It is lonely at the top – but it does not have to be


Last week (4th November 2016), South Korean President Park Geun-hye issued a contrite apology for allowing her close friend, Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a Christian cult leader, and someone who does not hold office, to influence her decisions in policy matters, edit speeches, and even demand donations from companies to two foundations which Choi is alleged to have misappropriated. One of the key reasons for this is Park’s “loneliness” at the helm of the country.

Read: Tearful South Korean president bows before issuing grovelling apology

The phenomenon of being “lonely at the top” is well known and quite prevalent. One would expect that the president of a nation would have more than enough people around her to feel a vibrancy to keep loneliness at bay, but this case says otherwise. This is also typical of senior executives of organisations. Just look at the statistics gathered by Harvard Business Review in 2012:

Some of the prevailing reasons for this phenomenon are:

(1) They may be far removed from the “action”

Many senior executives are far away from the action, even if their decisions impact the ground. This distance distorts the messages that filter upwards, and sometimes, key information is withheld by middle managers who want to manage everything. This makes the top information-starved which can create the feeling of isolation.

(2) People may not understand the breadth and depth of the situation

Some issues are rather complex, and those around may not be able to fathom the breadth and depth of the situation. This makes it difficult for the leader to share much more than a sliver of information, which is as good as not sharing at all. This lack of an outlet causes greater stress, or in the case of Park, to seek refuge with someone outside the organisation. That unfortunately has many negative consequences, as we can see.

(3) Some matters cannot be shared with others

The higher up you go, the more privileged information you handle. Such information cannot be shared with anyone, and this makes it difficult get a different perspective, and perhaps to break a difficult cognitive deadlock. Similar to point number 2, where bottling up can lead to greater stress – and the concomitant impact on your health – and sharing it with someone outside your organisation is a definite breach of trust, the senior executive may be trapped in a corner where he is unable to move out of, further exacerbating the feeling of isolation.

(4) There may be a knowledge gap

It may sometimes be a matter of not being able to find someone with sufficient knowledge to seek as a sounding board. I know of a senior executive charged with finding new business through the combination of new markets, new products and/or new customers segments. The issue he faced was that no one in the company knew exactly how to do that. Everything was riding on his shoulders. This created a problem where he could not seek counsel from anyone in his team and in his company. Nobody understood the issues he faced but everyone expected him to deliver on it. Not being able to talk to someone with sufficient knowledge further isolates the executive, making it even lonelier.

(5) Politics

Even within the senior leadership team, some things cannot be said for fear that this might be used against you in some backroom deal. The COO may be plotting a move against the CEO, the CMO may be trying to get the CTO to side with her so as to strengthen her position against the CFO. This may sound like a soap opera, but in my personal experience, I have seen this happen right before my eyes even in small companies with less than 100 staff. When egos, pride and ambition come together, there is no avoiding such power plays. This breeds partisanship and distrust, isolating members of a team that should really be cohesive. These lead to even greater loneliness at the top!

What can we do about it?

A few things are clear from Park’s case: (1) we don’t usually know how to deal with the loneliness, (2) we don’t have a robust support network, (3) we rely too much on friends for help, (4) the lonelier it gets, the more emotional one becomes,leading to poorer decisions. All these point to 3 options to overcome loneliness at the top:

Build a cohesive, committed team

Yes, I know. I spoke about the politics of teams, right? And how difficult it is for such a team to get its act together, right? Well, that is true; but that does not mean that it is NOT a solution. If indeed the senior leadership team can band together, and mutually support one another, and see each member as a positive, contributing part of the whole, each committed to bringing the best out of the other, and all acting in concert with this vision, loneliness at the top will be a thing of the past. Admittedly, this is very difficult to achieve, especially when different people havedifferent payoff for being selfish.

This leads us to the second option…

Build an internal sounding board

Supposing there is a long-time senior executive who has reached retirement age. Why not re-employ him/her to be an internal sounding board? (But don’t call the person a mentor because that has a connotation of passing on knowledge, of teaching/training, which this role is not.) Let all senior executives have access to him/her, to speak openly and freely about key issues within the company, even of other people. This coach (for want of a better term) does not offer any opinions or solutions, just a listening ear, and clarifying questions. Each session should be structured, so that there is a specific outcome to the conversation. It is convivial but both parties must know that this is not a conversation between friends (even if they are friends). So while it is appropriate to have these conversations over coffee, it is not a good idea to have it after hours over alcoholic drinks.

There is an obvious downside to this option. Because the internal coach is a member of the organisation, there may still be issues of trust. And even though the programme is structured to be beyond the influence of any member of the leadership team, due to the internal coach’s many years in the organisation, and the alliances that the person had built over time, some element of bias may unwittingly seep into the conversation, perhaps even creating a rift between parties. So what may start out as a good idea, may deteriorate into an unhealthy dispute. But if these can be carefully managed, this is a very good option. If not, then we look to the third one…

Engage an experienced external coach

Andy Murray, the newly minted world number one in tennis has Ivan Lendl as his coach. He is a former world number one. Novak Djokovic, previous world number one has Boris Becker as his coach, another former world number one. Roger Federer, the longest-ever sitting world number one worked with Stefan Edberg for two years, another former world number one (he is currently working with Ivan Ljubicic, a former world number three.) The fact of the matter is that all great performers choose to work with other great performers. The reason is clear: the coaches had been there, understand the stresses, see the pitfalls, and tell it as it is. They are the external pairs of eyes and ears that help each performer become better.

An external coach overcomes most of the concerns presented by internal coaches, and may even be cheaper! (You don’t have to keep the person on the payroll!) By having them sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), you overcome the secrecy element that may hold you back from speaking with other members of your team. By choosing a coach that has the right knowledge, the right experience, the right credentials, you essentially overcome the knowledge gap that we identified earlier. And because the coach is external to the organisation, (s)he is not caught up in the politics of the organisation, and is free to offer feedback that the senior executive needs to hear. By adopting and abiding by a set of rules or standards, the coach maintains impartiality, and that is very important in keeping the integrity of the person and the process.

But of course, there are limitations. One of them is the lack of cultural awareness (at least in the beginning). Being outside the company, the coach may find certain actions and thinking rather confounding, and may question them. While a good coach knows how to navigate this, I have seen many of them stumble on the culture issue when sitting on the other side of the fence (as COO). I have even had one coach advise me to leave the company because of the lack of cultural understanding. Quite destructive and disruptive.

Another limitation is his/her availability – or lack thereof - at the time of need. It is not as though you can pick up the phone and call the coach to discuss matters as and when you need to. Coaching sessions are scheduled, and if there is no provision for flexibility in your contract (these normally cost more), then you are stuck until your next coaching session. Of course, I am not suggesting that as a senior executive you cannot handle matters on your own until your next coaching session, but as we had seen from Park’s example, some people actually use the coach as a crutch, refusing to move on until (s)he gets affirmation from the coach. This is an unhealthy relationship, and as a professional coach, (s)he should discharge himself/herself. But how often does that happen?

The external coach is therefore not an ideal option, but then so are the others. But if you appoint the right coach, who has the right training, the right processes, the right professionalism, you may benefit a lot from this to stave off the loneliness factor.

You don’t need friends

Overcoming loneliness at the top is not best served by friends. Friends always have your best interest at heart, and when they hear an obviously one-sided story, they will still side with you, because, well, you’re friends! And they want to support you. But they normally don’t have the training, nor the cognitive rigour, to help you unpack the situation that you are facing, and uncover the real truth of the matter. They offer advice, when all you need is a listening ear. They goad you to do certain things which, ultimately, may not be the best course of action (it may not even be a good one!). They are your friends, and they just want you to feel better.

What you need is a good process, a good listening ear and a good sounding board. You need someone who can empathise (not sympathise, as friends do), and help you see what is really happening, without prescribing a solution. You need someone to tell you what you need to hear, not something that you want to hear. You need someone who is impartial to the goings-on in the organisation, to help you weigh the best course of action in times of uncertainty. Whether you get it from a supportive team, from an internal coach, or from an external one, depends on your circumstances. But one thing is clear, if you don’t adequately address that loneliness at the top, it will manifest itself in many different unhealthy ways, which Park Geun-hye discovered. By then, it will be too late to seek help.

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