Certain business axioms feel like lip service as you're working your way up the corporate ladder - for example, "It's lonely at the top." From the outside, the CEO position (or perhaps any C-suite position) appears to be the victorious brass ring to top off your career story, whether it happens via climbing your way up from inside or by founding and building a startup. C-level titles conjure up images of confident power bordering on arrogance and rubbing elbows with your similarly heeled brethren. "Lonely" is the last word that comes to mind as a C-suite descriptor, unless you've been there.
And if you have been there, you know that as CEO, the word "lonely" is quite accurate. No matter the lengths and initiatives you undertake to make yourself accessible, to conduct skip-level meetings, to relate to your staff as another human, to ask for honest feedback, and so on - it's a given that most of your team will not feel comfortable being vulnerable and candid with you out of fear of judgment or retaliation. It's (hopefully) not a reflection on you so much as it is a reality of human nature and workplace dynamics which you must learn to manage.
You may also feel reluctant to confide in your loved ones for fear of burning out a relationship with chronic talk of your work concerns, or because your loved ones simply don't have the specific experience to relate to a given challenge.
For all of these reasons, it's imperative to surround yourself with peers who can relate to your challenges and offer advice in a sympathetic, confidential way. Here are a few ideas to find your own executive support group:
Online Forums and Mastermind Groups
Social platforms like LinkedIn have membership groups dedicated to executive peer support. A quick search of LinkedIn Groups brings up the Executive Suite (upwards of 450,000 members) and the On Startups group (closing in on 1,000,000 members) both of which connect business peers to fellow leaders who are most likely struggling with similar issues.
Online mastermind groups like Helm feature a vetted membership base and virtual meetings in a more confidential setting than public LinkedIn groups can provide. This virtual format provides both flexibility and more personal connection.
One-to-One Mentor or Coaching Relationships
If you feel more comfortable in a regular, face-to-face discussion, a one-to-one mentor or coaching relationship might be the most effective use of your time. These relationships can be especially rewarding because the one-to-one format allows for complete transparency, to the extent you're willing to give it. Be open-minded about who this person might be.There are some great tips here on identifying and asking the right person to mentor you.
Executive Support Organizations
Many businesspeople find that the best support comes from a group of peers mutually committed to growing together, primarily through regular in-person accountability and development meetings.
Executive groups like Entrepreneur's Organization (EO), Young Presidents Organization (YPO), Vistage, and Venwise fall into this category. Each has its own qualification criteria to ensure that the members can relate to each other in terms of business size and maturity. They also take measures to build groups that consist of members who don't compete in the same space or share clients in the interest of supporting the ability to be completely transparent about business challenges without fear of tipping off a client or competitor.
As you're exploring these groups, you may look at the other companies and executives you'd be joining and think, "My business is nothing like these. How will this group of tech execs relate to my manufacturing challenges?" However, as you spend time working to help your peers process their business challenges, you will come to realize that for the most part, all business leaders struggle with similar people and process issues that differ from industry to industry only in irrelevant details.
The big picture business issues are often fairly consistent across various industries, and having a support system in place to help you navigate them may make all the difference in your success.