Sep 16, 2019 • 6 min read
It was mile three of 20—yes, 20 miles heaven help us—on a qualifying run my son needed to finish for his running program. I could see the pain and disappointment in his eyes. For months his goal wasn’t just to finish this race; it was to win it.
It was his first dabble in a running club and it turned out…he wasn’t just good, he was great. Perhaps equal parts genetics and grit, this tween dug deeper and tapped into his reserves more than most adults I know ever dream of doing. The funny thing is, while my son’s speed surprised us, his determination and ability to push himself did not shock anyone who knew him.
My son is a textbook “Achiever,” according to the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment tool. He’s the individual who (even at 12) thrives on difficult challenges, focuses with an almost scary desire to succeed, and powers through any obstacles in his way to get. things. done. And when achievers become adults, they live their every day in straight-up beast mode. These individuals are often the heartbeat of a team, and generally a dream to manage thanks to their off-the-charts intrinsic motivation.
That is, until they’re not. Every strength has a corresponding weakness and for achievers, that means burnout. And the wheels can fall off fast.
So what do you do when an achiever is in the process of burning out?
For days leading up to his race I kept warning my son not to go out of the starting line too fast since he was fighting an injury. “You’ll bust your body and regret it for the rest of the season,” I’d say. “You have 20 miles to make up for any slow start time, so pace yourself.”
Give your achievers a warning that challenges might be coming, and let them know you see signs of burnout—something that will inhibit their goals.
Note: Achievers will not listen to you. In fact, they may outright ignore you. Remember the warning is not about course correcting before they hit their wall, it’s about building trust on the back end. Aware achievers will come back to you after and say, “You were right, I should have listened.”
This is a long-term move to build your relationship in the future.
My son is a smart cookie, and he knew there would be 20 miles to tackle. And yet, there was no need for us to focus on the big picture. Achievers know the end game. They can recite your numbers, quotas, and strategic plan backwards while hopping on one foot backwards on a balance beam. When your achiever is teetering on the edge of burning out, break it down so they can find the quick wins instead of remembering that right after this challenge comes the next big challenge.
When my tiny achiever was hitting his wall, we broke it down one step at a time. Forget the 20-mile race; we broke it down to two-mile races. And every two miles we high-fived, checked in on how it went and then pushed on to the next two miles.
The same goes for your achievers. Break big races or tasks down into smaller goals. Focus on the bite-sized pieces. Check in often, celebrate the small wins, and help them eat that elephant one bite at a time.
My son never met a challenge he didn’t like. He doesn’t just want to beat a running club record, he wants to break it two years younger than anyone else. Your achievers will love a good challenge. This is why those folks often become the dumping ground for difficult projects or challenges your team needs to tackle.
While this can be a natural fit, it’s important for managers to also ensure their achievers don’t take on too much (and get burned out). Be sure to throw some brainless tasks their way or easier projects that will allow them little breathers, but also let them check a few things off their “to do” list in their dreams.
Don’t focus on simply rewarding and recognizing your achievers through traditional protocols (like compensation, promotions, etc.). Achievers drive hard and fast toward success. This ruthless ambition can be great in terms of results, but it can also be thwarted by policies and processes. Therefore, if you find yourself with a hungry achiever, be sure to not just focus on the next promotion or compensation bump, but take the time to map out the path to getting there with specific steps along the way. This allows for focus, the ability to monitor progress, and for achievers to check off the boxes they love to check (seriously who doesn’t like crossing something off a list or marking it as “complete”).
Three hours and 31 minutes later, we caught wind of the finish line. My low-parenting-maintenance practically-raises-himself kid had demanded more out of me in those three and a half hours than I normally need to give in a year. But at the end of the day, teaching those lessons and coaching through the difficulties and disappointment helped my son learn the skills to do it a little bit better the next time around.
Are the lessons fully learned? Ummm, not so much. I still often send “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should” texts to my son before his practices. And he’s slowly learning. Eventually he’ll get that achiever thing balanced.
Sheila Repeta is TeamSnap’s Director of People Experience. When she’s not recruiting and helping TeamSnappers, you can find her running on streets and trails after her children, volunteer coaching, or off camping and backpacking.