It’s lonely at the top (but it doesn’t need to be).
Joseph Conrad wrote of the ‘loneliness of command’ in his 1919 sea tale ‘Typhoon’. Today that feeling of the burden of power is still as widespread as ever. As proof, consider the findings from RHR International’s 2012 CEO Snapshot Survey: It revealed that half of chief executives who led companies with annual revenues ranging from $1 billion to over $2 billion, experienced feelings of loneliness in their role – and 61% of these believe this hindered their performance. Surrounded as you are by people, it is the sheer scale and scope of your responsibilities – for the livelihood of your employees, as well as the future and direction of the business – that can leave you feeling very alone.
Not everyone agrees. Katia Beauchamp, CEO of US beauty product sample service Birchbox, puts feelings of loneliness and isolation from other employees down to the “insane capacity” CEOs often have of running their businesses 24/7. Speaking at Fast Company’s Innovation Festival in November she went on to explain: “If you feel alone, it’s self-inflicted, because there is a right way to involve the people who love you, who love the vision, and who love the customer. They can handle it, and your sense that they can’t is in your head.”
The gentleman’s club once provided a valuable, informal business support network and amid the fug of cigar smoke and whisky fumes was an opportunity to lay bare one’s insecurities and to ‘share the burden’ with your fellow travellers. The heavy doors and thick walls have been replaced by glass partitions and open plan working – today’s CEOs are expected to adopt transparency and complete accountability; the slightest sign of weakness and the klaxon is sounded on the floors below. As peer to peer conversations have fallen by the wayside, today’s CEO is left to wrestle the challenges alone. Sure, the role of the Executive Team is to partner, support and challenge, to enable and to unburden – but in some corporate cultures, that same team can be found sitting in judgement, just waiting for the CEO to trip up.
So where can support and advice be sought? In 2013 The Center for Leadership Development and Research at Stanford Graduate School of Business, The Rock Center for Corporate Governance and The Miles Group conducted a study of over 200 CEOs. It revealed that only one third were receiving coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants or coaches – and yet almost 100% reported that they actually enjoy the process of receiving coaching and leadership advice. “Given how vitally important it is for the CEO to be getting the best possible counsel, independent of their board, in order to maintain the health of the corporation, it’s concerning that so many of them are ‘going it alone,’” says Stephen Miles, CEO of The Miles Group.
The idea of coaching as ‘remedial’ and ‘stigmatised’ – a sign of weakness – is an outdated one, now replaced by an ambition to provide investment in development and to improve performance. Maybe you’re wary of coaching, not even believing you need help and not trusting the source of help (sure, there are plenty of bad coaches out there). But managing leaders need to feel able to reach out for help and to be supported by a qualified, experienced partner who not only provides a sounding board, but absolute honesty, perspective and direction. A good advisor has the capacity to get under the skin of those issues, to share their thinking, navigate relationships, articulate their vision, interpret their challenges. Remaining honest throughout the journey, offering a safe place for candid reflection, a good coach is not there to make decisions, but to probe, thus enabling conclusions to be reached.
We know that different CEOs have different coaching requirements – one size does not fit all. The head of a start-up will need resilience as he/she seeks funding and builds a team from scratch (often without the added strength of a Board or Chairman) – while unable to promise long-term security. The CEO who inherits a broken team, or whose organisation’s image has been tarnished by reports of misconduct – needs to learn how to build trust. For those leading during economic downturn, the attention will be on his/her performance and growth strategy. Older CEOs, analytical in their thinking, often come from a financial background, and are less likely to ‘talk things through’. But they share this in common: the more senior they become, the less challenge and feedback they will receive, from the Board – and from the organisation. That’s a lonely place to be, however good you are at engaging with the people around you.
Post-Enron, Lehman’s and VW, now is the time for transparency, vulnerability – even humility. But while the job of CEO is to have overall responsibility for the health and performance of the organisation, to hold power and create a culture for positive change, this doesn’t mean that he or she shouldn’t learn with and through others. And that’s OK – now perhaps, more than ever.