CEOs: the Loneliest Employees?

CEOs: the Loneliest Employees?

November 7, 2018

by Anni Hollings

Let’s provide a shoulder to rely on and not a shoulder to cry on.

Research by Robert Half UK suggests that 3 in 5 employees would like to be CEO, citing the challenge and responsibility as main motivators. Those less interested in the top job identified a poor work-life balance and significantly increased stress as their reasons for preferring to not pursue corporate leadership. One thing that wasn’t identified was something that several Managing Directors and CEOs have spoken to me about.

How many CEO role descriptors add “You must be prepared to be very lonely” to the various expectations that the CEO is required to perform? Yet for years the sense of loneliness and isolation have been a consistent theme when CEOs talk about the downside of their role. Of course, the role of CEO can be exciting, and so it should be with the opportunity to lead an organisation to corporate success. It seems however, that there is a silent misery that is often overlooked as onlookers see only the riches of the in-charge role.

We have been bombarded with the debate over CEOs with huge reward packages that leave most workers in awe of such earning power. The CEO role is associated with trappings such as sky-high status, unbridled power, unquestioned authority and (of course) money. These much-envied rewards are often accompanied by other perquisites such as high-end cars, travel opportunities and luxury standard accommodation. Yes, we can read of CEOs who live the life of the corporate mogul depicted in on-screen dramas that see leaders attributed with hero status and leadership success – recognised by corporate adulation, but the opposite can be just as vivid. CEOs face real pressures of leadership and a weight of heavy duties that no-one else in the organisation experience and it is that sense of being the only one that leads to a recognition of being alone at the top.

The role of the CEO is one fraught with tensions, contradictions and compromises (TCCs). TCCs are inevitable as the responsibilities of being-in-charge of the livelihoods of employees and their families clash with personal family expectations and preferences. Then there are the terrors caused by finding and keeping the right people and acting quickly enough to ensure that disruptive individuals are released and cannot undermine the establishment of a new set of values and directions. TCCs emerge between the creative and nebulous expectations of focus on strategic vision or the well-honed and practised responses of a focus on operational tactics, with the negative consequences of missed strategic opportunities or internal disruptions caused by unbalanced attention. TCCs are created when the individual is torn between the elevated role of the leader of functional directors and the comfort of getting involved in the previous functional responsibility the CEO had. The hardest thing to do is to delegate and lose the comfort of control.

Not least are the TCCs caused by the expectation of delivering success and the anxieties caused by the fear of failure. More so than with any other role, the focal differences between having the strategic vision and leadership capability to drive direction and operational focus and leadership competence to deliver performance, create a nagging drain on energy and confidence to be sure of the decisions being made. But, as Ellen DeGeneres recognised “When you take risks you learn that there will be times when you succeed and there will be times when you fail, and both are equally important.” Unfortunately, for many CEOs the fear is not always in the failures but in the reactions of those who celebrate such failures.

Many CEOs recognise they are lonely, but the solution is not easy. One thing is clear, loneliness and isolation are huge stressors and have an inevitable impact on performance. Sadly, CEOs are not immune to the ultimate impact of mental illbeing and despite the physical supports of luxury and comfort, they too are susceptible to depression and loss of self-esteem. Many experience a false sense of connection as they engage in conversation and social activities with their colleagues, but are unable to fully immerse themselves in the development of authentic friendships for fear of being accused of favouritism and patronage. So, they may talk to many but in whom can they confide?

Being the ultimate ‘buck’ in decision-making, how can they share concerns and anxieties about the decisions they are making with those who are supposed to be executing those decisions? They cannot be seen to dither and prevaricate. They are under constant scrutiny and their decisions have the capability to make winners and losers. Who are their true friends and who are exploiting the relationship to pursue their own agenda? Who are truly supportive and acting as responsible, active followers? Who are the sycophants willing to simply comply and follow for the sake of being seen to be a supporter? Being in the in-charge-role raises the expectation of knowing all the answers, but where do CEOs go to dither and test out their ideas?

A report by Bloomberg suggests that new CEOS, particularly those promoted from within the firm, feel overwhelmed and unprepared for the top job. About 50% of new CEOs find it hard to find time for reflection and to implement strategic decisions on culture change. Less than half felt that they were properly prepared to undertake the role. Various research studies suggest that the challenge of being seen to take-action and deliver success leave many newly appointed CEOs feeling inadequately advised in terms of realistic expectations of how long change would take. Added to the inadequate timescale for change to be introduced and become embedded, was an unrealistic awareness of the personal investment needed to build relationships and networks. The need to demonstrate success and, by implication worthiness for the role, left many feeling isolated and unsure, anxious and fearful of not being able to deliver and, without a confident and friend with whom they could share their anxieties.

Anxiety of not being accepted as the right person for the job can leave people feeling unable to ask others for important information on ‘how’, why and what?’ Yet, great strength can be perceived if those questions are asked cleverly. Asking for this sort of information in a way that demonstrate appreciation of the respondent can raise the profile of the questioner, not diminish their standing. Furthermore, asking questions in the right way that elevates both parties, helps build good conversations based upon mutual respect and shared understanding. Building good conversations with staff at all levels, is highly rewarding, but sadly, is not enough. What CEOs and MDs need are the opportunities to build high-trust connections that provide the relationships with people in whom they can confide

Mentors and performance coaches can provide some support. Unfortunately, as the issue of loneliness is much wider than delivering performance, they go only so far. Those at the top need a safe place to think. But, if loneliness is the problem, thinking in isolation can be a dangerous activity. It may sound rather unlikely for CEOs, but the need to find someone to off-load onto is a valuable and significant step forward.  Once again however, there is a caveat, a problem shared is not always a problem halved and who do you choose, especially if you are feeling isolated and alone? Recognising that the super-human syndrome is a chase for the unreal, the need to embrace reality and share vulnerabilit
y can earn supportive followers. Furthermore, being transparent can help build employee support for solution finding. Unfortunately, this requires considerable trust being built and for many new CEOs, time to build that trust is in short supply. The need for quick wins and success is part of the reputation, credibility and trust building process, it is a veritable conundrum.

What we at Strategi Solutions have seen is the need to build a network of sensitive and highly trustworthy individuals within a peer group. The MDs and CEOs that Wendy Dean (MD of Strategi Solutions) and I talk to have commented on the rollercoaster ride of success highs and anxious lows made worse by feeling unable to share their concerns. There can be no doubt that knowing there are people to whom CEOs can turn, simply to talk to and to share their concerns and anxieties, not necessarily looking for a solution or for approbation, but someone who will listen, has enormous impact on CEO confidence and wellbeing. The value to be gained by being able to talk things through with someone who can listen, not judge, who is safe and can be trusted, is possibly one of the most significant relationships that a CEO can develop. It is not coaching, although it could be, it is not mentoring, although it might be, what it is, is knowing there is someone to whom a CEO can turn to who can provide a shoulder to rely on.

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The value to be gained by being able to talk things through with someone who can listen, not judge, who is safe and can be trusted, is possibly one of the most significant relationships that a CEO can develop.

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