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It's lonely at the top

For once, the old cliché is accurate. It really is lonely at the top. Research carried out in the US a couple of years ago found that half of CEOs felt isolated with six out of 10 of these acknowledging that this was hindering their performance. And first time CEOs were even more likely to feel the impact of loneliness, with seven out of 10 saying that it was damaging their effectiveness.

Whatever the size or type of organisation, the reasons for this loneliness tend to be similar. Because when you’re running a business – any business - the buck stops with you. It’s the only position where that is true and it places unique demands on the individual concerned. As CEO, you are under constant scrutiny, but you are also trapped by the natural sense of separation your position brings with it. You can’t just go out and have a beer with your colleagues and expect them to tell you what they really think. Equally, as a leader you’re always cautious about sharing your innermost concerns with colleagues or even your board chairman.

I clearly remember the first year I was CEO of the Earls Court & Olympia Group. It was Christmas and I was grappling with a thorny issue. But instead of the camaraderie you normally get at that time of year, I was on my own in the office when everyone else was celebrating. I couldn’t just leave everything and join them and I felt that sense of isolation very acutely.

It can be easy to get trapped in a sort of ‘CEO bubble’. But it’s a dangerous place because the CEO is a weathervane for entire organisation. The well-being of the boss affects everyone and touches an emotional nerve everyone recognises.

This can be compounded by the fact that many CEOs are apprehensive about showing any signs of weakness and some feel they don’t need advice from anyone or view asking for any sort of external help as an admission of failure.

Here are some common reasons for feeling lonely at the top and ways in which they can be mitigated.

Imposter syndrome

It’s surprisingly common for CEOs – particularly first timers – to feel unprepared, untrained and even ‘unworthy’ of their position. Having held senior executive positions doesn’t really prepare you for the reality of the top job or the sudden realisation that you’re not ‘part of the team’ any more, but the figurehead that everyone else is looking to for answers can make CEOs feel isolated and alone. The antidote is for CEOs to be realistic and accept that they’re not omnipotent. Like everyone else, they have areas of strength and weakness and won’t have all the answers and so it’s important to recognise their limitations.

Feelings of isolation

Imposter syndrome can compound other feelings of isolation for CEOs. These insecurities can also lead to a breakdown in understanding and communication with the senior management team. The most critical thing here is to be honest about these feelings, even if they have come as something of a shock. A stiff upper lip isn’t going to help. Trying to tough it out isn’t a viable long-term strategy. The fact is that no CEO is going to be successful unless they’re able to share their burden. Every CEO needs an effective support system and it’s a key priority to put this in place as soon as possible.

Negative patterns

The pressure of the job means that it’s easy to get trapped in negative patterns including feelings of stress and fatigue that can be hard to break. That can lead to sleepless nights, poor concentration and even illness. Like all executives in positions of responsibility it’s important that CEOs find time in their busy schedules to relax and let off steam, both mentally and physically. Taking regular exercise and time out – being able to ‘switch off’ – is an important skill, but it needs to be learnt. You can meditate, cycle, learn yoga or paint – whatever works for you – just do it!

Keeping secrets

Something else we often hear from Academy members is that they are very wary about sharing commercially sensitive information and so often feel that they have no-one to discuss things with. One way this can be mitigated is to put the right external advisors in place – lawyers, accountants and the like – whose job it is to deal with things like this. A Stamford University study found that two thirds of CEOs don’t receive external coaching or leadership advice but all of them said they were open to making changes based on constructive feedback. So, having an independent external sounding board is vital for a CEO – someone who can offer advice, guidance and a listening ear.

You are not alone

Every business has a CEO and whilst there may be limitations on the support they can get within their own organisation there is no such conflict when it comes to sharing with other CEOs in non competitive industries. In fact the whole ethos behind setting up The Academy for Chief Executives was to do exactly this – to provide a supportive and safe environment in which they can share advice and find trust, empathy and understanding.

The great benefit ‘peer learning’ is that the CEOs who take part are all in the same boat and these relationships and friendships can be an important source of support for any CEO or senior business leader who is committed to their on-going self development.



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