A few years ago, I sat in a room with my executive coach, Traci, unloading a list of feelings I was experiencing with work. I told her I found it hard to get excited about business opportunities that’d normally have me leaping out of my chair. I was void of the flow of ideas I use to fuel our business. The company, and my relationship to it, felt gray and foggy. “Yeah, you’re burned out,” she responded matter of factly. It was like someone walked into the blacked-out room I was in and flipped on the light switch I’d been searching for.
Getting to burnout
For the first few years of my career, I formed a work habit that proved great for my employers but not sustainable in the long term for me. I was learning on the job and, in software, there is always some new skill or approach to get lost in. The double duty of learning while doing was a dream for me because every day I walked into fantastic problems that I’d have to figure my way out of. My weeks were epic. Eighty hours one week, ninety the next. I remember vertigo. I remember getting home one night and crying in my wife’s arms because a website for marketing booze wasn’t getting finished fast enough. I cried over a marketing website!
I got out of the work-for-them vortex when I co-founded We Are Mammoth, but the only thing that really changed was that now I was the one calling the shots. What shots did I call? Work more, sell more, learn more. Owning my own business was a shot in the arm – a new source of learning curves and the sense that we’d fail or succeed because of our efforts, not those of an executive team. So it continued for the next decade; a hustle of growing and hiring, of revenue peaks and valleys, of new products and investments. It was every hat every day.
Running a company like that doesn’t afford a lot of downtime, and what I began experiencing around 2014 (a year after Kin had launched) was foreign to me. It became increasingly difficult to focus on my work – both the routine stuff and the juicy bits like new features or products. The moments where engine and driver were one became fewer and farther between. I didn’t read the tea leaves because of my workhorse tendency to work through the pain. It took almost three years of this before Traci gave me my prognosis.
To be honest, Traci’s remark didn’t create the stir in me I wish it had. It took the better part of a year along with a major change at our company to appreciate just how big an impact burnout had on my life.
Coming to terms with burnout
Two years ago my partners and I decided to split up after eleven years of building a business together. It happened at a low point in our financial performance, so the change was accompanied by a lay off of a large part of our staff. It was a miserable time. I spent the subsequent few months wondering what might become of a company I now wholly owned but which might not have the energy to continue on. The company at that time reflected my own feelings of work: gray and foggy.
The question of whether my burnout played a role in the lead up to this period never occurred to me until recently. Did it contribute to the company’s lack of solid financial performance? Looking back, my answer is no. In fact, the period prior to this pivot point was a very productive time in our history – we had reinvigorated the team with new product ideas and research fueled by a business vision that would fortify it for years to come. The problem was that it was the right plan at the wrong time – the company simply couldn’t afford the runway we needed to really take flight.
Where burnout did play a role for me was in the period of time between the layoffs and what I’ll endearingly call our “renewal.” The feeling of drifting without a rudder had never been stronger until my sense of mission became clearer – something that, just a couple of years earlier, wouldn’t have been such an opaque experience. I was burned out. Plain and simple.
How burnout has steered a new chapter
Needless to say, the company survived. Not only that, but it came out stronger and more focused on the other end. As I write this, we’re approaching two years of solid performance. As for whether burnout plays a role in the company we’ve become? Absolutely.
Because the ownership of the company is now singular, I hold singular responsibility for our vision and business strategy — my strength. Our day to day operational leadership, however, is almost entirely in the hands of our COO, Lisa Arnold, and our engineering director, Grant Black. This reflects my relationship with work well because I’ve removed myself from the aspects of operations that I’m not well-suited for but which they both thrive in.
Another important way we’ve changed our company isn’t due to burnout per se, but it certainly helps me combat its effects: we’re an entirely remote workplace with a penchant for taking time off. Our team has done away with commutes and we ensure everyone utilizes their paid time off regularly. Coupled with the close attention we pay to workloads and purpose-driven work, our team has fewer spouts of exhaustion. I spend fulfilling time at work, and the rest of it is spent refueling with my family and friends, with travel and cycling.
The change that has had the most profound impact on the company, however, has been candid communication. If I was going to rebuild our company, I needed everyone who was coming with to open up about their lives and relationship with work, and it’d have to start with me. That requires a lot of guts and humility; two qualities our team has in good supply. Our 2019 team seems to work just as much with their hearts as we do with our heads – a practice that’s as good for our business as it is for our workplace.
Leading with honesty
I’ve been working in this industry for twenty years now, long enough to know that the work ethic it romanticizes and the products it creates can have a very negative effect on mental health. I know because I’m a victim of it. Accepting burnout has felt like acknowledging defeat at times; an end to the workhorse I was. I think a lot of people feel this way, which is why I’m sharing my experience.
I’ve learned that burnout isn’t the end of productivity, but it has required a fresh approach and plenty of patience for me. It’s made a better leader of me, as it’s forced me to work with my constraints and, in turn, develop the leadership and trust in the people I need to run the company.
As an employer I know right from wrong, just as anybody who willingly looks at the facts should, and I don’t want my team members to experience what I have. There are certainly better routes to career development. While I want my team to bring their best to work each day, I don’t want our company to block out the sunshine in their lives; our work is important, but it’s simply not worth the human cost of pushing employees (or letting them push themselves) to burnout or even deeper toward its darker brethren of mental illness.