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.
This article was originally published on Forbes Business Council, for business owners and leaders.
For better or worse, people are returning to the workplace. There are no right answers about how to manage this process. There are, however, a lot of strong and mixed feelings personally and organizationally. In this article, I will share a research-based approach to help leaders develop a solution.
Let me start by acknowledging that remote work has been hard on many people. Those without supplemental care for kids or parents in the house, home office space (however improvised it may be) and adequate internet connectivity have really struggled. Juggling everything to work through the pandemic has taken an extraordinary toll on some individuals and relationships. I believe we will only fully understand the impact with the benefit of hindsight in the years to come.
Of course, some workers never stopped going into work. For many of these people, the pandemic may have been even harder. For many essential workers, the months ahead are neither a return to work nor even a return to the workplace. Indeed, some are viewing this “return to work process” as a welcome (if gradual) reduction of the public health-related precautions that have been so challenging for them.
For many organizations, the decisions in spring 2020 were clear cut: Move all non-essential workers to remote work, and do it as quickly as possible. Mountains were moved to make it happen. Laptops were found, connectivity issues were addressed and schedules were realigned. I was inspired by the compassion that many leaders showed toward those juggling challenges in every area of their life at once. It didn’t happen overnight, but many were surprised by how quickly we figured out how to continue working and collaborating effectively remotely.
The organizational challenges of helping people now return to the workplace are very different from those we had in going remote. Some are returning fully. Others are staying fully remote. Many organizations are choosing to become hybrid workplaces, where people work some days in the office and other days at home. However, none of these options will happen successfully just by making the decision and willing it so.
The leadership, cultural and organizational challenges ahead are extraordinary. In many ways, the switch to remote working was an easier challenge to navigate than our imminent search for a new workplace normal. In my opinion, those who do not approach it with sustained skill and commitment will face a rocky road ahead.
This kind of challenge demands a deliberate approach to learning. My favorite such process is called “mindful engagement,” an area of research by Susan J. Ashford and D. Scott DeRue. In mindful engagement, we move repeatedly through a four-step cycle aimed at helping us learn more from experience and move toward continual improvement. Studies have suggested that those who take control of their own learning and development in this way learn more and achieve better outcomes over time. How then might leaders apply this process to the crucial return to workplace phase ahead?
1) Set learning goals.
The key word here is learning. What is it we aim to learn? In the case of returning to work, the learning goals may be personal or organizational. For example, you might ask these questions: What is the work-life structure or policy that works best for my well-being and productivity? What about my team’s well-being and productivity? What about the organization as a whole?
2) Run targeted experiments.
It is unlikely that leaders will land on an optimal new way of organizing the first time out. Most likely, it will emerge after a period of trial and error. Individuals, teams and organizations can move more swiftly through this experimentation period and toward the learning goals by being deliberate in the design of experiments. Ask yourself: What are we testing? How long shall we test it for? How will we evaluate these experiments against our learning goals?
3) Seek and reflect upon feedback.
Without a deliberate feedback mechanism, you will not be able to know with any reasonable degree of confidence or accuracy what your next steps should be. Without feedback, you are taking a scattershot approach toward your goals. Instead, ask yourself: Are there objective ways to measure success for the experiment? Whose subjective input is important to gather? How shall we review the feedback and make sense of it in order to decide what to keep and what to adjust?
4) Adjust and repeat.
Based on the feedback, make a course correction by creating a new time-bound and measurable experiment for yourself, your team or the organization. You can communicate the outcome of the previous experiment and then repeat this process for a period until you have learned your way to a new normal.
A word of caution though: It can be hard for individuals and groups to remain in limbo for extended periods of time. Offering a stated goal for when you will settle on the new normal after a period of experimentation will help people lean into the learning journey ahead of them.
Our collective relocation to the workplace following the dislocation of the pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to develop new ways of working that are better for people, teams and organizations. The solutions must be nuanced, not one-size-fits-all. We are solving for complex human, technical and organizational issues. Let’s learn our way into it.