Coping with being a CEO – it can be lonely at the top

Reaching the pinnacle of business success is one thing, but how do you cope and who do you rely on once you’re there?

19th June 2009 at 10:18 am

No one goes into business thinking “I want to be a middle manager – then I’ll have succeeded”, and the truth is that pretty much everyone within an organisation has thought at least once that they could probably do a better job of running their company than the Chief Exec.

But as George Bernard Shaw famously mused, “There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.” And at no time is this more true than when that final promotion happens and you find yourself sitting in the CEO’s office.

For usually confident, high-flying business people, it can be a significant shock to the system to realise that being the CEO hasn’t made them quite as happy as they thought it would during all those years of hard slog and shameless corporate ladder-climbing. So what has changed?

Often the job is fairly familiar even if the responsibility has grown. And their ability is still the same. The difference in most cases however is that ‘staff’ – even if you’re towards the top of the management tree – usually stick together, whereas the CEO? Well, mostly they’re on their own.

Almost every CEO describes their role as lonely in some ways, with the main reason being that they feel they cannot share all their fears with their colleagues or their board members.

They feel they are expected to know all the answers, show no fear and stay positive at all times, otherwise their authority will crumble and their business will do likewise. But as another great writer, John Donne, said: “No man is an island”, and this goes for the CEO as much as the rest of the organisation.

There are numerous reasons why the CEO might feel they have been backed into a rather lonely corner, but often it is because they haven’t hired colleagues of the right quality or don’t have the right board members in place.

Just as Obama and even J-Lo are surrounded by their own coterie of trusted advisers, supporters and ‘do-ers’, so a CEO needs to make sure that they have the back-up of their colleagues. Crucially, this does not mean you want an entourage of ‘yes-men’.

By involving your colleagues in the decision-making process, decisions are of better quality and are implemented with greater commitment and passion, and as the CEO you can be confident that you are being balanced as well as supported by your team.

Sharing your problems and concerns is not a weakness, and in the long run it will actually earn you trust and respect. Build up a culture of openness and lead by example by engaging with the business and consulting the team on matters of importance.

Concerned that sales have taken a nose-dive? Talk to people and find out what can be done about it. Sitting alone in your fancy office stewing about a client complaint? Share it with the team and ask for their help in resolving it.

It may be a cliché but a problem shared really is a problem halved, and the sooner you can make this part of the way you work, the sooner you’ll really start enjoying being the CEO.

Ashley Ward

Ashley Ward is a partner in Nexec Partners and programme head of the European Leadership Programme (ELP), a cutting edge training forum helping CEOs of venture capital and private equity backed businesses sharpen the range of skills required to meet shareholder expectation. As a serial CEO for 26 years Ashley led several businesses to sale or IPO including Wharfedale Loudspeakers, Anite Networks and Orchestream.

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  1. Inspiring post!
    I think that this is a bit less evident in startups. The small environment and the high “coupling” of the different business areas tend to let everyone share the most evident problems, but is still true if you think of all the responsabilities a CEO has and may not want to share with employees.
    You just gained a spot on this weekend’s reading list (and a new subscriber).

  2. Hi Stefano, thanks for reading and glad you enjoyed Ashley’s post.

    Startup life is somewhat different, but once you have a board and investors, I suspect the differences aren’t as large as one might expect.

  3. […] Coping with being a CEO – it can be lonely at the top […]

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