IBM Virginia Rometty

“It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.”
Albert Einstein.

I went to a local bar last week, and couldn’t help but overhear the conversation at the next table. Four young ladies were huddled together, with one sharing very personal emotions about how she felt about having been dumped by her boyfriend. Her words were full of emotion, both anger and love at the same time. Her friends showed empathy, getting angry with her, allowing her to cry and, ultimately, reminding her that they loved her.

​Now imagine yourself having such a frank and open discussion at your next board meeting. Your fellow directors would console you at the fact that your key client has, without warning, gone to a competitor. They would hug you as you talk through your cash flow concerns. Empathy would flow from their eyes as you admit to feeling stabbed in the back because a key staff member whom you have mentored and developed is leaving.. Sounds familiar? No?

​According to the Harvard Business Magazine, half of mid market CEOs admit to feeling lonely, with 61% of them believing it hinders their performance. First time CEOs are particularly susceptible, with 70% reporting that this isolation negatively affects their performance (Source HBR).

The problem is that isolation significantly impacts our ability to function at anywhere near our best. Notice how you feel the next time you are able to talk through a pressing issue. Chances are you’ll be emotionally relieved, see the issue more objectively and feel as if a weight has lifted.

​My point is that leaders face significant, and often traumatic, situations. Remember the first time you needed to fire someone?

​A strong supportive network is imperative if you plan on being at the top of your game for a long time. It’s not a surprise that the vast majority of FTSE500 CEO’s are married. Take IBM’s CEO, Virginia Rometty. According to an article in the New York Times, “acquaintances say the intensely private Mr. Rometty deserves tremendous credit for pursuing a career that gave him the time and flexibility to support his wife’s ascension to the pinnacle of global business — as, for that matter, do the vast majority of C.E.O. spouses of both genders.” (NYTimes)

I know that I for one would not have been able to achieve what I did in my business without the very real support of my wife at the time. But, not everyone is married. Of those who are, we may feel our partners are not the right people to talk to.

So what to do? The answer is always simpler to state than do, but here goes.. Build a supportive network of people whom you can talk to, at short notice, about the big issues. But who could these people be?

  • Your directors – are there one or two directors or other senior managers who you feel would be supportive of being a little more open and honest with? They may have more experience in a particular area and be only to happy to support you.
  • Networking with peers (I.e. others in a similar position to you). Meet regularly to swap ideas, concerns. Often the level of vulnerability we show will be matched by others. This is a great place to share. In my experience, I’ve found other managing directors only too willing to talk once I initiated such a conversation. After all, chances are they feel just as isolated as you. Look for trade shows, leadership events, director forums and the like.
  • Friends, partner. It might sound obvious, but this is a good place to start if you are not already doing so. There is a risk in being vulnerable, but being so can lead to a deeper level of relationship. If you’re not sure your partner or friend is open to you talking about business – why not ask them? Then set boundaries, limiting the percentage of time you talk about your work issues so as not to negatively impact your relationship.
  • Professional support. There is a raft of companies and people who exist in order to provide you with support, albeit you pay for it. Welcome Insight provides such a service, tailoring a support package to your needs. We’ve been where you’ve been. We understand the challenges and pressures. And what’s more, we know what you need. That’s why we do what we do.  If you are a senior leader or manager email or call us – we offer an initial session of up to three hours for free. That will give you more than enough time to gauge whether we really can help or not.

Having a supportive network will make all the difference to your long term effectiveness and health. Take some time to assess your network today. It could well prove to be the catalyst you’ve needed for some time.

As for the young lady at the bar. After a period of time the conversation drifted onto more mundane issues, and the young lady in question left looking a lot happier.

Further reading;

– It’s Time to Acknowledge CEO Loneliness
– A C.E.O.’s Support System, a k a Husband
– Self Help for CEOs

Image: Graham Carlow via NYTimes.