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Crisis at the summit

Crisis at the summit

Overachievers at the top of their game are vulnerable to a hard-to-detect affliction that can derail their careers. It is important to spot the subtle symptoms early.

The romanticised portrayal of superstars celebrates a happy combination of natural gifts, ambition, circumstance, and timing ­— all fuelling an unimpeded ascent to the top. But even for the most gifted individuals blessed with a series of fortuitous career developments, the path to the top is often not smooth. As they master each assignment along the way, an unrecognised affliction can strike. Its cause, paradoxically, is success itself. After the novel demands of the current position have been conquered and before the next job begins (with its new requirements for growth) is a vulnerable time for overachievers. Incapable of coasting, they can lose their bearings and question their purpose. Confusion can evolve into inner turmoil. If left unattended, this summit syndrome may derail promising careers and deprive organisations of talent they’ve banked on for their future. The problem is, its early signs are hard to detect and easy to ignore.

Andrew Thompson (a composite character based on various people we’ve coached) is a case in point. The 36-year-old gregarious Ivy Leaguer had, by his own description, a dream career at an elite investment bank. The financial service industry’s equivalent of an Olympic gold medallist, he attracted and retained wealthy individuals by eking out that extra quarter per cent of “alpha” return above the norm.

Quickly promoted from covering individual wealthy clients to managing the largest team in the firm’s US private-banking group, he oversaw US$4 billion in assets and was known for going the extra mile.

In recent months, though, something had changed. What started as a slight diminution in professional edge had now become an intrusive boredom. The buzz was missing. He wasn’t driving himself as hard to ferret out the insights that produced those exceptional returns. He was ignoring the friction among his fiercely ­— competitive team members and was vulnerable to distractions. He became obsessed with completing each day’s New York Times crossword puzzle.

Much to his surprise, when friends called with a proposal to row the Atlantic, he found himself genuinely interested. He started overeating and overindulging at cocktail hour. He began taking calls from head-hunters, whom he had brushed off in the past; it was the prospect of change, rather than the nature of the jobs themselves, that was appealing.

While he continued to excel, observant colleagues, including his boss, thought he seemed slightly distracted. Although the firm continued to treat him like an up-and-coming star, Thompson knew that halos have a short half-life in financial services. He started to worry: Would others soon notice that something was amiss? Had he lost his edge?

Much has been written about the ways individuals end up on the “outs” with their organisations — frozen out when stylistic idiosyncrasies clash with a superior’s personality or an organisation’s culture; burned out by the toxic triad of an overwhelming workload, the inability to see the positive impact of one’s labours, and the failure to achieve career aspirations; psyched out by biological or psychological changes that trigger a midlife crisis; or flaming out from a fundamental incompatibility between one’s abilities and the requirements of the job.

The summit syndrome is different. It afflicts extreme overachievers who thrive on challenge. They can be found in abundance in tightly-wired organisations — in the premier investment banks and consulting firms; in start-ups; in semiconductor, computer, and software development companies; and in the elite units of multi-product corporations. These supercharged individuals exult in winning, mastering new skills, acquiring knowledge, and surpassing previous benchmarks of excellence.

They are addicted to their own adrenaline. But the rush from pushing beyond their limits tends to dissipate once the new territory has been mastered; an identity built around the galvanising effects of meeting and conquering daunting challenges loses its purchase as such people near the peak of a job’s learning curve. They can’t or find it extremely difficult to motor along on flat terrain. An S-curve aptly describes the rapid ascent to proficiency and the gradual loss of career momentum that occurs when such individuals master a job. It’s near the top where the troubles begin.

This summit experience is not a once-in-a-lifetime event like a midlife crisis. The careers of most overachievers are a sequence of S-curves. The summits, as the Bard says, keep coming, “like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore/Each changing place with that which goes before/In sequent toil all forwards do contend.”

Unlike people on the “outs” with their organisations, those going through the initial phases of the summit syndrome haven’t been frozen out or marginalised; to the contrary, they reside at the inner circle. They are rarely susceptible to burnout: They see the impact of their work and welcome big demands ­— indeed, they need them to keep the adrenaline flowing. Their capabilities are not merely aligned with organisational purpose, they are admired — even celebrated — by superiors, peers, and subordinates alike. In short, these individuals are more secure than most and don’t suffer from the narcissistic inferiority (and its unquenchable thirst for praise) that haunts many victims of the “outs”.

Paradoxically, disorientation at the summit is more profound for the more proficient. Those with the smoothest glidepath to success in a challenging job tend to experience the greatest degree of confusion. Costs to the individual can go way beyond dropped balls at work or other slips in performance. Inner turmoil can build to the point where it hurts health and family. The search for stimulation may lead to extramarital misadventures or other self-destructive behaviour. Distraction and confusion can result in bad career decisions, causing people to leave the fast track and end up drifting from one job to another. They can join the ranks of those highly promising men and women who somehow never managed to achieve the positions or goals that colleagues and friends always assumed they would one day claim.

For the organisation, this seemingly uncharacteristic behaviour by those we least expect to disappoint us often comes as a shock. Trying to get such individuals back in the saddle can be expensive in terms of lost contribution, organisational disruption, and the price of counselling. And that’s the best-case scenario. The worst is surprise departures that needlessly rob companies of their most promising talent. Senior executives wonder how they could have missed the signs, but this failure is the rule rather than the exception. Subtle indicators elude traditional organisational screens such as performance reviews and formal career-development discussions. Indeed, we’ve witnessed the highly disruptive impact of this disorientation on professional elites at a wide variety of companies. The collateral damage — and our belief that it can be averted — is what prompted us to write this article.

The best defence is early intervention. Companies ­— and more specifically, overachievers themselves — need to anticipate the onset of the disorientation that strikes near or at the summit of a job. It is possible to detect the lead indicators and take pre-emptive action. This is mainly the responsibility of individuals, although their bosses and peers certainly can lend a helping hand.

In this article, we highlight the causes, indicators, and progression of the syndrome and describe what must be done to regain personal and professional clarity and career momentum. We are convinced that steps taken at the right time can allow extreme overachievers to avoid or surmount the summit syndrome and prepare for the next climb in their careers, while deepening their capacity to lead.

Recognising the syndrome

The summit syndrome unfolds in three phases, each with its own distinct indicators. The first is approaching the crest of a job, when a person, having mastered most of the challenges of the role, is nearing peak proficiency. This is a time when some may push harder to recapture the adrenaline rush of the climb. The second phase is plateauing, when the summit has been reached and virtually all of the challenges have been conquered. While the less ambitious person is apt to coast at this point, the overachiever bears down even harder to produce ever more stellar results. The third phase is descending. It is the terminal stage of the syndrome, when a leader’s job performance begins to slip noticeably, triggering an accelerating slide. As the person’s superstar status fades, he jumps ship, accepts a demotion, or takes a lateral transfer.

Approaching

After the intense, exhilarating experience of attaining new knowledge, acquiring new skills, and rising to meet the challenges of a new role, a shift occurs when the summit comes into sight. The realisation that “I’ve just about conquered the job” sinks in, giving rise to low-level musings about “What’s next in my career?” Some tasks or duties begin to seem tedious, feeding anxiety (for overachievers have a low tolerance for boredom) and opening the door to distractions (Sudoku, online solitaire, daydreams of paths untaken, obsessions with hobbies).

The approaching phase is puzzling for overachievers. They feel that something is not quite right. They are disturbed by the fact that external job offers and adventure schemes suddenly seem intriguing. There is no drop in performance yet; the overall work remains rewarding. But ask people in this phase if they are excited about their work, and they will respond with telling qualifiers like “It’s still challenging, but it’s not the way it used to be” or “I’m enjoying myself, but the rush is missing.”

Plateauing

The effects of the summit syndrome are not severe enough in the approaching phase to stop sufferers in their tracks. They will continue to the peak and onto the plateau of job proficiency. Absent new challenges or a new job, however, the syndrome will progress if the early symptoms are left unattended. At this stage, a paradox feeds the confusion: By all external measures (and in the eyes of everyone around them), they are at the top of their game; they have confirmed the faith that others placed in them at the outset of their climb. Yet their enthusiasm for the job continues to wane. They feel increasingly disoriented and uncertain about how to proceed. They begin to agonise about their next career moves. “Should I continue to climb the corporate ladder or start something new?” they wonder. “I could get better at what I’m doing,” they think, “but where will it take me?” For seasoned executives who have made a series of S-curve climbs, the dominant concern is a loss of legacy. Having built a sterling reputation and had a storied impact during the course of their careers, they now wonder if those can be sustained.

It is on the plateau that the summit syndrome can trigger the first subtle shifts in performance. More effort is required to achieve the same results, even as the commitment to deliver those results diminishes. Head-hunters’ calls are more welcome — or even solicited. As overachievers struggle to cope, greater distractions are embraced, even sought. Sudoku finds its way into the daytime routine, row-the-Atlantic type excursions beckon, and sexual indiscretions are more tempting. People are more likely to make precipitous career choices, seeking a way out of the discomfort.

Descending

This is the fall from grace. Victims are in such turmoil it becomes obvious to others that something has gone terribly wrong. Their careers are now in crisis. Self-inflicted career sabotage and stress-related health problems are common. The typically unhappy ending: A radical change made for all the wrong reasons or a forced lateral move or demotion.

If the syndrome is caught early, preparation for the next climb is straightforward. If it is tackled after things begin to unravel — after performance has clearly begun to decline or the person has jumped ship — much more is required to repair the damage to reputation, relationships and personal well-being.

Overcoming the confusion

After recognising indicators of the summit syndrome, the next step in addressing it is to understand the sources of the disorientation. There are two of them: An erosion in the effectiveness of one’s formula for excelling at work and a disconnect between career and life’s grand purpose.

A winning formula is each person’s distinctive way of making a difference. Tracy Goss, an authority on how executives can reinvent themselves and their companies, has described the winning formula as a combination of aptitude and behaviour that determines what unique contributions we make on the job and in personal situations.

Winning formulas have two essential components: What you pay attention to and what you do about it. Some people focus on the unexpressed needs of key players and become the “go-to guy” for solving problems. Others concentrate on what’s missing or flawed in an endeavour and act as the watchdogs for errors or potential train wrecks in their organisations. Still others look for the possibilities in a situation — the new idea or the biggest prize to be pursued — and establish themselves as persuasive advocates for new directions. Some ask themselves, “What’s the goal here?” and then mobilise others to achieve desired outcomes. And so forth. The variations are practically infinite.

With some earnest introspection, most of us can describe our winning formula and articulate the well-honed skills that support it. Andrew Thompson’s was to listen for his client’s unexpressed needs, identify the biggest potential opportunity to fulfil those needs, and then capitalise on his extraordinary talent for selling this solution to the client.

A winning formula that works well on the way up can rapidly become less and less useful as one approaches the summit. By that time it is automatic and subconscious, leading the unwary to do more of the same at a stage when enthusiasm for “the same” is waning.

With some reflection, Andrew Thompson could see how the formula that had helped him excel was now a handicap. Elements that worked in sync early in the climb, when he had 20 major clients and $1 billion of assets under management, were constraints on growth and performance now that he had 80 clients and US$4 billion under management. Yes, his formula had secured his niche as a key player in the enterprise, turning him, as he put it, into an “in-the-limelight” producer. But it had also led him to fail to delegate and to dramatically underutilise the talents of his six-person team as his client base grew. He was a solutions’ soloist rather than a composer and conductor of an elite ensemble. Instead of fuelling growth, his winning formula was now imposing a ceiling on him and his team. When he looked at his winning formula in this light, Thompson could see that he must reinvent it.

Life’s grand purpose

At the same time that the effectiveness of the winning formula dwindles, a profound disconnect often begins to manifest itself: A sense that life’s grand purpose has somehow been lost.

To address this void, Thompson worked with a coach to prepare a series of lists identifying the things that were most important to him: Career aspirations, past work contributions, core values and beliefs, personal attributes and the people who mattered most in his life. He transferred each item from his lists to index cards. They captured memories, thoughts about possible second or third careers, reflections on his life mission, and the influence of mentors. He sorted the cards into clusters on a large table, talking through meanings and connections as he arranged them. This exercise helped him recognise how he had strayed from his ideals and how his ambitions had changed. Among the insights Thompson took away were these:

  • He had become overly involved in the day-to-day management of clients and their investment portfolios. He had let himself get sucked into micromanaging details that could have readily been delegated to his team members and their support staff.
  • He had allowed himself to become isolated from valued mentors, who once had provided their perspectives and counsel in tough times.
  • He had lost a personal attribute that had been the hallmark of earlier climbs: Taking himself with a grain of salt and not allowing a job to become all consuming.
  • His ambitions had shifted. A stellar, solo performer, he was increasingly attracted to the idea of leading a larger organisation and testing his executive skills.
  • Buried in work, he was losing his connection with his wife and children.
As he contemplated these conclusions, Thompson was drawn inevitably to ask the big question: What did he want to accomplish in his working life? To help answer that question, Thompson wrote a “casket speech,” a three-minute eulogy about his life and what it meant to those he touched along the way. Its themes included helping people discover and make the most of their professional talents, evolving his own gifts and commercial acumen as a wealth adviser, and taking them to the next level.

At this point, he was in a position to articulate what he wanted out of his current job and future ones. He could now describe the special characteristics that would capture his heart and imagination. Rather than seek a new position, Thompson decided he would strive to build his current wealth management franchise at a much faster pace by tapping the skills of his colleagues and by fostering better teamwork. He would broaden his focus beyond financial markets and investment opportunities to develop the people around him by spotting and nurturing their growth potential. He would seek to influence the firm’s strategic direction by volunteering to serve on task forces devoted to expanding the firm’s suite of investment products and services.

Achieving these professional ambitions, however, would not come at the expense of all that was near and dear to him in his personal life; he would rebalance the work/life equation so that he could devote more time to his family and to non-profit projects. To do this, he would learn to work differently, not harder.

Moving off the summit

Having regained his footing, Thompson could now begin the task of building new leadership muscles: Identifying the capabilities he needed to meet the demands of his recast job description. This involved revisiting five sets of competencies (we call them “domains”) that are critical to expanding one’s capacity to lead.

During the course of their careers, leaders must learn how to use power in different ways. It’s common for people in early management positions to achieve results through the force of their authority or their expertise (by taking a hands-on approach to leading a team charged with a particular task, for example). As leaders develop, however, the initial goal of achieving power evolves into a goal of empowering others to produce extraordinary outcomes. Leaders learn how to share or transfer power within the organisation and eventually to release the power of others, usually through forms of delegation, such as the creation of ad hoc initiatives or new lines of business.

This journey requires leaders to overcome a fundamental challenge: to embrace the counterintuitive lesson that in order to be more powerful, they must give up their need to control. Accordingly, they must, for instance, learn how to strike the optimal balance between the freedom and the oversight they provide subordinates. They must figure out how to pick the members of a team so the strengths of some compensate for the weaknesses of others. They must learn how to help people discover for themselves the solutions to problems.

Early in their careers, leaders learn how to face conflict and manage it, rather than avoid it. Still, they view conflict as an indicator that something is wrong and try to defuse it quickly to minimise the negative impact. In time, leaders learn how to use conflict as a means to an end and might even seek to create it — for example, provoking an organisation to consider several competing views, address complex challenges, or move beyond obsolete beliefs, behaviours, and practices.

Stimulating and guiding the right conflicts requires leaders to learn how to design and facilitate meetings where vigorous debate is the order of the day. This means avoiding the subtle ways their own behaviour can stifle an important exchange and modulating the amount of tension in the conflict, so that a more robust debate of ideas can produce breakthroughs.

As leaders master this domain, they deepen their ability to understand, appreciate, and relate to a broad spectrum of individuals with different styles and beliefs. This makes them increasingly effective in influencing people. Early in their careers, leaders must learn to resist the natural tendency to select direct reports whose background and approach are like their own. Recruiting a diverse team is particularly important when the markets or customers the team serves are themselves diverse. Later, leaders must learn how to think politically and plot a sequence of moves to break current interpersonal or organisational impasses.

Starting out, most managers focus on attaining immediate goals — usually specific production, financial, or market share targets. As their careers progress, they learn to shape larger visions and strategies — redefining the nature of service delivery to customers, for example, or reinventing products that will establish new performance benchmarks.

One of the most difficult lessons for leaders is realising that although they need to be able to recognise a resonant vision, they do not have to create it themselves. By listening to and consulting with others, they can produce a picture of the future that speaks to people throughout the organisation. To paraphrase Fritz Roethlisberger, a pioneer in human relations and organisational behaviour: Most people think of what they’re doing in the present as the means and the resultant future as the end. In fact, the future is the means and the present is the end. Sounds a bit like a Zen koan, but it hits the nail on the head.

Early in their careers, overachievers usually concentrate on excelling at their craft and grasping the rudiments of managing others. (Thompson spent an hour a day studying investment strategies in his first years.) They are less likely to pay attention to what others — direct reports and peers — might need to learn. Only later in their careers do they typically evolve into coaches who have the teaching skills required to help an individual or an organisation enhance performance. The greatest stumbling block along this path is mistaking mandating for coaching. In most cases, a leader and a subordinate must undertake a joint exploration to build a developmental agenda that can not only fulfil the subordinate’s aspirations but also enhance the performance of the business. Leaders discover they can show their commitment to a subordinate’s success through this process. The coaching that follows this exploration accelerates the subordinate’s progress and strengthens his or her ties to the organisation. This process is one of the best ways to ensure leadership continuity.

Executives naturally visit these domains as they take on a new role. In other words, they automatically seek to develop the skills and insights appropriate to each job cycle. As the climb proceeds and proficiency in a role grows, however, the quest for competency becomes less urgent and may dry up altogether. This loss of appetite should serve as a wake-up call — an early indicator of the onset of the summit syndrome, signalling the need to revisit the domains. Consciously exploring the domains and identifying the next set of needed competencies enables overachievers to reinvent their winning formulas. When Andrew Thompson did so, he realised that he needed to resist the temptation to micromanage, (which unintentionally caused him to treat his colleagues as glorified personal assistants). He had to learn how to delegate. Delegation would also free up time so he could join division-wide task forces, expanding his horizons and the reach of his leadership.

Thompson understood that reorienting his six wealth advisers to maximise their unique gifts and ensure that each developed his or her own niche on the team would require plenty of coaching and mentoring and the occasional application of tough love. To help them and to better serve the growing pool of large investors, he also needed to strengthen his group’s support staff. He further recognised the need to create a compelling vision for his team: To double assets under management in the next five years while affirming the team’s standing as best-in-breed in generating extraordinary returns for clients. Finally, to attract and advise sophisticated investors would require a flow of new investment ideas and products. Accordingly, Thompson would need to expand his network and collaborate with individuals and groups outside his own division — especially those with expertise in real estate, private equity, and emerging markets.

In other words, Thompson needed to broaden his network of relationships, generate and harness conflict, learn from other units in the firm, and influence colleagues over whom he had no direct authority. In each domain, Thompson understood, he had to evolve to the next level.

Summary

This process for recognising and treating the summit syndrome can dissipate the disorientation that often strikes overachievers as they approach or reach the crest of a job. It can dispel the confusion and create a new context for a balanced, challenging, and fulfilling working life. Once they can see and accept their condition is not unique and that a periodic reorientation is a natural and regenerative part of the inner work of leadership, overachievers can look ahead with far greater discernment.

Anticipating the summit syndrome, recognising its onset, and dealing with the syndrome in its earliest stages, can revitalise careers and propel talented leaders to greater heights.

Harvard Business Review

Brent Powell, general manager business systems, Fletcher Distribution, explains why he chose this article from the Harvard Business Review:

“One of the main challenges being faced by C-Level leaders and mid-level managers in organisations around the globe, irrespective of the industry sector they are operating in or the functional area of responsibility, has to be that of ‘strategic talent management’. More specifically, creating an environment whereby talented people can be allowed to actively influence the growth and success of the enterprise for whom they work through the provision of a mutual win-win scenario.

In my IT career spanning 29 years and across four continents, it has remained the one constant in all organisations I have worked for, worked in or worked on. How do we stop our best people getting bored, going off the boil and effectively starting to go backwards in terms of their performance? It is a purely natural phenomenon that extraordinarily talented people need extraordinarily high levels of ‘continuous mental stimulus’ to meet their demands for personal satisfaction. This, in turn, presents executives and line managers with equally extraordinary challenges to provide such an environment – and it’s not always possible to do that in endless supply.”

Powell likewise raises critical questions on how the industry deals with the ‘summit syndrome’: “Do we have to be prepared with a portfolio of ‘talent management strategies for the multiple eventualities? How much more critical will the role of succession planning and succession development be in the management of high performance talent in IT shops as we face the predicted potential crisis of manpower shortages in coming years where demand is predicted to outstrip supply by almost three to one?”

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Tags leadershipstrategycareerstresswork life balanceharvardbrent powell

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