Stop Being the Chief Everything Officer: Combatting CEO Burnout

May 20, 2022 | 11 Min Read

“I’m just tired all the time… and I can’t stay motivated in my business.” 

I remember how shocked I felt when I heard my friend and fellow Entrepreneurial CEO say these words. This was someone I had massive respect for and he’d just admitted how close he was to giving up. 

I could relate because I’d been on the verge of CEO Burnout myself before. 

This is the reality for many CEOs, especially in entrepreneurial companies and it’s easy to figure out why. The constant pressure to see the company grow. The incessant requests from staff. The daunting inbox full of unanswered emails. And even when you do go home at night, you end up working on your phone because you feel behind, disconnecting you from the people you love. 

In fact, in recent survey results analyzed by HRExecutive

"In a survey of several thousand senior leaders, the organization found an alarming rate of burnout: 72% of leaders polled reported being burned out.” 

And burnout doesn't just mean you're out of energy for the day. 

It's a real form of exhaustion caused by unending mental, emotional, and physical stress. When burnout strikes, you'll feel less creative, more anxious, and fatigued. You'll see measurable reductions in performance, productivity, and concentration. 

If that sounds like you, I have good news for you. Burnout doesn’t have to be a way of life for a CEO. There are strategies you can implement to get out of burnout or prevent it in the future. These strategies can take you from feeling tired and unmotivated to being on fire again for leading your company! I know these strategies work because I’ve seen them revive myself as well as scores of other CEOs as well.

But before we get into the strategies to fix burnout, we first have to understand the root of why it happens and how to keep burnout at bay.

What Is CEO Burnout, And Why Does It Happen?

A recent HBR Article on why executives burn out said it best: “(Burnout) occurs after people expend a great deal of effort, intense to the point of exhaustion, without visible results. People in these situations feel angry, helpless, trapped, and depleted: they are burned out… The major defining characteristic of burnout is that people can’t or won’t do again what they have been doing.”

With this in mind, it makes sense why Entrepreneurial CEOs have additional risk factors for burnout. Entrepreneurs are notoriously high achieving and hard-working (to a fault) but are also often impatient to see tangible results from their efforts. When this doesn’t happen, the conditions are ripe for rampant burnout. Here are 3 specific reasons why CEO burnout can happen: 

1. Unmet Expectations

After investing their blood, sweat, and tears into building their company, many Entrepreneurial CEOs are left disappointed and sometimes cynical when their reality doesn’t meet their high expectations. The pain of this disappointment often makes them discard part or perhaps all of their vision for fear of getting disappointed again. 

What you don’t realize when you’re dealing with this is how it can sabotage your motivation and kill your creative spark. Oftentimes this leads to living in a kind of “survival mode” and functioning reactively instead of making bold definitive plans for the future. If this goes untreated for too long, you may become perennially bored, unmotivated, and sick of the drudgery of work. 

2. Isolation

The old saying “It’s lonely at the top” can feel very true. As a CEO, you may feel like you have employees, not coworkers. When everyone looks to you for leadership and you have no one to turn to yourself, a strong feeling of isolation can grow. With isolation comes anxiety and even greater stress — and no way to resolve it. 

Pro Tip:

It's not a complete cure, but acknowledging that you feel isolated or lonely can help. HBR notes:

First-time CEOs are particularly susceptible to this isolation. Nearly 70 percent of first-time CEOs who experience loneliness report that the feelings negatively affect their performance. Simply acknowledging feelings of loneliness or isolation can be a relief in itself.

Not only is that acknowledgment a way to relieve stress on its own, but seeing the symptom means you can start managing it.

3. Doing Everything

CEOs often feel like they have to do everything. Instead of operating in a role where they are focused on doing what they love and are great at (typically growing the business), they are stuck running the business, putting out fires, solving problems for everyone else, and working non-stop to prevent balls dropping. Because of this, they have next to no time freedom and often take very little time off for vacation or rejuvenation. 

But, just because you're at the top of the structure, that doesn't mean you have to be involved in every task or weigh in on every decision. Not only can that number of responsibilities and tasks lead to stress and burnout, but it also distracts you from the future growth you should be focused on. 

Even if you feel like you can manage the stress, your organization’s growth is likely slowed because you can’t let go of control. A key part of treating and preventing CEO burnout is to stop playing 'Chief Everything Officer' and find the right “Operations Counterpart” who can help carry the load.

How to Combat CEO Burnout

Burnout is a complex problem; I’d advise anyone struggling with it to seek good therapy and find trusted counselors to work through. However, After working with hundreds of CEOs who were burned out, I can say with confidence that these 3 strategies can take you far on the path to recovery. 

1. Recite Your Identity and Vision

One of the most transformational things you can do when struggling with burnout is to reconnect with your personal identity and vision.

For years, I’ve had a morning practice of reading out loud what I call my “Daily IV.” The IV stands for Identity and Vision. The concept is simple: it’s a set of short succinct “I Am” Statements followed by a set of “I See” statements. But the impact is incredible. 

You might think this is a bit “out there” but hear me out. 

I’ve literally seen burned-out CEOs get their fire back within a week by doing this one thing. And for me personally, it’s probably the most important thing that’s kept me from burning out. Period.

Why? Because it gets to the root of why we burned out in the first place: we allowed disappointment to shut down our vision and turn us into a lesser version of ourselves.

But when we choose WHO we are going to BE and WHAT we SEE, we become recalibrated. This strategy forces us to not be defined by past unmet expectations. Instead, we are defined by our chosen identity and vision. 

Armed with this perspective, you can then show up powerfully as a Visionary CEO who knows who they are and where they are headed. As a result, you’ll make better decisions, lead from a place of vision and regain your fire to try again, despite past failures. 

2. Delegate Constraints and Focus on Your Strengths

If you’re feeling overwhelmed as a CEO constantly, it’s time to reevaluate your responsibilities and delegate the tasks that aren't an instrumental part of your role. 

And don't just focus on reducing the number or volume of tasks on your to-do list; consider the type of tasks, as well. Oftentimes with a little self-reflection, you’ll find that you’re spending way too much time doing things that drain you. Things you don’t love to do and aren’t great at. I call these things “constraints.” Anything that drains you or takes time away from what you love to do is a constraint. 

In tandem, you also must rediscover your strengths. What are the things you love to do and are innately great? What tasks give you energy? When you know what your strengths are and begin actively focusing on them, it’s amazing how motivation tends to come roaring back. 

So here’s how to put this into practice. Get out a notepad and pen and create two columns: one for “strengths” and the other for “constraints.” List out everything you can think of in those two categories. Then, begin to focus on filling your schedule with tasks that play to your strengths and delegate those constraints to other members of your organization. This can help you immediately alleviate feelings of burnout and boost your motivation.

3. Find and Empower Your Missing Link

Now that you’re armed with your list of constraints, the question is who to delegate it all to! Although you may have some help from your existing staff, if you’re struggling with burnout, you likely have a “Missing Link” on your team. In fact, every overwhelmed CEO I’ve ever met has this same missing link on their team. 

What is this Missing Link? It’s the Visionary CEOs' operations counterpart: the Integrator COO. This role is the yin to the CEO’s yang, the person who thrives on managing the day-to-day, freeing the CEO up to focus on future growth. 

This role has been called many things before: President, General Manager, Integrator, Chief of Staff, Executive Administrator. But the function is all the same. Essentially this key role exists to complement the growth-oriented CEO by providing the administrative, operational, and execution support they need to be their best. 

Many times, a CEO will already have someone as a “stand-in” in this role, perhaps an Executive Assistant or a Chief of Staff. But they’ve outgrown this structure and now need to reevaluate the support they truly need to continue to lead their company without burning out. 

Sidestep CEO Burnout With the Right Operations Counterpart

My friend, here at Unleashed, we know how easy it is to fall into CEO burnout. But we can put an end to that cycle of overwhelm by implementing the strategies above, especially finding your 2nd-In-Command. We partner with CEOs just like you to define that crucial role, find the right candidate, and get more balance back in your professional life. Contact us today to get started.