I recently spoke with a retired CEO who confirmed the cliché that “it’s lonely at the top.” And, as Sting might say, he was not alone at being alone. Harvard Business Review reported that half of all CEOs express feelings of loneliness; of those, 61% say loneliness hinders their job performance.
Of course, this sense of professional isolation is not limited to CEOs. Many other executives also feel like castaways, particularly when they have few peers in their organization with similar responsibilities.
Moreover, executive roles have never been more daunting. As Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum wrote, “the deluge of information available today, the velocity of disruption and the acceleration of innovation are hard to comprehend or anticipate. They constitute a source of constant surprise. In such a context, it is a leader’s ability to continually learn, adapt and challenge his or her own conceptual and operating models of success that will distinguish the next generation of successful business leaders.”
Fortunately, executives can allay their sense of professional isolation and challenge their conceptual models at the same time. How? Through a well-designed peer network.
What do I mean by a peer network? In short, a group of executives in similar roles at different organizations who agree to meet several times a year for authentic discussions they aren’t having anywhere else. In such a network, trust and authenticity grow over time as network members share, laugh, and debate with each other, usually around a large table.
Executives have frequently told me about the benefits of such a leadership resource. In particular, network members are able to:
1. Identify practical solutions: One executive said a peer network “got me thinking about different ways to approach my job,” while another is “able to come away from the meetings with new ideas to try out in real-world”
2. Gain a sense of belonging: In his well-known “hierarchy of needs,” Abraham Maslow observed that humans seek to belong right after their physiological and safety needs are met. One executive noted that while one-off networking events can be “enjoyable and enlightening,” an effective peer network provides “a real sense of community.”
3. Turn rivalries into relationships. Some networks include peers whose organizations compete with each other. As an executive once noted, the network “helped form relationships which previously, for the most part, were rivalries.”
4. Have more fun: Your grandmother knew that, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Network members often find the humor in a situation, and in each other. One executive observed that “one of the great values of our [network] is how darn fun it is, as well as how substantive and business-focused it is.”
5. Challenge assumptions: Economist John Maynard Keynes asserted, “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” And philosopher Bertrand Russell once advised, “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” During peer discussions, executives often challenge assumptions they previously treated as fact.
6. Learn the way adults should. According to researcher Malcolm Knowles, adult learning should be self-directed and relevant. Children can passively absorb narrow “subject” content, but adults learn best by actively analyzing a broad range of life experiences. Through peer discussions, adults often integrate lessons from relevant experiences into their mental models.
7. Extract insight from stories. There is a reason our ancestors used to share stories around a campfire. Like peeling an onion, even the simplest story takes on new life when the central facts are subject to questions like who, what, where, when, why, and how. Stories provide an emotional anchor for any peer discussion. And the story behind the story is often more fascinating than the story itself.
8. See the bigger picture. Savvy executives know that their experience represents only a small part of a complex ecosystem. To better navigate a world of accelerating change and uncertainty, executives benefit from trusted relationships with peers who can help them look around dark corners and anticipate otherwise unknown risks.
9. Resolve conflict. Some networks include members whose companies compete or have commercial relationships. Executives report that, when disagreements arise, it’s much easier to pick up the phone and resolve disputes directly with a fellow network member.
10. Seek answers to nuanced questions. Some members will seek out select peers for “off-line” conversations about shared issues. These are not transactional questions (e.g., What law firm do you use in Poland?) that can be asked with an email blast. Rather, they demand trust and context—both gained over time through the network.
Unfortunately, too few executives enjoy the benefits of a great peer network. Many are turned off by “networking” and for good reason. But the noun and the verb are not the same. Joining a network is, in many ways, the opposite of networking.
With the right people, addressing the right questions, peer networks can provide many of the benefits common to any strong community: information, cooperation, support, guidance, insight. However, they can also provide network members with a new way of thinking about their place in the world, offering tools and perspectives required to navigate leadership challenges—alongside peers who are on the same journey.