The “fire in the belly” entrepreneur is legendary in business – the person whose enthusiasm and belief in his or her enterprise carries them through the tough times, undaunted and head held high. But anyone who’s taken a ride through the Business Storm Cycle knows that nobody comes through it unscathed. If you’re in business, you’ll experience it more than once – from the dizzying highs of the Tornado, when your startup kicks into gear and you’re selling more than you can produce, to the Avalanche where everything you’ve built seems to be falling down around you, to the relative quiet of the consolidation phase where you and your team are exhausted and fearful.
All of this movement and stress leads to burnout, and we can be so deep in the weeds we don’t even know we’ve arrived at that condition. The exhaustion, the sense of hopelessness or of being overwhelmed, the loss of interest in the enterprise itself – these are all indicators that we’re running on empty. The dictionary definition is “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress” – but we don’t want to let it take us over the edge.
And don’t forget your people, the ones who’ve taken that long, hard ride alongside you. We can’t neglect that third leg of our business triangle – our people – because they’re what make it all go. No software, no processes, no magic bullet can take the place of committed people working together to move things forward. That’s why it’s important that as leaders we’re aware of these three common tipping points in the life of an enterprise.
Three common causes of burnout:
1. Startup pressures: Nobody works harder than an entrepreneur who’s in the startup phase of creating a business. This person usually wears many hats; he might be the product inventor, marketer, the primary salesperson and the HR department all rolled into one. Long hours and tight money are typical of this phase. And while that may be okay and even energizing for the person whose dream this business represents, for employees it can be exhausting.
2. Success overwhelms you: I realize this may sound like the kind of problem that business owners pray for – but in fact a hypergrowth Tornado can derail and exhaust your people. I’ve seen it happen; what I call the Tyranny of the Urgent takes over, and everyone is running like crazy just to stay in the same place. Let them know you understand what they’re going through. Talk and listen; find out where the bottlenecks are, where the tensions are building and where your processes are failing. Make sure that departments are working together, not at war, and that team leaders come out of their silos and meet to strategize about challenges.
3. The Avalanche. If you’ve gone through the hypergrowth Tornado phase, then had it all come crashing down in the Avalanche phase, your people are going to be battle weary and likely to be looking around for someone to blame. Don’t allow your company culture to devolve into a battlefield of skirmishing departments fighting over whose fault it was. Your people need a leader now more than ever. Reassure them singly and as a group that none of this is anyone’s fault, that this downturn is an inevitable outcome of a hypergrowth phase – and that this, too, shall pass. Meanwhile rally the troops and get everyone back on board; now is the time to retool your processes and technology to help your team get through this phase and prepare for the next Tornado.