EXECUTIVE LONELINESS

Ever Present – Not Often Talked About

The ambition of many in professional careers is to rise to the role of Managing Director, CEO, CFO, COO or other such senior executive positions. Driven by challenge and the desire to be successful, aspirants also look at status and the prestige such a role carries and in some cases, the power appeals. For others the financial reward or wealth derived from such success is the prime motivator. On the other hand, the person on the street only sees the trappings of success –the salary/remuneration package, the top of the range vehicle, the designer suits, the executive home, the boat, the overseas holidays with family, children at private schools – the list goes on!

What is not often observed and certainly very rarely talked about however is the down side such success carries with it. The reality of an executive role is that the average working week is somewhere between 55 and 70 hours, it means catching the first flight out in the morning (5.00 am start) and catching the last flight home at night. Both domestic and international trips are invariably time sensitive and pressured for the executive who needs to maximise both time and opportunity during the trip.

For some reason no one is ever 100% relaxed with their senior or executive officer; therefore executives must be on guard at all times particularly when travelling in the company of a subordinate out of town or out of the country, a wearying factor in itself. A tired executive is a vulnerable executive.

The amount of time spent alone in strange cities/countries, in hotel rooms which forever seem to grow smaller, combined with the long and stressful daily working hours have an effect on home and family life. Above all else this impacts enormously on the personal interests of the executive which inevitably get pushed to last position in the priority queue.

Loneliness then can be a constant companion of the executive, who, because of the fast moving lifestyle has a smaller network of close friends in the main than the person in the street who has a “regular job”. Also, the nature of the executive role is such that it is easy to grow away from a circle of friends the further the career develops. Developing new and true friends is also more difficult.

Many people are unaware that handling success is very similar to coping with failure and many executives and Senior Managers find it difficult socially being put on a pedestal. Being constantly asked questions about the company, his/her position – the exciting role with all the travel… or hearing the grizzles about the share price, current company performance or numerous other business or personal matters is tiresome, business never stops for the busy executive! Many simply use any spare time to shut themselves off from people, which further exacerbates the loneliness problem.

Think also of the long weekends, particularly around regional anniversary days when the family’s weekend away gets cancelled or whilst the spouse/partner, friends and family continue on with the holiday plan, the executive travels to some management meeting which may occupy the whole weekend. Many marriage or relationship breakdowns are caused through long or constant absences resulting in the breakdown of communication and the resultant growing apart of the executive and spouse/partner.

Another factor which adds to executive loneliness is that frequently there is no one to share concerns or worries with, particularly when the time comes to make tough decisions or calls which impact significantly on people, or indeed as strange as it may seem, even to share success with. Whilst both can be shared to a certain extent with the board, subordinates, colleagues, staff members and family there are limitations. The after hours functions, presentations and the necessary “seeing and being seen” society affairs that one is frequently invited to or obliged to attend, and, of course sponsorship occasions which inevitably occur during leisure time – all take a personal toll.

Female executives, both with or without families, enjoy the same pressures and stresses but with some added factors (e.g. if not fully supported by a partner/spouse) and because of the male dominance which is still prevalent at executive level, this simply adds an extra dimension to executive loneliness.

Many high profile executives exude confidence and carry an excellent presence and bearing about them, outwardly giving the impression that all is well – some of the most successful leaders however, have a lonely face behind the mask.

The human tendency is to create and live a lifestyle aligned to earning ability. This means that executives tend to have the high mortgages and frequently carry significant personal debt (particularly during the formative years of an executive career). Executive loneliness tends to quicken its pace, the more senior or successful an executive becomes. Money and professional success is one thing, but at some point everyone has to come to terms with themselves and to determine what it is they really want, what they really need and what is of real value to them.

Fortunately, with the change in emphasis to “leadership ” as opposed to the old “command control” management style, there is a realisation that to be successful as we head into the twenty first century, leaders do not have to be “workaholics” to succeed. Leaders are now beginning to place greater emphasis on home and family as society continues to become more conservative. As the baby boomers mature, family and personal priorities are being put back into perspective – home, family, leisure, personal activities, diet and fitness are becoming part of the daily plan rather than being fitted in or around business. Balance in all things is “the ideal” for today’s executive although most are still striving to achieve an acceptable level.

It has been said that success in life is dependent upon one’s willingness to risk failure. The personal sacrifice and self discipline required to be a top executive is something the person on the street doesn’t even begin to think about. Neither do people realise that the CEO and all members of the senior executive team are the most vulnerable in the Company when things go wrong or a threat emerges. Job security is an ancient term – security is an attitudinal thing contained from the eyebrows up.

As Consultants, we are in daily contact with some of the most successful executives in New Zealand and Australia – unfortunately for some; they are also the loneliest.

Barry T Knight October 1994


YSKER P.O. Box 27 Christchurch, New Zealand, Phone: +64 21 999 799
Email: barry.knight@ysker.com
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