Do you regularly seek out information from people across your organization? Do you maintain a cabinet of trusted advisors—confidents who are willing tell you not only the good but also the difficult truth when appropriate? Do you look closely at behaviors of your own that may prevent others from speaking openly with you?
The CEOs in our study recommended each of these steps as ways of combatting a common problem facing leaders: Loneliness.
When leaders become CEO, they often find that their relationships change. Even longtime friends and colleagues within the organization stop sharing their opinions openly. As one CEO in our study stated, “everyone wanted to know what I thought or what I wanted before they would say anything.” Many people also begin treating CEOs differently because they want something from them. CEOs cease to be people in the eyes of many friends and colleagues and instead become a means of advancing an agenda.
For the CEO, this treatment can feel bewildering and painfully isolating. Many CEOs became successful precisely because they eagerly turned to others for valuable support, encouragement, feedback, and coaching. Now they have few people inside the organization who can or will provide these things.
As a CEO, it’s important to develop strategies for breaking out of the CEO’s bubble and adjusting to the lack of candid information. Drawing on findings from our studies, we recommend the following steps:
- Identify people within the organization whom you trust to give you honest and complete information. Cultivate your relationships with these people so that they know how much you value their counsel.
- Create a “kitchen cabinet” comprised of a few key confidents. Draw this team from both inside and outside the organization (you might try using a coach or a trusted consultant) and meet with the team regularly and informally.
- Find time to “walk around” and meet with employees informally in their offices, work locations, or lunchrooms. Demystify the “office of the CEO” by showing your real interest in them and in the part of the business with which they are involved.
- Remain mindful that what you do when you talk with people is important. Even your trusted advisors will be looking to you for “signals” that what they’re saying is valuable and that you’re hearing it. Your comments and body language can subtly affect what and how much people share with you. Try to refrain from contemplating ideas out loud before groups of people. Be clear, comfortable, engaging and compelling in your communication.
- Have at the ready a handful of consistent messages and themes underlying your conversations. Repeat these often, tailoring the messages to your audiences. You might think that you are sounding repetitive and uninteresting, and that people are waiting for you to say something new. In truth, people count on you to reinforce core values, messages, and strategies. In the words of one study participant: “The CEO must be relentless and boring in talking about and presenting the values, and in talking about what is being done by the company that is consistent with the values.”
As isolating as the CEO transition initially was for our study participants, most reported sustaining key relationships that made their work even more fulfilling and anything but lonely. These relationships could be with old business school buddies, key lieutenants, spouses, peer CEOs at other organizations, even a trusted executive assistant. With the right strategies in place, you can get the objective information and honest feedback you need, preventing “loneliness at the top” from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
More on the CEO study can be found in the book Preparing CEOs For Success “What I Wish I Knew”. For more information, visit the CLG Bookstore.
And, for more information about CLG Executive Advisors and the support they provide to CEOs, c-suite executives, and high potentials on issues such as leadership, strategy execution, succession, new leader transition, change implementation, and teamwork among senior teams visit the CLG Executive Advisor section of the website.