SCARY, BUT NOT DANGEROUS
Updated: Apr 15
How to prevent burnout without losing your leadership edge.
Career transitions can look scary, but they may be the safest thing for you. The waves of change are here. There are potentially some great waves to ride.
I built the first 15 years of my career being tapped on the shoulder for greater opportunities. I didn’t have a CV - I never needed to apply for a job. I took on regional and global roles within Nokia, IBM and Check Point Technologies, and worked across the world from Asia to Europe and the US.
At the height of my career, I was managing a team of 110 people across the world. In the pre-pandemic world, I was jetting around the world in Business Class. I was a member of the Singapore Airlines PPS Club, with my eyes fixated on the Solitaire. I earned a steady and generous salary, bringing home in a month what most people would make in a year. I had the landed property, European car, trophy wife and doting kids. I ate at the hottest tables in town. I owned the latest electronic gadgets. Externally, my life looked fantastic. But internally, I was not happy. Something was missing. I felt trapped, as if I was not in full control of my life; like someone else was in the driver’s seat. Is this what being stuck in the rut feels like?
And then I caught myself, ashamed for even thinking like that. A voice that sounded surprisingly like my dad's booms in my head: You should be happy! You are making good money. Stop whining like a little girl.
So I kept it to myself and continued my supposedly charmed life. Shut up! Grit your teeth. Don't be lazy. Get on with it. I invested all my energy into climbing the corporate ladder, pretending that I was happier, more successful and more in control than I felt.
And it nearly killed me.
I was away on business every other week. I would arrive home for the weekend - completely exhausted. Quality time with family is me collapsed on the floor, while the kids hop on pop. Before I could acclimatise, I was heading to the airport again on Sunday night, doing the red-eye flight, and then heading straight to the office from the airport, to start the work week on the dot on Monday at 9 am. Again and again.
Externally, I was saying: YES! LOOK AT MY FABULOUS LIFE. But internally, I was saying: NO, IT'S NOT! I kept this up for years. I ignored that niggling feeling, but deep down I knew that I was going to wake up one day, realising that I had been disrupted to the core, simply because I was not prepared to confront the elephant in the room.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SCARY AND DANGEROUS
We have a beach villa in Kudat in Sabah, Malaysia. Depending on which part of the year you visit, the beach will look completely different.
When you visit in March, the beach looks like a giant swimming pool. The sun is shining brightly and the ocean is a beautiful crystal turquoise colour. The water is flat and laps gently at the shoreline. You can swim as far out into the open ocean and still feel safe. The water is so clear that you can see all the way to the white sandy bottom - it's like swimming in a swimming pool.
The beach looks completely different when you visit in December. Sabah has a nickname of the "land below the wind", and Kudat lies just below the typhoon belt of East Asia. It looks scary AND it's dangerous. You know to stay out of the water.
NOT SCARY, BUT DANGEROUS
Surf's up in Kudat during September. It is bright and sunny, but the waves are now big enough for surfing. Like beautiful walls of glass coming towards you.
At specific sections of the beach, there is a noticeable break in the pattern of waves: the water looks flat, in contrast to the lines of breaking waves on either side of it. This is a rip current. A rip current is a strong and narrow current of water that moves directly away from the shore, like a river running out to sea. On the surface, it looks safe - it's bright and sunny, and the water looks flat and calm. But in reality, it is dangerous. People can drown in a rip current - even strong swimmers.
That's what was happening to me. On the surface, it didn't look scary.... but it was dangerous.
HOW DO YOU GET OUT?
Typically, someone who is burning out at work will think: Should I quit my job? You start looking externally for something better: work-life balance, less mind-numbing work, supportive bosses, great employees. It's like searching for a unicorn. The problem is: unicorns don't exist. It seems inescapable - the challenges of modern corporate life with its impossible targets and ridiculous timelines. It may be a different job or in a different organisation, but you'll eventually face the same problem: gritting your teeth through a bunch of boring Thursdays, heading towards a cliff. Your situation feels unmanageable, but there's nothing you can do about it. You have no choice; you're trapped. You can be stuck here till the day you retire at 65 years old.
So, how do you get out of it?
People caught in a rip current may notice that they are moving away from the shore quite rapidly. Their first instinct is to swim directly back to shore. This is a mistake. A rip current can be so powerful that it's impossible to swim directly against it, even for Joseph Schooling. At best, they're working really hard, staying in one place. Eventually, they become exhausted and drown.
The trick to getting out of a rip current is simply to recognise it. At that moment of recognition, instinctively, you'll stop fighting against it. Next, you can get out of it quite easily by swimming at a right angle, or simply relaxing and allowing the current to carry you until it dissipates completely beyond the rip zone.
The trick to getting out of burning out at work is not very different; you simply have to recognise it: I'm overwhelmed. I'm burning out. This simple recognition can be the most liberating experience. At the moment of recognition, you instinctively stop fighting, and a possibility opens up. Suddenly, you're given the space to transform your situation. You know what to do next - it comes naturally.
WHAT STOPS YOU FROM GETTING OUT?
We are intimately familiar with being hard on ourselves. We are highly-trained experts at beating ourselves up (and the people closest to us). Stop whining like a little girl. Our despotic dominant Type-A personality thinks being burned out and overwhelmed is normal, even something to be proud of. Shut up! You should be happy. We ignore that niggling feeling. We avoid it. We try to get rid of it by getting massages, inhaling copious amounts of alcohol and engaging in death-defying sports.
Be honest with yourself. See how you resist recognising that you're burned out, like the swimmer going resolutely against the rip current.
Another thing to note. It's not that you're unhappy. In our research, 70% of respondents report regularly feeling a sense of purpose at work. But overwhelmingly 90% feel they would be happier in their career if they were allowed to act more purposefully. There is a sense that we are barely scratching the surface of our potential. It's like driving with the handbrakes on.
The male ego may find it offensive to admit that you're burned out. It can feel like the edge of despair, but this is also the edge of greatness, if you hold the space to reflect and learn from it. It's a fool's errand trying to work in this burned-out state - that's the swimmer going against the rip current. But when you own up to the truth, the possibility opens up and you can transform your situation. You remove the handbrakes.
Quit or don't quit? Most people limit their choices to these two options. That's extremely limiting. It's no surprise if you feel trapped. Instead, expand your options. Here are some examples of how other leaders have done it.
Do nothing. After many rounds of interviews, this leader realised that the challenges he was facing in his current organisation were no different than if he was working for its competitors. He decided to stay and tackle the challenges with a team that he already knew and trusted.
Do less: This leader was part of the founding team to scale the organisation 10x within one year. Initially, he tried to do everything, and got frustrated. Instead, he spoke to his boss to narrow his responsibility to focus on building one core function - and succeeded.
Do more: This leader asked to work on the organisation's social media content in a different department, whilst he continued to work on his full-time operations role. Essentially, he was doing two jobs. This may be counter-intuitive - you're already overwhelmed. But working on social media content was energising for him - he loved it. It gave him more energy to work on both roles.
Moonlighting: This Chief Marketing Officer drove a Grab car on weekends. Another leader sold his old camera gear on Carousel. They didn't need the money. They wanted first-hand experience about these companies, not just read about them.
Internal transfer: This leader requested a transfer from a senior engineering team leader role to an independent contributor sales role. It might look like a step-down, but the move was extremely strategic. A salesperson with an engineering background is extremely rare. It paid off in the long term.
Quit: This leader had reached the glass ceiling in his organisation: he had learned everything he needed to learn, he had made significant contributions to the organisation over the years. Applying his domain expertise and leadership in a completely different industry gave him the learning & growth he wanted. Read this before quitting.
As for me, the moment of truth happened when I was about to turn 39. I finally called bullsh*t on myself. How do I get back to doing work that energises me? How do I change? There was a series of events, and I ended up co-founding PERSONNA with my wife. And the rest, as they say, is history in the making.
Career transitions can look scary, but it may be the safest thing for you - get out of the rip zone. Career coaching can provide the tools and support structures to help you make a strategic and powerful transition.
We’ll love to support you on that journey. We offer a range of leadership coaching and leadership branding services. You can read more about it here.
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We’re here to help people become better leaders, build highly effective teams, and create a culture of trust & collaboration in their organisations. We provide leadership branding, leadership coaching and group experiences. Drop us an email to find out more about reaching your next level of performance; firstname.lastname@example.org.