to straddle the globe and deliver to clients on a global basis. This brings exciting potential and almost unlimited opportunity for professionals. But too often, they feel the environment in these firms is deeply impersonal, political and fraught with redundant internal processes. The very best companies have countered this dynamic by becoming purpose-driven, by promoting mobility and cross-training, by integrating their systems to streamline internal reporting, and by embracing career development and coaching among other things.
By the same token, can you give me specific recommendations for avoiding it in one’s “superstar” self?
As you know, success in business is largely predicated on being able to keep promises to others—to be able to deliver on the commitments one needs to make to customers, to fellow team members and such. When you can do that, a flood of opportunities, responsibility and compensation comes your way. And like any other positive feedback loop, keeping promises to others becomes deeply ingrained in professionals. They give more and more of themselves. But play this out over a 10- or 20-year period and what happens? There is very little of “themselves” left. They become far less compelling as a boss, as a counselor to their people, as an inspirational leader, and especially, as a role model for millennials. On a personal level, of course, it can greatly diminish even a very robust person’s vitality and passion for the job. We find that the best way we can begin to help our clients to fight off brownout is to cultivate the ability to make and keep their promises to themselves as well as to others. That might include exercising, sleeping, cleaning your desk, even getting some financial help.
Remember, this is not about work/life balance; it’s about being successful both personally and professionally. Various stakeholders need various things from us, and we’re not going to be able to achieve some magical balance, no way, but there is a way to … unleash our true selves and not feel so stuck in this brownout descent.
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