Lonely At The Top?

As I’ve made step changes in my career to positions with greater responsibility, and ultimately to a senior executive role, I have often gotten the question from up-and-coming leaders:  Is being a leader at the top lonely? Perhaps that thought has been fueled by their own observations of how many executives become less connected to the masses, and in some cases even isolated, as they shift from being in the weeds of tactics that drive the day-to-day business, to spending more time on vision and strategy that will sustain and grow the business long term.

I will have to admit, that as an executive leader, you do have to distance yourself from many conversations so that you have time to focus on the big picture. When that happens, the time you spend with the masses of the organization will shrink. You will spend more time with your executive peers on strategy and critical investment decisions that will impact the company for years to come.

In an executive role, it can be easy for some to fall into the trap of making more decisions in a vacuum because there is such pressure that comes with the high stakes decisions that have to be made. That can lead to making more decisions independently, which is dangerous for an organization. The more effective way of thinking about the role is to understand that you are the conductor, the coach, the facilitator and yes, ultimately the decision maker with the ultimate accountability. It is your job to have constant interaction with those who know more than you do about any given subject,  bring those people together to problem solve and to create understanding and buy-in for the plan moving forward. There is nothing about this process that is lonely. It is only lonely if you don’t do these things, make decisions in a vacuum and then simply tell others what to do. Eventually people will freeze you out by avoiding you, keeping secrets and creating their own agendas without including you until it’s too late to shift course. Often, those agendas will be in conflict with vision and strategy because you were largely excluded. Now that’s a lonely place to be.

That said, this role does not have to be, and should not be lonely. Here are 3 actions you can take to eliminate loneliness at the top:

  1. If you are a great leader, you are staying grounded and informed by getting out of your office and talking to lots of people in the organization so that you have your finger on the pulse of the business. Are people enthusiastic about the direction of the business? What are they worried about? What ideas do they have for improving the business?

  2. You should be spending a lot of time with your peers to learn from them and to solicit opinions about the initiatives you are driving. You must involve them, not work around them. Yes, that is challenging because you want to move fast, but you will not get the best outcome working alone.

  3. You should be spending an equal amount of time in what I call “skip level” discussions with those who report to your direct reports and others who report to your peers. You must eliminate filtering. These are the people who are likely to be most knowledgeable about what levers can be pulled and how quickly in order to positively impact the business.  They are not too in-the-weeds, but are just deep enough to see potential solutions.

The bottom line is that as an executive, you should be interacting with a broader group of people than ever – asking questions, listening and learning. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.