Is it Lonely at the Top?
Executive isolation is an omnipresent critical malaise of the corporate world today. Not only does it threaten the ongoing well-being of the person at the helm of affairs, but it also creates tension in the environment, overall.
The crown that sits on the head of a top executive in an organisation is by no means an easy burden. Over the years, climbing the hierarchy as a manager, nurturing the team, and clocking milestones all have their highs. Things, however, are different for the person on the top, the chief executive officer (CEO) of the Company.
The CEO’s day typically starts with multiple thoughts: funding, profitability, board concerns over performance, people issues, competition woes, disruptive strategies, and so much more. The CEOs must also suffer from their share of personal problems at times, which neither makes it any easier to maintain balance and equanimity nor helps in going about the multiple responsibilities with gravitas. The sheer stress levels that come with the territory, along with the role when it comes to that of a CEO, is unnerving. Having been a Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) to many CEOs for almost twelve years of my career, I had the good fortune to watch, up-close, many such CEOs in action, which were lessons in themselves.
Given the above, could anyone call this job easy? Can anyone become a CEO, or does it necessitate possessing certain competencies that significantly influence the direction for a company as well as determine, in multiple ways, the future of a large number of people? Also, why is it said that the CEO is actually a very lonely person at the top?
This sense of loneliness, often experienced by the person on the hot seat, is not so much “lonely” as we understand the term, but more of being in a continuous state of being “on the edge” (a phrase coined by the pioneering loneliness researcher, John Cacioppo). And why not! Executive psychological isolation is an omnipresent critical malaise of the corporate world today. Not only does it threaten the ongoing well-being of the person at the helm of affairs, but it also creates tension in the environment, overall. But I always felt that this continuous feeling of isolation, while it creates a sort of invisible wall around the role-holder, also in many ways helps them preserve their energies and strategise against naysayers.
In one of my stints with an American MNC, I had the onerous responsibility to sit across the CEO at his table for the first few minutes when the anxiety pangs initially struck him. No words, discussion, or actions were required. Another CEO with whom I worked very closely would suddenly withdraw from normal circulation almost a week before a scheduled meeting and then break into inane jokes before the start of every board meeting or a hastily called business review. What would you call these idiosyncrasies or foibles? Something other than “being on the edge”? Is it a lonely spot at the top of the pyramid, where one miss could bury your future without so much as a whimper? Well, that is a tough call! And yet, it is no pipe dream today that the majority of the corporate world lives in the hope of becoming a CEO or Head of Business someday.
Debjani Roy is an industry stalwart and domain expert in the field of Human Resource with over 25 years of functional experience across companies such as Bharti, HCL, Bentley Systems, Kuoni, and SRL Diagnostics. Till March 2019, Debjani was with SRL Diagnostics as CHRO. Currently, besides being the Chief HR Advisor to Mind Your Fleet (a software start-up), she is a visiting professor to a number of reputed B-Schools. Debjani is also a sought-after speaker, an author, an educationactivist, as well as coach and mentor to students in the academic space.