3 Strategies to Consider for Combating ‘Executive Isolation’

3 Strategies to Consider for Combating ‘Executive Isolation’

With Valentine’s Day items finally cleared from the Target aisles, talking about isolation seemed prudent. For many, Valentines day is celebratory, romantic, and a reminder of the gifts of their relationship. For others, the barrage of social media posts, chocolate ads, etc creates a feeling of isolation. However, you never see posts or ads aimed at those feeling isolated. In a weird way, the same holds true for executives, on the outside there may be a celebratory attitude, but on the inside many are isolated. 


Often when referring to isolation within organizations, executives are ignored. Public perception can vilify or ignore CEOs, as Emilia Bunea points out. I am not trying to evoke pity for executives by writing this piece, rather to remind executives out there that they are not alone. Not only are they not alone, but there are steps to guide executives out of this feeling of isolation into leading healthier companies.  


CEOs are people too. They still experience work pressures and normal-life stressors. Thomas J. Saporito’s research published in HBR suggests half of CEOs have felt “lonely” in their roles; of those who report this feeling, 70% feel it inhibits their performance. Jamie Dimon the czar of J.P. Morgan Chase was quoted expressing this frustration, “When I got fired at Citigroup in 1998, the only people there to support me were my family and my high school and college friends.” Elon Musk almost broke down describing the toll leading Tesla has had on him.  I am sure we can all relate to this and recall a moment in our lives when things went awry, and it feeling there was no one there to talk to. 


This pressure has increased over the last few years. Executives are facing dueling narratives from their board and their public consumers. In 2011, Jeff Kindler then CEO of Pfizer resigned blamingthe “high and conflicting demands of various stakeholders.” New S&P guidelines for CEO compensation reporting ratios are fueling an already present rhetoric around inequities in companies. 


Stanford Graduate School of Business study gave sustenance to this idea with bleak results in their 2013 Executive Coaching Survey. The survey found there was a “shortage of advice at the top: Nearly 66% of CEOs do not receive coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants or coaches, while 100% of them stated that they are receptive to making changes based on feedback.” This suggests that many executives have a desire to be coached, but many do not for various reasons.  



Why is this? 

For starters, sometimes simply not getting the information contributes to this feeling. CEOs have intense schedules that require delegation. Day-to-day tasks may be handled by other team members. Thus, executives may feel disconnected by simply not knowing. The oblivion in this case scenario is unintentional; however, executives may also be isolated from employees forgoing sharing information in fear the information will not be received well. The third comes from within. CEOs reported holding emotions in, contributing to isolation, to project a strong image.  



So where to from here? 

The introduction alluded to the fact there are solutions to combating this isolation. Here are three strategies to consider. 


1. Culture of Vulnerability May Help Everyone 

At Riverbank, we start each meeting with check-ins. These are designed to be genuine barometers of how everyone’s day is going. Sometimes these are happy stories: a child’s milestone or fun story about someone’s dog. Other times, these are more vulnerable: a death in the family or current personal struggle. This helps everyone feel less isolated. Similarly, Howard Schultz, then Chairman of Starbucks, was facing a crisis in 2008. Schultz spoke to how opening up to employees reduced the pressure he felt in dealing with the crisis. His willingness to share his stressors with employees enabled the employees themselves to feel they could be apart of the solution. Offering employees ways to give honest feedback can bolster communication channels and decrease the feelings of isolation. Sometimes this can simply be within. Saporito suggests executives simply acknowledge their feelings of isolation instead of pushing them away.  


2. Seek Support  

Have you ever had something go wrong and phoned a friend, and then found yourself feeling better after talking? When we feel isolated, sometimes using friends and family as a sounding board can help. Seeking support from other executives in the same position, or from outside consultants and/or coaches can both alleviate feelings of isolation and provide helpful perspective 



3. Finding Community Beyond the Office  

Engaging in “serious leisure” was one of the main findings of Emilia Bunea’s research to negating feelings of executive isolation. Dedicating time to run, paint, play hockey for example reduces feelings of isolation by “offering [freedom]” and expanding personal support networks. For me personally, I find running to be a pseudo-panacea in times where I may feel isolated or stressed. 


Executive isolation is real, but unlikely to disappear during this tumultuous time. Understanding it’s the triggers and antidotes of isolation is in the best interests of all executives facing these issues.  This applies to many of us – not just executives. Hopefully, these steps can help to alleviate feelings of isolation when and if they occur.