Changing the Game Plan

“It’s almost life,” jokes Philip Burguieres, Vice Chairman of the Houston Texans recounting the young franchise’s meteoric rise followed by a spiraling crash and burn during its first few seasons of play. “We started off with a bang as everyone in Houston knows. We got better the second year. And much better the third year. The fourth year was a disaster. We only won two games. We went way up, and way down. So we changed everything, and things are getting a lot better.” His optimism shows.

Burguieres might have been referring to his own life in many ways. He is intimately familiar with its ups and downs, and understands the critical importance of making changes. His personal battle with depression has been chronicled in Psychology Today, Newsweek, as well as a host of other venues and will be among the stories featured in a series of PBS specials slated for production in August.

Burguieres rocketed to success early, earning the title of youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company at age 35, and he transformed Cameron Iron Works, a $100 million company, into a $2 billion enterprise during his twenty-year reign. He had embarked on an equally successful venture with a second company in his fifties, when he suddenly plunged into a deep, debilitating depression that drove him to the brink of suicide.

For nearly two years this talented and gifted man who had led a company of more than 7,000 employees worldwide, struggled to live a marginally functional life, considering it a good day if he got out of bed and made it down the stairs, and not knowing at the time if his life would ever be any different, or if he would even have a life.

His passion, and part cure, became a campaign to help de-stigmatize mental illness delivering the message that mental illness is an illness, not a character flaw; that individuals who suffer from its widely divergent forms, ranging from depression to schizophrenia to paranoia, are born with a genetic predisposition to the condition, much as others might be born with a predisposition to diabetes or heart disease.

Burguieres’ first encounter with depression occurred in 1990 while CEO at Panhandle Eastern, a natural gas pipeline company rife with problems when he assumed leadership. About a year into it, mounting job pressures began to affect him, causing the initial onset of clinical depression.

One day, with little warning, he passed out in the office. A well-qualified and prestigious psychiatrist later diagnosed him with “situational” depression, and told him to recover he needed to change jobs. That seemed an easy enough fix. Burguieres quickly arranged for a successor and left the company in good stead, taking several months off before signing on as CEO at Weatherford International, an oilfield services company.

“I believed him,” he says of the doctor and the prognosis. “It’s what I wanted to hear.” In truth, just like a newly diagnosed diabetic, what Burguieres actually needed was a massive lifestyle change, but it would be several years and a near fatal encounter with suicidal depression before he would come to that understanding.

As in the first instance, the depression’s onset at Weatherford occurred quickly over about a three-week period, except this time it was severe – so severe that Burguieres contemplated suicide as a way out.

“I understand perfectly why people commit suicide,” he says. “When you’re going through depression, you’re in such a hole – you can’t see any way out. You’re not thinking rationally…your brain has to be thinking totally irrationally, and crazy…you’re ill…you’re sick.”

Ninety-nine point nine percent of his brain believed that his life would always be miserable and he would never improve, but somehow, somewhere buried in the deep, dark despair, one tiny tenth of one percent of hope lived on; just a sliver of belief that maybe, just maybe he might get over it. Instead of ending his life, he chose the only alternative – checking into a hospital. A choice, he says in retrospect, most individuals in his situation don’t make, accounting for nearly 32,000 self-inflicted deaths and an estimated 800,000 attempts each year in the United States alone.

Being a Type A personality, he quickly researched options on the Internet settling on the Menninger Clinic, as literature indicated it was the premier mental health facility; if he were going to a clinic, he would go to the best. Within hours, he and his wife, Cheryl, were headed to Topeka, Kansas. (An interesting side note: the Menninger Clinic relocated to Houston in 2003 and Burguieres was appointed Chairman of its Board of Directors, the first such member to be intimately familiar with the clinic’s operations from both sides of the bed.)

It was a miserable three months. He was looking for a magic pill, something to make him feel better right away, but it didn’t happen, and he came back to Houston feeling as though he was no better, though Cheryl assured him she could see a difference.

Back home he faced his greatest challenge – reclaiming his life. Since none of the seven antidepressants the doctors gave him worked, he was forced to fight the battle on his own, just one small step at a time.

Some days all he could do was get out of bed, read the newspaper and go back to bed. It was six months before he managed to walk around the block. There were few things he could do consistently. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t take exercise…the only thing I could do consistently was read. That was a great gift.”

He read biographies mostly – “everybody’s in the world” starting with Collin Powell and including a whole series of Winton Churchill. “That’s a small positive that came out of being depressed,” he laughs. “I became a nut case on reading biographies. Now I’m in the sports business, I read sport biographies – Ted Williams, Babe Ruth…Joe Namath.”

It was a chance encounter with a casual acquaintance in a restaurant that provided the most significant key to Burguieres’ recovery. Though few knew the true nature of his illness and absence from work, he responded honestly to John Sage’s polite inquiry. Before the evening ended Sage confided to Burguieres that he, too, was recovering from severe clinical depression.

Sage was about six months further along in the recovery process, Burguieres recounts. The two formed what they termed their “get well team,” talking to each other daily by phone and meeting several times a week.

Sage proved an enormous help to him as someone to share the experience with, and who truly understood what he was going through. “We were both married and our wives were wonderful people. They understood, but there was a limit to what they could do,” he says. At the time, Cheryl was waging her own battle with breast cancer while caring for him and the couple’s two children, Emily and Martial.

As the two men continued to recover Sage began a prison ministry, and Burguieres helped out some with it. “A very humbling experience,” he reflects. “But for the grace of God – have a couple of drinks at a party and you run over somebody and the next thing you know you’re in prison. How quickly your life can change.”

Gradually, Burguieres began to understand the secret to successfully dealing with depression – getting out of oneself and focusing on other people. “And you can’t just say it,” he says. “You have to do it and live it. If you worry about other people, and are busy helping others, it’s difficult to be depressed because you can’t focus on yourself and your own problems.” That simple concept is what it’s all about, he explains, adding that’s why people like Mother Teresa don’t get depressed.

Burguieres developed his own passion, becoming an advocate for mental health. He went public about his illness ten years ago, long before celebrities like Mike Wallace, Terry Bradshaw, Jane Pauley and others stepped forward to tell their stories. He speaks and writes about mental health issues and has taken his message all over the world, including the Czech Republic, London and Boston. While he is called upon four or five times a quarter to speak, he only accepts four or five speaking engagements a year. The forty-five minute presentation is too difficult emotionally to deliver any more than that. His next engagement is in June in New York, where he will address the Jed Foundation, an organization dedicated to reducing the number of suicides among young adults.

He chose, too, to reach out to others like himself – CEOs in high-pressure jobs and high profile positions who have no idea where to turn for help. By his own numbers he projects as many as fifty percent of CEOs suffer from depression. “I explain to them there’s a solution. I tell them you have to flip your viewpoint.”

Burguieres admits it’s hard, especially for CEOs who suffer from depression, and who are making $5 million a year. You don’t just go to another job, but you have to have meaning in your life. It’s difficult for people to accept, but he’s always careful to advise them that it is not something that occurs instantaneously.

“The change in my life was between my ears – the way I view the world now versus the way I viewed it before. I view the world and living life about relationships, helping people, about having meaning in your life. I don’t think about material possessions, achievement, or self-gratification. You can’t snap your fingers and do that. It took me two hard, grueling, difficult years to flip my brain around.”

He adds, “If I had known then what I know now, I probably could still be a CEO, but I’d do it differently.” At Cameron, Panhandle Eastern and Weatherford, Burguieres says he did what the public expected, he focused on quarterly earnings, results and making certain the company grew ten percent each year. Now, “I just wouldn’t do that.” Instead, he’d focus more on taking care of the people in the company, on the what-and-why of processes, and on being the best at what they did. “The rest would have to take care of itself…It would be a different viewpoint, but the results would probably be better.”

Enron is a perfect example of a company at the other end of the spectrum – totally results-driven, focused on cash flow, results, and the next quarter. “If Jeff Skilling had been focused on the process and helping people in the company and making them better people,” he speculates, “Enron would be here today and probably doing very well, prospering.”

Is he ready to jump back in as CEO? “No, I don’t want to jump back in there. For me, there’s too much risk.” Besides, he’s been there and done that for nearly thirty years.

Burguieres believes in putting into practice what he preaches. At his urging, the Houston Texans became the first NFL team to provide complete mental health coverage for each of its employees, and were recent recipients of the 2007 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award presented by the American Psychological Association. For Burguieres, that’s a real winning game plan.

(Cheryl lost her courageous battle to cancer two years ago just three months shy of the couple’s 40th anniversary. It was difficult for Burguieres, especially the first year, he says, to adjust to the loss of his life long companion and friend, but as you read this he will be celebrating his recent marriage to Alice Harcrow. For that, along with the recent wedding of his daughter Emily and the news that son Martial is about to make him a grandfather, Burguieres is grateful for the one tiny tenth of one percent of hope that kept him hanging on.)

Author’s Note: This appeared in the May 2007 issue of Change.