Alone at the top
What causes CEO isolation, and how to overcome it
Secrecy plays a necessary role in the activities of many professionals. Without rules of confidentiality, lawyers, doctors, therapists and clergy, among others, could not provide their services. However, for others, such as some heads of organizations, secrecy becomes a self-imposed barrier to open communication and, tangentially, a source of loneliness.
This is the phenomenon of CEO isolation, whereby the CEO walls him- or herself off from the input of peers, subordinates and other potential advisors. While the CEO may not intentionally become cut off from others, presumptions of how to behave as a CEO, as well as overly aggressive gatekeepers, may exacerbate the situation.
CEO isolation is a common phenomenon. “I’ve been at this for over 30 years, and I’ve spoken with 200-plus CEOs — there are precious few that didn’t, in the privacy of our discussions, talk about loneliness,” says Thomas Saporito, the chairman and CEO of consulting firm RHR International. In a 2012 study, RHR found that half of CEOs experienced loneliness and that 61 percent of these felt that the loneliness negatively impacted their job performance. Moreover, first-time CEOs are especially vulnerable to isolation hurting their work performance.
Isolation and loneliness should not be treated as acceptable or inevitable. For one thing, loneliness is a dangerous emotion that has proven connections to physical damage, depression and strained relationships. The quality of decisions made in isolation is likely to decrease because of the lack of critical information or contrarian perspectives. The possibility of making a catastrophic decision for the company increases. Criticism from one’s self or others stings more sharply because there is no one else to mute it.
What causes isolation?
It is unlikely that a person reached the status of CEO by being a hermit or a wallflower. Rather, the perceived requirements of the role often turn a previously socially active person into someone who chooses to carry the burden of decisions and planning on his own shoulders. Moving in this direction often stems from a combination of forces. These include:
These and other concerns may push the CEO to an unintended and harmful isolation.
Back to the center
Consider adopting a “decision partner,” someone with no vested interest in any decision, whose sole role is to allow the CEO to talk out a pending decision. The decision partner can play the role of devil’s advocate and minimize the fear that the CEO is ignoring crucial dangers or perspectives. The decision partner will not be a consultant providing advice, but will need to be familiar enough with the industry and the business to provide valuable input.
Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. www.maelconsulting.com. Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appeared originally in the March-April 2015 issues of Washington SmartCEO magazine and Baltimore SmartCEO magazine.