Guest Column | June 19, 2024

Burn Out Or Busting Out

By Ron Cooper

Ron Cooper, CEO, Albireo Pharma
Ron Cooper

Harnessing Organizational Energy

Common sense — and a plethora of publications — reinforce the role of workplace culture on mental health and corporate performance. The good news is that more and more organizations are taking active steps to improve.

The bad news? In many cases, they treat the symptoms instead of the root cause.

Herein lies an opportunity. As a CEO and as a president in two different companies, I learned first-hand the power of harnessing organizational energy. Being deliberate and conscious of the energy level of your organization delivers double benefits: you enhance employee wellbeing AND you improve performance.

A Bit Of Background

The “Great Resignation,” in which many employees left their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighted the damage burn-out can cause not just to employees, but to the organization. For example, in 2022, Microsoft surveyed 20,000 people in 11 countries, with broad representation across several industries. The research revealed that nearly 50 percent of employees and 53 percent of managers said they were burned out at work. Depleted individual energy equals diminished organizational energy, which equals poor performance.

Sadly, many organizations have responded with lukewarm actions which help but are not enough, such as: ping-pong tables in conference rooms; free snacks; meditation apps; massage therapy Fridays; and productivity and time-management training. A 2022 McKinsey study notes you can’t “yoga your way out” of burn-out. The above individualized “solutions” and those in a similar vein fail to make the systemic change needed to re-energize employees, and organizations.

A Leader’s Role In Harnessing Organizational Energy

In my decades of experience leading a startup, and leading multiple countries for a Fortune 100 multinational organization, I learned that leaders have three responsibilities when it comes to organizational energy:

Leaders direct energy. Leaders create energy. Leaders conserve energy.

Let’s dig a little deeper to define how leaders direct, create, and conserve energy. In each case, I will provide some examples to make the actions concrete.

Direct Energy — Good leaders are naturally able to establish a clear mission and direction by:

  • Maintaining focus on priorities and preventing scope creep. Establish clear guardrails and keep the organization between them.
  • Advocating for resources. Sometimes the team needs help. When that happens, the leader’s role is to make the case for more access, more budget, key hires, or whatever the team needs to deliver.
  • Reducing waste. Leaders optimize productivity by addressing such things as meeting effectiveness, irrelevant communication, and insufficient delegation.

Example: When I became the CEO of Albireo Pharma, we had many drug development opportunities to consider, such as chronic constipation, adult liver disease, diabetes, and pediatric liver diseases, but we had limited financial resources. Our team came together to analyze and debate for many weeks to determine the best path. We decided to build an orphan pediatric liver company by prioritizing the development of Bylvay and to monetize all other assets.

Result: Bylvay became the first drug approved in multiple indications and was launched globally as the only treatment for a rare, life threatening pediatric liver disease. Albireo was later sold for more than $1.2 billion in value.

Create Energy — This is more challenging, but good leaders also create organizational energy. It can be accomplished in multiple ways:

  • Be very clear and simple about communicating the overall direction of the company. Be able to consistently answer the question: “What are we trying to do?”
  • Prioritize opportunities the organization can pursue. Reinforce: “We cannot do everything all the time!” 
  • Align resources to support those opportunities. This is a critical step, ensuring your employees have the tools (experience, expertise, technology, budget, etc.) to deliver.
  • Simplify decision-making and reduce bureaucracy. Make it easier for your employees to get the work done. Streamlining how work gets done helps every member of the team and speeds the pathway to performance.

Example: As president of the European unit of a major pharmaceutical firm, we had many products, many countries, and many critical new product launches to complete, with insufficient resources. I engaged the full team and we looked at the opportunity for every product across approximately 30 different countries. We prioritized the opportunities based on growth, doubled down on investment behind growth drivers, and reduced investment — many times to zero — behind lower potential opportunities. And we removed layers and nonessential steps to ensure quality while increasing speed to market. 

Result: Nine successful launches. Unprecedented access/price point for a new oncology biologic. Improved trust, empowerment, and energy levels of the full team.

Conserve Energy — Leaders are often hard-driving, focused executives and this is one of their most overlooked, important, and difficult roles. There is no metric to gauge the energy level of your organization. Therefore, it is important that leaders engage their direct reports and teams to understand the health of their firm. We can conserve organizational energy in multiple ways:

  • Discerning when to push and when to let up on the accelerator. Constant ‘pedal to the metal’ is not sustainable. Leaders must find the right balance to prevent enterprise burn-out.
  • Structuring deliberate “down” times to prepare for periods when organizations must run in high gear.
  • Asking: “What can we stop doing?” Employees can’t do everything, all at the same time.  

Example: It usually takes between 6-18 months to file a new drug with the FDA following pivotal study readout. At Albireo, we were in a competitive race to be first to market, so we needed to compress that time by several months. I collaborated with the leadership team on a combination of practices and policies to optimize organizational energy. We eliminated emails on weekends, regularly blocked week-long, all-company time off, and planned long weekends in advance of the period where we planned to complete the filing.

Result: The Albireo team developed a highly disciplined, team-based approach to creating, reviewing, and approving more than 800 documents. We filed the submission in less than two months, creating a new industry standard. And in the process, we maintained the team’s mental health and energy.  

Burn Out Or Bust Out

As leaders, we want our organizations to go full speed and “bust out.” But we also know that we must take care of our team members and avoid “burn out.”  Harnessing energy across the enterprise requires leaders with an ability to direct, create, and conserve it. Organizations that do this well spark energy at the individual level, which fuels the flywheel of energy at the organizational level. And that drives resiliency, growth, and performance.

I’ve seen it work in entrepreneurial startups and major corporations. And I believe it can work in your organization, too.

About The Author:

Ron Cooper is former President and CEO of Albireo Pharma and is currently Chairman of C4 Therapeutics and a board member of Generation Bio. Albireo Pharma was a rare disease company focused on the development of novel bile acid modulators to treat pediatric and adult liver diseases. Albireo’s lead product, Bylvay, was approved in the U.S. and Europe for a rare pediatric liver disease. The company was acquired by Ipsen Pharmaceuticals in 2023.