Leading through difficult times: Put on your oxygen mask first 


One of my mentors warned me: “Hey, be careful! Do not burn out, take care of yourself!!”. Several months later, I was burnt out, just as predicted.

Introduction

We glorify the visible exploits of great leaders but rarely acknowledge the invisible sacrifices they make. During the most challenging segment of my career, I went through four managers, cycled through 3 different products, and rebuilt my team three times – all while working remotely!

This post describes the journey, the struggles, and the coping mechanisms I discovered. I like to think I acquired years of leadership experience within months.

Anyone can lead a team of excellent engineers; the real test lies in turning around a demotivated team while handling turbulent transitions – D.

Leading during crises: the 3 Ps – People, Processes, and Products

Organizational issues stem from people, process, or product problems. This scenario was remarkable because the multi-faceted challenges spanned all three dimensions.

1. People

The turbulence started with the shutdown of a much-beloved product; in a jiffy, three years of hard work was down the drain. The logical correctness of the business decision did little to lubricate the emotional friction of the message; morale leaked like a basket. Demotivation swept across the organization like waves rippling on the beach. People repeatedly asked: what’s next? Why are we here? What do we do?

The uncertainty was too much for some folks, so they quit. However, this trickle of departures triggered the bandwagon effect – committed engineers started interviewing too. The org soon had an extra problem – coping with a torrential wave of unbridled attrition.

2. Process

The next big bump was getting reorged into a rapidly growing product to accelerate engineering velocity. In reality, this introduced some friction – inevitable due to the clash of three separate cultures and operating philosophies.

Another challenge emerged before the team could fully jell – the pandemic; forcing everyone to work from home. This abrupt transition necessitated creating new team rituals, habits, and processes.

So, in addition to rapidly scaling hiring to backfill depleted ranks, we also had to deal with team jell in a remote work environment.

3. Product

A startling discovery rattled the team during ramp-up – the new product was technically bankrupt, and the technical debt was growing faster than the team’s capacity to pay it down.

Everything that could be wrong was not only wrong but worse than imagined: customers complained, support grumbled, and PMs protested incessantly. We always seemed to be one breathe away from spontaneous combustion; consequently, engineers were always on edge, apprehensively waiting for the next fire to ignite.

The final challenge was breaking out of this reactive fire-fighting loop.

The price of victory

At the end of the sojourn, the team pivoted from reactive fire-fighting to proactive strategic execution, earned the respect of peers and partners, and had exciting new initiatives lined up. I wrote about how we tackled some of these challenges here, but this post focuses on my mental state at the journey’s end.

At that point, I was burnt out – just as my mentor had predicted several months earlier. 

The imperceptible descent to Burnout

One day, my wife casually remarked: “you do not laugh as much as you used to.”; I chalked it up to a tough day at work. Deep down, I knew she was right; I was not as cheerful as I used to be, and I had stopped doing many things – playing, reading, or writing.

I was sprinting unsustainably through a marathon, fueled by a steady stream of small wins. Life became a blur of wake, work, worry, sleep, and repeat with work consuming every spare moment. Just one more push, I’d tell myself, just one more try.

The signs were there: stress-induced insomnia, endless hours of pointless scrolling on social media, and binge-watching of videos. A strange cynicism slowly engulfed my innate cheerfulness – I became cranky and habitually grumbled to family, friends, and colleagues. Still, I ignored these signs and the advice from my loved ones; I kept pushing.

Things eventually came to a head on a fine summer afternoon. I got yet another trivial but meaningless request while battling a fire. My stalling attempts failed, and I was compelled to address a pointless request; that was the last straw that broke the camel’s back.

A long walk did little to assuage my feelings – my feelings of frustration did not budge an inch. On getting home, I started reviewing my journal entries for the past few months. The mood graph showed a sharp downwards slope – I could not deny that anymore. My own words confirmed what everyone told me that I refused to acknowledge – the pressure had not eased one bit! 

Why did I take so long to acknowledge burnout?

Two reasons stand out when I ponder why it took so long to come to terms with the situation.

  • Ego – I knew the challenges were tough; however, I struggled to separate myself from the situation. I felt I was failing as the team got bogged down multiple times in the morass. 
  • Not letting the team down: I sacrificed to shield the group by picking up every extra task. This unrelenting, intense pressure eventually ablated my protective mechanisms. 

You can’t carry 500kg no matter how hard you convince yourself; you can try, but you’ll most likely hurt yourself while trying.

Lessons Learnt

1. Prepare plans

Disappointments are part of the job: projects will fail, people will depart, processes will crash. There will be unwanted outcomes, interactions, and events, so it helps to have a playbook ready for such situations.

For example, most of us follow a predictable cycle of tense situation -> upsetting trigger -> conflict. A better strategy involves identifying personal triggers to prevent knee-jerk outbursts and crafting response tactics (e.g., before responding to an undesirable provocation, I’ll delay my response by 1 hour or safely vent to a trusted mentor)

Being prepared for these events does not make them more palatable; however, these plans help build resilience and fortify you to cope with the struggles.

2. Take care

Exhausting days and sleepless nights take a toll, and we all crack under sustained pressure. Regardless of what you are going through, always remember to place your well-being first – no job is worth a permanent health crisis – put on your oxygen mask first before helping others.

It takes time to unstick a stuck flywheel, so pace yourself: it is a marathon, not a sprint. Find ways to decompress, exercise, and maintain a sustainable pace. There might be short bursts of frenetic activity now and then but always make sure to recharge.

3. Find outlets

There is a pervasive African trope that only weak men cry; this misguided stereotype has caused more harm than good. Things Fall Apart exemplifies how atychiphobia (the fear of failure) doomed Okonkwo. 

Suppressed emotions cause folks to lash out. The bottled-up feelings erupt with volcanic fury, causing equal damage to colleagues, antagonists, and innocent bystanders. Find outlets to vent safely, identify your triggers, and review challenging situations. 

Having respected coaches who listened to my rants helped with analyzing scenarios dispassionately. These deep retrospectives helped me identify my triggers and devise strategies to control them. Also, journaling worked wonders; it provided incontrovertible evidence that I was tricking myself by admitting things were OK. 

It is not the stimulus that matters; it is the response.

4. Get Support

If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together – African Proverb.

Surmounting formidable hurdles feels like swimming against the tide. The challenging days and frustrating events suck your life energy and you end up feeling miserable. Please do not try to take it all on alone. 

There were times I got to my wits’ end and started questioning the purpose of it all. My trusted network of confidants helped me come back from the brink and pull through. They gave me hope; they strengthened my resolve; they spurred me on.

Find folks to bounce ideas off of, find people who’ll tell you the hard truths you refuse to acknowledge, and folks who’ll cheer you up when you are down.

Find allies, Build alliances, Ask for help.

Conclusion

That long summer afternoon was the turning point; I knew I had to find a new role. However, I worried about moving; I did not want to go from a frying pan into a fire. On landing a great opportunity, the bounce returned to my step, the burden was off my shoulders, and I could prance around in relief.

I still look back and laugh at my naivety – I ingenuously believed I could go at it all alone – shoulder everything and power through. I was wrong – no one can singlehandedly weather the pressures of people, processes, and products without caving. 

It took time to reset my schedule, and there are habits I am still trying to cut away, but I am glad and grateful that I am on the mend.

Further posts will delve into crafting tactics and strategies for successfully turning around teams in crises. 

Thanks to Ayuba, David Golden, and D for reviewing drafts of this post.

2 thoughts on “Leading through difficult times: Put on your oxygen mask first 

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