Why the C-Suite can be deadly – The case of Martin Senn

It is not easy to be a manager, and even more difficult the higher you climb. But increased speed, uncertainty and complexity that dominate the everyday lives of decision-makers on C-Level are only one part of the problem. The by far worst part is the total loss of power and status which goes along with a loss of one’s influential position. Exactly this happened to Martin Senn who was the CEO of Zurich, one of the biggest insurance companies worldwide. He committed suicide end of May at the age of 59. Martin Senn was a long-time employee of the insurer, serving as its chief executive for six years before he was forced to step down in December due to public pressure following economic difficulties and a failed M[&]A transaction. The loss of prestige and influence had hit him hard. An acquaintance said Senn had suffered from depression recently.

Blurred Lines: Role vs. Life

Many managers identify so closely with their jobs that they can no longer distinguish between their jobs and their lives. A threat to their career is therefore also nearly always seen by these decision-makers as a threat to their own existence. Sometimes this identification has tragic consequences. If we take a look at developments over the past few years, a disconcerting rise in the number of suicide cases can be observed among managers. In the following table you will find an overview of top managers who could not or did not want to continue living their lives as before. This list is by no means complete and it only comprises the cases mentioned in the media in German- and English-speaking countries over the past years. I would have plenty of cases to add from my coaching profession, but they are subject to professional confidentiality.

  • Martin Senn, Ex-CEO Zurich, 59 years, 2016
  • Heinz-Joachim Neubürger, Board member Siemens, 62 years, 2015
  • William Broeksmit, Top Manager Deutsche Bank, 58 years, 2014
  • Karl Slym, CEO Tata Motors, 51 years, 2014
  • Carsten Schloter, CEO Swisscom, 49[nbsp]years, 2013
  • Pierre Wauthier, CFO Zürich Group, 53 years, 2013
  • Adrian Kohler, CEO Ricola, 53 years, [nbsp]2011
  • Adolf Merckle, Owner Ratiopharm, 74 years, 2009
  • Alex Widmer, CEO Julius Baer, 52 years, 2008

Psychologically ill?

Managers who commit suicide or suffer from burnout are frequently portrayed in public, and especially by their manager colleagues, as being mentally ill. The same is now happening to Martin Senn. This has the advantage that others can distance themselves from them, because they are, of course, completely healthy. But it isn’t as easy as that. Officially, the annual suicide rate in the US is 12.9 cases per 100,000 people. For the UK the rate is 11.9 and for Germany 12.5 respectively.[nbsp] For sure many of these suicide victims have been diagnosed with mental problems before. However, it is also assumed that around 10% of all suicides are committed by mentally healthy people. If you take into consideration how agile-minded, disciplined and organized managers have to be to cope with their workload, then we can assume that – from a medical point of view – by far the majority of managers must be mentally healthy – i.e. at least no sicker than their manager colleagues when they commit suicide. Hence there is no reason to lull yourself into a false sense of security by labelling executives whose resilience, i.e. their capability to constructively cope with a crisis, has collapsed as ‘ill’.[nbsp] As a former manager, but also particularly through my work as an executive coach, I know it takes a strong will, diligence, stamina and toughness to become a top manager because the competitive and political environment in top executive circles creates an immense amount of pressure. And it means that only those men and women will succeed in climbing up the career ladder who can outwardly develop the perfect façade of self-assurance, strength and professionalism. However, behind this facade perfectly healthy people often have hidden doubts, fears and uncertainty. This is normal, but there has to be an outlet for these emotions. Individuals in whom these are completely missing are often psychopaths. They might not commit suicide, but they are capable of driving whole organizations into burnout.

The Loneliness at the Top

Matters are made worse by the loneliness that managers experience at the top. The feeling of not being able to open up to anyone without this having negative repercussions endangers many a manager’s resilience, particularly if conflict escalation, humiliations and hostilities need to be processed.[nbsp] And although many managers might not feel lonely, in my experience they often mistake quantity for quality in their relationships, and it is only the latter which can provide the grounding that is so important for managers. Once a manager has made it to the top, the fear of loss of status and importance gets bigger. Then the hamster wheel which, on the inside might well look like a career ladder, develops a dangerous dynamic of its own. If, on top of this, a manager finds his private life in a shambles as a result of pursuing a career, then he might start to question the meaning of it all. Self-esteem that is solely tied to one’s own success, without there being a higher purpose or goal, will quickly disappear if there are setbacks, giving way to a feeling of hopelessness.[nbsp] Actually, the pressure on the executive floor of an international company is so high these days that hardly anyone can stand it for a long period of time and remain healthy. The resilience of top managers has therefore become a key criterion both for individual success and also for the long-term success of a company. Hopefully this tragic event will have at least one purpose: to motivate more and more companies to think about how they can help their executives to enhance their resilience going forward.

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