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Business At The Speed Of Burnout

by Shonali Burke on June 11, 2010

“Marissa, you need to slow down. People need a chance to catch their breath and catch up with you.”

Those were the words that hit me hard in a conversation with one of my VPs recently. I can’t remember the day because at the rate I have been running, all of the days, meetings, and conversations blur into one another.

Image: Alexander Goodyear, Creative Commons

The “Acceleration Trap”

According to an article entitled “The Acceleration Trap” in the April 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review, I’m not alone.

In response to intensifying competition, organizations increase the number and speed of their activities, raise performance goals, shorten time-to-market cycles, and introduce new organizational systems and technologies at an unprecedented rate.

On the surface, all of these initiatives may indicate a growing, thriving company – a company that’s moving forward at a brisk and healthy pace.

But if you dig deeper, you may realize that the organization at hand may be in danger of becoming its own worst enemy. Aggressive deadlines coupled with a consistent demand for innovative ways to be faster, better, and smarter can give way to chronic overloading, lack of focus, and burnout.

As I read through “The Acceleration Trap,” I was able to identify with some of the symptoms that are found inside organizations suffering from uncontrolled acceleration – and this bothers me because I am very committed to maintaining a healthy culture.

Too much work?

The authors of this article studied more than 600 companies over the past nine years to understand acceleration. For example, 60% of surveyed employees agreed or strongly agreed that their companies lacked sufficient resources to get their work done.

As the CEO of a firm that has not experienced a dry spell in workload in 10 years, and has identified recruitment as one of the most important strategies to keep up with our growth, I can relate to this challenge.

When people make light of my challenge to manage our ever-growing workload, I explain that CEOs lose just as much sleep when they have too much work, as when they don’t have enough work.

Business owners are constantly balancing the need to build the pipeline and backlog with ensuring our employees are not overloaded.

Further, 86% of respondents said they did not regularly get a chance to regenerate after working at full-capacity for an extended period of time. This is also something that concerns me.

Now that I’m aware of the risks of falling prey to the acceleration trap, how can I – the person who consciously or subconsciously sets the organizational pace – avoid landing in the trap?

Setting the pace

I recently brought in a business development expert to lead a proposal development boot-camp, and one of the topics he discussed was the importance of mirroring the cadence of your customer.

When you are engaging or presenting to a customer, how aware are you of their cadence… their pace? Do you speed up or slow down to mirror their rhythm and their posturing so that you are synchronized with them? This is one technique that you can use to you align with your customer.

I thought about this concept, and how I can apply it to my employees as well. “Mirroring the cadence” … What a great concept both inside and outside of your organization. As the CEO, how does your pace compare to the pace of those you lead?

What signals are you giving?

As the CEO, you own the cadence and pace of your organization. If you are seeing signs of acceleration and burnout around you, what are you able to personally do to halt them?

The first thing may be to examine what signals you are giving, and what expectations you are communicating – whether you are aware of them or not.

Are you asking for the development of new initiatives before existing initiatives have even been implemented?

Are you constantly asking employees to suggest new initiatives to improve the company, when perhaps the real question is what initiatives should be put on the back burner or even terminated?

Online, all the time

What is the pace of your communication? Do you as the CEO consistently send emails outside of business hours… at 10 PM during the week, or throughout the weekend? Now that home offices and blackberries are natural extensions of our regular offices, there is no “typical” work day.

Employees in virtually every position across the organization are online all the time, leaving no room for disconnection.

For better or for worse, when a company executive sends an email, the recipient feels compelled to respond. What implication does that have on your culture? What message does this send about constant communication?

The burden to set the pace of the organization heavily relies on the executive leadership. As leaders, our employees are constantly watching – and responding to – our behaviors.

Striving for “Sustaining Energy”

Ideally, a company is powered by what the Harvard Business Review article authors call “sustaining energy” – a joyful urgency among the employees that never burns out. When this occurs, the energy in the company is intense, positive, and definitely conspicuous.

But if the leader gets greedy, demanding the same level of urgency and output every day with no respite, energy will evaporate, morale will suffer, and both individual and organizational performance will fizzle.

Conversely, working at a sustainable pace will protect the organization and its people over the long term.

So for the CEO, this means vigilantly protecting against the dangers of burnout and acceleration by setting a healthy pace for everyone to mirror, starting with themselves… inside and outside the company.

Cross-posted with minor edits and permission from the DC Women’s Entrepreneurship Examiner

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Guest contributor Marissa Levin is Founder and CEO of Information Experts. Marissa was named a 2008 BRAVO Award winner, and a Smart100 CEO for both 2009 and 2010, by SmartCEO Magazine (which honors the region’s 25 most influential women CEOs); recently she was listed in Washington’s 100 Technology Titans by Washingtonian Magazine. She is also the DC Women’s Entrepreneurship Examiner. Describing her true passion as “helping other business owners be successful with their own business growth,” Marissa can be reached through her blog Marissa Levin.

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