The loneliness that often comes with being a CEO may seem like a small price to pay for the rewards, recognition, and power that come with the job. As the old joke goes, “It might be lonely at the top, but the view is terrific.”
But being isolated at the top can compromise your decision making and leadership effectiveness, both of which require having as much firsthand information about a situation as possible. Senior executives tend to be shielded from organizational problems and data; they are given limited and filtered information about their operations, employees, and customers. While time constraints make some of this filtering necessary, having a layer of handlers who make their own decisions about what the leader should or shouldn’t see exacerbates the isolation.
For example, when James Wolfensohn first became president of the World Bank, in 1995, he went on fact-finding trips to developing countries to understand the kinds of projects that the bank was doing. After several visits he realized that he was only being shown successful projects, smiling villagers, and grateful government officials. He told me that he eventually learned to stray from his tour guides so that he could meet people who hadn’t been prepped for his visit, to see what was really happening. This dramatically changed his assessment of how much of the bank’s aid was getting through the local government, to the people who really needed it.
As I’ve written previously, deference to authority is deeply engrained in most societies. So it’s natural for employees, even at the highest levels, to occasionally hold back opinions and feelings that they fear might contradict or irritate the boss. For example, one executive director of a nonprofit told me that when she was appointed to the position, after many years in the organization, long-time colleagues stopped inviting her to birthday celebrations and other social events. They felt uncomfortable socializing with her, and this isolated her from much of the day-to-day life of the organization. She was left with fewer relationships and more uncertainty about what was going on.
Subordinates will be even more fearful or sycophantic if the boss is insecure or capricious – and power may make leaders less likely to listen to others’ advice, as one study found. These CEOs become supported by a team of “yes-sayers,” people who don’t push back on bad decisions or offer different opinions. They create an echo chamber that amplifies their views rather than enriching them.
Several years ago, for example, I worked with a senior executive who was competing for the top job at his firm. To help make his case, he assembled a brain trust of people with different opinions to help him develop positions on the challenges facing the company. This impressed the board so much that they selected him as the next CEO – despite the fact that he had less experience than his rivals. However, as CEO he stopped meeting with his brain trust and removed the two executives who had been his competitors. He felt he no longer needed to listen to contrary opinions. He staffed his senior team with cheerleaders who supported his views, while those who disagreed or had bad news about what was happening in the company kept quiet. Two years later, the board dismissed the CEO because his plan for the company wasn’t working.
So what can you do to reduce executive isolation?
First, raise your antennae to the possibility that you’re experiencing it. Isolation is often hard to detect. Moving into a senior role is exhilarating and requires a huge expenditure of time and energy to get adjusted. While that’s happening, others may start effusively agreeing with your ideas or trying to anticipate your every need. You may notice people trying to “help you” by handling demands that they consider lower priority. After a while, these patterns start to become the new normal. So ask yourself if you are starting to feel isolated and disconnected. Are employees challenging your thinking, or just saying what you want to hear? Are you getting firsthand exposure to situations and seeing raw data, or is everything being filtered and prioritized to make it easier for you to get the big picture?
Second, get out of the bubble. All senior leaders are surrounded by physical or virtual trappings of office – the formal decor, the board dinners, the financial reports, the assistants that manage travel and scheduling, the intensive calendar that leaves little time for reflection. To break through the isolation, you need to periodically escape. The TV reality series Undercover Boss, in which the head of a business masquerades as a new employee, is one (extreme) example of how to learn what is really happening on the ground. But there are other, less dramatic techniques, too. For example, when Xerox was undergoing its turnaround under Anne Mulcahy, in the early 2000s, each member of the senior team took responsibility for a small portfolio of key customers. This forced them to go meet these customers and hear how they felt about the company. Fidelity used to require all senior people to spend time fielding calls on their customer service line, which gave them direct contact with customers.
Executives can institute skip-level meetings, where they talk with lower-level teams (without their bosses being present) about business conditions, customer reactions, and how to implement strategies. They also can conduct town halls, where employees ask questions and engage in conversations. Creating these listening posts gives executives unfiltered data to factor into their decision making.
Finally, tell your senior team to push back when they disagree and to challenge your thinking. Make sure that you have team members who have the courage to speak up and can be critics. This is easier for some people than for others, so you should actively recruit or promote at least two or three people who will serve as important counterpoints. You need to have the strength of ego to let them challenge you, both privately and during team meetings, and to really listen to their ideas. It won’t always be easy, and sometimes you may need a coach to help you with this process.
Executive isolation is an inevitable part of the senior leader’s job. Whether it compromises your ability to make decisions and to move the organization forward, however, is up to you.
Ron Ashkenas' post on Harvard Business Review. Join the discussion.