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Gini Dietrich

It’s Lonely At the Top

By: Gini Dietrich | March 6, 2012 | 
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A few weeks ago, the Harvard Business Review ran an article titled, “It’s Time to Acknowledge CEO Loneliness.”

It’s an interesting article that discusses extravagant compensation packages, fancy jets and hotels, mansions for homes, and car services. All while feeling very lonely because, as a leader of an organization, you seemingly have no one on your side.

I recommend you read it.

But the most interesting part of the article is in the comments.

You see, people don’t feel sorry for CEOs. The perception is they have all this money so why should it matter they’re lonely?

In fact, one commenter said, “My heart bleeds for the lonely, misunderstood CEO.  I’m sure someone making three hundred times my salary is in need of some tender loving care and understanding.  So let me tell these guys where to find sympathy:  In Webster’s, somewhere between s*** and syphilis.”

But I’m here to tell you, not all CEOs are wealthy, fly in private jets, sip champagne at 30,000 feet, stay in five star hotels, live in mansions, and only care about what’s in it for them.

There is a large group of CEOs who built companies from nothing. Who bootstrapped their business growth. Who didn’t get paid a dime (no stock options, no salaries, no draws, no bonuses, no retirement savings, nothing) in down years. Who have, more than once, laid in bed awake at night, wondering how they were going to make payroll. Who had to come to a decision that the time may very well be here to let everyone go and shutter the doors. Who also then picked up the pieces and put it all back together because quitting wasn’t an option.

Those people are lonely. I know because I am one.

They don’t say it’s lonely at the top for no reason. It is lonely at the top. Perhaps for the very reason the one commenter made – the perception is we’ve all made it.

There are plenty of things we can do to change that perception, at least internally with our own teams. Things such as rewarding equally, participating in meetings, showing our faces, and coaching and mentoring. But there isn’t anything we can do if someone thinks we make three hundred times their salary…even if we don’t.

There are four things we can do make it less lonely, provide some support, and hold us accountable, not just for business growth, but for taking care of our teams.

  1. Get a coach. Every professional athlete has a coach. Not all, but a good percentage of today’s CEOs are self-made. That means we didn’t “grow up” climbing the corporate ladder and gaining CEO skills along the way. There is no shame in having someone hold you accountable to the work you say you’re going to do.
  2. Join a peer advisory group. I belong to Vistage, but there are other organizations, such as Entrepreneurs’ Organization, Young Presidents’ Organization, and Women Business Owners. Peer advisory groups give you the opportunity to work through issues and challenges with people who have either done it or are doing it.
  3. Walk around. It’s simple and it doesn’t cost you anything, but many leaders never leave their offices. Walk the manufacturing floor. Talk to the interns in the cubicles. Hang out at the front desk. Run the cash register. Get out once a day and talk to your team. This will lessen the perception that it’s you against them. And, you never know, you may end up becoming less lonely as you share your days with your team.
  4. Form a board of advisors. While you may not be a public company that has to report to a board and shareholders, creating an advisory board of people whose expertise make up areas where you are weak helps you stave off the loneliness. Typically these people gain some sort of equity in your business and meet with you once a quarter. You treat them just as you would a corporate board and rely on their expertise to help you through issues and challenges.

There certainly isn’t much we can do for those who think we’ve made it, but we can help ourselves in battling that feeling we’re all alone.

What additional ideas do you have for tempering the loneliness?

Special thanks to Cartoon Stock for the very funny image. Also, a portion of this first appeared in my Friday column over at Crain’s Chicago Business.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

139 comments
ltickles
ltickles

This is a great article and was very much needed for me today. I host a forum on Thursday's for people to interact with me about my new website and I get several people to look at it but only a few have contributed (no one last week). Those that are not part of my new company think all is well and skies the limit for me but the truth is the site and concept is an awesome idea that everyone agrees on but no one wants to contribution to help get it off the ground. Which makes me hear crickets a lot. LOL. Thanks again for posting this and I will use several of the ideas that were mentioned here.

KensViews
KensViews

I can't find the proper comment stream, but you made two particularly smart points in response to @belllindsay  1) Transparency will take you far; and 2) You cannot lead when you're angry at your followers.  So take a deep breath, go for a bike ride (even though you are only an "mediocre" biker LOL)  or even wait a few days, as you did, before discussing sensitive issues with the team.  This gives you, as leader time to consider 1) Why am I angry at them?;  2) Why are they not understanding this unfortunate, but necessary business decision and 3) How can I explain the perspective from up here in a way that they'll understand and to which they'll relate

Marcus_Sheridan
Marcus_Sheridan

I know I'm late to this G' but I loved the personal, reflective feel of this post, and certainly felt like you were reliving my past when you talked about the dark side of being a CEO. It's real perspectives like this one that so many people lose sight of.

 

Thanks for being awesome,

 

Marcus

AdamLehman
AdamLehman

@OHGrowthSummit @SpinSucks solid article. Good share.

belllindsay
belllindsay

@KBHouston Thanks for the RT Kristy! :)

belllindsay
belllindsay

I'm a day late and a dollar short but what a brilliant post @ginidietrich . And some inspired convo in the comments section. I think when you're a younger employee, you *assume* that all the CEOs are rich, heartless bastards. But when you get a bit - ahem - older you realize that isn't the norm. Huge props to you and the @HowieSPM 's of the world who are keeping it real. :)  Thanks for sharing this. 

HLeichsenring
HLeichsenring

Great article Gini. You are absolutely right.

 

That is one of the reason, you need good friends, whom you could talk too, when times get rough.

 

Kind regards from Germany

 

Hansjörg

vernafranklin1
vernafranklin1

@John_Trader1 Is your job beating you down? Let me help you start a home business. You can do it I promise! thecashjournalsite .com

Nic_Cartwright
Nic_Cartwright

Enjoyed reading this Gini - good reminder - and something that many of us probably don't think about.  I am no longer a CEO (downgrade - boo!!) - but been there with small and small (ish) companies - so it reads true as you write....  The practices you propose also can apply to many at any stage in business (good skills to learn as you make your way to CEO!!) - so I needed the reminder to get myself organized out here in the heat...

 

When I was a CEO (before I was cut off in my prime / before I was "found out" ) - my approach was to remember that we are all human and a title is just that.  I try to treat everyone as I would want to be treated.  Yes, you have a job to do for sure - and treat that responsibly as well - but my approach has always been one of people first... (unless one is at a Dog Show - then people first would be a bit odd!).

 

Will be interesting to see how I approach dealing with this reminder now in my new culture.

 

PS - we won a big game and the Sultan gave a rather large bonus to the team (maybe if I had been CEO - I would been in my 5 star jet, sipping my non-alcoholic champagne on route to the 7* Dubai hotel! - onward and upward).

geoffliving
geoffliving

I don't miss running/ruining companies.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

Oh @ginidietrich @ginidietrich @ginidietrich we have a PR problem here and I am so happy you bring it up. Yes you and I and many other CEO's who struggle and while our title is nice we aren't raking in 8 figures a year. It is our fault we let the press and politicians showcase the big time arses who screw employees, shareholders, governments, communities etc and thus deserve the lonely life proving money can't buy happiness.

 

We have no one showcasing us. The fact that we hope one day maybe we can become a big business but making a difference where we work and what we do is important. If we can hire 4 or 30 employees and make it a lucrative situation for all. Where we care about community and while we can't pay for our name to be on a new library the ones who can often never enter that community and we work there, live there, shop there.

 

Yes we have a PR problem. We are the 99% CEO's and we are not going to take it any more!

 

And as always your advice is on the money!

KensViews
KensViews

I think one of the best ways that CEOs can fight loneliness AND grow their business is, as many here have suggested, get out of their corner office, walk the floor, forge personal relationships with the staff, ask good questions, really listen to the answers, and be brave in making decisions. That's my perception of what Tom Coyne of Coyne PR did when the agency was five people, 30, 75, and now over 100. My sense is that even as they've grown, all staff members feel a special connection to him. I recently visited their cool new digs, and even though they have a putting green, multiple conference rooms that open on to one another via "garage doors," pool table, manicure space and "tranquility room," Tom has a relatively small, quite modest office. He doesn't need a large space, because he's either with clients, in brainstorms, in other staffers' offices or walking the hallways. Tom's many things, but I'm guessing he's never lonely!

WorkMommyWork
WorkMommyWork

@spinsucks Amen sister! @ginidietrich I'm lonely at the top of a 3 person marketing agency based out of the basement of my house! Yikes!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@Steveology I love you because you're beautiful

Leon
Leon

G'Day Gini,

Of course it's lonely at the top. Sadly, some CEOs are the architects of their own loneliness. I sometimes wonder whether CEOs get just a bit scared when they see just how far they might fall and how smooth and slippery the slide is.

 

So...if  that husband of yours gets too busy raising money for politicians, let me know and I'll send some supercharged hugs through the blogosphere  to assuage your loneliness.

 

All part of the service.....!

 

Best Wishes

Leon

NancyD68
NancyD68

The problem is that many CEO's even of smaller offices CHOOSE to separate themselves from staff. When I worked in a mid-sized law firm in Manhattan, if you were not an attorney, the CEO never, ever spoke to you. You did not exist unless he needed something. That is where workers develop that lack of empathy.

 

To make things worse, I also worked for someone who would not do certain tasks even though the office was very small. When  you have a really small team, it makes a huge difference if the big boss is willing to do mundane tasks every once in a while. The biggest problem with that boss was that "us vs. them" mentality that he seemed to have. He was lonely. He was really quite miserable, but he did it to himself by being in his office all day, and not taking care of small problems. He would let them turn into huge issues and morale suffered.

 

Where I am now is much more relaxed. There needs to be ways for workers (and CEO's) to blow off steam from time to time. The problem is we make everyone dread going to work instead of loving it. That mentality is what really needs to change. 

belllindsay
belllindsay

 @KensViews I wouldn't have actually fired them then and there. But I sure would have felt like it! ;) 

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @HowieSPM Well, speak for yourself. I'm making nine figures.

 

I remember about several months ago when Obama put Jeff Immelt as jobs czar. I shook my head. As much as I respect Immelt, he doesn't represent most of American business leaders. 

 

But just like anything else, it's not exciting to talk about the small and mid-sized businesses that don't make anything interesting and are doing right by their employees.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @KensViews I would guess even Tom is lonely occasionally. Even if you have the best leadership team and the best staff, there are things you just can't talk to them about. And, unless you have partners shouldering as much risk as you do, it's rare anyone else understands. 

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@WorkMommyWork It's hard when you don't have peers you can talk to

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @NancyD68 It certainly depends on the attitude of the CEO ( @KenMueller said the same about a former employer). But, on the whole, I think most of us are just trying to hold it all together while being human, as well. The past three years were certainly very lonely for me and I'm not hiding or making myself inaccessible. 

KensViews
KensViews

 @ginidietrich Was this in response to one of my comments, or just an overall observation?  Probably vitamin C deprived.  That's what happens when you're sick and your "friends" can't be bothered to send you a fruit basket.  :(

Nic_Cartwright
Nic_Cartwright

 @ginidietrich all good basically....  slow (internet finally 95% fixed)...  but good....  the heat is about a month away - which will be next challenge....  huge growth in the region.....  first arabic lesson y'day....!!

KensViews
KensViews

You're dissing my word choice when you know I'm running a fever?   @ginidietrich :)   Ok, change "never" to "infrequently."  To your point, he does have a president and other officers, many of whom he's worked with for some time. Some were probably part of his initial team when he launched the business, or joined soon after. I believe that they understand one another's shorthand, and have a good grasp on one another's strengths and weaknesses. Now where's my fruit basket?!

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

 @ginidietrich @Leon he also raises money for good causes like National Sheep Herding Appreciation Day and the Men who miss their cats org.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

 @ginidietrich @KenMueller @NancyD68 the problem is as CEO can you handle getting to know people you might fire? That is the challenge.

 

I bet you most cases where you fire someone you became friendly with, the friendship ends.

KensViews
KensViews

 @ginidietrich The nearest one is University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro. Not the one on "House." The real one! BTW, I like pineapple and strawberries.

KensViews
KensViews

 @ginidietrich I can't go to the hospital. I don't want to risk not being here when your fruit basket arrives! 

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

 @HowieSPM   @NancyD68 About five years ago, I went through a big personal crisis when I discovered my team was having drinks and I was never invited. It really hurt my feelings. But then I realized I couldn't be friends with most at that level. It's too hard to separate business and personal when you get that close to the people who work with you. And I'm far too lenient when it comes to giving people every opportunity to succeed. 

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