Roli Saxena joined Clever last year to lead customer success. But in a turn of events all too common at growing startups, her role started to expand — and expand. Today, she’s running all of sales, strategic partnerships and operations. Having come up through the ranks at LinkedIn — finally overseeing its largest North American sales division — she was used to having too much on her plate. But even the most seasoned, multitasking executives have their limits. The best ones admit it.
“Every so often, I go through a phase where if I don’t manage my focus and my priorities, what needs to happen and what doesn’t — and you know, breathing at the same time — I'll get burnt out,” she says. “It's unavoidable no matter how good or experienced you are. All you can do is try to prevent it, and build an environment that catches it more of the time.”
Now, with over 40 people reporting to her across multiple teams at a startup that has to remain lean and competitive, she’s gotten serious about keeping burnout at bay. In this exclusive article, she shares the key frameworks that have helped her prioritize, focus and survive during the toughest moments of her career — and suggests how startups can institutionalize them for better, happier performance across the board.
To catch burnout before it gets bad, separate it into two components: 1) The factors that lead to it, and 2) The signals that you’re heading into it, or are in it already.
Number one is very difficult to spot in time. “Everyone’s heard the expression ‘death by a thousand cuts,’ well, that’s what burnout is like too,” says Saxena. “It’s usually the result of many little things you think you can handle and then all of a sudden it hits you.” In most cases, you need to identify causes retroactively and learn from that.
Number two, it turns out, is much easier to identify if you’re primed to look for these common signals:
“It’s not just having too much to do, it’s having committed to doing more than you know you have time for. It’s committing to things you know at the time you won’t be able to get to, but another voice in your head says, ‘I’ll make it work somehow.’”
“I stop laughing, smiling and enjoying humor,” Saxena says. “Someone will say something really funny, but I just can’t. I can’t respond. I feel like a lot of people know this feeling.”
“Different people manifest burnout in different ways, but I think for all of us, it’s some variety of a shutdown,” she says. Parts of your personality start to contract. Your range of expression shrinks. Your world view narrows. “Burnout is deadly to startups because it kills perspective."
Burnout is not just thinking, 'I'm too tired...' It's the inability to think creatively.
In a way it’s ironic that this problem plagues Type-A players the most. The people who want to do their best and accomplish the most end up limiting themselves unintentionally. In startup culture, this usually manifests in people trying to have peak performance at work while also going to all the social events and being great to their families at the same time. Then they’re hard on themselves for not getting perfect marks in every category. As soon as they meet their own bar, they raise it.
But there’s a second, even more invisible cause of burnout: The lack of inclusive environments in tech. This isn’t solely about gender or race or even socio-economic background. It’s about your personality and work style and how you operate professionally. Everyone is different in these ways, but tech companies — and startups in particular — tend to demand a specific style.
Think of the talented introvert in a workplace where you have to fight to get heard. Maybe you’re a night owl, but the hours required are designed for morning people. Perhaps your work requires dedicated, quiet, constant focus but most of your co-workers listen to pop music and take loud phone calls all day.
“Most organizations haven’t evolved to create an environment that embraces the diversity of their people,” says Saxena. “Which places an additional burden — or you can even think of it as a tax — on the folks who have to strive to fit in with the prevailing culture. They basically have to be someone they’re not at work, and that’s exhausting.”
She remembers how, at LinkedIn, the same people contributed ideas in every meeting while others remained silent. These people were already working hard, and were definitely smart enough to be there, but they didn’t have the ability to speak up all the time. The more stressed out they got about this, the less they participated.
“This problem gets amped up at startups because things move so fast and there’s so much urgency. People and their special skills get missed,” she says.
Recently, she’s been stopping discussions where certain folks have stayed mum to say, “Let me hear from you. It’s important that we get your perspective on this.” Whenever her direct reports offer up great ideas in their one-on-ones, she makes note of it, and does her best to elicit those ideas in more public forums. Making sure people can safely and comfortably make an impact will counteract burnout.
Remember, the stakes involved in this aren’t low.
“There’s a huge talent challenge for startups right now,” says Saxena. “All the companies want the same people, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook. They can pay twice or three times as much. So it’s war.”
When you can’t compete with money, the intangibles become that much more important. Being able to present and provide a workplace that tales employee sanity and psychological safety into account is a considerable advantage.
“We have to not only find the right talent and retain them, but also keep them engaged! This is really hard and burnout is the enermy of all three of those things,” she says. “You want everyone to stay for a long time because retaining talent is so much cheaper than hiring new people. This is an area where most startups mess up, but have the opportunity not to.”
TRIGGERS & PERMISSIONS
“It’s a mental exercise, once you’re headed into burnout, to beat back those thoughts that you can’t possibly take a break, and just repeat to yourself, ‘No, I actually can.’” She says. It requires mental rewiring that can only come from repetitive correction.
Once she recognized her triggers, Saxena felt far more confident asking for time to decompress. Early in her career, she never did.
“I still remember this one time very early on at LinkedIn, where I was just keeping up with email like crazy,” she says. Her team had grown from under 10 to 200 globally in the previous two years. “I remember seeing our senior vice president — who I was actually really good friends with — walking down the hall toward me, and I actually hid in the bathroom, thinking, ‘Holy shit, I haven’t looked at email for the last 2 hours, what if he asks me about something and I have no idea?’”
Even then, she didn’t realize she was in burnout. All she knew is she couldn’t have that conversation.
“Now, reflecting on it, I can’t even conceive of what I must have been feeling or how I was living that way. It was just wrong,” she says. “I ended up calling one of my mentors from my prior company and telling her evening. She was like, ‘Have you even thought about giving yourself the permission to step off the treadmill? Why not take a week off?’”
Saxena’s knee-jerk reaction was, “No! I couldn’t possibly! We have too much to do and I’m the only one who can do it!”
Calmly, her mentor suggested that she humor herself and write down all the must-haves that would need to be taken care of before she could take a week off. On the same list, for each item, she was instructed to write down the impact the task would have on the company, and who else could possibly do it in her absence.
“It was the best thing I could have done,” she says. “I immediately saw how many things I was doing that had no value to the company, how many things didn’t need to be done now, and how many things I could delegate. The hardest thing was all the hiring I needed to be doing, but if that was delayed by two weeks, no one would die. In fact, nothing would happen. The urgency I felt was artificial.”
In tech, the urgency often stems from the simple fact that all startups feel like they have to move at a breakneck pace to win.
The fact is, if you HAD to be gone for a week, your company would figure it out and everything would probably be okay.
So Saxena took her weeklong vacation, and she realized how much she’d been handicapping herself. “I came back and had brighter ideas. My team was happier because they felt empowered doing the things I never let them do."
YOUR ANTI-BURNOUT TOOLKIT
Having emerged from her time at LinkedIn only to take on more at a smaller, scrappier company, Saxena now comes equipped with tools to handle stress. In fact, she just held a workshop with her team to share some of her weapons against feeling overwhelmed. The overarching theme: “Do fewer things, but do them extremely well.”
Two exercises in particular have proved especially valuable.
THE PRIORITIZATION MATRIX
All of the projects and activities on your plate have value — some impact they are ideally making for the company. This can be seriously quantitative (like active users gained) or softer (more positive sentiment on Twitter, for example). They also all have a likelihood of success. Some will yield easier wins. Others will be hard won. Using this attributes, you can plot all your projects on this two-by-two matrix:
This is a framework executives at LinkedIn used all the time, and now, as Saxena puts it, “Everything in my life revolves around this.” And it’s true, she even uses it to help her kids decide which activities they want to participate in (you can’t play music and lacrosse and do debate and journalism). She turns to it regularly to decide how to handle various tasks ahead of her.
Quadrant 1: Tough important stuff, requiring creative strategic thinking (where you as a leader should spend your time).
Quadrant 2: High yield, more straightforward projects. This is your home run quadrant. You can outsource this stuff to your highest performers as stretch goals that will be super empowering when they work out.
Quadrant 3: Low value, low likelihood of success. This stuff should get nixed. Maybe it’s a meeting you don’t need to have, or emails that don’t merit a reply, a coffee meeting with someone less relevant to you or the company. When you’re busy, it’s the first to go.
Quadrant 4: Low value, high likelihood of success. These are your housekeeping tasks. Activities in this quadrant might be best delegated or done at the end of the day.
“Let’s say we’re thinking of launching a new project that would have a really high impact for the business, but we’re really early in the process and the positioning will be tough. That belongs in quadrant 1 because it’s super valuable but unlikely to succeed in its current form,” she says. “Then there’s something like our leadership training program for new managers. The value of investing in them is really high, and the likelihood of running a good program is high if we put in the time, so that goes in quadrant 2.”
Once Saxena has mapped out all her projects on the matrix, she starts making decisions. She immediately drops and cancels anything that fell into Quadrant 3. Then she moves on to Quadrant 4, surveys her team, looks for steady junior people who would relish the opportunity to learn and help out with more, and assigns them the housekeeping tasks.
She’ll outsource anything in quadrant two to the highest performers on the team after doing what she can to set them up for success. The important thing is to be available to answer any questions or provide input when necessary, but for the most part, you can let others run the ball on these tasks if you’re a team leader. Success will be a hugely positive experience for them. If you have no one to delegate to, then maybe you allocate less time to these items.
Then there’s quadrant 1 — the really hard stuff that needs to get done to make your business great. Usually it requires a lot of deep thought, collaboration, revision, and problem-solving. If you’re a leader, this is where your focus should live. This is where you have more context than anyone else and can have a major impact on the company yourself.
“Anytime you’re feeling overwhelmed, just draw it out. It’s therapeutic, and will give you a much clearer sense of your options and what’s truly important,” Saxena says.
THE COMMUNICATION TEMPLATE
After you’ve completed your matrix assessment, you need to share your decisions with others. There’s a systematic way to do this as well that will make sure all expectations are aligned.
Create three side-by-side columns:
Column 1: Things I should and can be doing. This stuff is important and within your reach. Usually the projects you’ve identified in quadrant 1 above.
Column 2: Things I said I’d do but am not doing. These are the items that have been languishing on your to-do list forever. They’re probably a combo of quadrant 2 and 4 — easy home runs and housekeeping that you haven’t had a chance to focus on. This is often the root of a lot of stress.
Column 3: Things I should not be doing. All the projects in quadrant 3 you want to nix. No matter how efficient you think you are, you probably won’t realize you have a few of these until you run an inventory on everything you’re doing. Maybe some of the housekeeping from quadrant 4.
Each column represents a different form of communication. Everything in column 1, you can tell people, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this. I’m going to carve out time to focus on it.”
Column 2 usually requires an apology of some sort. Maybe it’s you telling your boss or direct report, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it.” Embracing the truth here is vital. You have to be open and honest about your capabilities. If your boss still thinks you should handle some of those items, don’t just say yes. Treat the conversation as a negotiation, Saxena says. Explain why you haven’t gotten to those projects and why you think they should either be cancelled or take a back seat or be passed to someone else. You might not win on all of them, and that’s okay. The important thing is having the conversation.
Column 3 can be taken care of with a series of simple emails informing the relevant people that a task has been eliminated, or that it’s been delegated to a new person who is now the go-to. Even though you’re purging these items, you don’t want to drop the ball here. They all have to go somewhere, and it’s important that everyone is on the same page.
“There are many things I’ve committed to in my career that, upon evaluation, I just couldn’t do,” says Saxena. “That means the responsible thing is to keep reevaluating and making it clear when this is the case. Frequent communication is the most honest communication.”
THE VIRTUE OF BOUNDARIES
To avoid burnout, empower your team to know they can do fewer things as long as they do them really well.
Negotiation is a key part of setting boundaries. When you’re overwhelmed, you can’t be afraid to go to your boss and say, “Hey, we need to find a tradeoff here.” There shouldn’t be any cost to your performance or reputation for doing that if you're being authentic and reasonable. In fact, it should reflect well on you. Startups that want to prevent burnout will create an environment where these discussions are encouraged.
“Early in my career, I didn’t think I had any ability to set boundaries on my work. In my mind, I was like, ‘Of course I can work 24/7 if they want me to,’” says Saxena. “I never set boundaries until I had my first child and then I had to. And I got to see firsthand how I could have been doing it all along with no consequences. It’s never hurt me to push back — only helped.”
Today, she works from home every Wednesday. It’s something she negotiated when her role at Clever was expanded. That day is blocked off entirely, free of calls and meetings. “It’s my day to think about the big things, the things in quadrant 1,” she says. “I need that space and break from email and context switching to think through all the angles, to strategize, to project into the future.”
Too many people say they have no room to be creative. So they just execute, and that holds companies back.
“When you’re a manager, especially, you can fall into this pattern feeling like your time belongs to your team and you should never say no or be unavailable — this is not the case,” Saxena says. “What a waste of human capital to not have our leaders contributing creatively. They’re the ones who should be building strategic initiatives and need the blank space in their calendars to do it.”
LIKE ROCKS AND SAND
“Think about all the things you need to do. The big impactful ones are rocks. Then there’s all the constant granular stuff — email’s the big one, but also less important meetings, one-off questions, messages on Slack, this list goes on and on. That’s sand.”
Imagine your day is a jar, says Saxena. If you pour sand into it continuously by responding to inbound inquiries all day, it’s going to get filled up fast and there won’t be any room for the rocks. You won’t feel fulfilled, because your impact is limited.
But let’s say you commit to focusing time on one or two rocks, and block out the time to do it. If you put a rock in a bucket, you can still pour sand in and it’ll flow around it. Emails behave the same way. The most important messages will get responded to and you’ll get more important work done.
“You’ll be more rigorous abour prioritizing emails and quicker at responding to them, you won’t let them bog you down,” she says. “You can compromise on sand. You must not compromise on rocks.” Here's a video that goes into even more detail on this thinking:
Her philosophy when it comes to email? Embrace your inner laziness.
“I scan through, see what’s most important, and make sure to take care of those,” she says. “The others maybe don’t get done, but that’s okay. I don’t always have to have an empty inbox. The expectation to always be responding immediately 100% of the time is unrealistic. And honestly, it’s probably not the other person’s expectations either — it’s your own expectations tying you to this.”
It comes back to giving yourself permission. You have to make it okay for yourself to close your inbox leaving threads hanging. Maybe even for a few days.
To make sure she’s not missing anything, Saxena schedules two hours toward the end of the day on Fridays to scoop up and respond any remaining, non-urgent emails so she can start the next week fresh.
“Bill Gates once said he liked hiring smart, lazy people because they know how to solve a problem the fastest way,” she says. “You can apply that thinking to yourself. If you let yourself be ‘lazy’ enough to only focus on what’s critical during the week, you’ll process what’s left over much more efficiently when it’s time.”
BUILDING A BURNOUT-CONSCIOUS WORKPLACE
You can prevent a lot of burnout in your org by hiring people who weather tough times in smart ways. Saxena looks for a certain set of qualities in interviews that indicate resilience, or at least good coping mechanisms.
“I ask questions to really hone in and understand how they prioritize things and how they manage when they feel overwhelmed.” She asks them questions like:
Tell me about a time at your last job when there was a huge fire, too much to do, and there were a lot of demands on your time.
How did you feel? Really, what was your emotional state?
Have you ever had to drop a project? How did that conversation go?
Let's role play a conversation you had with your manager when you were feeling burnt out.
Sometimes she’ll describe a stressful scenario with a lot of moving parts and have the person walk through the order they’d tackle things in and why and how they’d explain that to their team.
In addition to hiring, Clever has leveraged its roadmapping process to keep people trained on their higher-level goals. They use an OKR system that ties everyone’s individual objectives to the few vital goals the company has in a given period. This has allowed them to over communicate about what the “big rocks” for the company are, and therefore what people’s individual big rocks should be.
In every one-on-one Saxena has, she listens to what her report has been doing and will review explicitly how their activities roll up into the big company goals. If she doesn’t see a close enough connection, she’ll ask: “How does this relate to one of your three big goals?” This also allows her to underscore that anything else the person might be doing that doesn’t fit into these goals is negotiable or even extraneous. Basically, it highlights the fat they can cut if they start to feel stretched too thin.
Her other focus has been to create the space and time for her team to really dig into their big rock goals. “I really want to help them remove waste from their days. I’ll even negotiate with the other managers at my level to defend people’s time if they’re being taken away from their OKRs.”
The company has also blocked out the lunch hour for everyone on staff so they won’t take meetings. They can enjoy an hour a day knowing they aren’t falling behind or slacking off compared to their peers. It gives people permission to take a mental break and maybe even come up with better ideas just through talking casually with their colleagues.
This is where leading by example can have sizable impact. If top execs take that lunch hour too, everyone’s more likely to do it. Saxena has applied the same logic to working on the weekends. She knew all too well that people would do it no matter what. But by capping her own weekend work time to two hours on Sunday evenings, she’s encouraged others to do the same.
“They get to feel like they’re working on the weekend, and going above and beyond, but they won’t go overboard,” she says. From 6 to 8 p.m. (before she sits down to dinner), she’ll let herself process emails, review her schedule for the upcoming week, and prep anything she needs. But that’s it.
Some of the benefits of these practices are obvious: longer-term employee engagement, creativity, happiness etc. But the real advantage is that it’s forward thinking. "There’s a strong trend toward a more integrated lifestyle in tech where work never truly ends and life never truly ends." They co-exist. And when this is the case, balance is essential.
“For a year at LinkedIn, I went down to 4 days a week because I wanted to be there for my son as he was applying to college. Keep in mind I was running a significant part of North American sales — and it worked!” Saxena says. “It forced us to be really smart about process. Everyone knew who was responsible for what when I wasn’t there and how decisions would get escalated and how to reach me if they really needed to. Life and work flowed around this boundary.”
Nothing dropped. “Communication was more open and clearer than ever before. New people got new opportunities,” says Saxena. “When you address your employees’ quality of life, their sanity, how they’re handling their loads, you learn a whole lot more about how to work better.”