How to combat feeling lonely at the top: Four tips for CEOs

“Solitude vivifies; isolation kills.” 
– Joseph Roux

Being a CEO can be lonely.

Nobody tells you this before your first stint at running a company, but having coached a lot of CEOs, I’ve had a front row seat to the ‘lonely at the top’ factor.

Sure, you have your board and your executive team to discuss things with. But both groups have limitations when it comes to sharing your experience and aren’t always the best sounding board for the unique challenges of running an organisation.

There’s no getting around the fact that as a CEO, there’s only one of you!

If you’re feeling lonely at the top, ironically, you’re not alone.

survey by RHR International found that over half of CEOs report experiencing feelings of loneliness in their roles. Of this group, 61% believe isolation hinders their performance.

So, what can you do to reduce the chances of feeling lonely or isolated as a chief executive?

  1. Get an executive coach (no, this isn’t a self-indulgent plug – there is a point here). One study conducted by the Center for Leadership Development and Research (CLDR) at Stanford Graduate School of Business, showed over 90% of CEOs who have participated in coaching find the process highly effective and rewarding. Despite this, almost two-thirds of CEOs do not receive ongoing coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants or coaches. Almost half of all senior executives are not receiving any either. Having an objective, confidential sounding board is valuable to any executive, but it’s especially valuable for CEOs, given the pressures you face at the top.
  1. Consider a mentor. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to get a formal mentoring relationship with someone on your Board but there’s no reason why you can’t find a mentor in the form of another Chair or board member outside of yours. Mentors can often help you navigate those tricky nuances associated with Board relationships and expectations. For this reason, I’d particularly recommend a mentor relationship if you’re a first time CEO.
  1. Develop a peer mentoring/coaching group with a few other non-competing CEOs and catch up regularly. If three or four of you get together on a regular basis to share your challenges and learnings, and most importantly, to listen to one other, this can mitigate this isolation factor. As a CEO, you don’t have the same access to peer support as the rest of your management team, so catching up with a few peers from time to time helps. A bonus is that different industries offer creative and unique perspectives to your own industry problems. Networking with CEOs from other industries provides the perfect opportunity to see what others have done with similar problems and how you can adapt those approaches.
  1. Stay connected to your professional networks.  At times, it probably seems like you don’t have time for non-essential networking, but professional bodies, MBA alumni and previous colleagues you ‘clicked with’ can offer you that vital perspective and connection. They can even act as your ‘challenging cheerleader’. It doesn’t have to be all the time, but connecting in with your professional networks is a useful practice for CEOs. Tip: it’s wiser to keep up with these networks regularly, than try and crank them up when you’re in need of a new job!

So if you’re feeling that shadow of loneliness as a CEO, don’t suffer it alone. Do something to help yourself out and adopt some of these ‘connecting’ practices.

Do you have any tips to add to this list? What techniques do you use to combat that ‘lonely at the top’ feeling?

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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