Leader Isolation: It’s Lonely at the Top

Written by on January 14, 2016

The phrase, “It’s lonely at the top” has been uttered so many times that it’s become cliché – but for CEOs, it’s more than that. It’s reality. As they ascend the career ladder, the number of people they can confide in dwindles, until it truly becomes very lonely in the corner office. If you are a chief executive officer, one of the essentials for effective leadership is having someone you can turn to and say, “I’m struggling,” or, “I need to talk about this decision.”

Hello? Is Anyone There?

As a CEO, you depend on your CFO for guidance on financial decisions; you turn to your CMO for answers on marketing initiatives and branding. But to whom do you turn when you are considering terminating a top-level executive, for instance? There aren’t a lot – if any – people within the organization that you can talk to about that. The feeling of isolation can make a difficult decision even weightier.

The best advice is to cultivate a network of people who can advise you, who you feel comfortable with, and who can be trusted with confidential issues. For some, the answer is in CEO peer groups. For others, it’s a retired mentor who has shared the experience of being the top leader. For others, it’s a coach. Whoever it is, nurture those relationships – and make sure they’re two-way. You need to feel comfortable that you can go to them, and they need to know you will reciprocate.

One of the most powerful functions these trusted confidants can perform is to simply be a sounding board. For instance, you might say to a coach, “I’m going to talk to my board about this issue. Can I try it out on you first?” That way, they can work out the message and delivery so it lands right for the audience. Sometimes, simply hearing their thoughts aloud can offer clarity and direction.

Coaching: Most CEOs Want The Support

According to a survey conducted by the Center for Leadership Development and Research at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Stanford’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance, and The Miles Group, about two-thirds of CEOs do not receive coaching, though nearly 100% were receptive to, or sincerely wanted that outside support and advice.

Coaches coach the person – not the issue – and that can be of tremendous benefit to CEOs. It means that you don’t have to disclose or discuss every detail about your business. You can outline your challenge, your coach can ask targeted questions, and you can work towards solutions. Your coach is your guide.

Context can be incredibly important, which is why it is helpful to talk to someone who has been in your shoes. If a coach has been a CEO, it enables him or her to say, “I can imagine sitting in the boardroom and proposing this plan to your board. How do you think they’re going to react? What type of questions is the “most thoughtful” of your board members going to ask?”

Having been a CEO or top executive enables them to ask questions that are very immediate, targeted, and which are likely to drive increased levels of accountability.

It also ensures they understand the importance of confidentiality. Coaches who are certified by the International Coach Federation, for instance, are bound by a stringent code of ethics. Others provide an additional contract, committing to keeping confidences, never revealing the content of coaching conversations or, in fact, revealing that you are a client.

Experience and an ethical code of conduct are two essentials in any coaching/client relationship. Equally important is fit. In general, the more senior the client, the more critical fit becomes. You need and want to be vulnerable without worrying a coach will betray your confidence or pass judgment about you.

You may also need to feel as though you’re talking to someone who “gets it”. Being a CEO is a complex role that requires difficult decisions, exerts enormous pressure, and, of course, has a great deal of isolation. Typically, it helps when you know your coach has the experience and the wisdom to appreciate the challenges you are facing. If you don’t feel that, or if the fit is not right, it is difficult to be open with your coach.

Given how important it is for CEOs to get the best counsel, Stephen Miles, CEO of the Miles Group, says, “it’s concerning that so many of them are ‘going at it alone.’ Even the best-of-the-best CEOs have their blind spots and can dramatically improve their performance with an outside perspective weighing in.”

You don’t have to go it alone. Find the support you need to change the reality of isolation at the top.