CEO IsolationBy: Gary Lockwood
You've heard the phrase, "It's lonely at the top". What does that really mean? One aspect of business life that top executives rarely discuss is their isolation.
When you are the Chief Executive Officer of the company, whether it's a start-up or a multi-million dollar enterprise, who do you talk to about really important issues? If you're like most CEOs, there are just some things you can't share with employees, friends or even partners.
Think about a sensitive strategic issue you've had to face in the past year. Maybe you were (or still are) thinking about:
Discussing these sensitive decisions with friends or family might make you feel good, but what's the possibility that you will receive solid, unbiased feedback on your ideas? They probably don't know your company or your industry well enough to give you advice. Many of these well-meaning people may not have been in a CEO position and therefore don't understand your perspective on the issues at hand. And some of them may just tell you what you want to hear in order to make you feel better. Don't count on the people closest to you for help with true change - especially in the beginning.
Your advisors - attorneys, CPAs and consultants - usually have an agenda of their own. Can you blame them if they slant their input just a little to put them in position for keeping or expanding their engagement with your company?
If your decision is concerning your partner(s), you obviously can't openly and objectively explore the issue with her/him.
So, what do you do? Most CEOs just keep it to themselves. You probably spend a lot of time - and more than a few sleepless nights - pondering the pros and cons of these significant issues. If it's a "bet-the-farm" decision, the stress of going it alone can be overwhelming.
Many top executives describe this as feeling "totally alone" or "me against the world". Lonely at the top? You bet it is! The toll is often health-damaging stress, strained personal relationships, lack of focus on the rest of your business responsibilities, and perhaps a decision that costs you the enterprise.
What's the solution? You have a few practical possibilities that can provide you a knowledgeable sounding board, agenda-free advice, timely response and probing questions that truly challenge your thinking.
One possibility is to join a peer-level board-of-advisors group. These are groups of CEOs who, like you, have the ultimate responsibility for decisions in their enterprise. Like you, they know what it's like when you must make payroll every week.
When you can gather 12-15 CEOs together where there are no competitors, customers or suppliers, and where each person is pledged to confidentiality, you have the opportunity to get substantive feedback unlike any you'll ever hear. This works especially well when you have a professional facilitator to keep the discussion moving forward and on track.
Imagine what it would be like for you to have such a group of peers where you could bring your issue to the table. How would you describe to them your current dilemma? What would you ask them?
Chances are that at least a few of these experienced CEOs have been down the path you are traveling. Some of them already have the battle scars and can help steer you away from disaster. Perhaps the pointed questions from this group could help you clarify your thinking or even disclose that the issue you are pursuing is not even the real issue. If you can handle the deep, probing questions, you'll sharpen your thinking. It's like Tough Love for CEOs.
Another solution for CEO isolation is a business coach. Many people have a personal trainer for their body. Why not have a coach for your mind? Using a coach is the latest way for people to get ahead in today's crazy business world.
People at all stages of professional development need coaches to help them. Chief executives frequently use coaches to bounce ideas around; entrepreneurs use their coach to help them think strategically about the business, and coaches help others sort out career decisions. Emerson once said, “we all need someone who can help us to do what we already can.”
People use coaches for two basic reasons:
Good business coaches usually have special training in listening and questioning skills. They can hold a mirror up to your decisions, actions and your thinking so you can see the impact and all the facets of implications.
Whether you join a peer advisor group or hire a business coach, take action to relieve the isolation. Running an enterprise should be challenging, exciting, rewarding and fun. It doesn't have to be lonely at the top.
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