How can businesses combat CEO loneliness?

07 November 2019

It can be lonely at the top. Chief Executive Officers heading up the boardroom have a unique status that places them in a position often invisible to the wider team. For many CEOs, navigating the business as the most senior executive is complex – and can be isolating too. But what can be done to tackle the very real issue that is CEO loneliness?

A CEO can very much operate as an island, with many of today’s top business leaders beset by feelings of loneliness and exhaustion. With the very nature of the role of CEO meaning that these individuals can often be pulled in many different directions, and facing numerous conflicting demands at the same time, executive isolation can be a tough challenge.

It is incredibly important to ensure that CEOs also receive the support they need – after all, if a CEO is always looking out for the best interests of their organisation, who is looking out for them? 

Acknowledging the culture change for CEOs

CEOs yield a vast amount of decision-making responsibility and often place great pressure on themselves to perform. In order to operate effectively, they need to have space to think, to collaborate and to consider the best options for their business to grow and thrive.

However their sizeable – and, at times, overwhelming – workload can lead to CEOs demonstrating inaction – with worries and concerns then translating into the slowing of productivity. With just three in five newly appointed CEOs living up to performance expectations in their first 18 months on the job, it is no wonder that the CEO is often seen as a peerless role. If they are perceived as not being able to make an important business decision in a timely manner then this places the business at risk of missing deadlines, not meeting targets or leaving clients feeling underwhelmed.

CEOs are also far more visible in the digital age than ever before, with digital disruption reshaping leadership teams in corporations around the globe. Technological innovations are having a profound impact on the workforce, continuing to blur the lines between personal and private life, and making work/life balance harder to achieve. 48 per cent of CEOs said that finding time for themselves and for reflection was more difficult than their initial expectations – and given this, it’s imperative that ever-evolving technology is interwoven into wider business strategy and that senior leaders have ample time and opportunity to absorb, digest and respond to heavy workloads in their own way.

For businesses like ours, utilising the skills of employees and encouraging the wider team to be the best they can be is imperative to supporting the senior executive team. Only 46 per cent of CEOs use data analytics to provide insight into how effectively skills are deployed in their organisation – incorporation of this data can certainly help alleviate the pressure on the CEO and enable them more down time.

The business case for positive wellbeing

Much emphasis is being placed on protecting the mental health and wellbeing of employees – but this should not stop before it reaches the C-Suite. In order to support CEOs who are feeling isolated or lonely, ensure that your wellbeing systems are inclusive of the C-Suite, whether this involves a weekly wellbeing newsletter or a discreet comment box. More visibility of the CEO in team meetings and discussions isn’t always possible – but making positive steps towards this can certainly help to diminish the time spent alone for a CEO.

Feelings of loneliness are often systemic, and CEOs may not be the only executives facing this pressure. Ultimate Finance recently revealed the results of research indicating that almost three-quarters of business owners admit to experiencing feelings of loneliness whilst operating their business. More staggeringly, a third of these emphasised that this is an on-going and regular feeling.

The issue of CEO loneliness is especially important when businesses are experiencing growth and facing pressures to meet targets. Importantly, for large and scaling organisations, there needs to be the recognition that vulnerability isn’t a weakness. The coupling of power and vulnerability can be an effective combination for a growing business as employees and stakeholders are aware that the business is under careful watch. Showing your emotions as a CEO is not – and should not – be perceived in a negative light.

For businesses, simple steps to integrate the CEO into day-to-day operations can be introduced. Across companies, initiatives such as mentoring programmes, which encourage senior members of the team to engage with junior staff to share knowledge and experiences, are a great way to ensure communication flows through the business. CEOs can often see great benefit from seeking a mentor, acting as a source of advice, guidance and direction when they may feel left with no one to turn to. Reverse-mentoring is also becoming a more common method for senior leadership to connect, gain support and learn from others. CEOs should not hesitate or delay in finding peer support, as fixing the solution on your own may not always be the best solution.

Corporations need to step up and recognise that the head of the organisation requires the same level of understanding as the wider team. Open-door policies and interacting with members of the C-Suite is becoming increasingly common – lending to a more inclusive environment for all. Only when businesses take issues like CEO loneliness seriously will progress be made.