First Steps for Fighting CEO Burnout

If your corner-office gig is starting to feel overly familiar, do you need to find a new job or rethink the one you’re in? An association CEO recruiter shares some thoughts.

Happy new year! So, is 2016 the year you leave your job?

Forgive the bluntness of the question, but isn’t the beginning of the year a time for thinking about renewal and fresh starts? And I was thinking about how association CEOs settle into their jobs—and perhaps become complacent in them—while reading Paul A. Belford’s The Association CEO Handbook, which opens with some straight talk about CEO frustrations.

“As a general rule,” he writes, “an association executive’s ability to perform in a particular CEO position will grow more rapidly than the association’s executive needs and requirements expand. The executive leading it will tend to outgrow it.” In other words, what can feel challenging and energizing when you start out can feel rote once you’re familiar with the routine of board meetings and budgets.

Jim Collins’ bus doesn’t stop in associationland.

I asked Belford, an association CEO recruiter, how alert executives are to this feeling. “I would say they don’t focus on it,” he says. “They don’t think about it till they come to a frustration point after two or three years, where they’re not growing professionally, they’re not being challenged. If they were more aware of the commonality of their experience, they’d start doing something about it.”

One reason association leaders begin to chafe at their jobs, Belford argues, has to do with Jim Collins’ infamous advice about getting the right people on the bus. For starters, the association bus is limited in the number of directions it can go in—all the changes made still need to stay within the confines of the mission. Secondly, the people on the bus aren’t always yours to pick and choose; the CEO may have plenty of leeway with staff, but less with board members who have their own claim to the bus’ keys. “Jim Collins’ bus doesn’t stop in associationland,” Belford says.

But even if you make peace with those two concerns—if you successfully reimagine products and services and membership and meetings, and if you help great board members do great work—there’s still a wall. “You’re supposed to be at the point where your professional development and output interfaces with [the board’s] proprietorship of the organization,” Belford says. “But CEOs are human beings, and they generally want more. The risk is you start to see yourself as the strongest person in the room, the one who knows the most, who is the true authority. And you don’t have the maturity to back off.”

Belford calls this predicament the “zone of complexity.” But more simply, it’s ego—the place where servant leadership takes a back seat to wanting credit for what you’ve accomplished.

So what to do about it?

Belford suggests that there’s always something more to do in association—if you’ve done it right, there’s no longer any low-hanging fruit, but there’s always a problem that requires addressing. And that speaks to another recommendation of Belford’s—that a CEO do whatever she can to get out of the weeds of the day-to-day operations of the association. “Develop a separation from yourself and the more workaday aspects of the job,” he says. That means concentrating more on the 30,000-foot vision—more time looking for the trends that are going to affect your association’s members a decade from now, less time on the brochureware for next year’s conference.

On top of that, he suggests, recognize that getting the organization to the zone of complexity is itself an accomplishment that’s worth taking pride in. “That’s your job,” he says. “Your job doesn’t go far beyond that. You’re the principal advisor about what an association can do, and over time what this specific association can do.”

If you’re truly out of gas when it comes to the latter role, it may indeed be time to look for a new gig. If you’re out of gas with the former one, that’s a bigger issue; you may have chosen the wrong profession. A great association CEO, Belford says, is “a person who can take complete professional fulfillment from group achievement. They’d truly rather run an association than a large corporation in the industry.”

What do you do to keep your engagement in your job and avoid burnout? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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