Sometimes the most important thing a leader can do is figure out what things they should stop doing.
The red flags were all there. I was becoming visibly agitated during meetings (more than usual). I was being reactive instead of strategic when confronted with problems. I wasn’t sleeping well, and I didn’t want to get our of bed in the morning. I was even starting to forget things (again, more than usual). Overall, I felt lost, easily frustrated, and completely unmotivated. In other words, I was totally burned out.
So what does a leader do when they feel burned out? At first I beat myself up for being weak, inexperienced, or otherwise unworthy of the responsibility. Then I thought a lot about quitting. Eventually, I started getting sick. So, I finally resorted to doing the only responsible thing that wouldn’t ruin lives: I took a holiday.
I didn’t even go anywhere or doing anything particularly interesting. I mostly slept in, napped, read books, puttered around the house, and went to parks. Sure, other non work related stresses consumed a few days of my week-long vacation (buying/registering a car in Germany sucks), but for seven whole days I didn’t think about work once. It was awesome.
Now that I’m back, I’ve slowly started to get my head back in the game. Interestingly, the core reason I was feeling so burned out in the first place became clear…
My priorities were all fucked up.
Specifically, I was doing a few things all wrong, like:
- Saying yes to everyone and everything
- Acting like a parent who tries to fix everything
- Focusing on perfection
- Not taking ownership of my time
Add to the above 16 direct reports, a department that’s involved in nearly everything, and an ever-increasing pressure to improve the company. It’s no wonder I was struggling.
The company isn’t going to change (at least, not in ways that decrease my responsibilities). The people in my department, or the company at large, aren’t going to change either (at least, not in ways that I can control). So then, what am I going to change?
The first (and easiest) thing I can change is how I structure my work week. Back-to-back meetings every day — without any strategy — make it impossible to focus on any one thing. Too much context switching and over-involvement in random activities prevents me from being able to take a step back, process the situation/issue/problem, and think strategically. Therefore, I’m going to try a few simple things to free up my schedule and give me more time to think strategically, like:
- Scheduling 1-on-1’s with my people so that I meet with only one person each day. This should allow me to spend time with everyone at least once a month, and to focus on their specific needs without feeling overwhelmed.
- Instituting “office hours” one or two days a week so that anyone on the team who needs help or support doesn’t have to wait until their next 1-on-1.
- Establishing bi-weekly meetings with other leaders in the company in order to align priorities and resolve conflicts/issues.
The second thing I can change isn’t so easy, but would help more than anything else: Delegate some of my management responsibilities to others. Not only will this decrease my workload, but it will also allow others on the team to advance their careers. It’s a win win for everyone… IF the right people are nominated, the transition is well planned/executed, and they are adequately supported afterwards, of course.
Meanwhile, there are at least one or two big projects I’m involved with that I really shouldn’t be. I can’t possibly lead a department AND actively manage projects. The third thing I need to do then, is figure out what projects or project team I need to step down from, and find a suitable replacement.
Once those things have been addressed, I should (in theory) have more time to devote to overall strategy and contributing more fully to other important initiatives.
I’m sure some of these things won’t go as I had planned, and other/new things will always come up. The important thing is that I start to evaluate my responsibilities and commitments more proactively, and then experiment with ways to reduce my overhead while increasing my effectiveness as a leader. While that might seem like an obvious thing any leader needs to do, it’s a lot harder to put into practice. It requires a lot of self-awareness, self-control, and self-care. But not going through this exercise is exactly what leads to ineffective leadership, frustration, and ultimate burnout.