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.
Written by Katy White
Research Contributed by Dylan Wheatley
Any Ted Lasso fan will be familiar with one of the most motivational scenes: Ted’s “Be Curious” speech. In his monologue, Ted emphasizes the importance of curiosity with a triple bullseye to win a dart match against his underestimating opponent. Ted argues that his opponent’s lack of curiosity led him to misjudge Ted, ultimately leading to Ted’s victory. Indeed, research shows that curiosity is a strong marker of academic success and has many benefits for businesses, including reducing decision-making errors and group conflict and increasing innovation, creativity, and team performance. However, despite these benefits, curiosity isn’t always the go-to starting place for problem-solving. Between the human brain’s tendency for categorization and an ever-growing desire for efficiency, it can be challenging to resist a one-size-fits-all approach.
Our ever-diversifying and fast-paced world calls for problem-solving that strikes a balance between a tailored approach and a one-size-fits-all approach, allowing for a process that is both curious and efficient. One way to achieve such a balance is to invest time in developing a deep understanding of the problem at hand before diving into a solution. Two subtle but powerful techniques can infuse the discovery phase of problem-solving with curiosity.
1) Value Uniqueness
Despite the aforementioned tendency of the human brain to categorize everything we encounter, people and organizations are unique entities that create distinct contributions to the world. Therefore, as individuals and in organizations, our problems are also unique. When we value this diversity and become curious about it, we can develop a solution that harnesses this uniqueness as a powerful strength. Doing so does not necessitate a new solution for every situation. With curiosity, we can tailor an established process to the specific needs and challenges of those involved.
2) Seek Understanding
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey encourages readers to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” When problem-solving with others, we’re unlikely to mobilize people toward a solution without first ensuring that everyone feels seen, heard, understood, and valued. It is impossible to develop a deep understanding without curiosity. Curiosity is the first step toward engaging willing partners in our solutions.
Whether we hope to win more dart games, become better friends or partners, or develop creative and effective solutions to problems in our organizations, grounding ourselves in curiosity is a vital first step.
Every vehicle has a “crash test rating.” Since 1959 this score provides details on vehicle safety to help consumers make better vehicle purchases. But what goes into this score? To develop each rating, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety evaluates:
the “crashworthiness,” how well a vehicle protects drivers/occupants, and “crash avoidance and mitigation” how the car can prevent a crash or reduce its impact.
Essentially, the score dictates to what extent the car will “bounce back” after a crash. The manufacturers can choose what elements to include in building a vehicle that might improve its rating.
The “crash test rating” is what Pat Fahey thinks of when asked about resilience. Pat is the Senior Director Energy Resources at Springerville Generating Station, and I recently had the opportunity to connect with him about culture transformations. As an electrical engineer by trade, he’s led his team through significant culture transformations, where he himself had to change his habits to build his team’s resilience. I learned was how vital resilience is to help leaders in communication.
Recent research shows that “effective leader communication” remains an essential leadership skill. Yet, often leaders fail to communicate effectively and risk doing damage to their team or broader stakeholders. Why is this the case? Through my conversation with Pat, I learned how much work it takes to improve one’s communication style and why resilience helps strengthen communication skills. We also discussed how to change one’s communication style, why it’s important, and how to build resilience as a leader and a team.
Here are the lessons learned:
1) Effective leadership communication starts with self-awareness
For Pat, it was only after his company underwent a significant cultural transformation that he became self-aware of his communication style. He learned that while his employees were good at their work, they worked not because they wanted to but because they felt they had to. Knowing this sparked his revelation that he was not truly listening. In any conversation, Pat mentioned, he “jumped ahead to “recommendations” instead of taking the time to hear the other person.” Recognizing this habit sparked his journey of changing how he communicates, creating visible results for himself and the organization.
Everyone has different communication styles. “A leaders’ job is to understand their team and become flexible to individual communication style. Self-awareness first asks, “who do I want to be as a leader?” and then asking “does that person come across in how I communicate?”
2) Good listening requires resilience
It became evident to me early in our conversation that Pat is a patient leader who works to communicate well. So, I asked Pat if this comes naturally. “I am NOT a patient person,” he replied. “As an engineer by trade, I have high confidence in my ability to fix just about anything. So, to NOT solve the problem right away was challenging and required patience.” Over time, he developed strategies to help overcome these problem-solving tendencies, including:
1) Seek to learn the type of conversation you are having. Begin with asking: “Is this a problem-solving session or a listening session?”. Defining the expectations of a conversation is crucial to ensuring a positive outcome for both parties.
2) Remind yourself to go last. Pat mentioned that he regularly reminds himself “don’t talk, just wait” and waits till the end to say anything. Doing so helps him ensure all parties feel heard. He also recommends using a notepad during conversations to keep from speaking prematurely — he jots down “thought bubbles” to remind himself what to discuss at the end.
3) Check your “listening assumptions.” Pat warns against assuming you have “heard correctly.” He advocates for “three-part communication,” which involves: listening, repeating back what you’ve heard, and receiving confirmation from the other party. Other mechanisms he uses include probing questions, such as “Well, tell me more about that.”
3) Know when you’re not ok.
We are human: we have bad days, things go wrong, or people that frustrate us. I asked Pat how he remains resilient in his relationships on these bad days.
1) Have an outlet. “All leaders need a safe place to discuss frustrations. For me, it’s members of my leadership team and my wife. I go to these individuals when I am tired or annoyed and discuss how I feel in a healthy manner, instead of unleashing these on my team members.”
2) Have “hold-off moments.” “Simply communicating “Now is not a good time for me to have this conversation” does wonders,” says Pat. He warns against putting yourself in situations where your employees might experience negative outcomes and recommends delaying conversations as a powerful strategy.
3) Embrace vulnerability. For Pat, the most critical lesson in improving his communication was embracing vulnerability. He now shares with his team when he doesn’t know something, when something upsets him, or even when he makes mistakes. “Showing that I make mistakes doesn’t give the impression that mistakes are acceptable, but instead allows others to feel safe to share them so we can solve the problem as a team.”
4) How you communicate dictates the strength of your team.
Pat’s journey of being resilient in his communication was a long, difficult process that is still ongoing. I asked him, “why even bother?”. His answer: “I like to think of it like a basketball team. You have five players on the court — a point guard, a shooting guard, a small forward, a big forward, and a center — five unique individuals on the team — not one more important than the other. So, if it’s late in the game, and one player gives up, the whole team is done. That’s where resiliency comes in.” It’s imperative to ensure the team’s safety and be aware of when your team is struggling. Part of being a leader is picking up the employees when they aren’t resilient but doing so in a patient and encouraging manner.
“It’s easy to fall into the belief that because we are in formal leadership positions, we are automatically leaders. This isn’t the case. The truth is, learning how to lead takes work. As a leader, it is not my choice to lead my team. It’s their choice to be led by me.” — Pat Fahey
Effective communication is the first step to building this resiliency — and it takes work — but with time, you can develop your team to pass any crash test.
Overall, I learned from Pat to:
1) Become aware of your communication habits — both good and bad. Ask yourself — do these reflect who I want to be as a leader?
2) Be intentional, resilient, and relentless in improving how you communicate.
3) Don’t expect perfection — give yourself an outlet on bad days, and embrace vulnerability.
According to Pat, “no matter how good your product, manufacturing process, or operations are, it’s people that make things happen. That’s why it’s worth taking the time to develop and improve relationships with your people to help the entire organization work better, safer, and happier.”
Across the country and the world, we will differ in our pandemic experiences and our views of how to manage the pandemic. When asked about how these skills will be useful in the future, Pat emphasized the need for us to develop respect for differing views and learn how to resolve conflict in this emerging era. Being resilient in how we communicate dictates how we “bounce back” from this crisis. Taking the time to listen, be patient, and encourage vulnerability will help us emerge as a stronger nation.
Want more insights on culture transformations? Sign up to receive custom content delivered to your inbox quarterly, from Riverbank: http://eepurl.com/g_rewX
 15 Common Leadership Communication Problems (And How To Correct Them) (forbes.com)