No CEO is an island
Brandon Floyd was truly flummoxed. Two employees from his property maintenance firm, Rubicon, had gotten into a physical altercation one evening outside of work. They then came to him with a problem: they couldn’t work together anymore.
Rather than stewing over the conflict, Floyd turned to his board of directors and executive team for support. Armed with the wisdom of his team, he took swift, decisive action—and fired both employees.
“When I get feedback from the board, [they say] I need to be more decisive … and OK making mistakes,” says Floyd, who has served as Rubicon’s CEO for three years. “None of the questions or details really mattered because [the employees] were creating a safety situation and were taking their eye off the team’s goals.”
On the surface, CEOs have everything: money, prestige, power. But there’s a professional hazard to the top job: isolation.
“I just had two calls yesterday with two different CEOs, and they said they felt so alone,” says executive coach Diana Chapman. “It’s very common.”
It’s lonely at the top
Leaders have described the role of CEO as demanding, absorbing and filled with meetings that occupy 50 to 80 percent of their time. Nearly one-third of UK executives surveyed said loneliness was the worst part of their jobs, and another survey found that 61 percent of CEOs said loneliness hurt their performance.
“You have relationships with everyone who reports to you, but it’s never a relationship where you’re going to burden them with everything,” says Robin Ritch, former president of Deseret News. “It’s those situations where you don’t actually want to involve everybody in figuring out a dire situation until you have a handle on what it is and you can bring people in to brainstorm in a positive way. So that’s what’s really hard.”
The pressure of the spotlight and the need to always be “on”—constantly watching speech and behaviors—creates a disconnect between the top executive and the rest of the company. The perceived differences in rank, status, authority and power make many employees stressed when the boss is around.
“You’re supposed to challenge your leader, but your leader has control over whether you have a job or not, so [employees are] less inclined to get close or give honest feedback,” Chapman says.
Only two of 11 senior leaders surveyed in 2018 by University of Chile researcher Jessy Zumaeta reported having friends at work. Her paper, “Lonely at the Top: How Do Senior Leaders Navigate the Need to Belong?” found that even existing friendships can shift over time, especially if a CEO’s friend was once a peer and is now a subordinate. Sometimes those friendships are “politically convenient” and don’t last after one of them leaves the company.
“I’ve never invited a colleague to my house … it’s complicated,” one executive told Zumaeta. Many leaders claimed that not having friends at work was a way of protecting themselves. Instead, executives often turn to a spouse or friend when they need a confidant, but these non-work associates can’t always truly understand their perspective.
Not surprisingly, this disconnection is bad for physical health. In 2017, Brigham Young University professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad presented testimony to the U.S. Senate Aging Committee that linked lack of social connection with morbidity. “[It] carries a risk that is comparable, and in many cases, exceeds that of other well-accepted risk factors, including smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day, obesity, physical inactivity and air pollution,” she said. This physical toll directly affects workplace performance.
“When you’re lonely, you’re less productive, you have more health problems and you’re more likely to quit,” says Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence and the author of “Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation.”
"When leaders adopt a mindset predicated on vulnerability, they tend to be more approachable, in touch and willing to have deeper conversations. This mindset can dissolve barriers between CEOs and the rest of the world."
The power of empowerment
Isolation can breed a vicious cycle that leaves an executive struggling to identify their blind spots and shortcomings, ultimately leading them to feel even more isolated.
“It can be a model for burnout,” says Kurt Micka, who recently retired after 20 years of leading Utah Partners for Health, a community health center. Micka bridged the gap between himself and his workforce by building a culture around servant leadership, which embraces the idea that CEOs are in their positions to serve everyone else. He encouraged his 55 employees at the nonprofit’s five care clinics to celebrate their mistakes and take responsibility for making decisions. He also created policies that helped people make better decisions, noting that he only stepped in to make the final call about five percent of the time and only overrode decisions in about two percent of cases.
“It changes them from being just an employee to someone who is really their own CEO, running their part of the organization, whether it’s the front desk to a medical assistant,” Micka says. “By empowering them, you’re not as alone.”
At Overstock, CEO Jonathan Johnson focuses on culture, too. He often beats the drum about team members speaking their minds and reiterates the company’s leadership tenets, which include fostering open and active conversations, assuming good intent and challenging ideas rather than people. “I don’t want hired friends who tell me my bad ideas are good ones,” Johnson says.
Johnson seeks outside perspective for big decisions and speaks weekly with at least one of his board directors. He recently added four new members to his board and specifically recruited people with expertise not already found on his leadership team—including Barbara Messing, CMO at Roblox and Joanna Burkey, HP’s chief information security officer.
When Overstock’s sales dropped 30 percent in February, Johnson turned to Allison Abraham, who has been a board member for 21 years. “She could give me this longer-arc perspective,” he says.
In good company
Not every CEO has a board like Johnson does at the publicly traded Overstock, which puts the onus on those executives to build their own pseudo-boards. Ritch created her personal board by tapping a network of other executives and mentors she’s met throughout her career, which spans Silicon Valley startups and Cisco Systems. Leading a news publication was entirely new for her when she took the helm at Deseret News two years ago.
“I definitely needed that sounding board,” she says. “You build those relationships along the way so you can ask them to help you in whatever you are going through.”
Dan Rigby, the founder of bag and accessory company Lloyd & Leo, says he avoids isolation through a loose network of CEO friends he calls on when he’s stuck and needs a confidant. He also meets monthly with an informal group of business leaders from various industries.
Because executives in this group aren’t competing against each other, members can offer candid advice on various topics. This counsel was beneficial last year when Rigby struggled to get products off shipping containers from China. “Everybody was scrambling to get products, and as soon as one of us found a loophole, we had to try it,” he says.
For Rigby, isolation sets in most when he feels everything rests on him and that he must make things happen for his company to survive. “And that’s where it starts to weigh down on you and becomes really, really energy-draining,” he says.
Staying engaged and excited about learning different aspects of the business helps Rigby minimize those feelings and move through tough times, he continues. He also leans on his executive team members, who he considers intelligent, emotionally invested people he can trust with the company’s future.
“Nine times out of 10, we make decisions as a team,” Rigby says, though he admits that’s easier to achieve in a smaller startup than in a larger corporation.
Rigby says the support he finds among other leaders is far better today than in the past. “A decade ago, it was dog-eat-dog. You had to be very careful who you were talking to and protect trade secrets,” he says. “Now, we all want to make it, and we’re totally fine to give that advice and help out where we can.”
Rigby credits LinkedIn for that shift as more executives support each other on the platform and share their struggles in a vulnerable way. This observation goes hand-in-hand with the rise of vulnerability and empathetic leadership, which involves grasping another person’s point of view and showing genuine empathy for them.
Empathy, vulnerability & responsibility
A 2021 Catalyst study suggests higher levels of empathy in the workplace lead to profitability, innovation, motivation, connection, retention and work-life balance—the world needs empathy now more than ever before. A recent Qualtrics study found that over 40 percent of people have experienced a decline in their mental health since the start of the pandemic.
Chapman encourages her CEO clients to be more transparent and vulnerable with employees about their sadness or disappointment rather than bottling up the emotion, which ultimately blocks creativity and makes you feel more tired. A CEO, she says, can share disappointment and sadness while offering hope moving forward.
There’s no perfect formula. When Braden Wallake of Ohio-based HyperSocial posted a crying selfie on LinkedIn after laying off employees, it went viral. Viewers skewered him, saying he was centering himself in the layoff story instead of focusing on the people who lost their jobs. Some of Chapman’s clients have pointed to that case and hesitated about how open they should be about their feelings. “But every time my CEO clients open up, they all say they feel less alone,” she says.
Chapman recommends that leaders seek support from an executive coach or leadership group with members who understand the frustrations and challenges of being a CEO. Peer groups like The Conscious Leadership Group, Entrepreneurs’ Organization, Vistage and Young Presidents’ Organization offer this support.
“They can really fill a void,” says Jason Thompson, an executive coach who started a Salt Lake City peer advisory group through Vistage. “People realize, ‘I’m not so broken,’ and ‘Everyone seems to feel, at times, this loneliness.’”
Peer groups tend to offer a sounding board on critical issues, but they’re best when they push executives to see their shortcomings and focus on how they can best develop leaders rather than sell more products or services. Having an independent facilitator who can direct the conversations and elevate accountability helps with this, as it’s not always easy for executives to be vulnerable, even among peers.
“They’re happy to share solutions, but they’re really apprehensive about—if not completely stonewalling—any opportunities to see themselves in a different light,” Thompson says. When leaders adopt a mindset predicated on vulnerability, they tend to be more approachable, in touch and willing to have deeper conversations. This mindset can dissolve barriers between CEOs and the rest of the world.
At Conscious Leadership Group meetings, a CEO who wants to fire her CFO may not get suggestions from members on how to do it. Members may instead push her to analyze her responsibility in the situation, which could include questioning whether she has had candid conversations with the CFO or provided enough training and support.
“We’re asking them to take responsibility for how they’re the creator of the thing they’re complaining about,” Chapman says.
Chapman believes everyone—not just CEOs—should have a peer group in which to be vulnerable and grow. “Not only do they make you far less lonely,” she says, “They make you a better human.”