CEOs: top job but still feeling unfulfilled? Tis the season to reflect…


…on why, what can be done about it and how.

The level of human misery at the top of business and the professions is one of the best kept secrets of modern life.

The happiness statistics on those in the middle are well documented. Pressured from the top and bottom their stress levels are high for obvious reasons. Their distress comes as no surprise.

But surely CEOs, CFOs, function heads and top lawyers and accountants must be scoring high on the fulfilment scales? Surely, having worked hard (oh so hard) to get to the top all is tickety boo?

I haven’t seen any credible studies on this. I’m not sure they are possible. Having worked with scores at close quarters I feel that many are in denial, most are getting by and a few love what they do.

The good news is that their plight is remediable – at least for those not in denial. The deniers are in a tricky position. They’re stuck. They’ve got to start by unsticking themselves. Most will need help to begin that process.

Let’s say 20% are stuck, 10% feel truly fulfilled and 70% are getting by. To the latter I recommend the following steps to help them reflect.

Start by confronting all, not just some, of the negative feelings about your role and dig deep. For example: When “he”, “she” or “they” behave like abc, I feel xyz:  I wish my role encompassed X as well as/instead of y:  I feel constantly exhausted. Or is it something else?

I use an intangible income and expenditure account process with clients to help them pin down, precisely, what they want from work and what they’re getting and not getting.

They want intangible income ABC and are willing to expend effort DEF to achieve it – usually hard work and reasonable travel. But the income side varies considerably from leader to leader.

For some it’s about autonomy, for others it’s about teamwork or success. Whatever the requirements I find that the happiest are those who are in surplus about three quarters of the time. That’s as good as it gets.

About quarter of our work is mundane unless you’re lucky to make a living from your hobby. Sadly, a significant number of senior people are in deficit in intangible income. Certainly some feel they should be paid more money but it’s not the main driver of dissatisfaction. I find that it’s usually the intangibles that hurt the most.

The advantage of pinning down your intangible income and expenditure needs is that it forces you to address what you want from work and why you do what you do.

For some it will be the first time that they really address why they do what they do. For others they have completed this task, are happy that they’re in the right job but feel they are in the wrong role. For those who have not addressed their purpose it can come as a shock to find that they are driven by factors which originated in their formative years.

Some are still playing out the pressures put on them when they were young and haven’t come to terms with the fact that they are now adults and can do what they want to do. These dynamics are well documented in psychology and research into emotional intelligence.

Wherever you are on the continuum of clarity of purpose it’s important to realise that you have no hope of true fulfilment unless you figure out why you do what you do. Where are you now, why and where you should go to make the best use of your unique talent?

Clients are initially dismissive when I talk about their uniqueness. But when I help them to connect with the reality that they are unique there is usually a brief flicker of recognition quickly dimmed by the realisation of the chasm between that truth and the relentless experience of work which appears to respect nothing other than lowest common denominator.

I encourage them to work on protecting the flicker from extinction by connecting with what politicians call their “ism”. We’ve had Maoism, Thatcherism and Mayism. Why not you-ism? And for benign not malevolent purposes?

You-ism is about bringing your whole personality, backstory and dreams to your leadership. Sounds corny? If it does maybe you’re stuck. But all you have is your story. Once you are clear on this it’s surprising how easy it is to decide on your personal purpose, and thus your strategy and behaviour for achieving it.

Do that and you will be in grave danger of being fulfilled. Help those you lead to thrive and as a collateral benefit grow your business better than you would otherwise. Because your business is made up of you, them and your respective “isms”. Nothing more.

Ciaran Fenton

December 2016


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