Corner Office-Fried Executives

Corner Office-Fried Executives

A recipe for high levels of exhaustion.

In our breakneck-speed business world, things happen around us that we are either unaware of or choose not to acknowledge. One of these silent but critical issues in business today is the increasing number of CEOs and other executives who are suffering from exhaustion, depression, and high blood pressure. It’s both interesting and disturbing to note that Monday morning sees a spike in the incidence of heart attacks.

What are the ingredients for this growing tragedy in our executive ranks? Consider the following recipe:


Take one corner office occupant and mix with:

• 1 ton economic recession mixed with inflation
• 2 bushels global competition, constant adaptation, and change
• 3 gallons complex business processes
• 4 quarts pressure to improve performance, quality, and service
• 5 pints ever-increasing responsibilities in post-merger organizations
• 6 cups portable, 24-7 workplace
• 7 tablespoons fear of becoming obsolete
• 8 teaspoons loss of control over schedule, income, respect, and trust
• 9 pounds motivating difficult employees and management team
• 10 ounces being accountable to directors, investors, employees, customers, the public, spouse, kids, community, and religious groups.


Blend these ingredients in an organizational pressure cooker for several months. The result is an executive fried to a crisp. Put a fork in this person—he or she is done.


I suspect there are many of you who can relate to this recipe for disaster. Is it any wonder that so many executives are dropping out of the rat race or retiring early?

No one ever said that an executive’s job was easy, and especially in these current difficult economic conditions, it’s downright grueling. The time is ripe for high levels of CEO burnout, turnover, and exhaustion. Putting my Dr. Phil hat on once again, let’s review some burnout prevention measures. We should all remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Burnout Awareness


First, be aware of the common signs of burnout so that you can recognize them in yourself and begin to make positive changes in your life. According to a variety of professionals in the field, as well as from my own experience and those of many clients and friends, signs of burnout include:

People problems. Have your interactions with people become full of conflict, cynicism, and negativity? Do you feel out of control with your life, your business, your schedule, and your future? Do you overreact to situations with hostility or emotional outbursts?

Emotional numbness. Are you tired all the time? Depressed and full of anxiety more often than not? Have these feelings led to emotional fatigue, where it’s difficult to get excited or even care about anything?

Pinball productivity. At this point of burnout, you have lost interest in your work and cannot focus on what’s important. Everything comes under question. Alternatively, you cannot stop thinking about work and are unable to enjoy other outlets that used to be satisfying, such as family activities, sports, or community or church involvement. This obsessive thinking leads to poor decision making and your leadership bounces around like a pinball. Personal productivity is poor, and the entire organization suffers because employees can sense that the captain is distracted.

Poor physical health. Along with the emotional issues listed above, physical signs of burnout include fatigue, headaches, insomnia, back pain, hypertension, chest pain, stomach problems, rashes or hives, and susceptibility to colds and other viruses. These physical issues, combined with the emotional problems and lack of concentration, also increase the risk of being involved in accidents.

Attempts to self-medicate. If executives in a burnout situation do not have the self-awareness to make positive changes in their lives, they attempt to soothe their situation with massive amounts of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, prescription drugs, illegal drugs, or other addictive behaviors. Whatever the poison, it is a futile effort to correct the imbalance in their lives—these behaviors only worsen the problem.

Make Some Changes


If any of these signs are familiar to you, or if you are a corporate director and have observed them in your CEO or other executives, take the first step toward making positive changes immediately. No business problem is worth ruining an executive’s life by having a heart attack or worse.

I know from experience that admitting you are burning out is difficult. As a banking executive, at one time I was responsible for 7,800 employees in 154 locations and a huge budget. As a reward for a job well done, I had been given (and accepted) increasing amounts of responsibility, most of which required an intense hands-on management style to turn around failing parts of the business.

I was working 70 to 80 hours a week, thinking that I had achieved the American Dream. I had “made it,” right? Then why was I so miserable? Why was I constantly tired, depressed at times, and why was my mind excited about work, but my body couldn’t keep up? I was reminded of the great artist Michelangelo, who wrote, “If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.”

And I could see the writing on the wall; my future was continued promotions to more pressure, more visibility, and more responsibility. I knew that if I stayed, I would either do a poor job or end up with serious health problems. I had reached the same place that TCF Financial Corporation’s CEO Lynn Nagorske reached when he announced his recent retirement, citing “burnout” as the reason. I admire his decision to step away from corporate life and all of its trappings in order to get his own life in better balance. I, too, am glad that almost 20 years ago I had the guts to tell the bank’s board of directors that it was time for me to step away.

Since then, in my role as an advisor to companies, I’ve encountered many burned-out executives at the helm of failing or sick companies. It’s often difficult to know which came first: Did the burnout lead to poor performance, or did the company’s poor performance lead to the executive burnout? Usually the cure is to tell the executive it’s time to move on. Even though it’s very difficult at the time, many executives of client companies have thanked me because I forced them to make the change that had to be made.

So be aware of the pressures you are under. If you recognize these signs of burnout, make some positive changes before it’s too late. Take time away from work to live a more balanced and fulfilled life. Build support systems of peers, family, and friends who are honest with you and care enough to tell you when you need to take a break. Talk to a professional psychologist who can objectively listen to your anger and frustration and teach you ways to deal with stress. Go on vacation, read a good book, get some exercise, get involved in your community or a religious organization. My favorite non-work pastime nowadays is to simply play with my grandkids.

The moral of the story is that it’s important to stay in touch with your mental and physical health, and for corporate directors to be in tune with the exhaustion level of their CEOs and other executives. In today’s competitive environment, we all have to be performance driven and work harder than ever before. Too many people in business pay a huge price for what they see as success, but it’s a shallow victory if they are physically and emotionally bankrupt.

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