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Piercing the CEO’s bubble of isolation

In our culture, CEOs are often revered as super humans who have risen to the top of the food chain by virtue of their abilities, leadership qualities, and smarts.

But CEOs can pay a steep price for their status, power, and monetary rewards. They carry enormous weight on their shoulders. The pressure is endless and the stakes are always high. Every CEO knows the feeling of being up at 4 a.m., sweating bullets over a critical issue or decision.

‘Lonely at the top’ isn’t just a cliché or a feeling — it’s a real condition. Many CEOs live in a bubble of isolation. They may be surrounded by people — senior staff, friends, paid advisors, spouses — but these folks are not always the best advisors because they’re on the playing field with the CEO and have their own interests to protect (e.g., job security, keeping the boss happy, etc.).

A common understanding of the CEO experience

In my work as a Vistage Chair, I’ve heard countless stories of how lonely it can be at the top. Last week, I met with the CEO who told me, “I work 60-plus hours a week. I have no friends, no hobbies, and no one to talk with who understands what I go through.”

It requires tremendous ability and confidence to run a successful company. Yet, despite their super-human status, CEOs are human beings. They have doubts, fears, and insecurities. They have gaps in their experience and knowledge. They have biases and blind spots. In short, they’re fallible.

In today’s increasingly complex business landscape, CEOs now more than ever need unbiased and straight feedback, perspectives, and advice on their critical decisions. That’s why CEO peer advisory groups like Vistage are so valuable. CEOs are the ones best equipped to understand what their fellow CEOs are going through. And in a neutral environment, where the only objective is to help one another, they can offer each other perspectives, ideas, and advice that they can’t get anywhere else. And this input can make a huge difference in their decisions and results.

The advice of his peers

One of my Vistage members (I’ll call him Patrick) is CEO of a successful ecommerce company. He and his wife’s cousin’s husband (I’ll call him Joe) started the company over a decade ago. Patrick was the visionary who shaped the company’s products and market. Joe became the VP of Operations and was Patrick’s confidante and moral support through the lean and hungry years.

Joe’s role as VP of Operations was poorly defined. He did a little of everything. The company had long since outgrown his talents and abilities. He was paid too much and had an equity stake that was out of proportion to his contribution. The real reason he was still around was because of the family ties.

Patrick obsessed over the ‘Joe issue’ for years. He felt conflicted, guilty, and resentful. He carried it all inside. He couldn’t talk with anyone in his company; they all knew Joe. He didn’t want to talk with his wife because she might pressure him not to do anything to upset the family apple cart.

After years of suffering in silence, Patrick brought the issue to his Vistage peer advisory group. The group helped Patrick see that the Joe issue was not only hurting him, but the company and his relationship with his wife. The group helped Patrick think through his issue and come up with a structured plan to buy Joe out. They also coached him on how to communicate honestly with Joe and his wife in a way that would hopefully preserve their good relationships. The group held Patrick accountable and had him promise to talk with his wife and Joe within a week. Long story short, Patrick and Joe worked out a buyout agreement and minimized the family fallout.

The right decision

A year later, the company is thriving, Patrick has a stronger executive team in place, and Joe, after taking a year off to travel with his wife, is working for a new company where his talents and experience are a good match. Patrick recently told the Vistage group that separating Joe from the business was one of the most difficult decisions he’d ever faced. “Without you guys in my corner, who knows how much longer I would have obsessed and procrastinated. I certainly wouldn’t have come up with as good of an outcome if I had just consulted my attorney. And no one could have helped me with the family the way you guys did. It hasn’t been easy, but the dust is settling. Next month we’re taking Joe and his family to Mexico on a four-day fishing trip.”

Yes, it can be lonely at the top, but it doesn’t have to be.


This article was originally published in the Los Angeles Business Journal.

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