Having regularly engaged with C-suite individuals across a diverse range of sectors, a common theme raises its solitary head. The depth of conversations with candidates, be it for leadership assessment, coaching or an executive search exercise, has exposed some of the personal challenges faced by individuals at executive level.
A CEO, the highest-ranking executive within a business and the driving force behind an organisation, has the sole responsibility for decisions and shapes an entire business. The expectation can be to maintain a tough, calm, and almost robotic exterior. CEOs tend to be shielded from organisational problems and data; they can often be given limited and filtered information about their operations, employees and customers. The extent of such responsibility, often overwhelming and unprotected from psychological pressures, can bring on a very human response; that of executive isolation. Executive Isolation is not the same as chosen isolation, it is the level of dissatisfaction associated with that isolation.
The Harvard Business Review indicates that 50% of CEOs feel isolation, and 61% of these individuals believe it hinders their job performance. Evidence suggests being isolated at the top can indeed compromise decision-making and leadership effectiveness.
And it’s not just job performance, but overall health and well-being which can be impacted by feelings of isolation. Being connected to others socially is considered a fundamental human need - crucial to both well-being and survival. Studies show that isolation can cause physical, mental and cognitive health adversities including stress, anxiety and depression, poor sleep quality, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function, and impaired immunity.
How to address executive isolation
The good news is that executive isolation can be rectified without compromising leadership effectiveness.
1. Recognise and acknowledge feelings of isolation
Sometimes the feelings of isolation can be subconsciously blocked in the belief that it is an expected part of the role and doesn’t affect performance. Addressing it may also be regarded as a sign of weakness or inadequacy by the individual. However, recognising the feeling is the first step to making a difference. Sometimes, even normalising the issue can help. Knowing that you’re not alone in feeling alone can help in taking action.
0%of CEOs feel isolation
0%of CEOs feel isolation hinders their performance
Source: Harvard Business Review
2. Communicate any concerns
Once the issue of isolation has been recognised, the next challenge is what to do with it. There are a number of options:
- Join an external support group - Global set ups such as Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) and Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) are great for networking and support.
- Speak with an Executive Coach – A coach will listen, engage and help tailor a plan that works specifically for you, in a confidential setting.
- Engage your team – Presenting a vulnerability is a strength and offers a human element to your character and your team may feel more comfortable engaging with you. By helping employees understand the business challenges can often allow them to become part of the solution thus improving employee engagement and team morale.
Sitting in a corner office out of sight can become too comfortable and there can be a tendency to want to appear consistently calm and controlled by limiting relationships to strategic ones alone. The avoidance of interpersonal relationships can become normal behaviour causing the onset of isolation.
Balancing work and home life is key to self-care. Getting away from the office will give you a break from the natural stresses of a high-performance role and help to overcome the pressures of such a role.
5. Engage in leadership assessment
Self-awareness and awareness of others not only improves emotional intelligence, but it can also highlight areas of strength and development. Leadership assessment capabilities can identify the areas within a persons’ leadership style which may be more affected by feelings of loneliness and support the solutions that may encourage the development of a more balanced leader.
In summary, it is completely normal to have feelings of isolation at work and it’s worth pointing out that executive isolation is not exclusive to CEOs. It can apply to anyone in leadership including middle management. Remember, as has been said before, it can be lonely at the top – but it really needn’t be.
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