There is a common saying: “It is lonely at the top.” I have been contemplating this saying as I enter my 18th year in leadership, including my two and a half years as Foraker’s CEO. I’m thinking about this mostly because of hard conversations I’ve had recently with Alaska leaders, and because of studies like Daring to Lead, which suggests new CEOs often leave their jobs during their third year because they feel isolated. I am also thinking about it because while there are certainly times I experience isolation, for the most part this is an experience I have managed to avoid.
What can make leadership less lonely? And how do we stay and thrive in our work? Some research points to creating environments of support. We believe in this so much we have created programs that focus on support, including our Executive Leadership Initiative that is customized for executives in their first three years of work. We are recruiting for this program now. So, if that means you, give us a call.
We know support works, but shy of taking on a program to create support, I have narrowed down four other factors that are often missing for many CEOs, but can individually or collectively alleviate loneliness.
A true partnership with the board of directors
The single most important work the board does is hire the right staff leader at the right time for the organization. This is quickly followed by their next most important job – working as a partner with the CEO. In the Foraker Nonprofit Sustainability Model, we talk candidly about the critical need for board/CEO balance – action taken each day to treat each other as partners in the work of mission stewardship. Partnership means, of course, that there is trust, communication, and effective decision making. It also means that the board and staff take turns leading, depending on the issues. None of this is easy as it comes in hues of gray instead of black and white. The way one group does it will look different from another. And the way the group does it today will change every time there is significant turnover in the board or a change in staff leadership. This is the work.
You likely know far too many boards and CEOs who don’t think this is the work and their behavior in these relationships can range from deflection and avoidance to all out hostility. Mostly the rational for this path is based on good intentions, regardless of bad behavior. It is a rare CEO or board member who purposely intends to harm the mission. Still, bad behavior is more normal than not. If this sounds familiar, and you are a CEO, ask yourself how much time you are spending on your relationship with your board and is it enough to achieve and sustain a high performing team? It likely takes far more time than we prioritize. If you are on a board, and you are seeing a high churn of CEOs and fellow board members, ask yourself: “Do my intentions and my behavior match? How am I building trust by working as a partner with the CEO?” We are a team, and teamwork takes effort from everyone. Some of the loneliest CEOs I know don’t feel they have a team.
A supportive and honest board chair
How did you get your board chair? Was that person in the room when they were elected? Had they been on the board for more than a year? Did they know what it meant to be board chair? I often joke that the best way to become board chair is to go to the bathroom or miss a meeting. We all laugh at this because we recognize how true it is. And yet, this function is so critical to the health of both the CEO relationship and the functionality of the full board. There is often little guidance given to the chair about his or her role. There are a few lines in our bylaws that often describe the role, but rarely a complete and current job description to match the organizational culture and capacity. Often no succession plan is in place. Again, remembering that this position is critical to a healthy CEO relationship with the board, picking carefully and planning ahead is worth making time to do.
While the CEO needs to have a relationship with each board member (partly the reason for taking 20% of your time), in most nonprofits the closest relationship is between the CEO and the board chair. From my own experience, I find that this relationship is a monthly opportunity to work together to craft the board agenda, spearhead difficult conversations, and navigate the full board meeting to achieve successful outcomes and create a rapport for honest two-way feedback. For too many CEOs it is luck alone that makes this work, rather than a strategic and thoughtful approach. If you are the board chair, or are contemplating assuming that role, consider the support that will make the work meaningful, energizing, and affective. If you are flying without guidance, consider working on a job description for the position. You can start with our template but make sure it’s real for the organization you serve.
A clear process for feedback and evaluation
Perhaps the biggest contributor to the “lonely at the top” phenomena is lack of feedback. The feedback cycle can be a gift or a distraction. It can be helpful and forward focused, or harmful and punitive. We have seen it all. We have also seen a complete absence of any type of evaluation for the CEO, usually because the board fails to make it a priority even when the CEO directly asks for it. The feedback process can and likely should take many forms. Monthly calls with the board chair is a way to get immediate feedback from the full board. What I value about this process is its regularity and timelessness. It is so much easier to change course when I can hear the issues as they arise. Waiting months or a full year for an evaluation means that small issues can become big, and big issues can become untenable.
The CEO also needs candid and timely feedback from staff. The culture we instill with our team says a lot about how this information comes to us. I recently had someone tell me that I was receiving the gift of difficult feedback because of how much my team wants me to succeed. Without hesitation I agreed and took the gift carefully to contemplate and act with new intention. This is a journey as CEOs we can go on again and again. It is not an accident to receive honest feedback, both the praise and the constructive. As the CEO, I understand that I can shut down the feedback loop or I can stay open and available to learning. It isn’t easy, but oh so valuable to ensure mission is best served.
As a CEO, consider how you are hearing feedback and what you do with it. Are you allowed to fail forward and learn from mistakes, or are you left wondering how it looks from the board and staff perspectives? What can you ask for? What is your role in getting it? If you are on a board, ask yourself, when is the last time the board provided helpful feedback?? Don’t save evaluation just for the challenging issues – use it to let your CEO know they are doing a great job. They don’t hear that often enough.
A safe environment for support
As I mentioned earlier, and perhaps in most of my articles, I am a firm believer in the value of excellent support. What I talk less often about is the need for safety as a key ingredient to support. Safe support is as much about confidentiality as it is about comfort. It is about telling the truth to yourself and others and being heard. It is about listening, not judging, and it is likely more than anything about the ability to bring one’s whole self into a relationship. Safe support is the maxim that drives me to seek support for myself and to provide support to others every day. There are certainly plenty of CEOs and board members who believe that support is a sign of weakness, but I wonder if that brand of support is safe. What I have seen instead is that safe support can be the antidote to loneliness and the energy for inspiration. Support comes in many forms for a CEO. It can be a coach, or a mentor, or a peer. It can be formal and informal. In our Executive Leadership Initiative program we talk about formal support in the following ways:
If you are the CEO seeking formal support, consider what way works best for you right now given the other three factors we just discussed. If you are a board member, consider offering these options to the CEO by creating room in the budget to fund it or by creating an expectation that they will use some of their work day to get it. Not all support takes money to achieve, but it all takes time. This is what I call “go slow to go fast” time. The return on the investment of time will come back tenfold in mission impact, job satisfaction, and less isolation.
Being the leader doesn’t mean it has to be lonely. What will be your next step?