“Leadership is lonely,” this accomplished CEO said. Instantly, I knew exactly what she meant. I had felt it. Every leader feels it.
- You cannot say all you are thinking to your employees without upsetting or distracting them. You certainly cannot articulate doubts and fears.
- You cannot confide fully in your board. They hired you to implement a confident strategy for the future. If you are unsure, you will lose their confidence.
- You cannot discuss the toughest issues you are facing with those outside your company for sake of confidentiality.
- Even if you decide to speak frankly to a trusted friend under the “dome of silence,” you will get empathy, not precise insight due to the gap in business-specific knowledge.
There are no easy solutions but I can tell you with confidence and through experience you need to take proactive action. Otherwise, the insidious impact of leadership loneliness will kill you. No hyperbole; just an admonition from the trenches.
Through my years in executive leadership, I discovered three options that helped other leaders and me. You don’t have to do all three but all three serve a different and complimentary purpose.
Option 1: Find a small business, corporate, or executive coach.
Sounds simple, right. The problem is that these days, every third person I meet says he or she is a “business coach.” They took a course, read a book, or completed a certification process. Well, that’s dandy but none of those things guarantee they will be able to help you. Here’s what you need to ask:
- “Tell me about your specific business experience.” If they dodge that question with vague or illusive answers, run. It takes an experienced leader to coach leaders.
- “Tell me about ten of your clients and the specific problems you solved for them?” If they waffle, run. You cannot afford to waste your time and money on a coach with training wheels.
- “Tell me in one sentence why you can help me?” If they spit and spurt, ramble and regroup, bolt. Do you really think a person lacking clarity can help you gain clarity?
You need a small business, corporate, or executive coach who understands the special pressures leader face and has clearly designed methods to help leaders move forward. You can’t afford to waste time with someone whose primary skills is active listening, parroting back what you’ve said so you can “discover your own truth.” Please! That makes me want to scream. If “my truth” was working, I wouldn’t need a coach.
A great coach can help you make progress quickly, provide a context for what you are experiencing, help you establish a clear path forward and deliver enough value that you should feel better after the first meeting. The longer you stay with the right coach, the more progress you’ll make.
Option 2: Find a small business, corporate, or executive consultant.
Over the years, I used consultants when I faced a particular type of business problem for which I needed tested knowledge, expertise, or insight. I didn’t want the newly minted MBAs offered up by the large consulting firms. I wanted to look into eyes of someone exuding the confidence that comes from “been there, seen that, done that.”
If every third person you meet these days is a “coach,” every fifth one is a “consultant.” Before you begin working with a consultant, make sure the he or she not only understands a specific function of business but has deep understanding of the interconnectedness of business.
As a leader, you can get a function right (marketing, sales, finance, production, etc.) and still fail. Looking back, my greatest challenges were not the parts (the functions) but how to get the parts to integrate with the whole. It’s fine to consult with someone who has single-function expertise but the best help I ever received came from leaders who had been responsible for multiple functions.
A consultant with “general management” experience, who has managed multiple functional areas with P&L responsibility for a division, a company, or even a small business will bring immeasurably more value to you as a leader.
By the way, beware of the prospective consultant who regales you with stories of all his or her successive “hockey stick” success stories. I’m biased but I get queasy when I’m around leaders with a string of unbroken success. To me, they’re lying or lucky. I don’t want to work with either.
Give me someone who still bleeds a bit from a business failure, who can tell you how he or she watched the great dream implode but then got up and hit it again. Sure, it will be harder to find that kind of consultant but such people are out there. Do your homework and you’ll get what you need.
Option 3: Join a “business board” or some sort of ongoing “peer learning” group.
In every major city like Nashville, TN where I live, the business community is filled with these kinds of groups. I’m sure most do no harm. How much good they do remains less clear to me. Here’s what I recommend you look for.
- Big Enough but Small Enough — If you become part of a group of more than 12, you’re going to get lost. The interaction will be limited and you’ll be disappointed. If a prospective group has less than six, it will not function well. Keep looking.
- Diverse But Non-Competing Businesses — Most business leaders live in an industry desert. They know all about their industry but over time become infected with industry boredom. The fastest antidote is regular interaction with leaders in other industries. Just hearing other leaders talk about the problems they are facing is amazingly stimulating. Rather than whacking away at the same set of rocks you face every day, you get to hear about different rocks.
- A Combination of Small Business Leaders and Corporate Leaders — I know my perspective at this point is notably contrarian but I have seen incredible benefits accrue to corporate leaders by interacting with sharp, small business leaders. At the same time, small business leaders relish the insights of corporate leaders.
- Leaders of Different Ages and Levels of Experience — Yeah, I know I’m out of sync on this point as well. Most “peer groups” attempt to stack the groups with certain titles (CEOs, vice-presidents, owners, etc.) as well as setting revenue markers and other standard that tend to homogenize the makeup of the group. I get it; I recognize the value of this approach. On the other hand, I’ve seen the upside of matching the vibrant enthusiasm of younger leaders with the sage insights of veteran leaders. Call it my quirky bias but I love groups that have both types of leaders.
Don’t jump into the first group that pops up. Do your homework. Audit a session. Watch and see if the instruction and interaction of the group energizes you. If so, you may have found your group.
Loneliness In Leadership Is Real But Avoidable
Are you a lonely leader. If you’re honest with yourself, I suspect you are.
Has the pain of isolation reached the point where you are determined to do something about it?
If so, good.
There are good options out there. If you’re anywhere close to Brentwood, TN, The Riverstone Group offers all these of these key types of isolation-busting services — coaching, consulting, and small group business boards.
Members of our Riverstone Boards of Directors drive in from all around Nashville (Hendersonville, Franklin, Lebanon, Springhill, Ashland City, East Nashville, Columbia, etc.)
We consult for companies and organizations around Nashville and out of state and coach executives and small business owners in person or by phone and Skype.
But this is not a Riverstone commercial. Consider this an exhortation. Leadership loneliness is not a terminal condition. You can do something. Get help. Find a solution.
If my business partner, David Atchison or I can help, it would be our privilege. But if you don’t use us, use someone committed to your success.
Please leave a comment and let us know about great sources of help you have found and we will pass them along to others who ask.