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Dear CEOs: It Doesn’t Have to Be Lonely at the Top

One of the nicer things about my current portfolio of responsibilities is that I have the time to advise CEOs.  After a career spent doing this as a consultant and almost a decade as a CEO myself, I find this role to be one of the most rewarding and stimulating things that I do.

Recently, I was sitting with a first-time CEO who I am informally advising. We had blocked off most of the afternoon, so we weren’t hurried.  We walked through the current situation at this person’s company, and it soon became clear that the CEO was being consumed with the day-to-day operations.  Due to this, the CEO was not focusing enough on strategy and growth, an area of personal strength.  As a result, the firm was beginning to stagnate, which was creating performance and personnel problems.

The situation was weighing very heavily on the CEO, and I could really feel it. I asked how long this heaviness existed and learned this had been present for almost a year. I asked who had been confided in to get advice and counsel. The response: no one.  What a lonely place to be! But fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way.

A set of strong advisors is invaluable to a CEO (and to other senior executives), serving as a source of clarity, objectivity, and clear thinking. However, this network of advisors must be carefully and thoughtfully constructed—and then regularly utilized and maintained—to become maximally useful. Without this rigor, it can become quite lonely at the top, and that can lead to costly missteps.

When leading a company many people will seek your ear, but where are the most reliable and credible sources for advice and counsel?

1. Seek out those who have come before you

Clearly, retired executives are a rich source of opportunity. When I was CEO of AlixPartners, I reached out to several retired executives for advice. I made sure that they were under an NDA, and in some cases I paid for their time. There wasn’t a situation I encountered as CEO that this group hadn’t seen before. They asked me challenging, difficult, and insightful questions and helped me to construct decision criteria, then consider alternatives before landing on a decision. I also found this group to be generous with their time and genuinely happy to help.

2. Lean on your board

In my case I also found great value in some of our board members, though a CEO must be careful and thoughtful about what and how much to share with one board member versus another. Being mindful of this caveat, I found our board members to be very valuable sources of insight and guidance. They understood the company and the people in it, they had experience with many of the situations I was wrestling with, and they were very committed personally to seeing the company succeed.

3. Get strength from within

Another source of advice comes from within the company itself. While it is true that as a CEO, when you have a meeting with someone inside the firm, they will usually have some kind of agenda, I learned that spending time with those people closest to a situation yielded great insight, and could make them a genuine partner in working toward a solution. I came to see that even if, as a CEO, you move in a direction they don’t agree with, if their insights and opinions were truly heard and considered, most people will support the decision, even if it doesn’t line up with their point of view. When seeking advice from inside the firm, the key to success lies in understanding who has truly good judgment and will put firm interest above their own professional standing, which is not always an easy task.

4. Consider a coach

I have also found that executive coaches can be very valuable to a CEO, particularly when it comes to people matters, executive assessment, hiring and firing, succession planning, organization structures, etc. The great thing about an executive coach is that they are on your side and can tell you the difficult truths because they are fully committed to your success—and if they’re not telling you things you either don’t know or don’t want to hear, you should question their value. Given the relentless pace of a CEO’s life, the numerous sacrifices and inevitable toll such a job can take on one’s family, executive coaches can also help a CEO to think and act prudently in balancing their personal and professional lives, and ideally to achieve some level of balance in the face of a grueling schedule.

5. Choose carefully

In my experience, CEOs need to be careful not to operate at either end of the spectrum: either taking only limited or no advice (the lonely end) or seeking too much advice from too many sources (the indecisive end). But a carefully curated set of advisors, used when and as appropriate, can be a key to success. And, as you set those meeting dates with your advisors on your calendar and the meeting time approaches, don’t be surprised if you feel like you can’t afford the time, or that the endless stream of demands for your attention are more important.  A word of advice: Go to the breakfast, spend the afternoon, have the dinner. These moments to step back, share your fears and concerns, and receive clear, objective, thoughtful counsel is a priceless gift you owe to yourself and to your organization.


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