Lonely at the Top

The phrase “It’s lonely at the top” has become a clichu00c3u00a9, yet very little has been written about it.

I’ve asked many executives over the years how they feel about it, how they define the loneliness, and what it means to them. Almost universally, they’ve spoken about the loneliness that is derived from not being able to relax around fellow employees. Comments such as “I no longer feel comfortable going out with the other executives after work now,” or “I feel like I’m treated differently by my colleagues,” and “The chemistry among us changed once I was promoted to president” are common. Conversely, I’ve heard many bank presidents say they don’t want to be too friendly with other executives for fear they might have to fire them some day, or, at a minimum, turn down their request for a raise. One community bank president told me that what he missed most in his new job as CEO was the ability to share his frustrations and doubts with fellow executives. He felt that doing so would somehow demean him and make him less of a leader.

Where, then, does this leave a lonely or isolated executive? The answer, quite often, is that his new confidants are his board members.

A good board is made up of people who have been successful in different industries. There’s a high likelihood they will be familiar with whatever the bank president wants to talk about and get off his chest. Fellow directors can be good sounding boards and, when needed, the most appropriate people to discuss those things a CEO can’t share with fellow employees. The danger is that a director might not abide by the rules of the gameu00e2u20ac”after all, these discussions must be held in complete confidence.

For example, one bank president I knew confided in one of his directors, sharing his concerns about virtually the entire senior management team. As this executive told me, “Look, I think I’ve got a terrific group of senior managers, but no one’s perfect. I need to sit down and gripe about them from time to time.”

So he vented his frustrations to a board member, assuming their discussion would be held completely confidential. Unfortunately, that director took it upon himself to tell several of the senior employees that the president was unhappy with their performance. Before long, he had sowed dissension and distrust among most of the senior managers. A near mutiny arose, and the president ultimately left in disgust.

Afterward, the former president stated, “People often complain to a best friend about their kids or their spouse, but it doesn’t mean they don’t love them. This board member caused a huge problem where none existed.”
Let this anecdote be a lesson for all board members. Directors should understand that conversations with the bank president must be held in the strictest of confidence. Moreover, they should also realize that it’s lonely at the top, and, from time to time, the CEO may simply need to blow off steam.

The moment directors share confidences with others, they have not just lost their effectiveness as directors, but they may cause enough turmoil to lose their president, regardless of how effective he might have been.

The role of bank directors has gotten much more complex over the years. Many new duties and responsibilities have been thrust upon them, yet one role remains the same: An effective bank director must be able to listen to his president, and he must be able to keep completely confidential what he has heard.

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