One of the things I love most about my job are the conversations with clients that venture into new territory.
We begin by discussing their financial forecasting, or the impact of a specific investment. But it’s rare that a conversation stops there. We get to know about each other’s’ lives, passions and fears. What starts with business can become personal.
In recent years, I can recall at least two different business owners in different sectors raising the same very familiar concern. “I feel like I’ve lost my motivation,” said one. “I don’t seem to have the energy for work any more,” said another.
Their problem is very real. And it’s also very misunderstood. There’s a lot to learn from them both.
The frustrated founder
Let’s start with James. He founded his business eight years ago. He’d previously worked in web design and was the star performer in a bigger company. He loved his work but realized that he was only being paid a fraction of the amount his company was billing him out for. So, he decided to go it alone.
Two clients moved with him. Within two years he had a team of four developers working for clients in two continents. The business is still growing. It has a marketing director, a dedicated client management team and there’s the prospect of a private equity firm getting involved.
James and I chatted through those challenges and the stress they can cause. Eventually, we got to the core issue:
“I started this because I love designing. I thought it was the best way to get paid more to do what I love. I now barely have time to do any design work. I’m managing, firefighting and fund-raising. When I do get a chance to work on a client’s website I’m knackered, and I’m having to squeeze the best bit of the day into stupidly short gaps in my schedule. I have just stopped looking forward to the day, the job, and the professional side of my life.”
The exhausted leader
We’ll return to James, but before giving him any advice, it was important to learn some lessons from my conversation with Annette. She was, by her own admission, exhausted.
Which isn’t surprising. In five years, she’s taken her law practice from her and an administrator to seven partners and a significant support team. This had always been her aim, and she was now doing less legal work and more business and people management. She explained:
“I’d had enough of the specific area of law I specialized in. But I wanted to use it to build something bigger. I’m driven by the size and profit of my firm, not by the specific service we offer. But it’s not easy. Every day is full-on. I wake-up at night having had nightmares about insurmountable to-do lists. I seem to get involved in the minutiae of every problem and every decision even when I’m not sure I’m adding that much value. My friends think I’m living the dream, but I’m actually regretting the speed at which we’ve grown.”
The root causes of professional fatigue
So, there we have it. Two ‘founders’ who have built impressive businesses. Both are struggling to make the leap to ‘leader’ of those businesses in different ways. As a result, both are struggling to cope, and both feel they are losing energy and motivation. And yet both can only cure their symptoms by addressing the causes. Which are polar opposites.
James is a founder inspired by his core skill. His energy has been sapped by all the other stuff. Which means he has a clear choice to make:
- Scale-down the business and go back to doing what he loves, even as a solo entrepreneur if that’s the best fit. Or,
- Hand the leadership of his company to someone else (either a business partner or a well-paid employee) and ask to become their star designer.
The truth is that James isn’t really an entrepreneur. He’s a brilliant designer who needs the time and lack of distractions to enable him to do what he does best.
Annette, on the other hand, wants to lead. She just hasn’t mastered her team-building process or the art of delegation. She is treating her business the way she used to treat a client – by looking at the minute details of every case and controlling them all. And it’s no surprise that’s wearing her out. A fundamental part of great leadership is the ability to prioritize – and to ensure that other people deal with everything else. That realization could change her entire approach.
Understanding our personal energy
This piece isn’t just about making that difficult step from a founder to a leader and the challenges it can pose. It’s also about our appetite for work. There is a clear stereotype around the ‘entrepreneur’. He or she is seen as a visionary: risk taking and interesting. But also with boundless energy, thick skin and an ability to bounce into work each day excited to get started.
In reality, although many of us may have felt that way on day one, it’s a lazy assumption. Like anyone, entrepreneurs have bad days. They get tired. They get burnt out.
My view is that our energy levels are part of our core skill set. We have to protect them and replenish them. Which means understanding why you feel your energy has gone missing. Is it simply the stress of doing what you do? Is it an inability to switch-off? Is it that you are taking on jobs that, quite simply, you shouldn’t be doing? Is it a wider dissatisfaction with the way your business is developing?
These questions straddle our professional and personal lives. They have a huge impact on the people around us. And even if we think we can just put on a brave face and carry on, they will eventually affect our businesses too.
What my two conversations demonstrated is that there’s no one cause, or solution, to a lack of motivation. But feeling low doesn’t mean it’s time to down tools. It means it’s time to analyze what you are doing and why. And, most importantly, to ensure that you retain the hunger and excitement that got you here in the first place.
- Do you still look forward to the working day?
- Are there aspects of work that regularly get you down?
- Do you miss doing what you did best when you first went self-employed?
Try keeping a short diary to track your mood each day when you arrive at and leave work. Maybe give your energy levels a mark out of 10. It will create some context for your self-analysis and ensure that you make personal decisions on the back of measurable evidence.