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Signs of CTO Burnout, and Why the Shipwreck Affects the Whole Crew

Perspectives in Engineering

Signs of CTO Burnout, and Why the Shipwreck Affects the Whole Crew

how to identify and avoid burnout in engineering teams
GitPrime elevates engineering leadership with objective data. In this interview series, Engineering Leaders talk about how to build high performing teams.

Here’s a tale as old as startups: Developers get to a certain level of coding ability, and then they get ‘promoted’ to management. They’re expected to drop their coding skills and pick up the ability to build a team’s culture, design an organization, and lead people. It’s no wonder that so many of them experience burnout.

Andy Skipper is the founder and chief coach at CTO Craft, where he often mentors technology leaders that are experiencing issues like burnout. But he’s lucky to still be in the business at all, after experiencing his own burnout during a decade of being CTO for various organizations.

“I was a developer basically figuring out how to deal with people,” Skipper says. “I had no real support network, I had no support from the leaders and founders, and it all just happened very, very quickly.”

With the benefit of hindsight, he recognizes now that he didn’t delegate, and yet he expected too much from his staff. He spent the great majority of his time rewriting his team’s code. He ruined relationships, he burned out other developers, he alienated the founders, and he became physically ill.

“Eventually, I just walked away,” he says. “I had to go into hiding for a few months and reset myself. Not a great experience. But it taught me a lot about handling burnout and not forwarding the emotional impact of being a leader.”

Sometimes, people experience burnout because of personal factors completely unrelated to their companies. But, Skipper stresses, a lot of people burn out when they (and their organizations) don’t fully understand what leadership really requires.

But once you’re in a leadership role, burnout is a very real possibility. So how do you recognize burnout in yourself, or in your own manager? How do you recover? And, is there strong hope of turning it around?

Burnout ho! The signs of an impending collision

Like a ship approaching a rocky coast, you want to know that burnout is in sight before you scrape ashore. There are lots of potential signs, and the details will be as unique as the individual about to crash and burn. But Skipper classes classic burnout symptoms into three main areas:

  • Cynicism. This manifests in generally doubting your situation and everyone in it. You’ll start to question the proficiencies of the people in your company, as well as the ability of the company to accomplish its objectives.“Relationships with other people also deteriorate,” Skipper says. That’s your cynicism at work gnawing away at your foundations with the people you work with, your team members, or even your friends and the people at home.
  • Self-inefficacy. “Basically, you lose your faith in your ability to get things right and to fulfill the objectives that you set yourself,” Skipper explains. “You become a perfectionist, you blow things up beyond proportion, and you lose persistence.”Indications of self-inefficacy include seeing the tiniest, most immeasurable problem you face as being the end of the world; finding that you start tasks and don’t want to complete them; and getting to the point where, if you can’t knock a project out of the park and do an amazing job immediately, then you feel it’s not worth doing.
  • Exhaustion and stress. These are some of the more common, and also some of the most blatant, signs that things need to change. “Your energy levels drop, you develop physical symptoms like headaches and musculoskeletal problems,” Skipper says. “You can’t function properly. You can’t exercise. You can’t look after yourself.”

These symptoms can also manifest as general emotional stress: the feeling of being worn out, the feeling that none of the problems you have are worth trying to fix.

So, how do you recover?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Skipper laughs. To answer the question, he points at the root cause of all those signs of impending burnout: Essentially, burnout happens because of an imbalance.

“Burnout is an imbalance between the resources you have and the demand on those resources,” he says. “Resources aren’t just the time available to you and the schedule on your calendar. You have emotional resources: resources from socializing and so on.”

So, he says, you can manage (and preclude) burnout by changing your habits to focus more on the resources you already have at hand — and understanding and acting on your unmet motivations.

“Burnout is an imbalance between the resources you have and the demand on those resources.”

Just being aware of the fact that you need support from other people is one big step. You can ask for help from team members and managers. You can build a network of people in roles similar to yours—other CTOs, other co-founders, other developers. And as you feel emotionally capable, you can socialize more, get better exercise, focus on getting better sleep, improve your diet, and learn about mindfulness and meditation.

Changing habits is hard work, so be reasonable in your efforts. But any one of these thinks can reset you, Skipper says, and help you manage how you expend your energy and your time. These aren’t things you do when you’re not working—they’re things you do to take care of yourself so you can function as a human being and a leader.

Asking for a friend – how to recognize burnout in another

When a leader experiences burnout, the fallout is not a contained event, any more than a shipwreck affects only the captain. So what are the signs of burnout in your own managers?

“You’ll know for sure if they’re struggling if their calendar is full,” Skipper says, “but also just if they don’t react to day-to-day issues that come up. Let’s be honest: there are no startups that don’t face some kind of issue, big or small, on a daily basis. But if your leader, your manager, is responding to those kinds of hiccups in a defeated or depressed way, then you can be pretty sure that they’re somewhere on the road to burnout.”

From the picture in the national gallery

Recognizing burnout may be the easy part, though. It’s bringing burnout to their attention that’s really tough. For your own wellbeing at work, not to mention for the good of the whole organization, you’ll feel you need to speak up. But it can feel risky to offer feedback to your manager, especially when they may take it as personal criticism.

“If your manager is responding to hiccups in a defeated or depressed way, you can be pretty sure that they’re somewhere on the road to burnout.”

“In situations where I’ve had to do that kind of thing, I’ve had a direct on the situation with them,” Skipper says. “And I’ve also asked for a skip-level 1:1 with their manager about the atmosphere they’re creating. That is a side-effect of burnout; it feels like an inwards thing, and a very personal thing. But naturally it affects the entirety of the company, so a CTO burning out can actually be existential for the company they work in.

“I think having that conversation, both with the person that you think is burning out and also with their direct line manager, is really, really important,” he adds.

There is hope

Handling burnout—your own, or someone else’s—is a process. It doesn’t get fixed in a day. But preventing a total collapse is attainable, so long as the person experiencing recognizes that it’s happening, and that burnout has lingering and toxic effects on their company.

The first hard part, of course, is recognizing that it’s happening. “That’s not always a given,” Skipper says. “I think you can hold it in their face and say, right, ‘You’re in danger. You’re burning out,’ or, ‘You have certain behaviors which will lend themselves to you burning out very quickly,’ and they just won’t get it.”

But, he says, in many cases they do ultimately get it. People generally care about themselves and their work, which means they are capable of recognizing that their energy levels are dropping, they’re just not enjoying work, they’re not enjoying life.

It’s eminently possible to take a step back and get better at communicating, and at managing energy levels and the demands of your resources. The first step is recognizing the burnout. Just remember: you’re not the first person to experience it, and you’re not alone in pulling out of it.