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Some topics just aren't talked about much among top- level executives. For example, when was the last time you admitted to a colleague that your job left you feeling isolated and, well, lonely? (I can sense everyone turning various shades of pink right now.) After a particularly long day, you might come home and confess this to your best friend Fido, but never a word of it to another executive.
No need to be embarrassed; you have many fellow secret travelers along corporate paths. Harvard Business Review recently published a survey of CEOs and found that 50 percent reported experiencing loneliness in the role.
Nor can such feelings be dismissed as baggage that comes with the job. HBR analyzed that "the intensity of the job, coupled with the scarcity of peers to confide in, creates potentially dangerous feelings of isolation among chief executives." The "danger" is that isolation may result in poor decision-making, as in "I proclaim this or that," without asking for input from other C-suite companions and losing perspective on important issues when outside information is most needed. And in health care, this is definitely one of those times when we need many perspectives.
First-time CEOs were the loneliest of the surveyed group. Nearly 70 percent of this group who experienced loneliness said it negatively affects their ability to do their jobs. Other studies indicate that any individual with newfound authority, such as coming into the C-suite for the first time, also is affected by feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Rather than having a pity party, those folks with the time to think about this subject recommend such commonsense remedies as forming a select peer network, where they can test ideas and ask questions freely. Many health care CEOs are trying to do this now in a variety of venues. Some of it is to blow off steam, but much of it is to learn what others have tried or don't understand.
The good news — and I think it's particularly good news for health care — is that the same HBR survey found that "boards are a fruitful source of feedback and support for CEOs." Ninety-six percent said they can speak honestly with certain directors about their performance and the impact of their decisions, and 59 percent cited the board as their most helpful source of feedback. Fifty percent of CEOs said the board chair was a key confidante.
There isn't a one-size-fits-all rule for board/CEO relationships, but trust and communication always form the foundation. This may sound overly simplistic, but I think it's true: In professional circles the fear of saying something stupid is always present when people feel that they are in uncharted waters.
That's just as true for many trustees as it is for top management. And we've all been there. Both sides feel that they need to portray a confident, knowledgeable image. After all, trustees are always wise and CEOs are always unflappable — that is, in a perfect world. But we're in an era filled with many questions without clear answers. And if there ever was a time to build a trusting and open working relationship, this is it! We'll all feel less lonely and less isolated. And best of all, we'll find the right answers sooner.
— Let me know what you think. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org