C Level Loneliness!

Having worked in multiple countries and having recruited senior and often expatriate resources over a number of years across these geographies, I am always struck at the human dynamic of integrating people. Just try walk into any large shopping centre over the weekend which is full of people and attempt to meet someone and you will be discarded as a weird person. It's easy to be lonely in a crowded environment.

Another crowded environment is the social media and again this has done little if not exacerbate the challenge of direct human dynamic. After all, there are no more secrets, including boardroom secrets, while there is a phone in the room.

However, walk into a smaller, more culturally cohesive environment like a gym or a yacht club and that task becomes much easier. Or does it?

I have been in leadership roles for many years and the one phenomenon that is always present and upon which I largely base my professional relationships is acknowledging the C Level loneliness.

Everyone knows that a team is stronger than any individual person and that a well-coordinated and complementary team is a winning team. Yet we continue to face high levels of loneliness in the C level suite, coupled with a healthy dose of "C.Y.A." behaviours.

Dynamics of the boardroom

A common project for consultants is to assist in aligning the C Suite to a common goal or set of strategies. This normally happens at the request of a strong CEO that is truly open to the idea that there may not be complete alignment among the leadership team and who is confident enough in their role not to be threatened by such a process. The process I speak of is simply to get one-on-one confidential time between the consultant and each member of the leadership team to get their views and inputs towards the intended topic. This process unlocks both the points of commonality and disagreement. This enables the fast forwarding of decisions where consensus already exists and creates a real focus where there is work to be done to align the team.

I provide this input to illustrate the point that an independent is required to unlock the full honesty and value of the leadership team.

In searching for an understanding to this dynamic, I always remember the words someone wise told me, "It's tough at the bottom but it's rough at the top". Hence the rest of this note is focused on trying to mitigate this loneliness and hopefully also address whether this is a dynamic the CEO should accept as reality or a culture to be strategically countered.

Options to explore

If we accept that it is narrow at the top and hence competitive, challenging and even frightening to the C Level which drives the dynamic mentioned above, then our options must lie in effecting strategies that counterbalance these human behaviours and unlock maximum value from the Leadership teams.

The following are my lessons learned which hopefully frame some options.

Earlier I mentioned that it is easier to integrate into smaller, more culturally cohesive environments and while the latter is more challenging (and largely required in our environment) the former is easy to apply and has a significant impact. Simply put, more than around seven people in a room is impossible to align and more importantly to have greenfield discussions. The absence of open brainstorming discussions excludes true inclusion. However, the opposite is also true, undertake such open discussions in a larger forum unsuccessfully and it can lead to divisions in the team and potentially destabilise the CEO.

Linked to the above lies the opportunity for collective goal setting. A vision/goal and related strategies that are truly owned by the broader team is extremely uniting. Psychologists tell us that without goals human beings would die. While that seems extreme, it certainly motivates us to take this seriously. It is often that we find a CEO that will have the vision, but the team may be trailing and herein lies a massive opportunity to really uplift and get the most of the leadership team.

To truly integrate a C suite the individuals making up this C Suite require a strong trust equation with the remainder of the team and particularly with the CEO. This is where the independent plays a significant role. It creates trust platforms for every individual to have confidence that their opinion is included and their voice valued. Of course, there are other ways of building trust. However, it is the acceleration of the trust equation that is challenging and if I have a certainty of a particular human behaviour, it is that most people like the sound of their voice, hence providing people with platforms to speak and share their opinions and making that process feel truly valued, is a great accelerator.

With a common goal and related strategies, the next challenge lies in the execution and in the understanding of how that can also unite a team. That secret sauce lies in a commonly used verb, but which is often poorly executed - empowerment. That's because empowerment can only happen with true trust and true trust means that the CEO can rely more on the person returning back to them with challenges being faced in the execution of the delegated objectives than in the person’s ability to actually execute. Given people's natural insecurities at this level to admit to difficulties in execution, this will not happen without all the previous ingredients mentioned in place.

Lastly there is the power of the "Friday afternoon drink" or in my case, the Friday morning golf. I write this in inverted commas only because what I refer to is the creation of a regular opportunity to let steam out and bond the team as individuals and not as the C Suite. This, nowadays, may be a bit difficult, thanks to Covid19.

But the truth remains, for example, the most difficult professional moments of my career were overcome with the fortune of having the ability to meet once a week in a relaxed environment with my leadership team and have a drink and laugh through the challenges faced during that week. By this I am not denigrating in any way the importance of the problems faced, but rather remembering as a team that the sky has not yet fallen on our heads.

Still lonely?

At the very least at this point if you are feeling the C level loneliness, then you know that you have a lot of company. However, being in the C Suite means you have accepted a significant responsibility and as such need to do everything in your power to succeed and that means ensuring the C Suite operates as effectively as possible.

I therefore encourage you to be less lonely and not only improve your day-to-day, but also to further build your individual and collective success story. Good luck.

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