The old saying “It’s lonely at the top” is in fact a reality for many CEOs all over the world.
You’re expected to have all the answers. The vision. The clarity. To see the way forward and be calm and clear headed in the face of chaos, pressure or uncertainty.
You don’t have peers any more and there often aren’t many people or places where you can admit to having doubts or being unsure. You wouldn’t believe the amount of CEOs who say to me things like “I’ve never told anyone else that before” or “I can’t really talk about this to many people”.
Simply the title of CEO can also put a distance between you and others. People can be slightly intimidated by your role or put you on a pedestal because of it. It can be like an invisible barrier – even for people who may have been peers or confidants in the past.
In addition to this status or power barrier, is also the money barrier. With being CEO typically comes wealth. And wealth can often create a bit of a barrier between those who have it and others.
At the same time as all this, when you voice a thought as the CEO, people start jumping to action. So you have to be aware of the implications of your words, your tone, even your body language at all times.
All of your actions and decisions are also very public and visible. And the buck of course stops with you. It’s your head on the plate at the end of the day if things go wrong.
Add to this long working hours and travel – perhaps finding yourself in a hotel room on the other side of the world while your child is playing an important match back home – and you can see how a sense of loneliness is so common among CEOs.
So here are a few tips if you find yourself feeling a bit isolated, unsupported or disconnected from others at times as a CEO.
1. Find yourself a trusted group of CEOs
You can do this through an organisation like the YPO – a global organisation for CEOs where you join a small, tight-knit forum of other CEOs who you meet regularly and build up trusted, supportive relationships for advice, challenge and perspective. These are like-minded people who understand the challenges, pressures, dilemmas and issues you face as CEO and it’s a place where you can be yourself. Not to mention the friendships, connections and other practical advice that these groups often provide over time.
Another option is to set up your own group. You can handpick a few trusted people in CEO roles and agree a regular time to meet. Just make sure you start with clear guidelines of how you will work together, including confidentiality, and what the purpose of the group is so you’re all on the same page and have same expectations from the outset.
2. Find a mentor
If the group thing isn’t your cup of tea, then you might like to think about finding a mentor (or mentors).
Mentors are like the wise old owl – someone who’s been there and done that and can pass on their wisdom, perspective and insights. They also act as a sounding board for you, can challenge your thinking and decisions and typically help you to up your game and accelerate your learning.
To find one, you might like to think through the people you’ve met in your career and who are the people you admire, respect and whose opinions, perspective or expertise you really value. Then reach out to your top one or two and see if they would agree to meet you a number of times a year. Or you might agree to reach out to them in a more ad hoc way – as and when you need advice.
You can ask him or her directly if they will mentor you, or you can keep it more informal by telling him/her how much you value their advice and perspective and that you would love to meet up with them periodically to talk things through and get their perspective.
Either way, it’s important to make it a regular thing, get it in the diary and prioritise it.
3. Find people you trust in your organisation
We all need people we can confide in or have as a sounding board. So it’s really worthwhile to take the time and make the effort to build up a small number of people in your organisation you really trust and can turn to as needed. This doesn’t mean your whole leadership team – rather it’s a few hand-picked individuals that you know you can confide in confidentially and run things past. These relationships are incredibly valuable and really worth nurturing and investing in.
4. Get an executive coach
Personally, I could not imagine working or living at my best without having a coach. I’ve had many different coaches over the years – once during a particularly significant period in my work and life I was being coached by three separate coaches in three different parts of the world!
A coach is different to a mentor in that it’s not about the coach telling you what to do (although they will advise at times or share their perspective). It’s more about the coach creating the structure, the space, the conditions that enable you to think things through, see things differently, get clarity and be challenged on your thinking, decisions, actions and behaviour.
Until you experience it, it’s hard to properly describe the impact coaching can have, but there’s simply no other relationship like it.
Friends and family – much as they love and care about you – often don’t really get what you do every day. What your job really involves. So their advice – while well meaning – is sometimes a little off the mark. Or even if they do understand, they have a tendency to tell you what you want to hear because they care about you or want to protect you.
Other people in your business may have a vested interest or may feel unable to challenge you fully or tell you what you don’t want to hear (but may need to hear) because of the power differential.
Every other relationship, apart from a counsellor or therapist, is also somewhat reciprocal or two-way. The coaching relationship is unique in that the coach’s entire focus is on you and what you want. There is no “I know exactly what you mean. That happened to me a few years ago” kind of response – taking the focus away from your issue and how YOU might best deal with it.
The coach’s only agenda is YOUR agenda. Your happiness. Your success. Your fulfilment. Your life. And there’s a certain alchemy to this. A slightly magical quality that happens when you create space, caring, trust, focus, challenge and no other agenda or vested interest.
Just be clear when choosing a coach whether you need coaching mostly on the business side of things – for thinking through strategy, business decisions etc – or whether it’s more about you and your life and how you live and work at your best. Some coaches are very good on the leadership/business/financial/strategy side of things, but not so comfortable or competent with the deeper or more personal challenges of a CEO’s life and work, and vice versa.
5. Make time for other parts of your life
Pressure and responsibility comes hand in hand with a CEO role. It can be very easy therefore to work long hours or find travel is eating into your life outside work. When work takes up the vast majority of your waking hours, it’s easy to end up narrowing your life or feeling a bit disconnected from other people and other parts of your life.
It’s therefore really important to actively create time for things that are important to you apart from work that make you feel good – family, friends, hobbies, time for you, time to try different things, time for learning or to relax or have fun.
This not only helps connect you to others and to other parts of your life, it also gives you the switch-off and headspace for the clarity and perspective needed for a successful CEO role.
6. Spend time with your tribe
The last five suggestions have been mostly about being supported in your role and life as a CEO. But this suggestion is different. It’s about being seen, cared for, valued and appreciated as you. As the person you are – not as a CEO.
And this involves spending time with people who don’t know or don’t care that you’re the CEO. This might be family members you’re particularly close to, friends you go back a long way with who you fully trust and who just see you and treat you as John or Jane. Not John or Jane the CEO.
Or it could be people you know through an interest like sea swimming, or hill walking, or singing or coaching GAA or football or surfing – any sport, interest or community. Where the activity is what’s important and not what you do as a job.
This can be very grounding and important for people used to being put on the CEO pedestal. To be with people who only care about whether you pass round your bag of toffees at the top of the mountain after a long hill walk, or whether you’re singing in tune in the choir or a bit of craic (as we say in Ireland) in the pub after your Tuesday night football game.
It certainly can be lonely as a CEO. But it really doesn’t have to be as lonely as many people find it. It just takes a little conscious thought and deliberate choices about how you spend your time and who you spend it with.
And this not only helps you be a better CEO, it helps you live a happier, more connected, enjoyable and supported life too.