If you were to imagine for a moment what it feels like to be a at the top of an organisation say a CEO or MD, what would you say? Influential, autonomous, visionary, answerable, to name a few. But if you were to ask those at the top themselves? Well maybe at first they repeat these feelings but in reflection the word loneliness comes up a lot. If you think about it this is understandable. For most of us, in our organisations, we have peers and colleagues we can turn to when we are struggling, but a CEO? Where do they go that is safe to seek council and advice? Perhaps their Board Chair or if they one or if they have HR as a direct report that’s also great confidant. But even these relationships can often be complicated when it comes to seeking trusted confidential advice.
Take Charles for example a CEO of a large manufacturing organisation. He had many challenges, probably the most complex was navigating a testy relationship with the Board and at the same time transform an under performing leadership team. The weight of these challenges was taking its toll, sleepless nights and frustrating days as he managed the day to day: trouble shooting and fixing problems as they landed relentlessly in his email or turned up in his office.
He really didn’t want a coach, he just wanted someone to help him navigate his people problems and he ended up with me. “How do I get the team to step up” was his first question. “I have to push and push and its not working. I feel I am the only one who cares about the results"
I could quickly see he was stuck in a mind trap of thinking the only way to get his team to step up was to push them harder. This is super common among high performing executives. The misunderstanding that as a leader its their job to set big demands and high bars that for people to achieve. As you know sporting analogies abound in the corporate world. But this one size fits all approach to leadership is only going to be successful for a particular group of employees who are motivated by such bars and standards. The truth is Achievement is a 100% a mental game and its 100% unique to each of your team members.
I asked Charles what he knew about his team and what their strengths were. His answers were very specific for those in his team he “got” i.e. more like him and very vague for those he didn’t seem to get. I asked him to explore why this was. On reflection he came up with the fact that he really hadn’t given much thought to the individual strengths of his team and that he was largely looking at them through his own preferences and working style. This gave him pause to think about what the implication of holding onto those preferences would be having on his team.
Then judgement “they are not stepping up” started to shift to curiosity “What makes them tick” “What am I not seeing here?”” What’s holding them back?”. He wasn't going to let his team off the hook he still wanted high performance, but his questions were about getting them to use their own genius and intelligence rather than pushing and demanding success on his terms.
Things started to move in his one on one conversations, he listened more, questioned deeper and shared more, opening up about his own preferences and understanding his teams. He put in place interventions like Strengths Finder profiling, so everyone understood each other’s strengths he worked out where people played at their best and put them to work with their strengths. Unsurprisingly he got a positive response from his team and what felt like pushing sh*t uphill became a more collaborative environment.
Of course, with deeper conversations and a better understanding of himself and others comes deeper relationships, trust which was an effective antidote to loneliness at the top.