Too Much Too Young

More and more executive fast-trackers are being hit by Accelerated Success Syndrome. Instead of a sense of achievement, they experience burnout and disillusion. Is the firm to blame?

by Emma de Vita
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Ours is an accelerated culture. The speed at which you hurtle through your career is worn as a badge of honour, from taking your GCSEs at 14 to earning a six-figure salary by the time you're 30. There are plenty of enviable role models. The dot.com boom of the mid-1990s created a wave of young paper millionaires such as Martha Lane Fox and Brent Hoberman, and there are the more recent successes of entrepreneurial geeks like Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google. It's now an acceptable expectation for bright young things to have it all by their late twenties.

In corporations, high flyers are celebrated: the fast track is the path you want to take. In the so-called 'talent wars', big businesses are keen to push impatient and motivated graduates through the ranks. For the successful ones, it's possible to be enjoying a senior management position and the comfortable lifestyle that goes with it by the age of 29. Where their parents spent decades earning promotion gradually, this generation of high achievers can have it all on the promise of talent alone.

But what price must be paid to have so much so young, both for these individuals and the firms they work for? MT has identified a generation of high achievers who suffer from the modern malady of Accelerated Success Syndrome (ASS). In the minority but significant nonetheless, their experience of life in the corporate fast lane provides valuable lessons to others in their slipstream and to businesses considering whether or not they should retain these talented but disillusioned individuals.

All ASS sufferers that MT spoke to bailed out of the big firms that had taken them on after graduation, choosing instead to pursue an autonomous career running their own businesses or working for smaller companies. They have a varied corporate pedigree - Accenture, Deloitte, Kingfisher, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Sainsbury's. All four reassessed their lives during their late twenties and made radical changes by the age of 30. For all, their desire was to put themselves back in charge of their career and their life, so sacrificing the big salary and sense of security that goes with a fast-track lifestyle. None regrets it.

Thirty is a milestone age, commonly prompting soul-searching, but for sufferers of ASS, this reappraisal is the result of a culmination of factors unique to their experience. 'You're meant to be having a carefree youth, but instead there's much expected of you,' explains Linda Holbeche of the Work Foundation. 'By your mid-twenties you've lost your early optimism, or you could be worrying that you've made the wrong career choice. You might not be coping well with the long hours and heavy responsibility. It's also the age when you start to recognise more closely what your own values are.' And they might not match those of the organisation that employs you.

Notes Dr Valerie Garrow, principal researcher at Roffey Park, the executive education and research organisation: 'You've bought your own place at 22, and you get sucked into being able to earn a certain amount of money. Your options are closed down.' Suddenly, the prospect of another, even more senior promotion can prompt a major change. After all, you're still young and uncommitted enough to take up a new career before the responsibility of having a family is upon you.

But ASS sufferers didn't start out disillusioned. The promise of early responsibility, intense learning and development and rapid seniority is a big carrot for driven high achievers. As is the salary, which can give you access to the kind of lifestyle at just 21that your less ambitious peers will take years to acquire, if ever. The temptation to buy the upmarket city apartment, the designer clothes and a flash car is irresistible to most - but it's not all paid for. The pressure remains to get the next promotion to stay ahead of your colleagues and to continue to be able to fund the comfortable material life to which you have become accustomed.

Gradually, the dirty machinations of office politics, the resentment of continually working long hours in locations far from friends and family, the pressure of early responsibility without the experience and wisdom to cope with it effectively, and the feeling that you are on a promotion escalator (where it's either up or out) conspire to weigh the individual down. Combine this with the stress of having an expensive lifestyle to maintain and a crisis point is eventually reached. ASS sufferers feel trapped and desperately want to regain control of their lives.

'In that environment,' says 32-year-old Sejel Khajuria, ex-Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, 'the one thing you don't have is freedom. I got promoted, but the more money I earned, the more I was obliged to do. I knew that if I carried on, I'd feel less and less free.' Her feeling was shared by Alice Hubbard, 31, who joined Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) after graduating. 'It was like being on a conveyor belt. Promotion was just something that happened to you, rather than something you actively pursued. I ended up questioning why I was there. I wasn't feeling in control of where my career was going.'

The Work Foundation's Holbeche has heard the sentiment expressed many times before. 'People gradually wise up and realise that they are losing themselves in all of it,' she says. 'They don't have time to think about what they are doing and feel that they have lost control over their time. It becomes very stressful. They ask themselves whether this is the kind of success they want.'

Awareness of their unsuitability for corporate fast-track life comes slowly to most ASS sufferers, but for some the awakening is sudden. Emma Barnes, 31, joined the Kingfisher fast-track scheme in 1999. The retailing group then owned such companies as B&Q, Darty and Superdrug. She was so keen to start that she volunteered to join the business eight weeks early. Her swift promotion through the ranks led her to become B&Q's youngest-ever buyer at just 25.

'Kingfisher's tag line for the management development scheme was senior management within seven to 10 years,' she says. 'It was very compelling.' But her big promotion left her cold. 'I was absolutely over the moon for about a day. Then I had a huge crash because that was everything I had set my sights on and I had achieved it, and nothing had changed - life went on and I was still working really hard.'

Already feeling disorientated, Barnes suffered a severe setback when a strategy she had masterminded went wrong in implementation. 'All of the people who said it was the best strategy forgot they'd said that; they all distanced themselves. I got a two on my performance appraisal and suddenly all bets were off. I felt absolutely abandoned and devastated.'

The experience was her first introduction to how a company actually works. 'If that had happened when I was older and wiser,' she reflects, 'maybe it wouldn't have been so horrifying to me, but I don't think I had built up the emotional capability or resilience of politicking to know that this is how it works. And it hit me very hard.'

In a dog-eat-dog corporate environment, Barnes' naivety had let her down. But was the company right to blame her and cut her out? Says Roffey Park's Garrow: 'Young people do genuinely get burnt out, but this usually takes place in a blame culture where people don't learn from mistakes and are put under a lot of pressure. There needs to be a culture of feedback and of nurturing talent.' Instead, Barnes seems to have been the victim of a sink-or-swim attitude.

Her experience touches on an increasingly vocal debate within companies about the benefits of a fast-track approach to talent management versus what Garrow refers to as the leadership pipeline - a slower process of talent management whereby individuals are promoted through experience and future leaders are nurtured over time. It values patience over haste and experience over the promise of talent.

In his excellent 2002 New Yorker article 'The Talent Myth: Are smart people overrated?', Malcolm Gladwell argues that Enron's strict adherence to McKinsey's strategy of 'rank and yank' led indirectly to the energy company's downfall, as people deemed 'talented' were given new challenges without the grounding of requisite knowledge or experience. It's better, says Gladwell, to follow a system where seniority, not talent, is rated and rewarded.

The approach of PricewaterhouseCooper to young talent fits somewhere between the two. Recruiting 1,300 graduates every year, the firm postpones any tracking until they have passed their professional accountancy exams three years down the line. Talented individuals are then put on a two-year 'Emerging Leaders' programme. At present, about 150 people are signed up to it.

'People go at their own rate,' says Tim Richardson, head of PwC's leadership development and talent management. 'After three years, when people are doing real work, we have a much better idea as to who might have something unique. Self-awareness in a leader is crucial. In their late twenties, people are asking themselves: "Who am I? Where am I going? How can I be the leader I'd like to be?" We work on the basis of helping them to understand themselves, of believing in them, trusting them and not overmanaging them.'

Early career burnout among high-flyers can occur, he admits, but it's not a huge problem. 'Typically, people get tired and want to leave. They take six months to recalibrate themselves, not realising they could do that.' Even so, he adds: 'Some people will leave and take a career shift.'

Often, the firm finds that the smartest people are the least self-aware. 'They are their hardest taskmasters,' says Sarah Churchman, PWC's head of student recruitment. 'They have to be asked whether they have taken all their holiday.'

Sabbaticals can help pressurised individuals take stock of their lives and give them valuable time out of the system to reappraise where they are going. Accenture's Hubbard took advantage of this, as did Chris Ratcliffe, 31, who was taken on by J Sainsbury as a fast-tracker eight years ago. Increasingly disillusioned with corporate life, Ratcliffe dropped out for a year at the age of 26. 'Going travelling was an eye-opening thing. I felt massively empowered to do my own thing and it was my decision. At Sainsbury's, things are just put into your path.'

He returned to Sainsbury but asked to work a three-day week, having decided to pursue a second career in photography. 'It was a gradual enlightenment,' he says. 'I certainly wanted to move - it was the pointlessness of it all. You'd go into the office every day for a year and not actually see anything come of it. I was a small cog in a massive corporation. Unless I had a burning ambition to be on the board, I could never see myself making a difference.'

His antipathy to office politics and his reluctance to play the corporate game was shared by Barnes, who eventually left Kingfisher to pursue a consultancy career at Deloitte, hoping that life would be different there. She took a job as a senior consultant, starting on £52,000 a year. She was just 27. 'It was brilliant for six months,' she says. But her cynicism towards big business reasserted itself. The longer she stayed, the more uneasy she became. 'It was a real quandary, and I thought: "What do I do?". I've tried the real world, I've tried consultancy - all I know is retail and supply chain. Every day I was waking up later and later, feeling lower and lower. I just wanted to have basic human values of being nice and friendly and helping people. It was an impossible situation.'

Accenture's Hubbard hadn't bought into her firm's values either. 'The last year I was there I began to think about what I wanted to do. The senior management promotion was coming up and I knew that to get promoted to that level I really had to be bought into the company. I'd see the people who were at that level and think: "that's not me".'

All four ASS sufferers abandoned their corporate lives. Khajuria left to set up her own yoga company, Ratcliffe became a full-time photographer and Hubbard went back to university to study psychology. All took a big drop in salary, none more so than Barnes, whose income was cut by 90% after she decided to start her own book publishing company with a consultant friend: she pays herself £5,000 a year. 'I didn't realise at the time just how much money I was frittering away on haircuts and going for meals and clothes and shoes that I never wore,' she says. 'I didn't realise I could live quite frugally and just be so much happier.'

Her company, Snow Books, is flourishing - as is she. She holds no grudges for her career burnout. 'I feel very grateful to Kingfisher, to Deloitte, and for everything that has happened, because, without the business knowledge that I had, I wouldn't be able to run my business.'

ASS sufferers may have no regrets on quitting corporate life, but do companies regret losing them? 'It's a sad waste of talent, and organisations really need to think about this. It's crazy to lose people at 30,' says Roffey Park's Garrow. The talent pool is small and, because of demographic change, is shrinking, so big business needs to retain as much as it can. 'Sabbaticals are great if you want to do something different, but if it's put to use as a break from burnout, then that's not right. Don't do this. Support people who are exhausted, through mentoring and creating networks of support. Talent needs to be nurtured.'

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime