How To Avoid “Senior Executive Syndrome”

“If your income doesn’t exceed your outgo, you go!” – Chuck Otterson

Are you a senior executive? Do you employ one? If so, watch out. You/he may be dangerous to your company’’s bottom line.The problem is Senior Executive Syndrome (SES): the tendency for a senior executive – someone who has climbed to the top of his business or department – to kick back and goof off.It happens all the time, but we don’’t talk about it. Why? For one of two reasons: Either (1) we work for the lazy bastard or (2) we are the lazy bastard.

I’’ve seen it happen to dozens of very good people and in just about every company I’’ve owned or worked for. It usually doesn’’t happen in the beginning, when everybody is busy and the business is growing. But when things get fat, watch out!

I hate to admit it, because I like to be thought of as the world’s hardest-working guy, but there have been occasions when I’’ve caught the bug myself. I’’d get into work late and want to do as little as possible. And then the thought would hit me: “I can do as little as possible. Who’’s going to tell me otherwise?” (Luckily, another vain but motivating thought always follows: “But if I stop working, everything will fall apart.”)

It can happen to anyone. Your boss. His boss. The boss of the business you count on. The boss you are trying to strike a deal with. The perfectly suited senior executive you just hired to run one of your divisions. Your best and most loyal crew leader.

And, yes, it can happen to you too.

 Anatomy Of A Business Disease

Here’’s what typically happens. A bright, ambitious person comes into a business and does everything right from day one. Comes in early and leaves late. E-mails you on Sunday. Has great ideas. Builds a clutch team. He becomes THE guy.

And so he’s promoted, and he keeps on performing over the years until he gets into a position in which, finally, there is no one looking over his shoulder. He is responsible for the company’’s bottom line – and he deserves it.

It is expected that he will continue to work as hard and as smart as ever. And for a while, he does just that . . . executing new ideas, streamlining expenses, improving the executive staff. Business is good, and everybody is happy.

But something happens. Somewhere along the line, he burns out a little. He tries not to show it, because he wants the troops to keep trooping. But inside, he’s tired of the grind and dreaming of a less stressful life.

Several years may go by like this, during which time he refines his key-management team and fine-tunes operating procedures. Then one day he decides (all by himself and without speaking to anyone) that the business can run fine – at least for a while –without so much involvement on his part.

But rather than make that clear so that the proper adjustments can be made, he simply starts to do less. He gets into the office later (perhaps after a workout), he takes long lunch hours, and he may spend an inordinate amount of time traveling to industry seminars and golf meetings.

Meanwhile, the business IS doing fine. But because nobody knows he is doing less, some of the most important stuff he used to do may not be getting done any more.

Let’’s take a look at that. To rise to the top of a growing, profitable business, you usually need three things:

1. a compelling vision of what the business can be (See Message #191, “Creating a Master Plan for Your Business.”)

2. the ability to motivate all the key players and give them the direction they need to do whatever is necessary to achieve that vision

3. the organizational skills to make it happen

Now, there are plenty of other things a senior executive does – such as attending important meetings, handling key client accounts, and so on – but it is unlikely that such activities will be abandoned by the guy with SES (simply because they can’t be dropped without notice). However, the three critical areas listed above can and often are neglected, and done so without anybody really being able to say anything, since they are so intangible in nature.

Usually, what happens is this: First, he loses the desire to organize. Then, he loses his vitality. And finally, he loses his vision.

Needless to say, the cost to the business is enormous. The critical, invisible, motivating forces that have energized and directed the business are quietly withdrawn –and gradually things go off course and slow down.

How To Cure Senior Executive Syndrome

If you suffer from SES, the cure is to find your commitment again by (a) recognizing the problem and (b) resolving to get back what you lost. If you’ve stopped being an organizer, get to work early and start being one again. If you’ve stopped being an energizer, rekindle your fire. If you’ve stopped being a visionary – if you don’t even know where you want to go from here – hey, realize that you did it before and you can do it again.

Another solution – not always possible but wonderful when it is – is to come out publicly, acknowledge that you want to kick back, and make the proper adjustments. There is no shame in wanting to slow down, and no damage done so long as the invisible contributions continue to be made.

By bringing it out in the open, you can have a free discussion with other members of the management team about what will be done by whom. More often than not, in my experience, you will end up with a better distribution of labor – and an opportunity for advancement at the senior levels (always a welcome prospect).

So call in your core team members, tell them what you want to do, and invite them to take the load off. You’’ll probably be surprised at how eagerly they do so, and how comfortable they are with your decision. (Don’’t feel bad. It means you’’ve done a good job building a great team.)

If someone who runs a business for you has come down with SES, you absolutely cannot ignore it. You need to (a) confront him positively but firmly and (b) ask him to come up with a solution. (You may have your own ideas about how to solve the problem, but it’s much better if you let him participate. You’ll get more compliance – and he may even come up with an idea that’s better than yours.)

If your boss has SES, you’’re in luck. This is your big opportunity to take over. (Remember Message #197, “How to Get Promoted.”) Volunteer to do what it is clear he doesn’’t want to do. Convince him that you can do a great job of it. Promise him the world. And ask him for a cut of the action. If he’’s got a really bad case of SES, he’’ll be very tempted by your offer.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]