This post is the first in a new series of guest conversations called Voices on Mental Health. I am honored to showcase inspirational people with unique and important perspectives on mental illness.
The first conversation in our series is with Joe Sifer. Joe is an Executive Vice President at Booz Allen Hamilton with over 30 years of experience in engineering, technology, and consulting services – click here to view his bio. He also lives with PTSD and is a fellow survivor of childhood trauma. I asked Joe to offer some reflections on being a successful professional while managing a mental health condition – something that has been a real challenge for me over the years. When Joe shared his story with me, I was struck by his incredible ability to advocate for his mental health needs at work. By taking ownership of his diagnosis, practicing self care and communicating with his colleagues, he has forged both a successful career and an effective treatment plan for himself. He is also the first at his company to engage in a corporate fellowship with Give an Hour, a high-impact mental health nonprofit. I am inspired by Joe’s commitment to emotional wellness – both for himself and for his colleagues.
Amy: How has your own personal experience with mental illness played out in your professional life?
Joe: I suffer from PTSD, stemming from prolonged trauma during my childhood and teen years. Surviving that trauma forged me into who I became as a young adult and helped me to develop good attributes, such as independence, perseverance, insightfulness, and toughness. From college age to the early days of my career, before I was diagnosed, I propelled myself forward by drawing on these strengths and did quite well: scholarships and fellowships, three college degrees, and positions at prestigious engineering and technology firms. There were signs of my suffering, but they were largely obscured and buried. Every once in a while, in the early days of my career, they did leak out when stress would build, or when something happened that was not according to plan or my liking. But my colleagues, family, friends, and I would just write it off to my sometimes being moody and not in the best of humors at that particular time. Anything that did flare up would subside soon enough, meaning nothing lasted long enough to be of special concern. When I started to advance into management and leadership roles, however, the effects of my PTSD became more pronounced and sustaining, and nearly derailed my career.
Amy: Was there a “tipping point” when you felt that you needed to talk to a co-worker about your mental illness?
Joe: There was a tipping point, yes, but from the other direction: my colleagues and bosses came to me. I was in my early 30s, had about 10 years of strong work experience, and had moved into my first significant management role at Booz Allen Hamilton. This position involved leading nearly 100 people and managing the details of their efforts on millions of dollars’ worth of projects annually. The role was an order of magnitude larger than any I had before, and the stress levels and demands that came with it were truly off the charts. These conditions brought out both my very best and my very worst. As time went by, the bad dimensions of my behavior overpowered the good, and I went into crisis mode, taking my team with me. I became belligerent. I would intellectually bully people. My comments and feedback were caustic and belittling. I was ill-tempered, quick to anger, and rarely happy. I worked way too many hours, did not get enough sleep, and took poor care of myself. I created a very unhealthy work environment. Understandably, people became fearful of me and fatigued by my reactions.
A few close colleagues confronted me about all this, and others reached out to my boss’s boss and higher, to express their concerns and shed light on my behavior and the toll it was taking on the team. A senior executive of the firm essentially conducted an intervention with me, and that led me to seek mental health care, at first just to keep my job but in time to get well.
Amy: What happened after the intervention?
Joe: So, there I was in my early 30s and I found my promising career as a business executive off track. As a condition to keep my job, I agreed to see a “leadership coach” who turned out to be a psychologist. I went to see him because I had to, and at first I did not share much. In time, I recounted what had happened at work and how that led me to him. We talked a great deal about my emotional reaction to the stress and pressure I had experienced at work. He believed that my behavior and its emotional charge, while very real to me, were truly out of place and not justified in the moment. He explained that, in all likelihood, my reactions were latent responses to past trauma, triggered by the stress I was under at work. I was skeptical. I hated the idea of blaming my past, or evening delving into it, but he explained that for me it was not the past, but very much alive in the present. Like it or not, I owned it now. It was not someone else’s behavior but my own and I had to take accountability for it and resolve the underlying matters in order to stop my downward spiral.
And so, we talked about the trauma I had experienced growing up in an anger-filled and at times violent, often unrelenting alcoholic household, starting from when I was 5 or 6. The abuse continued through the rest of my years growing up at home, and reached still further into my life after I left home. He explained that as a result I had been left with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental illness caused by my experiencing distressing trauma on a repeated basis during my formative years. We talked about how the level of stress I had experienced recently, being beyond anything I had endured since my childhood and teen years, had triggered in me emotional memories and responses connected to my past, vice the realities of my current day. This triggering was the source of my misaligned and disproportionate responses at work, and explained to me the fundamental disconnect I had with my team and with myself in coping with the pressures at work. Like any other chronic illness or malady that I might have, I learned that I needed to treat my PTSD and that if I did, it could be managed and not become any more of an impediment to career success and personal happiness.
Amy: How did sharing about your mental illness impact your career?
Joe: At first it saved it. Over time, it propelled it forward more strongly than ever before. During the first two or three years of my treatment, I learned enough and healed enough emotionally to get back on track. I earned an important promotion, having achieved a level of emotional wellness that was sufficient for coping well at work. As I continued to improve over the next four or five years, I attained a greater degree of emotional wellness that benefitted me greatly on a personal basis in my relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. I was thriving at work and at home. I was experiencing happiness and emotional fitness on a sustained basis in a way I had never before, and it made all the difference. I earned another promotion, this time into executive leadership, as a partner and vice president. With all my strengths on display and my new-found emotional grounding and sophistication, I came to be offered new and exciting roles in the business, the kind that brought with them stress and pressure much greater than before. I thrived now under these conditions and succeeded, earning promotions to senior vice president and then executive vice president.
I learned to pay attention to myself for any signs of challenges in coping with the stress and pressure of my varied roles. I continued with my therapy, as I do today, and consulted with my doctors on the impacts of new stress levels. I decided to avail myself of anti-anxiety medication when it became evident that the new levels of routine stress I would experience could be even more effectively managed through the combination of therapy and medication. This has allowed me to chart an aggressive, risk-taking trajectory in my career, to include some of my most recent roles where I was entrusted with turning around large business units.
Amy: Tell us about your fellowship with Give an Hour. How did that opportunity come about?
Joe: This past December or January, it became evident that I had achieved a number of the key milestones I needed to in my current role at Booz Allen. About two years before, I took over a business unit that was in distress and needed to be turned around. I thought it would take another year to get there, but the solutions we put in place worked well and more quickly than expected. I was approaching the point where I could turn my role over to others and take on a new role in the firm. Usually I would be excited about that prospect. But the role I had been in was a very difficult one, from start to finish. We essentially achieved in 18 months what I thought would take three years to do, not because we wanted to overachieve, but because we had to in order to turn things around or risk losing them for good. I conducted some very taxing investigations and assessments to surface difficult truths, and bring these forward to our executive council to get the backing I needed to address them. The process was grueling. I had to make some very difficult decisions. I had to drive myself and my team very hard to meet non-negotiable deadlines. I had to conceive of a model that would bring success and I had to build and sustain consensus for the model in order to implement it in a timely way. And I had to prove it out in execution over the past year. I could measure success or failure quite tangibly in terms of tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs lost, protected, or added.
Don’t get me wrong – I loved this challenge and thrived on it. In many respects, all my experience to date had led me to this point, and made me ready for this challenge. Still, the intensity of this role took its toll. I saw that it did among my team members, and I helped them each address this. Later, I came to see it in myself. I found myself becoming impatient, less cooperative, inconsistent, and even erratic at times. These were subtler symptoms of my PTSD, but symptoms nonetheless. I talked these through with my therapist and doctors, adjusted my medication, and came to see that I needed a change, but not to another pressure-cooker situation, at least not immediately. I spoke with our CEO, Horacio Rozanski, about some options to recharge and renew, and this coincided with some discussions I was having with Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, Founder and President of Give an Hour, about deepening Booz Allen’s relationship with her organization (www.giveanhour.org) and its initiative The Campaign to Change Direction (www.changedirection.org). This led to the creation of the Visiting Corporate Fellowship role I now have with Give an Hour. I am so fortunate to have a CEO and an executive council at Booz Allen that “gets it” and “gets me”. They have enabled us to create this win-win situation with Barbara and her team at Give an Hour.
Amy: Do you see a need for professionals to enhance their practice of emotional wellness?
Joe: Absolutely. Wellness has many dimensions. Physical, of course. Everyone first thinks about that. But that is only one dimension. Emotional wellness is an equally important dimension. Humans are emotional, soulful beings. We cannot be truly healthy if we are not both physically and emotionally fit. Learning to value and achieve both is first and foremost the work of parents, and families, and family doctors, and support systems. As young people become adults and launch their professional careers, hopefully they have the good habits that promote good physical and mental health. My professional career now spans 30 years and I have spent most of the past 20 years as someone who has been emotionally aware and fit.
I see that most of the professionals around me do much more to take care of their physical health than they do their mental health. One of course helps the other. Exercise is good for mental health but more as a side benefit. Fewer professionals directly address their emotional wellbeing and I think doing so would allow more to unlock their full potential. I find much more of the mentoring I do now revolves around how a person is maturing emotionally and bringing emotional awareness to bear in their approaches to work and career development. More often now the insights I offer, or the development actions I suggest, have to do with someone addressing an emotional challenge, shoring up emotional resilience, or becoming more sophisticated in working with the emotional responses of colleagues and team members. In short, there is a tremendous need for professionals to enhance their emotional wellness and the benefits of doing so are significant.
Amy: What are some practical ways that you would like to see leaders incorporate mental wellness into their own professional development?
Joe: We all have a state of emotional health, on a continuum that stretches from one extreme to another. At any given time, we are at one point or another along that continuum. We can improve where we are at, and how long we stay at an improved point, by more directly taking care of our emotional health. I would encourage leaders to do just that and model the way for their team members. Be a visible example in this regard. We can do that by getting emotional health check-ups for ourselves, just as we do for our physical health. Talk about this dimension of our health with our doctors, or with a lay or religious counselor, and take actions to improve based on these discussions. We can take steps in our daily routine to promote mindfulness, whether that is creating quiet time to reflect, or meditate, or pray, or stretch. Setting aside our smart phones, tablet devices, computers, and all the rest, and taking some time each day to check in emotionally with ourselves and re-center. Deliberately managing our energy is another step we can take, by working to maintain a good rhythm between performance and renewal, while avoiding survival and burnout modes.
We can also all learn the signs of emotional struggle—agitation, withdraw, hopelessness, poor self-care, and personality change—and be on the look-out for them in ourselves and in our team members. When we see them in ourselves, we need to reach for assistance—through our company’s wellness or assistance programs, or through our family, doctors, counselors, or friends. When we see them in our team members, we can ask them how they are and draw them out to assist them, suggesting additional resources or offering additional help. I believe that the best way I can model mental wellness as a leader is by engaging with my colleagues and showing I care through my actions.