CEO Burnout: A Personal Story

After I published a blog post about the deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, one of my former clients reached out to thank me for sharing it, and for helping him through a difficult time. ‘John’ – a successful Canadian CEO, married and father of two – then generously offered to tell his story of a debilitating burnout. He believed that others may recognize themselves in his story, and get help, sooner than later. So, we sat down to talk about our beliefs and values, about success and stress…

KL: We all form a set of beliefs about how to conduct ourselves, and who we need to be during times of stress and crisis. What were yours, and how did they influence your experience?

John: Dad was a workaholic who came from a family of poverty, so he worked very hard to acquire things in life. I remember my Mum, who’d never had carpet as a child, would vacuum ours so perfectly that we weren’t allowed to walk on it!

Even though my father and mother were very supportive, my dad was a man’s man and taught me at an early age that boys don’t show weakness, and they don’t cry. Dad rarely asked for help, so I didn’t, either, and had to figure things out for myself. In tough times, instead of reaching out, for help and support, I would close in and try to figure things out on my own.

My self-worth was based on my success, and that formed one of my main values, as an entrepreneur. I defined success as money, influence and position – but that’s been redefined over the past two years!

KL: What happened that led to your burnout, and over what period of time?

John: In the summer of 2016 I was in an amazing place and feeling on top of the world. My relationship with my wife was the best it had ever been, I felt great physically and mentally, and my business was growing exponentially.

When I started my company, I had a partner – a friend since high school – and things were great for a long time. But as time went on, we hadn’t been seeing eye to eye, and he decided he wanted to be bought out of the business – and I was waiting for him to tell me how much he wanted.

I remember clearly the day he handed me an envelope. I thought it was the amount he wanted to be bought out for, but instead he gave me the shotgun clause, with the minimum timing, from our shareholders agreement, to buy him out.

I was absolutely shocked. I had only 30 days to find many million dollars if I wanted to keep the business I was so passionate about. I hadn’t done anything to prepare to buy him out, up to that point, because in my mind I was waiting for him to tell me what he wanted. I didn’t see this coming.

The buy/sell agreement pulled out the non-compete, confidentiality and non-solicitation clauses in our shareholders agreement. He could take our entire staff and start a company down the street with all our IP, customers and vendors if I bought him out.

After speaking with good lawyers, I realized that going to court to fight these changes would bury the company in expenses and lengthy court battles.  It wasn’t worth potentially destroying the company and putting the staff through the mess, even if it meant giving up the business.  I chose not to go this route.

To me, at the time this shotgun clause was a relationship ending proposition – a nuclear bomb to our relationship.  We shared many of the same friends and circles.  Although things weren’t going well, I really trusted him.

I went from feeling on top of the world to absolute despair.

KL: Tell me what happened next.

John: Well, the terms of the buyout were significantly less than what I felt the company was worth. I learned he had spent months trying to raise the money to buy me out, so he knew the likelihood of me finding the money in 30 days – rather 20 business working days – was very small. I could help but feel like this was a well crafted plan.

I was in a good place, leading up to this, because I had spent two years focusing on personal development – understanding who I was as a leader and as a person. I thought I knew myself, and the traits I wanted to improve – and I was working on them. When this happened, I felt all the work I was doing wasn’t enough.

It felt like a game of survivor. I felt totally confused, uncertain and worried.

KL: So, what did you do?

John: For 28 days I was up ‘til 3 am, going through files, talking to people who could finance me – trying to figure this out.  My partner’s wife was our head of finance and I had little access to data without going through her.

I felt it was hopeless and was going to give up – it took him months to find financing and now I had 20 business days. Then I called my brother, an Oil and Gas engineer in Calgary, who said, “You will never forgive yourself if you don’t try.”  I agreed, so he offered to take a sabbatical and help.  He is an amazing person.

KL: It came down to the wire, didn’t it?

John: On the 28th day, I found the money with a handshake deal – and had another 30 days to close it.  I had to prove to my investor that he was making the right decision.  If the deal fell apart, I would default and my partner would get an additional reduction in company cost according to our shareholders agreement.

That compounded my fear and self-doubt. Can I run the company without key people?  How many people will leave? What has he been planning for these last several months? What am I missing? Many jobs depend on this.

On the very last day of the deadline – there were so many things happening all at once – I was talking with multiple lawyers on the phone, trying to finalize last-minute items and determine if I was able to go through with it. I remember there was actually somebody in the background, counting down the seconds. The deal had to happen by 11am. 16…15…14… At three seconds to go, we said, “Let’s do it.”

KL: That must have been such a relief!

John: That’s when the true anxiety really kicked in, when the weight of the world came down on me.  I’ve never felt anxiety like this in the past.

The contract had released all employees from their contracts, which didn’t seem right to me.  I suppose there is more I could have done, but it would take months in court and the company would degrade.

I decided to compete with him. I don’t blame him for anything, and I take full responsibility for everything. I was willing to work and go above and beyond to reach my goals.  I’m extremely competitive – to my detriment, some of the time.

My partner ended up leaving with a number of key employees: our entire engineering team, and a couple heads of other departments – it was going to be a challenge to replace them.

I had a ton of stress – it was all fight or flight. Every day, I thought about giving up, and moving to a different city to start over. I didn’t want to face being a failure if I couldn’t hold it all together. I realized I have a very deep-seated fear of not being good enough.

KL: Did your family know what was happening?

John: Yes. I gathered my family for a weekend away and told them what was going on and said that, if I tried to get the company, I wouldn’t be around for at least six months, while I figured it out. They said, “If that’s what you want, that’s what we want.”

It didn’t take six months, it took 18. During that time, I was not present, physically or mentally. I was gone – a shadow of myself. It was terrible. My wife and I are much better, now, but it got to the point where I thought she was going to leave me. She’s my rock. If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t have got through it, but there was only so much she could take. I’d promised six months before it got better, but after 15 months she couldn’t take it. She was alone and had no one to support her and our kids. I’m very, very fortunate that my marriage didn’t fall apart.

KL: Tell me how this manifested in your physical health.

John: I was a solid, very fit person who lost 20 lbs. I started drinking coffee, which compounded my anxiety.

I had stopped drinking before this happened but started again – not a lot, but I can see, now, how easy it would be to fall into some sort of addiction.

I’d try to fall asleep around midnight to 2am, using Nyquil, Gravol, Benadryl, cannabis – anything to turn off my mind. I often woke up in a pool of sweat, nightly around 3 am.

I’d wake up to the first sound – to this day I cringe at the sound of birds chirping at 4:45 am! I went from eating six meals a day to one or two – typically not ‘til after 2 pm in the afternoon. A company delivered food, but I’d rarely eat it all. I just didn’t have the time, desire or energy. My body temperature was all off, I was often cold and would shiver.

My anxiety was so high I couldn’t put my head under water. I couldn’t go into a small room or an elevator.  I managed to get on a plane for a business trip, but I couldn’t get back on to come home; I would psych myself out.  I started getting weird quirks and tics. I literally thought I was losing my mind. I wasn’t present at all with my family or people at work. I would avoid social situations, phone calls, emails – anything that that might add more pressure.

I was a robot on a mission – and making poor decisions that I never would have made in the past.

KL: When did you realize you knew you needed help?

John:  I broke down when I was talking to my wife, one day, and she did, too. I saw the concern and worry in her face, then started to reach out to different psychologists and psychiatrists – anyone I thought who could help me.

Someone in my old EO group suggested I talk to a business coach. The first two I talked to thought I was too much of a mess to try to help, but you took me on. I remember you warned me it would take a long time – a year and a half or so – before I’d start to climb out of it. You were right: it was 16 months before I woke up, one day, to a small sense of relief.

It was like a daily roller coaster ride. I’d see possibility and feel better, then a phone call or email would send me down to the bottom, and I’d spend hours working my way out. Then I’d go down, again.

I remember, once, when the anxiety got so bad, I began to understand why people take their lives.  I just wanted to the pain to stop. It was so strange, it was physically painful to be on the earth. I never thought I’d get to that place, never in a million years.

I pulled over and called you immediately. You reassured me that I would get through it – and that hope went a long way.

One day, you showed me the mental health continuum model. Everything was in the red zone!  My cortisol levels were off the charts, and I was doing everything I could think of: I saw psychologists, got neuro feedback, read books, listened to mediation tapes, journaled, did gratitudes.

But what helped me most was talking to someone who understands.

KL: What did you start doing to take care of yourself better?

John: I stopped drinking coffee and got my sleep under control. A big one was eating properly, resting and trying to take time just for myself. It was so hard to do. I’d walk and walk by myself, and then started jogging, until I couldn’t go anymore – and that runner’s high got me through that day. And, as you say, I started ‘licking toads’ – doing the hardest things first.

To deal with ruminating on negative thoughts, I got very good at meditating, clearing my mind.

KL: How has this experience changed how you lead and operate at work?

John: There are so many ways. It cut my high ego down and realized what part of my ego was useful and what wasn’t.  It is such a powerful thing.

I’m more empathetic. Before this happened, I had zero empathy for people with anxiety and depression, and thought that those things were a weakness. I’m now able to help others who are going through this, to quickly recognize it, and relate.

We had an employee whose manager said she wasn’t performing, and he was considering letting her go. So, I talked to her and could tell the way she looked at me and was talking and fidgeting – (that was something I did) that she was suffering from anxiety. She shared she was going through a really bad divorce. I spent time with her, gave her tools I had learned, and she is way better now.

KL: How are you doing now?

John: Well, I still don’t like to check emails! I expect something to go wrong, struggle with trust, and get scared of getting that awful feeling back, but am able to get past it.

The business now has some amazing new people and we are doing great.

I realize how so many things – material things I thought were important – aren’t. I value relationships, my family and friendships, so much more now.

What hasn’t changed are my goals and my passion for success. I’m just wired that way, but I’ve balanced them a little better.

You always stressed that this experience would make me stronger, so I vowed it would make me better. It’s such a mental game, and I was able to push through, to see this as an opportunity, instead of a failure.

KL: What insights or advice would you share with others, as a result of this experience?

John: Everyone goes through something like this, at some point, in their lives. It’s important to acknowledge that you have a problem and to get the support you need. Know you will get through this. It will take time, but you will get through it. It’s a process.

  • First, try and get very clear about what you’re anxious about – usually a fear of something. My experience was related to something that happened in my past. I felt not good enough. I had a fear of failure, of letting down my employees, friends and family
  • Talk to someone – a counsellor or a coach – who understands anxiety and can help you unravel it. Daily, if possible – definitely weekly – to check in. You need someone to help show you possibility. I talked to you a lot when I was at the bottom of the roller coaster, and by the end of the call, I’d feel so much better. The boost would get me through the day

I also asked a friend to call me every day, and he did. If I know a friend who is going through similar things, I know they are not going to reach out for help, so I call them

  • Meditate to get the thoughts out of your head. I also listened to a book “Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind” about the chatter in your head. That was helpful. Your brain turns into a machine that can spiral you quickly down, if you let it
  • Exercise every day. Move your body. A long walk, run, anything
  • Get sleep. Lack of it compounded everything. My wife refused to let me take sleeping pills so over-the-counter got me through
  • No caffeine
  • I’d notice myself holding my breath. I talked to an Olympic athlete who won two gold medals, to ask how he got through. He said ‘breath’. I went to a high-level yoga instructor who said ‘breath’. The moment I got anxious, or stressed, I’d get control by breathing properly, through my belly, and it really helped me. The breath is powerful
  • Journal – write your thoughts down daily
  • Write out gratitudes – it’s an antidote to fear.