LONELY AT THE TOP?

It sure could be … but don’t worry

P. Ravi Shankar
Advisor – Menterra Venture Advisors

Some years ago, when I had just begun my Executive coaching journey, I met the CEO of a firm at his corner office on the 9th floor. It was 9 p.m on a Friday evening. He had just seen off his Board members after a—as he told me later—tough meeting. There was no one else on the floor, and as I entered I remember saying to him, “It sure is lonely here” to which he replied mischievously, “and windy too.”

I was lucky to be with this CEO who still had his wits and sense of humour intact after a gruelling board meeting. Others aren’t so lucky.

My interactions with founders and promoter CEOs of other companies, large, small and start-ups were not half as entertaining most of the time. Many of them (privately expressed) were despondent and extremely stressed although most tried not to show it. Many of them told me that they felt lonely most of the time and had no one to confide in, especially when it came to taking difficult decisions. This is in spite of the fact that in large and more “established” companies there is a deep hierarchy of talent and specialists, both internal and external, that the CEO could rely on. Turns out, the buck ultimately stopped at the corner office and it’s occupant had to, ultimately, carry the cross.

A recurrent theme was their inability to take control of functions that were not their core, which were in most cases, sales and marketing. This, coupled with their inability to hire resources, especially at the start-up stage, to manage these functions make them put in extremely long hours, with more misses than hits and a lot of ensuing frustration. Another recurring frustration was the inability to be on top of everything as the company grew and newer people were hired. A third, was the feeling of bitter betrayal when someone critical (and seemingly loyal) left to join the competition.
These were just a few recurring problems, among many others, that led to frustration and feelings of acute loneliness. Some founders, took the decision to wrap up and go back to jobs and organisations, but most went on to achieve success to various degrees.
How do we understand these symptoms? How do we find answers to these questions, pleas, frustrations, and stresses, some of which lead to deep psychological scars, strained relationships with families and co-founders, other organisational issues, and other manifestations including physical and mental illnesses?

In my experience, both as a management practitioner and coach, I have realised that every situation is different and most problems faced in the corner suite are contextual.

However, there are several common root causes that helps one suggest some general solutions to the issue of loneliness at the top.

My experience also is that happy entrepreneurs create happy, more engaged workplaces, and these make for successful business success with the judicious management of resources, great products and other commendable management strategies.

Think about it. When did we last look at some aspects of individual happiness as non-negotiable? When did we last sacrifice something at work that could be safely delegated for something that gave us more happiness?

I think everyone would agree that happiness at work and loneliness at work are related. Happy persons generally are not lonely. More on work place happiness later – perhaps in another paper. Let’s now get back to the issue of loneliness at the top.

The root cause of work place loneliness is not only related to happiness at work. Let’s look at some of the other causes.

  • Fear of not knowing what is happening around him/her. This is a constant fear among most entrepreneurs I have met and dealt with, especially first time entrepreneurs. I would help to develop dash boards from the beginning. Developing structured reporting frameworks will save time otherwise spent on unnecessary meetings. Understand that you will never be in total control, nor are you expected to ever be. Develop a list of key things you should know. The rest is a bonus. Let go, get a life, and stop worrying. The core issue here is trust which is the biggest ingredient of happiness and comfortable environments.
  • Feeling betrayed when someone leaves your organisation. This will happen, again and again. If you create a happy organisation, it is more likely that people will want to stay. However, even then, people leave for all sorts of reasons, some beyond your control. In the event that they do leave, make sure they leave with praise for you and your company. One person leaving you does not mean you begin to distrust the next person hired. It’s up to you to share your happiness through trust.
  • Just as you share happiness to reduce loneliness, from the beginning plan to share your wealth with those who contribute to your well-being and happiness. Once you have decided to , it doesn’t pinch when you actually give it away.
  • Keep the entrepreneurial magic alive. There are limits to your ability to know everything , be in every meeting or meet every customer or competitor. Prepare to break your monolith companies into small manageable parts, parts that your best performing managers can manage and grow. Yes, doing this involves sacrificing some control, but that sacrifice may well be the key to your success and happiness. Create growth plans for people so that they are in tandem with your company’s growth. And most importantly, communicate your plans. In the process, you may make great friends in your journey to great success, then where’s the loneliness? Everyone fails. But they rise again with the help of their teams.
  • Remember, help comes from unexpected quarters. Many years ago during the “industrial relations” phase of my career, I was terribly lonely much of the time. It was a time when careers of a large numbers of people (and by extension, the lives of their families), especially blue collar workers or line supervisors, rested on me. My managements vested on me the responsibility to close down units or bring up labour productivity sharply and stave off closures. In all these times, I had help and support from traditional ‘foes’ ( Union leaders) who worked shoulder-to-shoulder with me and staved off imminent closures. Similarly, entrepreneurs need to look beyond traditional sources of advice. A failed entrepreneur, a distributor or even a competitor could become your best advisor. Case studies off the internet could be a great teachers. Sometimes, dig deep into your company hierarchy and you will find great solutions. Some of the most creative solutions have come from ‘floor level’ employees and in recent times from bright young people unfettered by hierarchy or tradition.
  • Make sure you have a competent Board, selected for their independent thinking and forthright views. Entrepreneurs seeking board control and Board members who will not disagree with them, are doing a great injustice to themselves and their companies. Discussions around strategy, even if many in the Board disagree with you, are refreshing and make you think. Maintain an open relationship with investors and key employees. Speak to them frequently, even informally. Everyone needs someone. Including you.
  • Confide in people, even if you are not the “type”. Getting rid of your fears and anxieties even without any expectation of a solution, will make things better for you. Confide in your spouse, your children and co-workers. They will rally around you and sometimes come up with unexpected solutions.
  • Don’t stop yourself from training in areas that are not the “CEO type” training. Some of the best CEOs I know are those who showed an inquisitiveness that was almost childlike. Many years ago, when I sought approval from my CEO to attend PMP classes as I had to oversee Project Managers, my CEO joined in as a fellow student. People development, for example, is not a fuzzy area as it is most often perceived—it is a hard, focused area, training in which will benefit CEOs greatly. Business Development / Sales and Marketing skills is another area in which start-up CEOs (largely technologists) should receive formal training. Training is not an admission of a failure. It is actually an acceptance of your shortcomings and yearning to learn more.
  • Have group activities in your companies and become part of it. Task forces, off-sites, celebrations. Make yourself central to some of them. You will see the difference.
  • Stay fit. Take time off every day for some exercise, a brisk walk, a jog, a swim, to play a sport, whatever. It is a great way to not only ensure your own well-being but also to meet very interesting people who will treat you as an individual, and not a boss or a work colleague. It’s important and refreshing to be amidst such people.
  • Above all, remember that failure is a great experience and it directly increases the probability of success. There are great lessons to be learnt from every failure.

Menterra has attempted to address this issue of loneliness and happiness directly. As a fund we remain focused on and committed to going beyond traditional parameters of success. We are a fund that goes beyond risk capital, one that creates impact with a scale that we have demonstrated again and again through our deep commitment to the entrepreneurs in whose dreams we have invested.

We also have agreed to have a buddy system within the Menterra founder group so that we reach out to each other in times of need. We will continue to explore this question of loneliness and happiness, candidly, forthrightly, and sensitively, with our entrepreneurs, so that they, their senior teams and their businesses are happy, enabling them to run happy and impactful companies that build happy communities and societies

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