Connection and support are essential for combating the loneliness that often comes with leadership.
It may be a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true: It is lonely at the top. A sense of isolation isn’t just an issue for newly ascendant CEOs whose relationships with their pre-promotion peers have changed. Longtime executives without a network of supportive colleagues or unable to stay connected to those they are tasked with leading face this challenge as well.
An advancement that puts someone in charge of his or her former “equals” can spark an array of interpersonal challenges, says Susanne Biro, master coach and co-founder of Syntrina Leadership LLC, Indianapolis, a boutique leadership development firm specializing in working with senior-level leaders and their teams. Perhaps a former peer (or even several) coveted the position, Biro posits, causing resentment, disappointment and jealously towards the one chosen—emotions that can undermine support for the new leader. Or they might have wanted another person to receive the promotion, resulting in the same problematic attitudes. Trying to keep things as they were before the promotion can also cause problems.
“Leaders and peers might try to remain friends and fail to recognize the need for a new relationship with new boundaries of what can be discussed, with whom, how and when,” Biro explains. “This can be extremely subtle, but the results can be large.”
The speed at which a promotion happens can also contribute to interpersonal issues, says Deedee Myers, Ph.D., CEO of CUESolutions provider DDJ Myers Ltd., a Phoenix-based firm providing executive search/recruitment, strategic organization and leadership consulting services.
“If overnight, this can be a game-changer in relationships,” she says. “However, if the promotion was strategically managed and communicated, then the transition had checkpoints to support the newly defined relationships.”
Concerns and expectations on both sides can also affect relationships. Myers explains that some promoted leaders struggle under the weight of the “tall poppy syndrome,” with former peers thinking the advancement was based on luck rather than merit. The consequences of this perception can be undercutting remarks, poor collaboration, resistance, envy and a general lack of support.
New leaders may feel pressured to prove they deserved the promotion by having all the answers and being the smartest person in the room, says Biro. This can cause them to become overly focused on themselves, charting their own solitary course rather than paying attention to what is going on with their team, the organization and even the marketplace—an insecurity that can make them reluctant to share power, decision-making and authority.
“They micromanage others, and the impact is that people feel they’re not valued or trusted,” she explains. “They begin to disengage and resent the leader. The leader then begins ... to feel alone.”
Stress can worsen a leader’s reactive tendencies, Biro adds. For example, if leaders are prone to making quick, unilateral decisions under pressure rather than delegating responsibilities and giving others an opportunity to perform, they might begin to feel they can’t rely on their own people, further exacerbating the feeling of isolation.
Letting Go, Moving Forward
One common misstep made by the newly promoted is failing to create a separation between present and past roles in a timely manner, says Myers, something she attributes to a reluctance to admit relationships have changed. This reluctance thwarts productive conversations that could help everyone understand the new reality.
What Should These Conversations Entail?
Myers advises leaders to express appreciation to their former peers and acknowledge their value. At the same time, leaders should clearly articulate how their own responsibilities have changed.
“Practice discernment with former peers in social events and settings,” Myers advises. “Stay connected, but know you have other relationships to build.”
Biro agrees it’s important to fully accept that past ways of working, communicating and interacting with peers are over. It’s important to recognize the impact of these changes and to give people time to adapt to and accept them. Even so, everyone must be held accountable, she says. If not, the result can be performance- and morale-sapping problems that sabotage the new leader’s efforts and leave him or her dangerously adrift.
Longtime CEOs are not immune to missteps that isolate them and undermine their leadership. Myers lists the most common: acting without gathering and understanding relevant perspectives; acting without obtaining feedback; failing to listen fairly and impartially; demonstrating a lack of equity and inclusivity; and assuming that the board is always right.
Especially important to CEOs of any tenure is acting with deliberation and awareness.
“Too often—way too often—new CEOs jump right into the role without doing the deep reflection necessary to understand what their true offer is as a leader, speculating on what may or may not work, what needs to shift and how to create that shift in a sustainable way,” Myers says. “Jumping into action must be accompanied by reflection, data collection, analysis and assessing what is possible.”
Advice From the Top
Consider the experience of Eric Dillon, CEO of $8.6 billion Conexus Credit Union. Headquartered in Regina, Saskatchewan, with approximately 900 FTEs. Dillon joined the organization in October 2011 as CEO, arriving from another credit union where he was COO.
“Having ascended to a CEO role at a reasonably young age (42), I’ve frequently been faced with needing to build relationships and teams with others who had more experience—people that I worked alongside of previously who had invested in me as a leader,” Dillon recalls.
“The initial reaction for most leaders is to try to become someone different, to act like something they’re not,” he adds. “What has helped me immensely is to become more authentic, more vulnerable and more open about my strengths but also the areas that I needed help in from those around me.”
One of Dillon’s most vivid memories of his first days as a CEO was when he received a call from another CEO who reached out with counsel. Remembering how positively that impacted him, Dillon now does the same, connecting with colleagues recently promoted to their first CEO position to serve as a sounding board.
“I speak openly about the isolation that can be experienced as a CEO, where you own the decisions of the most significance and consequence together with the board. My advice is to find those who have lived it before and build networks of other CEOs, managing partners, mentors and coaches you can lean on from time to time,” Dillon says, adding he continues to rely on his network.
CUES member Steve Bugg, president/CEO of $921 million Great Lakes Credit Union, with 236 employees in Bannockburn, Illinois, also seeks advice from mentors and coaches.
Bugg came on board as CEO in May 2018, after serving as executive vice president at another CU in Indiana. As with Dillon, other CEOs reached out to Bugg, offering welcomed advice and assistance.
Bugg says new leaders can avoid interpersonal challenges with former cohorts by building strong, collaborative relationships, continuing to show a sincere interest in them, engaging in active listening, respecting their expertise, being honest and transparent, and demonstrating empathy. Moving forward, he advises new CEOs to develop leadership succession and personal development plans, with support from the board and chair.
“You also need to do this for your leadership team” he adds. “Part of your plans should include securing formal coaches for your leaders, including yourself, that leaders can reach out to for advice, or to just have the coach listen or serve as a sounding board, and that will aid in continuing to develop their leadership skills.”
Bugg has connected with peers through CEO symposiums hosted by vendors, associations and partners, including CUES, CUES Supplier member Allied Solutions and CUESolutions provider State National. Conferences, trade shows and leadership roundtables are good ways to meet other leaders, as are state leagues and CUES Councils. Additional ways to connect with leaders outside the industry include volunteering in the community or serving on a nonprofit board.
Bugg also advises developing a strong relationship with the board and chair. “This is extremely important—I utilize my relationship with them to seek feedback all the time,” he says. “Building a strong collaborative relationship with [the board] can be very rewarding, even though you work directly for them.
“My executive leadership team also knows I want to build a strong collaborative partnership with them,” he continues. “They know I want to develop, coach and mentor them while being the best servant leader I can be, and part of this is counting on them for their expertise. Being at the top can be very lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. Seek out other peers and develop strong networks of like leaders. We are by nature a collaborative industry. I’ve never not been able to secure advice from another credit union CEO.” cues icon
Pamela Mills-Senn is a writer based in Long Beach, California.