When the flame flickers Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2007
The headline on this column is not an indication that the subject of my column is moving from business matters to affairs of the heart. I have enough trouble with the free-enterprise system and navigating its various tributaries; I’ll leave romance to philosophers, poets, pseudo-psychologists and Dear Abby.

What I am exploring is knowing what to watch for when a subordinate, associate, or yes, even you — the C-level professional/entrepreneurial owner with ice running through your veins — starts to get a notion that something inside has changed. It might start in the back of your mind as a little whisper and eventually build to a shout.

Without warning, it seems as if cold water has inexplicably doused that incessant burning in the belly that awakens overachievers in the morning and gnaws at them until they reluctantly let go and drift off to sleep. Fueling that constant internal flame is the search for a better way, a scheme on how to one-up the competition or to take one for the team under the sometimes sophomoric assumption that to die figuratively for the company is to live forever.

Almost out of the blue, you realize something has changed. At first, you probably think it’s that virus that’s going around. You’re lethargic. Your thinking isn’t as sharp as it has been. Your mind, for no apparent reason, wanders from ROIs, gross margins and the bottom line to abstract, granular thoughts as in white sandy beaches.

If this bug strikes you and you’re an owner/entrepreneur or top C-level executive, at first you think you’re just tired. You rationalize that after a few days away or a couple of good nights’ sleep, you’ll bounce back like the bull in the shop, kicking behinds and taking names. However, after several extra-long weekends off, you come back more lethargic. In meetings, instead of using your steel-trap mind to capture every word, concept and nuance, your thoughts drift to unrelated matters. You leave the meeting knowing that if someone put a .45 to your head and said, “Give me a one-minute synopsis of what was discussed or you’re toast,” you’d reply, “Get the butter and jelly.”

What gives? The answer is that the flame is flickering and, in the heat of battle, instead of your temperature rising, that high thermostat reading just makes you sweat. Welcome to Burnout City. It can happen to the best of us — your employees, your friends and even to you.

The good news is that there are steps you can take to refocus. You can try to reignite, and if that doesn’t work, you can extinguish the flame, but do it your way. The truth is that you can have it both ways, depending on where you are in your career, what you’re doing and, most important, what remains undone.

In business, the worst affliction is the “mediocrity malady.” It happens when you subtly switch to autopilot and go on cruise control. I call it “quit and stay.” This is not fair to your company, your associates and, especially, you.

When you spot the early warning signs in a subordinate who had been a superstar, give him or her a challenging assignment that might get the juices flowing again. I have never found that lightening the workload helps people re-engage and bounce back. Instead, it just delays the inevitable. You will know if it’s working when the A player begins arriving at work a little earlier and staying a lot later.

Bags under the eyes are another good sign, since it probably means that the born-again superstar has contracted the 3 a.m. syndrome. Instead of sleeping through the night, he or she is back to thinking in terms such as EBITDA, P&Ls and the like.

If you are the one afflicted, the same concept of taking on a new and energizing challenge is an effective treatment and antidote. Immediately begin delegating more, including the lofty aspects of your job that you once coveted, and start planning a new concept, an acquisition or a merger. Make sure that it is challenging — the bigger the better — and that you have established tight deadlines.

If, after this, you still find that the flame is almost out, it’s time to take that alternative fork in the road and map an exit strategy that leaves the place a little better than when you got there. In business, as in love, it all comes down to dealing with alternatives and making choices.

The end can sometimes be an exciting new beginning. Remember, your work is what you do, not who you are. Many a smoldering fire has reignited into a burning blaze; you just need to fan the flame a bit.

MICHAEL FEUER is co-founder of OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. During 16 years as CEO, he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. In 2004, Feuer launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating firm that focuses on buying control and/or making substantial investments in retail-oriented businesses and businesses that serve retail. Reach Feuer with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.