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The Lonely CEO: Conquering corner office syndrome

Being a chief executive may sound glamorous and powerful, but it comes with a unique set of responsibilities, stresses and accountabilities that few other jobs entail. While the perks seem plentiful, the daily scrutiny and pressures are intense. Unlike other business leaders or influencers, the CEO must own the vision for the company, procure the proper resources (both monetary and human), build the culture, demonstrate an ability to make good business decisions and set, then exceed the bar for performance. And he or she must be personal and unflappable.

A tall order, to be sure.

To expand on the above points, the Harvard Business Review has identified four specific behaviors that make for a successful CEO. They are:

1. Deciding with speed and conviction, providing crucial direction and momentum, even if some uncertainties are still at play.

2. Engaging for impact to actively engage staff and stakeholders for maximum business impact.

3. Adapting proactively to the unexpected, taking the long view of any setbacks.

4. Delivering reliably, possibly the most important factor, as boards, investors and employees trust predictability and a steady hand above all else.

Having worked with CEOs and founders now for more than 25 years, I can confidently say that many chief executives feel isolated in their roles, a loneliness that persists if they don’t take action to change it. Some newly minted CEOs feel like imposters because they ascended to the C-suite without possessing all the skills they feel they need. Yet, even the most qualified CEOs hire senior team members who have the skills and talents they don’t. It’s part of what makes a good CEO.

Regardless of the abilities they entered with, all leaders benefit from outside wisdom: thoughtful, affiliated advisers and listeners with whom they can be comfortable and vulnerable. Vulnerability and self awareness are what allow people to grow, CEOs included. Inside the company, though, of course, the CEO is still the boss, and everyone from the C-suite to the mail room expects him or her to have the answers. With that in mind, here are some key ways CEOs can manage that herculean role:

Establish a tribe of advisers

One thing I learned at IBM and JPMorgan Chase is a chief executive’s need for a coach or two. Every successful CEO has one. It’s not something CEOs walk around talking about, but you better believe they have people to call when a crisis hits or they need to bounce ideas off of someone who’s not a subordinate. These outsiders are trusted individuals who have been CEOs, have advised them in the past and can keep what’s said in confidence. It’s critical to have people to whom you can turn outside the company who understand your business, recognize the pressure you’re under and can help think through decisions. Doing so will help you communicate with the board or with employees, establish a scalable future or expand your executive team with the right complementary personalities and skills. Even CEOs with trusted employees need to be able to openly explore challenges and voice fears, then return to the office knowing they’ve properly vetted their choices and views.

Engage with a peer group

Being a part of an organization like the Entrepreneur Organization or Vistage can truly empower CEOs by connecting them with other chief executives who scan share how they’ve handled mergers, board conflicts, personal stress or investors. These organizations purposefully vet members to unite CEOs who can have confidential conversations that help on personal and professional levels. Peers are vital to any CEO’s success, but unlike most advisers, they are facing the same challenges daily. Such connections carry an authenticity that can be a lasting, valuable resource.

Cultivate a communications style

You are the keeper of the vision, but you are also the one who must make that vision stick. As Joel Trammell points out in his book “The CEO Tightrope”, “There is this sudden realization that there is a need for constant storytelling in order to win over the minds and hearts of employees.” Not all CEOs are natural storytellers, but all great leaders need to learn how to be one. A trusted communications director or adviser, essential for this purpose, can help you establish a style for everything from internal presentations to interviews to emails. Employees watch and listen for leadership, and if the message doesn’t resonate, you’re not advancing your company’s vision. Lean into the messaging and embrace the opportunity to communicate. If you’re not great at it, make it your mission to be.

Delineate the personal and the professional

For many CEOs, defining the boundaries between work friends versus personal friends, professional versus private events, job time versus downtime can be burdensome. Potential for blurred lines is everywhere and unavoidable. You go to the gym and run into people from the office. You go to a dinner with clients, partners or investors.

It’s critical to make the distinction. Studies show that CEOs tend to last two to five years before being fired or pushed out. If that happens, and if you’ve been spending the greatest part of your social time with people associated with the business, the lonely factor is going to increase exponentially, for you and possibly your spouse, who’s probably accompanied you to a lot of business functions. It’s essential to build family time into your social schedule and establish a balance. Also, expand your horizons with achievable commitments that let you enrich and blow off steam. I’m not referring to business clubs, but opportunities for cultivating new relationships around activities you love or want to explore. In Austin, for example, Austin Rowing Club, Gilbert’s Gazelles, the Crux Climbing Center or the Wine and Food Foundation of Texas all have events and get-togethers that attract people of diverse backgrounds and interests.

As CEO, you are ultimately the head of every aspect of your company. The weight of that responsibility can bring out the best and worst in a person, so be good to yourself and take steps to cultivate the best you.

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