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For many CEOs, it can be lonely at the top. The success or failure of a company largely rests upon the decisions its leader makes. Added to that pressure is the fact that the CEO’s role is innately made up of contradictions. CEOs are expected to deliver short-term results while planning for long-term success, to present their team with a sense of optimism while also being realistic and clear-eyed about challenges, and to be curious and open to other ideas while also providing answers when the situation demands it.
While each member of the team plays a crucial role in bringing the vision to life, CEOs are ultimately accountable for all wins and losses by setting the strategy and vision and putting the team in place to execute.
All of these factors can instill a sense of isolation, but I’ve noticed over the years that effective CEOs use the following time-tested strategies to diminish isolation, improve decision-making and maintain focus and productivity:
1. Join a community of CEOs
Just a couple of years after I took on my first role as CEO, the financial crisis of 2001 hit, and I felt ill-equipped to lead through that tumultuous time. Thankfully, someone on my board recommended I join a peer advisory group. Through my involvement in that community, I found many other CEOs navigating similar challenges, and together, we supported one another in finding a path forward.
Since then, I have watched thousands of leaders travel the same route to the same result — finding community outside of the company with other CEOs experiencing similar challenges removes self-doubt and banishes isolation.
Having a peer group or community not only helps leaders work through challenges, but it also helps them identify opportunities. Oftentimes, leaders become too close to situations; outside perspectives challenge biases and encourage out-of-the-box thinking, allowing leaders to find unique ways to turn dead ends into doorways.
2. Align your executive team
Putting in place a trusted executive team to cascade strategy throughout the organization quells CEO isolation and fuels collaboration and productivity. The most successful CEOs choose an executive team with diverse skill sets but shared goals and values. When an executive team is aligned around mission, vision and purpose, decision-making becomes easy for everyone within the organization.
Team leaders are responsible for showcasing the company’s values through all their decisions and interactions. Seasoned CEOs surround themselves with an executive team that can remain committed when challenges arise and work together to continuously execute the strategic plan while fostering innovation.
3. Listen to employees from all levels
One of the best ways CEOs combat isolation is by talking to frontline employees who are interacting with customers. They are the first ones to hear real-time feedback about what customers are asking for and how the company can pivot to quickly respond to those needs. Listening to customer feedback directly provides clarity. And when teammates know that their input is valuable to decision-making, it creates a culture where everyone is energized.
A common CEO fallacy is the belief that the role of a leader is to sell instead of engage in dialogue. In my first C-Suite role, I too was under the impression my job was to generate ideas and persuade my team to follow suit. In reality, the best CEOs remain curious and actively seek differing points of view to make informed decisions.
4. Find a mentor
Almost every world-class CEO I’ve ever met has this in common: They have, or have had, a mentor or coach who challenged them to improve. In Vistage’s 2020 CEO Confidence Index survey, 86% of the CEOs surveyed answered that mentors have been critical to the success of their careers.
Mentors provide a CEO with an outlet that may not be available within their organization. They can serve as a sounding board, as well as encourage a CEO to look in new directions for solutions. And when they respectfully disagree with a CEO or share wisdom from their own career trajectory, it can change a CEO’s perspective entirely.
5. Seek insight and inspiration from new sources
We all require periods of solitude for true reflection. However, idea generation rarely happens in a vacuum. World-class CEOs constantly seek out new insight and diverse perspectives. They read books and case studies from the best business minds. And they take the time to step outside of the day-to-day operations to work on the long-term strategy of the business.
While leading a company can feel isolating, CEOs who seek out a wide variety of perspectives in the decision-making process not only diminish isolation but propel their organization to success along the way. When CEOs seek out new ideas and encourage open dialogue, they have the support they need to make challenging decisions and navigate unexpected hurdles.