Executive Burnout and How to Avoid It

OnCourse's Jim Warner advises technologists and executives who are reeling from the economy's fallout, as well as those who might be taking a hard look at their work/life balance in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Visions of stillborn products haunted the company founder. Nightmares about mass layoffs jolted him awake at 3:00 a.m., while flat markets and bloodthirsty competitors pitched him into clinical depression.
It sounds a lot like dot-com carnage, but its actually a story thats as old as VAX minicomputers. Its the story of Jim Warner, the founder of Precision Visuals Inc., a Boulder, Colo., data analysis and visualization software maker that Warner sold in 1992 for the reasons above--reasons that added up to executive burnout for Warner.
Now Warner runs OnCourse International, a Boulder firm that counsels mid-career executives who are running hot with imminent possibility of burnout. And hes written a book that will be out Feb. 6 (Wiley Books, ISBN: 0471443980) titled "Aspirations of Greatness: Mapping the Midlife Leaders Reconnection to Self and Soul."
eWEEK Strategies Managing Editor Lisa Vaas recently asked Warner what advice he has for technologists and executives who are reeling from the economys fallout, as well as those who might be taking a hard look at their work/life balance in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

eWEEK: What makes an executive ripe for burnout?
Warner: All these guys getting these entrepreneur awards for growth, its like getting on the cover of Sports Illustrated. One or two years later, the company craters or the CEO gets fired. Its really sad. What triggers it is obsession with growth and money.
The career transition issue is faced [by the executives who attend OnCourses career transition seminars] when theyre viewed as successful by everyone around them, but inside theres a sense of hollowness.
We become workaholics. My identity was so tied up in the business. When it began to fall, my sense of self-worth fell. The more healthy view of business is [to view it as being] a part of who I am, not all of who I am.

eWEEK: How can professionals identify when its time to get off the treadmill of long work hours and high pressure?
Warner: Continue asking yourself this question: What is my life about? Am I so tied up in my business that its overwhelmed my identity? Hows my marriage, my personal health, my relationship with my children? Do I have any friends, or has all that become subservient to my work life?
That can work for a time, but if your life has become only your business, youre destined for a downfall. The IT pro [must ask himself or herself], "What is my life about? Has my life become all I am?" If so, do you want to continue that way? If not, what do you want to do about it?
Thats where tough decisions come. To get off that treadmill--the drug of accolades and monetary awards—somethings got to give. Invariably its the compensation. Its the title.
It means downsizing or racheting back on lifestyle or vocational expectations. Thats a huge hit for most egos to take.
But if you ask most spouses of IT pros who are working 80-hour weeks and getting rapid promotions, they could care less. Theyd rather have the husband or wife home.

eWEEK: Its never been easy to negotiate telecommuting or cutting back on work hours, but its got to be far harder now, given the economic meltdown. Are you seeing fewer people negotiating with employers over these issues now?
Warner: Now [people] are looking for work, period. Theyre in survival mode, vs. having choices. Once people get out of survival mode, Im finding more and more are saying, What is my life about?
Age makes a big difference, too. People in their 20s, early 30s, theyre still making their mark in life. I thought I was immortal. Im 51 now. It starts hitting you in your mid-30s. People think, what do they want to be to their kids? Especially after 9/11, [people are realizing] the work is not worth it.

eWEEK: How should IT professionals negotiate a better balance, given the tough times?
Warner: My coaching is to approach employers and say, "Heres the service I can provide to this company where I can give very good value for the work Im willing to give." That work may be more specialized. [For example, a manager might offer to] manage a smaller group of employees, and [say to the employer,] "I commit to you, Mr. Employer, that Ill do a superior job at that." But in exchange for that I want to draw a boundary. I want to work a 30- or 40-hour week. I want to telecommute X amount of hours per week. If you accept that, great. Thats our relationship. If that doesnt fit for you, lets part ways now and avoid anguish for both of us.
Id counsel IT pros to figure out what is the skill set they have themselves that they can sell to their employer thats a fair deal to that employer. I had employees who said to me, "These are the hours Im willing to work, and this is the work I want to do." I didnt like it at the time. They took themselves off the fast track. But they did a hell of a good job for me.