It's lonely at the top.
That's a sentiment many CEOs of companies have said over the years, and now it is Tim Cook's turn. In an interview with The Washington Post, he described his job as lonely, but quickly pointed out that he doesn't want any sympathy. He's still happy, even if there are days when the job seems isolated from the world.
I understand what he means. In a corporate setting similar to Apple's, I was in charge of large writing and design teams. As the person in charge, it sometimes feels like you are behind a curtain and the "real" work is being done out in the open. I used to try and wander around and chat with people, which I now know is a poor leadership technique. (Everyone wonders why you have so much time to shoot the breeze.) I've never been anywhere near the top of the ladder, but I can imagine the role is lonely because of how you have to work in isolation--there are few CEOs who work as a team, unless you count a board that flies into the Bay Area once in awhile.
Surprisingly, when I asked a few folks on Twitter if they felt the same kind of isolation in their job leading a startup, everyone seemed to agree. One person even called the role depressing. It's interesting to me because these are people who obviously "have it all" and likely drive nice cars and live in comfortable homes. They are not starving. For some reason, the role is creating a void for them because, at the lofty position of CEO, you do not have a way to commiserate. From what I can tell listening to founders of companies who have discovered some relief from the issue, there are ways to avoid the crushing sense that you are alone at the top of the pile.
1. Find multiple mentors
One of the keys to overcoming loneliness in any job, but particularly if you are the CEO or founder, is to find more than one mentor. You might have one mentor to help with financial plans, one who is an expert on leadership, and one who holds you accountable in other areas like your personal life. This essentially creates a "team" that is not related to your board or your direct reports. You can be completely honest and even vulnerable with a mentor. Having more than one means you have good accountability but the side benefit is that you also won't be so isolated.
2. Meet with employees constantly
A few months ago, I interviewed Kevin Warren, the COO of the Minnesota Vikings. He had an interesting story to tell, and it's going to become a book. He said he meets with every single employee in the organization at least once and talks about their needs. This might not be possible if you're Tim Cook (since Apple has 115,000 employees) but even in a large org you can take the basic point to heart. Meeting with employees gives you a social outlet at work. Too often, a CEO avoids meeting face-to-face with the "minions" because it creates conflict. Yet, conflict in life is inevitable for people who have chosen to avoid isolation and loneliness at work. Also, meeting with employees means you'll be more attuned to the inner-workings of your own firm.
3. Find your identity outside of work
Of course, the ultimate cure for loneliness as a CEO is to avoid the trap of working too much and seeing your identity as wrapped up only in your role. That's the ultimate curse. It's self-perpetuating because you hyper-focus on being the leader, which then reminds you that you're alone. I believe this is the issue with most of those startup founders who contacted me to say they're lonely. You have to find your identity in other things--family, friendship, or even personal hobbies. You have to take extended breaks, experiment with new ideas, start side projects, and break the routine. When you do, you become a "normal" person again. Your identity is not so limiting.