Lonely at the Top

During my years as the chief executive, I realized that the CEO or MD is like a hamburger beef. He or she is an important part of the entity, but is constantly squeezed from two directions. The bottom bun reflects the organization, that is, the executive’s subordinates, who put their own pressure on their boss. The top bun represents the board, which, in turn, expects repeated success. When you squeeze a hamburger a little bit harder, the ketchup will burst out. The executive’s job may not be bloody, but it sure can be lonely.

An American study showed that 72% of executives felt the loneliness in decision-making and execution impacted negatively on their work. The executive is all the time dealing with people and living in a social turmoil. Most of the interaction is nevertheless superficial and part of daily operations. When he or she confronts major decisions, or wants more spiritual discussions about self-development, the situation is different. You cannot be close friends with your subordinates and you cannot show them too much indecisiveness. They want a strong leader who knows what to do. Neither can you open up in front of the board, as it may lead the board members to question your competence. A report from the Confederation of the Finnish Industry shows that the boards of small and medium-sized enterprises often leave their managing director alone in decision-making.

From the curriculum of the school of hard knocks; leaders and executive should get themselves a mentor. There is always a need to ventilate thoughts and feelings. The mentor is an external person with whom you can discuss in full confidence. Leadership coaches are often supportive in a general sense, but not necessarily experts in your field of business. Consultants again give advice on issues on a projects basis, and hence serve as advisors on specific operational decisions. Leadership training courses and industrial networks will acquaint you with peers facing similar challenges. The outcome of these gatherings is rather a comfort of not being alone with your concerns, than a concrete and continuing help in decision-making.

My best advice is to find someone that has been an operative executive and who appreciates the hamburger analogy. As the person has been in the same pickle, he or she can better relate to your situation and better delve into your challenges and opportunities. Mentoring is about people chemistry and should not be just another assignment for the mentor. Hence, you may have to evaluate and test a few candidates before you find the right one for your purposes.

Actually, the boards should insist that their chief executives have a personal mentor, who´s costs are borne by the company. Executives are also humans that need support to feel that they contribute positively and to a maximum to the success of their company.