A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri
Most of us do not have smooth career paths. There are negative slopes, dotted lines and blank spaces in our achievement versus time graphs, and periods when cynicism levels are high, when completing sudoku puzzles become a major objective, and when we are particularly susceptible to proposals from friends to walk across the Himalayas. Some of us have dropped out completely or moved off-track to do something different, and some have searched for stimulation through extra-marital misadventures or other self-destructive behaviour. Such are the effects of the ‘outs’.
Those of us plodding away within an organization are familiar with the ‘outs’, we see them often enough and experience them occasionally. Frozen out when stylistic idiosyncrasies clash with a superior’s personality or an organization’s culture. Burned out by the toxic triad of an overwhelming workload, the inability to see the positive impacts of one’s labours, and the failure to achieve one’s career ambitions. Psyched out by biological or psychological changes that trigger a midlife crisis. Flaming out from a fundamental incompatibility between one’s abilities and the requirements of the job.
There are some alpha plus types, one had always assumed, who do not have these problems – who have a smooth, short and inexorable rise to the top, whose career graphs turn sharply upwards from their late twenties and plateau out only in the stratosphere – the supercharged ones who exult in winning, in mastering new skills and in surpassing previous benchmarks of excellence. It was therefore interesting to read an article in a recent HBR of a problem that is exclusive to these types that the authors have called the Summit Syndrome (SS – with due apologies to Adolf). Interesting because it says something about the career paths of the highly successful, and interesting because it explains the gaps we sometimes see between perceived potential and actual achievement.
The first point the authors make is that a successful career is not a straight line to the top; it is more like a series of northeast pointing S-curves with each S representing a job or task. Stage 1 at the bottom of the S represents the beginning of a new role, of assessing and assembling the requirements for the climb (building a new network, forming relationships with one’s team, developing a strategy, etc.). Stage 2 represents the ascent up the slope, a period of learning and adapting to the role, of developing the appropriate levels of skill and proficiency, of figuring out how to navigate the organizational territory and the external competitive environment. Stage 3 represents the approach to the summit, which is when the onset of SS occurs – mastering the work triggers discomfort and is the harbinger of a crisis. Stage 4 represents the plateau, when the challenge has been conquered and the requirement is to coast along until the next task – super-achievers have difficulty in negotiating flat terrain and this is a time of inner turmoil and mounting confusion about career direction. Stage 5 represents the descent and is characterized by an obvious drop in performance and career-limiting behaviour.
· Low level discontent
· “What happened to the excitement?”
· Subtle loss of edge
· Emerging distractions
o Hobby obsessions
o Heightened appetite for stimulation
· Attraction to unsolicited offers
· Loss of enthusiasm
· Fearing loss of career momentum and legacy
· ‘What happened to my goals?”
· Working harder to do the basics
· More serious distractions
o Fancier adventures
o Curiosity about alternate lifestyles
o More vacations
· Unorthodox career choices attract disproportionate consideration
· Feeling lost
· Cynicism, anger, frustration are near the surface
· “What happened to my career?”
· Working harder to conceal disengagement
· Severe distractions
o Substance abuse
o Sexual indiscretions
o Unconscious career sabotage
· Bailing out
SS is quite unlike the other “outs”. This is not a once-in-a-lifetime event like a mid-life crisis. Those in the initial phases of SS have not been frozen out or marginalized – they reside in the inner circles. They rarely burn out – they see the impact of their work and welcome big demands. Their capabilities are not merely aligned with organizational purpose, they are admired and celebrated by superiors, peers and subordinates alike. In short, they are the superstars – they do not have the insecurity and inferiority complexes of the victims of the “outs”. And SS is more profound for the more proficient – it causes superstars to leave the fast track, drift from one job to another, and ultimately be among those highly promising men and women who never manage to achieve the positions and goals that friends and colleagues had assumed they would. For their organizations, this uncharacteristic behaviour from those least expected to disappoint comes as a shock. Getting them back in the saddle is expensive in terms of lost contribution, organization disruption and the price of counseling – but that’s the best-case scenario. The worst is surprise departures that rob organizations of their most promising talents.
The rest of the article is about recognizing and handling SS. I am going to move from the international corporate sector to the Indian development sector, as usual. We need to attract good people in and retain them to survive. Getting them in is comparatively easy – a nice pep talk about motivation, commitment, the need to give back to the country, etc., etc., tends to suffice. Retaining them is much more difficult, organizations in the sector have little knowledge of the frustrations such people face and are constantly and continuously surprised by the sudden departures of their prodigies. Making do with the ordinary is not enough – we need to engage with the brilliant to keep this sector vibrant and in tune with the challenges faced. Bleating on about their fickle nature, their capriciousness and their turbo-charged ambition is pointless. Maybe we can learn from those with experience in dealing with them, such as the international corporate sector.
I would like to conclude by returning to the subject of the ‘outs’. There is little understanding of this phenomenon within the development sector, especially the ‘outs’ faced by the brilliant. The first ‘outs’ occur before they actually land up at the NGO’s doorstep. Their parents freak out, and they contemplate a life out of pocket. Nothing new with the former, plenty with the latter! Salary differentials, even at entry levels, between the development sector and outside are now humungous. And today’s youth do not ask Mom and Dad for money, they prefer a bank loan for their post-graduation. And yet, despite poor salaries, despite EMIs, despite parental, peer and to-be-spouse pressure, and despite plenty of options, some brilliant people do come into the sector.
The mismatch between the organization’s requirements and the individual’s abilities invariably occurs from the beginning. A best-case scenario is when the recruit is given responsibilities that include the hurly-burly of dealing with communities (something that no post-graduate degree prepares one for), forcing her/him to sink or swim. If s/he sinks – good riddance! If not, you have somebody worth keeping. The worst is when the organization dumps all its English-writing requirements (proposals, reports, blah, blah, blah!) on this person – a quick flame out happens. Bosses, such people have not come to be glorified translators and candy floss for donor visits. The disservice you do to the sector far outweighs the immediate relief from meeting writing deadlines.
Empirical evidence points to the first burn out happening 2 to 3 years after the person joins. And while the results of our work are right in front of us, the other elements of the toxic triad are joined by a third – that city kids working in the boondocks miss the lights, sound and action and feel that life is passing them by. Cynicism and faultfinding set in, and they pick the wrong fights and create tension. What should the organization do? One, recognize it for what it is – a burnout and not some fundamental deficiency in either the individual or the organization. Two, provide space for introspective thinking (facilitate long term training, for example). Three, if it comes to losing the person, make sure that the process is pleasant and positive. Use your contacts within the sector to place the person suitably and ensure that your recommendations are not coloured by the recent past. And four, maintain the relationship – the brilliant will always rise in the world.
The most dangerous of the ‘outs’ happens to the brilliant in mid-life, because those that have stayed in the sector are now leaders and policy-makers. Many re-evaluate their objectives at this stage, weigh them up against financial and physical security concerns, and get psyched out. Organizations lose their way when this happens to the boss – the bricks and mortar, vehicles and salaries become more important than the communities served and problems addressed. The donors become kings, and others within the organization, especially the other brilliant, become threats. Everything works to enable this one person to stay in position. Vision, mission and values turn into more jargon.
Some survive the ‘outs’ and go on to do their best work later in their careers. But the unrealized potential and overall loss to the sector of those who don’t is huge. It would be useful for development organizations to work out ways of dealing with the ‘outs’.
 “Crisis at the Summit”, George Parsons and Richard Pascale, Harvard Business Review of March 2007
2. An old saying goes - men, when they turn 40, rethink the value of honesty, and women of virtue.