The F-Word For Business Leaders – And How To Use It To Your Advantage

Author

Andrew Cave and Contributor

November 7, 2014

One could call it the “F-word” for business leaders. At the top of the tree at a public company, issue one profit warning and you’re on probation.

Issue two or two (and they normally come in twos and threes) and you’re out. But failure arrives in lots of other forms too: risk, debt and overambitious targets at a corporate level and stress, anxiety and depression on a personal basis.

Just look at media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner’s well-publicised battles with anxiety or the decision of Lloyds Banking Group’s shark cage-diving chief executive Antonio Horta-Osario to take time out from his position in 2011 due to fatigue.

He said later that the experience had been “like a battery going to zero”. Similarly, Akzo-Nobel CEO Ton Buchner took temporary leave in 2012 after admitting suffering from “temporary fatigue” and “taking a bit too much hay on his pitchfork”.

And last year, the former Financial Services Authority chief executive Sir Hector Sants resigned as head of compliance and government and regulatory relations at  banking group Barclays, a month after taking sick leave for exhaustion and stress.

In these success-addicted times, however, it is rare to find a business leader who is candid and open about using such words as stress, depression and, yes failure, to describe their experiences.

Katarina Skoberne and Tim Brown are two of the exceptions. Both have stories that appear extreme but their real rarity value is probably having the guts to tell them.

Slovenia-born Skoberne founded OpenAd, one of the world’s first crowd-sourcing engines for creative concepts for advertising, back in 2003, linking 15,000 creatives from 125 countries and establishing a presence in 12 nations with 50 staff.

Building all this required significant investment, funded through loans from Slovenian holding company Istrabenz, which financed itself from debt, collaterised on OpenAd’s assets.

In late 2008, Istrabenz’s assets slumped from more than £1 billion to less than £100 million. Istrabenz went into insolvency and its banks came calling on OpenAd, which could barely service its debt, let alone pay it off.

The result was predictable, with OpenAd going out of business as well. In early 2009, Skoberne wrapped up four companies that comprised OpenAd, shutting offices and laying off staff.

She found advertising work elsewhere but had to resign after two months because of an eye condition exacerbated by the stress of the insolvency that left her unable to read or write.

“Selling My Things To Survive”

“At the age of 40, It was my first failure,” she says. “It was a crucible experience for me. I lost my money in the company, lost my health and also had personal circumstances that disintegrated. I went into what was first a liberating stage where I had nothing else to care about and there were no expectations of me but on the other hand my life had completely crashed. I ran out of money. i couldn’t work. I was too proud to ask for help. And when I asked for help, it didn’t land very well. I started selling my things to finance myself in a catatonic state. I sold my jewellery, my designer clothes. “I had some watches. I pawned and subsequently sold them because I couldn’t afford to come back and get them. It was a day-to-day struggle.”

Skoberne ended up homeless, sleeping on friends’ couches. But when her health stabilised, she was able to make sense of her troubles, reinventing herself as a business consultant and mentor who uses her own failure to give insight to others.

Now, she views her dark days with the benefit of distance. “First you have one crash, then another crash,” she says. “Then you go through the processing element because as you’re living it, it’s a day-to-day survival fight. “You keep going and then once you have survived, that’s when the learning takes over. “You have to rebuild your life in a more steady growth state and that’s where you have to reprocess a whole lot of stuff to be normal again.”

Reprocessing and Rebuilding

For Skoberne, that meant a radical shift from a model based on the driven self to one pivoted around understanding the needs of others.

“It was a complete shift of gears for me,” she says. “I was always a founder of something and usually the leader, manager or chief executive. “That’s a driven Alpha-type mode, whereas when I went into consulting, you effectively become a counsellor.

“You’re there to let people know everything is going to be fine and to provide certainty where there isn’t any. “I had to learn that as I went along but what I found was that I was relying on my failure experience. My failure didn’t make me a different person but it brought out a layer in me that was dormant. “That kind of traumatic experience will give you two things; a recognition of the emotional components in anything and a deflated ego, which is a good thing. You find it easier to recognise your ego acting up and to negate it, because what I see over and over again in corporates us or the wrong strategy, calculation or business plan. It’s a personal ego that gets in the way.”

Skoberne believes depression, breakdown and other forms of failure constitute one of the great stigmas in business that is rarely discussed or recognised.

“People who have had mental illness can be more fit to lead in extreme circumstances because they have more empathy. “Because they have been to hell and back, they are able to assess more realistically. Lincoln was a severely depressive personality with multiple suicide attempts. Churchill was a severe depressive; Kennedy a hyperthymic borderline depressive. But their illness gave them empathy and, realistic assessment and perhaps more creativity, as in the case of Ted Turner. And it gave them more resilience because they have been to hell and perhaps knew the way back.”

Learning from failure: Katarina Skoberne

Learning from failure: Katarina Skoberne

Jumping Into The Parade

Tim Brown has made a similar discovery. The founder and chief executive of radius Media Holdings, a Colorado marketing and media company, he rose to a position of status and wealth in the Denver business community, married into a prominent family and was wealthy beyond his dreams.

Yet, he suffered with such anxiety and depression that he found himself withstanding at the top of a tall building in New York, contemplating whether to jump.

He decided to jump in the opposite direction: something he has dubbed “Jumping Into The Parade”. Now president of Concord Logistics, a commodity logistics and oilfield services business, Brown has written a book under that title in an attempt to make sense of his experience and try to help others.

Subtitled “The Leap of Faith That Made My Broken Life Worth Living” the book lists 13 aphorisms in its final chapter that Brown believes may help others to “jump into their own parade.”

They are: “give up control”, “walk in confident humility”, “don’t fear your fear”, “stick with the process”, “value your past”, “find your place”, “listen up”, “have a vigilant heart”, “learn from your experiences”, “stop thinking about all the things you ‘should’ do”, “refocus you thoughts”, “share your life” and “get yourself some joy”.

Listed like that, they perhaps illustrate the problem of bringing attention to depression in leadership, without minimising or trivialising a condition that affects a reported 40 million people in the United States alone.

Together with Skoberne, however, Brown deserves credit for bringing this subject into the public arena. The debate has a long way to go.

What do you think? Is there a stigma about stress, depression and failure in business leadership? Do let me know your views

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