Burnout or Rust: Which Is Your Biggest Danger?

Posted by Chuck Kocher
On October 17, 2016

burnout-or-rust-which-is-your-biggest-dangerFolk/Rock legend Neil Young once wrote, “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.” After a career that’s spanned six decades, it seems obvious to me that Neil never really struggled with either. He’s constantly reinvented himself and kept the creative fire going.

What about you and your business? You hear about business burnout all the time, but what’s really behind it? We tend to associate burn out with individuals who are feverishly working and trying to stay on top of a rapidly growing business. But is over-activity and explosive growth really the culprit?

It could be argued that a business that’s growing too slowly is often the real cause of burn out. The problem isn’t burn out, per se—it’s rust! It’s often caused by a company that should be growing—but isn’t because it’s not scaled to grow.

In Scaling Up, Verne Harnesh describes a disillusioned (you can read that as “burned out”) CEO who was putting in long hours, fretting over finances (one day he was told the company had a quarterly profit of $300,000 and two days later found out the company had lost $350,000), and putting out fires among employees. The problem wasn’t that the company wasn’t growing—but the business wasn’t scalable. The CEO was working more and enjoying it less. He was burned out and his company was rusting.

Two years later, however, this same CEO had scaled up his business into an industry leader that he sold for $40 million. How did he manage that? He tackled three fundamental barriers to the kind of growth he was after:

  1. Leadership: He had to solve the problem of putting in place enough qualified leadership with the capability to delegate and predict what was needed
  2. Scalable Infrastructure: He had to put systems and structures in place (both physical and organizational) to handle the communication and decision-making complexities that growth brings
  3. Market Dynamics: He had to prepare the company to face the increased competitive pressures that can either build or erode margins as a business scales

Of course there’s a lot involved in taking those three simple steps. They don’t just happen on their own. However, if you ignore them, you can work yourself (and your employees) into the ground. You’ll burn out—not because the pace is too fast, but because the pace is actually too slow. You may work hard, but you won’t see the results you want to see. Your business will be trapped by the rust of thinking, systems, and infrastructure that simply can’t accommodate the kind of growth you’re after.

When it comes to dramatic, sustainable growth, you can’t just “wing it.” You have to plan for it and you have to overcome the barriers of inadequate leadership, infrastructure that’s not scalable, and market dynamics that are different than what you’ve previously faced.

You’ll still work hard—but you won’t burn out. You’ll actually enjoy work more. But first, you have to shake off the rust!