Paul Lawson, chief executive of Leo Burnett London
Paul Lawson, chief executive of Leo Burnett London
A view from Paul Lawson

Paul Lawson: What to do when your staff go down with acrophobia

We're fast approaching that time of year when the coveted A List questionnaire wafts around the Luminaries of Campaign Past, Present and Yet to Come like a Hogwartian Sorting Hat. By definition, it tends to gravitate to people who you and I would class as overachievers, or, in some cases, superstars. Of course, one would like to think that these individuals have benefited from a happy combination of natural gifts, ambition, circumstance and timing, all...

But the road to the top is not always as smooth as it seems. Indeed, a superb Harvard Business Review article beautifully captures what the authors Parsons and Pascale call the "crisis at the summit". Furthermore, I would submit that our beloved industry is possibly the industry in which this syndrome is most likely to be found.

Summit syndrome afflicts extreme overachievers who thrive on challenge. And it happens at various points along their career path, not just when they reach the top. They love winning, mastering new skills, acquiring knowledge and surpassing previous benchmarks of excellence. But the rush from pushing beyond their limits tends to dissipate once a new role has been mastered. They tend not to be content with just bowling along at normal speed. At this point, previously uninteresting job offers catch their attention; regrets about the gap year they never took begin to surface; and, most worryingly, they may start to engage in destructive personal behaviours. This mounting confusion about career direction can go terminal as performance drops and career-limiting behaviour kicks in.

So, how can a business avoid such unpalatable consequences? First step: develop your early warning system. Become more receptive to the notion that certain symptoms are happening for a reason rather than simply assuming an individual has "turned difficult". Listen to colleagues when they talk about a team member's loss of enthusiasm, cynicism, frustration or career drift.

Once the problem is recognised, one can help an individual reconnect with why they got into the industry in the first place, shape their work in a way that reintroduces challenge and growth, and layer in support to ensure that the individual is not getting sucked into the bureaucratic treacle that can beset overachievers as they climb the greasy pole.

Of course, given my own overachiever status, this column was written from an opium den in Camden Town as I struggle with my own "crisis at the summit". I'm sure I'm about to get it under control, although I can't seem to shake my compulsion to speed-dial Leon Jaume to "help" sort me out.

For the rest of those afflicted, you should nip over to the other side of this spread and tap up that nice Mr Bullmore's advice. You never know, it could be just the tonic.

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