Through luck, fate and my own assertiveness, I meet incredible leaders and people who have achieved success. In these encounters they have said things that have altered my life. They have mentored me. Things I adopted as models for my own trajectory and just as often, things that frightened me. I have learned as much from those I want to emulate as from those I want to not be like. Just as in art you gravitate to the positive spaces because of the negative spaces. People's lives have become my yin and yang of life.
Here are several of my favorite true encounters (some details were altered to protect the innocent):
- After losing the vote to become Prime Minister of his country, he was stripped of his executive privileges, "How in the @&!# did I think I could run this country, I didn't even know what it costs to park in my building."
- 6 months before he was fired, this prominent Div 1 coach said to me, "I don't have time to go to practices as much as I should."
- After declaring bankruptcy, this owner of a chain of restaurants told me, "It had been a long time since I had eaten at one of my restaurants."
- A colleague of mine worked for a hyper wealthy family and was seeking permission to spend $100,000. She was told, "Why are we wasting time on this? I made this much money in the time we have been talking."
"Success" can breed an over confidence that can ironically lead to an utter disconnection from the very work and people that generated the success. That form of arrogance almost always leads to disaster.
Every week I meet executives and managers who have early onset of what I call Career Alzheimers. These are people who are getting tired (not necessarily old!) of their work. Yes, we all want less hassle, fewer people issues, and more theoretical work. Here's the rub. Once you lose connection with the customer (not the data), the staff (not the metrics), the community (not the view from your office), you have lost your way. You have Career Alzheimers!
Here's my mythical wikipedia post for Career Alzheimers:
Career Alzheimers (CA) is a common form of professional dementia. It worsens as it progresses, and eventually leads to career termination. Although Career Alzheimers develops differently for every individual, there are many common symptoms. Early symptoms are often mistakenly thought to be 'age-related'. In the early stages, the most common symptom is difficulty in remembering what they love about their job. When CA is suspected, the diagnosis is usually confirmed with telltale statements that rely too heavily on abstract concepts, theories, and metrics demonstrating a growing disconnection from real things and people. Some show confusion, irritability, mood swings, trouble with language, especially concerning their passion for their work. As the sufferer declines they often withdraw further and further from the day to day work, from colleagues and from the society. Gradually, these conditions worsen often leading to end of career. Since the disease is different for each individual, predicting how it will affect the person is difficult. CA develops for an unknown and variable amount of time before becoming fully apparent, and it can progress undiagnosed for years. The cause and progression of CA are not well understood. My unscientific research indicates that the disease is associated with the increasing depersonalization of the success metrics of work. Fortunately, CA is curable. Self awareness is the first step and then to seek mentoring help to confirm the disorder and treatment. Treatment is simple—take steps to humanize your work. Get out of your office. Get tactile, visceral, palpable stories about the solutions you are providing, unmet need, nuances and challenges of the execution of the work your department/team/company does. Regular doses of the humanity of your work will immediately combat CA and can keep it from reoccurring.
I love that Warren Buffett drives his own car and talks to his shareholders and people in general. He may be elderly but he is still grounded to the basics of what makes him a success. He will never have CA!
Carve out more time to meet with the beneficiaries of your work. Make scheduled and unscheduled visits to partners, customers, offices, and even competitors. It will shift your perspective every single time. It will energize you! It will trigger a small and sometimes large reminder of the purpose of your work that too often gets boiled down to a "bottomline" that has sucked all of the humanity out of our existence. Yes, we need to measure things, but we also have to remember the measure of our purpose.
Self diagnose. Ask people you trust. Early signs? Late stages? Re-engage or retire–and find something new to reinvigorate you. Never too late. You hold the cure.
Thanks for reading. John