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| 6 minutes read

Solitary confinement: the growing impact of executive isolation

‘We’ve never been more connected’ – it’s a statement we’ve heard countless times. The beauty of connection and relationships has been the mainstay of most social networks’ propositions for more than a decade now. But is it true? Increasingly it seems that while we are more closely linked technologically and more contactable, we’re not better connected at all. Loneliness is consuming us – around 50% of Americans are measurably lonely – and the longer-term consequences for our health, society and economy could be profoundly disruptive.

Typically, much of the focus on well-being, particularly in terms of mental health, has been on the young, the elderly, or less-represented groups. Indeed, the issue is especially acute among these groups. What we’re also seeing, however, is the increasing problem of executive isolation.

Historically, senior executives in business haven’t attracted huge amounts of sympathy from society. They’re typically better paid, perceived as being more successful, and often considered somewhat immune from much of what ails others. While there’s some truth in this, the reality is that they are just as susceptible to the same stressors as anyone else. And, for senior business leaders, the combination and complexity of these stressors is creating a worrying cocktail of concern.

Our annual Disruption Index has been painting a stark picture of executive isolation for some time. The stats are concerning: 70%+ of CEOs have been worried about losing their jobs for two years now; This year, 85% said they didn’t know what to prioritize; 72% feel their executive team lacks the agility to deal with the multiple disruptions facing their businesses; and 83% say their Board impedes the adoption of new technology. It’s always been lonely at the top but, right now, it’s lonelier than ever.

When we first launched our Index in early 2020, one of the themes that emerged was that of self-centrism. Initially, this was viewed within the context of consumer behavior. Taking a step back, the same principle has become a pervasive feature of society. Post-pandemic, self-centrism governed how and where people wanted to work, for whom and when. More broadly it has driven a growing sense of individualism throughout Western society. While self-expression and authenticity are positive and critical characteristics of the human condition, when taken to extremes the social consequences can become concerning – and are. Senses of community and belonging weaken, giving way to tribalism and adversarial attitudes. Society, for many, is increasingly becoming a zero-sum game and, as a result, loneliness and isolation are becoming significant outcomes, even for those who may have more resources than others. It is a challenge leaders increasingly face in running their organizations, often played out in full view.

In our work, we speak with leaders across the business and corporate spectrum: private equity investors, CEOs and Fortune 500 executives. Many have shared a growing sense of isolation. In parallel, for the last eight years, we have been surveying private equity in-depth – largely operating partners and portfolio company leaders – and the picture that’s developed highlights not only the growing demands on leaders but also that leadership roles are precarious. The job’s getting harder and job security is much lower. In an age where employee wellbeing, mental health, and inclusion are priorities for business leaders, the irony is huge. So, what’s behind it?

Well, as our Index shows, the level of disruption facing businesses has never been higher. We are in the midst of a polycrisis and executives need to find a way to lead through it. Many have found their organizations are no longer fit for purpose (98% say they need to change their business model). Business as usual no longer exists. Stressor number one.

Behind this, though, are some deeper psychological factors and stresses:

  • Is this it? Getting the top job has been the goal for a long time for many senior leaders. Arriving at your destination only to be greeted by a highly complicated situation, much of which is outside your immediate control, inevitably leads to sizeable dissatisfaction and unfamiliar paralysis.

     
  • Who can I trust? As our Index shows, a lack of faith in your team to get the job done is an issue many are facing. For those at the top, this can be compounded by a suspicion that not everyone wants you to succeed. For some people, their advancement relies on your failure.

     
  • Cancellation concern. We have more generations in the workforce than ever before and the needs and expectations of each differ wildly. Most US senior business leaders are now part of Generation X. While the Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age, they are still a prominent feature of the workforce. These groups have seen countless peers censured for saying or doing the wrong thing; sometimes justifiably so, other times it seems more a result of not knowing or understanding what the right approach or language might be. Many feel they are firmly in a ‘can’t do right for doing wrong’ situation.

     
  • Everyone has an opinion. “The job’s harder, I can’t trust people to deliver and, on top of all that, anyone and everyone seems to have a view on my business, my performance, and my future.” Not a direct quote but a growing theme among leaders, as they track their latest performance rating on Glassdoor.com. The level of scrutiny leaders face – internally and externally – is extraordinary and often irreconcilable. Unsolicited advice and suggestions from within the organization are on the rise and external pressure comes in all forms, from NGOs to stockholders, to activists and beyond. Judgment is ubiquitous.

     
  • Can I do this? Imposter syndrome is not new. It has been a factor in corner offices around the world for decades. We didn’t always recognize it for what it is, but today there is an appreciation that it’s not just normal, it’s everywhere. It would be more unusual not to question yourself and your abilities than it is to do so. Nevertheless, it takes on a heightened level of significance when multiplied by some of the other factors I’ve outlined above.

Addressing loneliness isn’t easy. Socializing – seemingly the obvious answer – often compounds the issue. Nevertheless, we have seen leaders embrace ideas and structures that create a broader sense of inclusion and, as a result, togetherness and a greater sense of belonging. These are the roots of a solution and include:

  • Never stop building your culture. By becoming the advocate, exemplar and driver of a strong culture based on frequently stated values is a powerful vehicle for any leader. Not only is it sensible in terms of employee motivation and talent attraction/retention, but it also enables the leader to place themselves firmly in the midst of some of the most critical and challenging conversations in a business. The standard expected of leaders who do this is high, the level of effort is almost all consuming but, in many respects, this is becoming the driving tenet of modern leadership.

     
  • Transparent and authentic communication. For many years the staple of executive communication was a carefully crafted, somewhat unclear diktat distributed across the business and leaving employees with a feeling that they’d be communicated to. Nowadays the most successful leaders, who often have the most engaged workforces, communicate openly and in dialogue with their organization. They share stories about their aspirations and their fears, about crucible moments in their careers and what they want their legacy to be – and this vulnerability and openness enables people across their business to relate to them and connect with confidence.

     
  • Forge a team. Hiring people and lumping them together in a loosely affiliated group is easy. Embedding a compelling sense of shared endeavor, common values, trust, and belief in one another is something else entirely. The greatest leaders do this and then create the environment for this unit to cascade its effectiveness throughout the entire organization. This takes time, energy, and a relentless pursuit of strong individuals. But it works, and it generates a sense of cohesion that retains the very best caliber of talent.

Addressing this growing epidemic of loneliness across society is becoming imperative. It is a long-tail cause of many complex and costly social, health, and economic issues. Focusing on the sense of isolation felt by executive leaders may seem like the wrong place to start but, as the role of businesses in society continues to prove indispensable, it is logical. Good businesses need well-connected, grounded, and socially aware leaders; society can’t improve without them.

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