Sunday, May 5, 2013

How Do You Manage ‘Summit Syndrome’?

The summit syndrome afflicts extreme overachievers who thrive on challenge. They can be found in abundance in tightly wired organizations—in the premier investment banks and consulting firms; in start-ups; in semiconductor, computer, and software development companies; and in the elite units of multiproduct corporations. These supercharged individuals exult in winning, mastering new skills, acquiring knowledge, and surpassing previous benchmarks of excellence. They are addicted to their own adrenaline. But the rush from pushing beyond their limits tends to dissipate once the new territory has been mastered; an identity built around the galvanizing effects of meeting and conquering daunting challenges loses its purchase as such people near the summit of a job’s learning curve. They can’t or find it extremely difficult to motor along on flat terrain. An S-curve aptly describes the rapid ascent to proficiency and the gradual loss of career momentum that occurs when such individuals master a job. It’s near the top where the troubles begin. (George D. Parsons and Richard T. Pascale, HBR, 2007).

The problem with this syndrome is that is hard enough to identify and manage in a ‘normal’ business environment – so when you add a global financial crisis to the mix, you are creating a potential environment for many high achievers to succumb to summit syndrome and for the organisation and the individual to completely miss the signs.

George Parsons and Richard Pascale highlight in their brilliant 2007 article that “paradoxically, disorientation at the summit is more profound for the more proficient. Those with the smoothest glide to success in a challenging job tend to experience the greatest degree of confusion. Costs to the individual can go way beyond dropped balls at work or other slips in performance. Inner turmoil can build to the point where it hurts health and family. The search for stimulation may lead to extramarital misadventures or other self-destructive behaviour. Distraction and confusion can result in bad career decisions, causing people to leave the fast track and end up drifting from one job to another. They can join the ranks of those highly promising men and women who somehow never managed to achieve the positions or goals that colleagues and friends always assumed they would one day claim.”

Within the syndrome successful overachievers can start to blame themselves for a perceived crisis their organisations are in, when no crisis actually exists. The personal internal struggle with their genuine perception of their business ability, proved through past performance, starts to conflict with the reality facing them and they can find the turmoil too much to take.

Parsons and Pascale highlight how in a ‘normal’ business environment, “the summit syndrome unfolds in three phases, each with its own distinct indicators. The first is approaching the crest of a job, when a person, having mastered most of the challenges of the role, is nearing peak proficiency. This is a time when some may push harder to recapture the adrenaline rush of the climb. The second phase is plateauing, when the summit has been reached and virtually all of the challenges have been conquered. While the less ambitious person is apt to coast at this point, the overachiever bears down even harder to produce ever more stellar results. The third phase is descending. It is the terminal stage of the syndrome, when a leader’s job performance begins to slip noticeably, triggering an accelerating slide. As the person’s superstar status fades, he jumps ship, accepts a demotion, or takes a lateral transfer.”

This process for recognizing and treating the summit syndrome can dissipate the disorientation that often strikes overachievers as they approach or reach the crest of a job. It can dispel the confusion and create a new context for a balanced, challenging, and fulfilling working life. Once they can see and accept that their condition is not unique, that a periodic reorientation is a natural and regenerative part of the inner work of leadership, overachievers can look ahead with far greater discernment. Generally speaking, better mental maps foster wiser choices. Ultimately, some may decide to seek a different context in which to grow and excel in their current organizations. Others may reflect, and then seek greener pastures. Summit work separates signals from noise.

Organisations need to look after their talent and not simple take historical performance as a guarantee of future success. Also individuals need to become aware of the signs of ‘success syndrome’ and not be too proud and stubborn not to act on them. The natural instincts of the over-achiever are paradoxically to assume that this couldn’t possibly happen to them – until of course it does – and even then they might fight the concept. It then needs a ‘good friend’ to bring them down to earth, help them analyse their own ‘personal’ strategy, looking at where they are now; how they got their; and where they are going in the future; then re-defining your personal career strategy with your eyes wide open and any pride and ego safely stored away.

As Parsons and Pascale conclude, “all parties—senior managers, human resource departments, and high performers themselves—must remember that a successful career is not a straight line to the top; it is a series of S-curves, each of which begins with a major promotion or job redefinition. Confusion and loss of bearings come with the territory, but they do not have to derail promising careers. Anticipating the summit syndrome, recognizing its onset, and dealing with it in its earliest stages can revitalize careers and propel talented leaders to greater heights.”


Parsons, G.D. and Pascale, R.T. (2007). Crisis at the Summit. Harvard Business Review. March.

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