On a recent Monday morning, I opened my computer and was faced with one of my biggest leadership challenges yet. Bianca, my director of operations, reached out to me on Skype. She was feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Worst of all, she felt like she was being unproductive–she felt like a failure. She thought she was letting me–and the entire company–down. Bianca is key to my company’s success, and I knew that if we didn’t fix the problem, there was a real chance she would leave.
Top performers, unsurprisingly, are the most likely employees to face burnout. This is particularly true in startups, where the hours can be long and job requirements can change rapidly. A team member who isn’t enjoying her job and feels like she isn’t growing might quit even if she’s otherwise a great fit for the company, the team, and the role. However, many leaders take a “suck it up” attitude to team members who are stressed and overwhelmed, rather than focusing on what they can do differently.
I quickly realized that Bianca’s concerns were symptoms of a wider challenge. We had almost doubled in size, from 60 team members a year ago to over 100 today. When we founded Peak Support in 2015, Bianca knew every client’s operations from the inside out. That was possible when we had three clients–but not when we had 12.
Meanwhile, our leadership team used to engage regularly with every individual team member. At any given time, a dozen different chat groups on Skype might have active conversations. We used to participate in every one. Now, that was impossible.
We had grown, and we needed to lay out different expectations for Bianca’s job. And in fact, that was true for every member of the leadership team.
Here are the five things I did to revitalize her and make sure she stayed:
1. I reinforced her value to the company.
If Bianca felt like a failure, that meant I had failed. The first thing I did was tell her how much I relied on her. I knew that wouldn’t fix the problem–we had to make sure she actually felt like a success. But in the short term I needed to ensure she knew how much I valued her work.
2. I told her she wasn’t alone.
Heck, I feel like a failure almost every day. I’m often overwhelmed. I wonder whether I’m up to the task of managing this company if it doubles and doubles again. I scheduled a phone call with Bianca and a couple other senior leaders and we all shared our feelings of anxiety.
3. I committed to fix the problem.
Stress can turn into panic if you think there’s no way out of your predicament. I couldn’t fix the problem right away, but I could ensure she knew that help was on the way. I told her that ensuring her success was my number one priority, and I meant it. I cleared my plate, even canceling client meetings, and:
4. I got on a plane.
One of our clients, Aman Advani of Ministry of Supply, gave me some crucial advice, a tip he had received from an advisor: get on a plane. Bianca is based in the Philippines, so this is no small task. But, perhaps ironically, as CEO of an entirely remote company, I understand the importance of meeting in person. I quickly booked a ticket, and used the opportunity to host a Corporate Planning Summit in Manila.
5. We re-examined our leadership org chart.
After this experience, we know we needed to re-examine the roles and responsibilities of the senior leadership team.
My wife Hannah had joined the company in 2016 as an all-purpose “fixer.” She managed marketing and jumped in on operations she was needed. But she was also increasingly feeling that her time was not well-spent.
We made a simple but impactful change. Hannah became chief operating officer. Bianca and Judy now reported to her. The three of them are now responsible for all client operations and talent, which frees me up to focus on sales, strategy, and finance.
The story has a happy ending. Bianca is feeling better, and the entire leadership team feels more focused and productive. We’re currently tackling activities that, last year, we didn’t start until December.
I know we can’t just consider the problem solved. When we reach our next growth inflection point, we’ll face this challenge again. And we’ll have to proactively address it.
This article was first published in Inc.