Happy at the top

Understanding the loneliness of the C-suite is the first step to a cure, says Richard Jolly.


When you were a junior it was simple. You were a great engineer, a brilliant marketer or finance person. Success came through hard work and you rapidly climbed the career ladder. Your human capital (knowledge and expertise) is what got you promoted. Now? The skills that got you to the top are not the only skills you need to be successful. The top five jobs graduates are taking now didn’t exist eight years ago. In fact, the skills that you knew and loved are increasingly redundant.

Maybe you made the classic mistake of thinking you already had all the knowledge and expertise to succeed in the top role, and now you’re wondering how it all got so difficult. Fact is, the more senior your role, the less it’s about what you know and the more it’s about how to get things done through other people. This is your social capital. Do you have the capabilities to handle new types of work? Are you able to manage people where you don’t understand what the hell they’re doing? Are you able to accept that increasingly change comes from within the organisation (sometimes, even from the bottom), not the top?

Perhaps you’re the head of a big law firm, well aware that professional services are going through a major transformation: yet you’re just four years away from retirement and if you keep doing what you’re doing all the senior people will not just be grateful, they will resist any change whatsoever, however rational your strategy might be. 

Or you’re in advertising where it’s all about creative solutions based on big data analysis these days and not you ”winging it” in meetings like you’re in Mad Men, saying, “Your brand is all about excitement…” You know full well that the millennials entering your organisation are much better educated and more qualified that you were at their age. In fact, with your current skill set, you’d never get a job if you were starting out in your sector today. That’s lonely. 

How should I know? 

Then there’s the fact that because you’re the CEO people come to you for guidance. What do you say when you don’t have the answers? Say someone asks you: “How should we respond to Brexit?” All you really want to do is shrug your shoulders and say, “It’s complicated and we don’t really know.” Any business that says, “We know how Brexit is going to affect the economy and our organisation” is delusional – we’ve never had this situation before and the consequences are unpredictable. But you’re still expected to provide an answer. Publicly, you might need to say something that shows confidence. But in yourself, if you’re an intelligent leader, you have to stay with the complexity, the not knowing. That’s uncomfortable. As F Scott Fitzgerald put it, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” 

You’re not even sure what success means as a CEO. You have to figure out what your role is. The higher you are promoted, the more ambiguous your job becomes. This isn’t the 1930s where the ‘great man’ (and it was a man) at the top of the company was seen as a genius who could conceive and design a whole process and strategy and then be in ultimate control of it. The role of a CEO is evolving rapidly.

The pervasive idea of ‘cascading information’ is completely wrong for business today. The CEO does not have ultimate insight and a vessel of wisdom that they simply pour down the mountainside (there may even be a few drops of wisdom for the “little people” at the bottom). So your job is no longer to tell your people what to do then administer the systems and processes to check they’re working (even if we dotill label a business degree as “business administration”).

Can you create an environment where every single person in your company knows why they’re working for you, where we’re going and how they can bring things they’re good at to help you achieve your ambitions? That’s what the best businesses today are doing and I believe, it’s what is going to increasingly drive their success in the future. 

The best ideas often happen furthest away from the CEO’s office, because that’s where people are more comfortable to take risks and experiment, away from the inevitable politics of the boardroom. It’s the people entering the organisation who will lead the change. This can be unsettling, when you have worked hard to climb the ladder to the top, where (you imagined) your knowledge and expertise (human capital) will be respected and valued. 

Along with all of this you’re the CEO but the world is changing around you and you are not a “digital native”. Say you work in financial services. You don’t know how fintech is going to change exactly how your company operates. You just know that it will and that you need to react to the changing market landscape. In the past, we could pretend to be the all-knowing, all-powerful wizard ruling Oz, but the curtain is getting pulled back today more brutally than ever before.

One day you too can have all this… oh. 

You can’t turn to your parents for support because they don’t understand you. Their generation think you’re a workaholic. “We’re having a family dinner… put your phone away!” or, “It’s the weekend, why are you on the phone so much?” We used to have clear boundaries between work, commuting and life. Few senior executives today have a “life”. Benjamin Franklin’s quotation seems more relevant today than ever: “Some people die at 25 and aren't buried until 75.” The first thing you do when you wake up is check your phone, the last thing you do at night is check your phone, and you’re connected every second in between. You used to have something called “vacation” or “holiday”. Very few top executives don’t check their phones every day when they are away.

The younger generation don’t understand you either. The millennials you hire don’t aspire to be like you. They don’t want your life. They see that you’re disconnected from your partner and your kids, you never see your friends, you look terrible because you never have any time to exercise, you probably drink too much, are chronically sleep-deprived and they say, “I don’t want to end up like you.” 

They change jobs every two years so you can’t retain people through inertia any more. They won’t put up with an abusive boss the way previous generations often did. You’ve got to create a place they want to be – where they feel they’re growing and developing. You can’t just say, “One day you’ll be where I am, earning as much as I do, with a big house and a nice car.” The people who work for you refuse to accept what you accepted to get to the top of the ladder. They won’t make the sacrifices. That’s great for them, but not for you.

So as a CEO you have pressure from above and below. It’s hard to keep any sense of self, the pressure to be composed in public is draining and it’s lonely because you can’t talk to anyone about all of this stuff. You can’t admit if you’re struggling, that all this technology and uncertainty is making you feel out of control. Yet stress, more than any other factor, is related to how in control you feel of the work you do.

On top of all this, you always imagined you’d be happy the other side of success but some CEO's are actually less happy now than at any point in their career. The private jet and the villa in Tuscany aren’t compensating for the lack of real relationships in your life. When something finally goes wrong – your partner says she wants a divorce, or you don’t get the promotion you wanted – it punches you in the face. Next minute, you’re in full-blown existential crisis. Rates of executive burnout have never been higher at the top of organisations.

How to survive, even thrive

Can you avoid total burnout? Yes, if you follow these tips: 

  • Protect time to think. No-one’s going to give you that time. Go for a long cycle ride, block out time for fake clients or sit in a café without your phone for half a day. Even more powerfully, practice mindfulness.>
  • Ask yourself what three things do you need to achieve to be successful in your role? How much of your time are you spending on those? It’s too easy to let your time and energy be absorbed by other people’s demands and agendas.
  • Look beyond the professional. Create boundaries around the things you really care about. Make time for your family, friends and fitness. Don’t put off these investments
  • Eat well and get enough sleep. Most senior executives are constantly exhausted, which affects your ability as much as if you were drunk. Just because you can spend all night making global conference calls and doing your email doesn’t mean you should. 
  • Don’t expect your partner to be waiting at home at the end of the day. Your partner has their own life to worry about. So what if you’ve had a bad day? It’s not just about you any more. As the saying goes, “Someone else can look after your children – you don’t want someone else looking after your partner.”
  • Your energy is finite. Focus on the things you can change and don’t waste effort on things you’d do better to just accept. 
  • Ask yourself honestly: are you in the right job? Just because you are successful, it doesn’t mean you have found the right job for you to lead a really fulfilling life.  Ask yourself what would you be doing if money didn’t come into the equation? Lead your “second life” now.
  • Call in a professional. An experienced coach will help you create a space to think things through. They will reassure you that your feelings are normal. And they will challenge you when no-one else is telling you what you need to hear because you’re the CEO.

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