Avoid the High Potentials Program at all Costs!

In my last blog post I described how high-achievers bring energy and focus to their roles, and this is often rewarded with recognition and promotion. Many organizations even single-out these people for special development, and they are shepherded towards the ‘High Potentials’ career track.
I have taught on my fair share of executive education programs that are targeted at serving such people, and I have witnessed first hand how this can be a very exciting experience for a young and ambitious professional. But all too often the high-potential track leads to high stress, unhappiness and even burnout.

I experienced the ‘fast track’ in my early 30s as my own career started to take off and doors start opening towards more responsibility and accountability and, in an increasingly global business world, international assignments. I never could have imagined when I graduated from Shepparton High School in a small rural town Australian way back in the late 1980s, that I would eventually find myself based in London (later Berlin) and working in Europe, the US, Africa and Asia. By the time I was in my mid 30s I had engaged in projects in countries as diverse as Norway, India and Nigeria!

From my late teens until my early thirties I was really hungry to be successful. I took the discipline and hard work ethic that had been instilled in me by my family and from my cycling passion into my studies and early career. I had sadly realised that there was no way that I could pursue both my cycling dream and complete university, so after turning my back on racing my bike at the age of 18 I channelled my energy into being the best student, and later young career professional. I followed my undergraduate scholarship with a postgraduate award, and by the time I was just 29 I was working at London Business School – one of the world’s foremost academic institutions.

As a working class kid from the bush, I was also driven by a chip on my shoulder. I wanted to prove that I was just as smart – even smarter – than the other kids at university and the people surrounding me at business school, most of whom came from privilege. So I was internally motivated to do well – to get good grades and get promoted. I defined success in a quite simplistic way I think – I was going to make it as a top academic, and in the process earn a lot of money.
As my hard work and ambition was recognized by others, and as the promotions and income started to come, I found that even more challenging projects and opportunities started to appear in front of me. All I had to do was to race headfirst through the doors that were opening. I got a kick out of being picked and rewarded – it was gratifying to climb the ladder of success. But what I also found was that motivation started to become increasingly outside-in rather than inside-out. It started to become less about what I wanted, and more about what others wanted for me.

As I started to progress further and further up the career ladder, there was little encouragement from those around me to stop and ponder about wider life goals. Those around me readily engaged with me about the world of possibilities that lay ahead. But this was typically defined in the narrow context of my grades, scholarships and eventually relationship with the organizations with which I worked.  For me, the quest to ‘be the best’ became narrowly defined around academic and career achievement. What I think started as a belief that I would need to temporarily subjugate other life goals in order to be able to invest in achieving a high level of professional achievement, became habitual and permanent as I followed by ambition to reach the top.
I reached my main career goals by the time I was in my mid-30s, perhaps even earlier than I thought was possible. But at the same time that I seemed to be experiencing meteoric career success, and was receiving recognition and financial rewards, my personal relationships and physical and mental wellbeing were suffering.
This stress became especially acute when I found myself the father of young family – by my late 30s I was married and had three children, all under the age of six.  Juggling the three balls of job, family and self had become almost impossible. And the result was far from happiness as I struggled to deal with the conflicting pressures that I was experiencing. The first ball that I dropped was self – the luxury of pursuing my own interests and passions, and of course rest. The result was weight gain and constant tiredness, and for someone who had been an athlete this created a lot of personal unhappiness. I was 20 kilograms heavier at the age of 39 than I had been at the age of 19.

Guilt was also a feeling that I started to experience as I tried to reconcile loyalty and commitment to the organization with commitment and loyalty towards my wife and children.  While recognized as ‘being the best’ at work, I frequently felt conflicted, inadequate and unappreciated at home. I have an an incredible partner, but I sometimes wonder how she put up with me at this time. To be completely honest, I sometimes stayed late in the office just to avoid the chaos and tension at home. If I had a choice between dinner with a CEO or an evening with my family, I almost invariably chose work over home.

Is it any surprise that the tensions that I experienced in my own relationship often result in marital breakdown for many career professionals? In reflecting on my own experience I have looked into the research on work-life balance and discovered a phenomenon that has been described as the “spiralling cycle of imbalance” whereby a passion for one’s profession can create a dynamic in which one becomes more competent at work than in managing intimate relationships is well described in the literature on work-life balance.

The 1990 article by Kofodimos titled “Why Executives lose their balance” and published in Organiztional Dynamics makes an unsettling read for any high achiever. Paula Cratoni also describes this experience well in her Journal of Applied Behavioral Science article “Work/Life Balance: You can’t get there from here”:

“…as people to continue to invest more and energy into work, they begin to receive psychological and material rewards that encourage them to even more of themselves and their time into their work. However, time and energy are limited human resources, and as people take more time away from home, they become less competent with their home-based responsibilities and relationships, creating dissatisfaction and stress at home, which in turn makes the workplace more attractive and less stressful place to be than home. This creates an even greater commitment to work and a concomitant avoidance of home and the intimacy typically associated with home – and the cycle escalates. “

I have met many, many top executives in large organizations over the years, and few would admit to being role models as partners and parents – and it is a situation that I certainly found myself in at the ‘peak’ of my professional success as a business school academic and consultant. But I decided to step back – to ask myself if what others were defining as success was really what I was seeking in life.

Most importantly I did not ask this question alone – I did it together with my wife Anne-Mie. In the next blogpost I will talk about how we started to re-think success, and more importantly the steps that we took to embark upon a new life journey.

How are you doing in terms of juggling the three balls right now? Do you feel yourself fighting the spiral? If so, don’t despair. The future is in your hands.

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