C-Level Execs – Try This Before You Quit

I was shocked to read the results of a new Deloitte survey that said that nearly seven out of ten executives are thinking of leaving their job for a role that better supports their well-being. The C-suite is burning out. The lead-in of the LinkedIn News article about the survey said “Thinking about quitting? Your CEO is, too.”

The thrust of the Deloitte article was that everyone is burning out, leaders and employees alike, and C-level executives need to do something about it. The heading of one graph says “Workers have high expectations, but leaders aren’t moving quickly enough.” As a former CEO, I respond with mixed feelings. As much as I agree that senior executives bear the responsibility for making changes for the benefit of the whole workplace, I can’t help but wonder if they really have the capacity or will to do so right now. When 70% of executives want to quit, it sounds to me as if helping them is a priority so that they have the energy to renew the culture. Makes me think of the flight attendants’ warning about oxygen masks – place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others.

Before you quit

A key contributor to executive burnout is the loneliness and isolation of their position. My recommendation is to both recognize that problem and deal with it in a way that improves well-being. According to Dr. Jeremy Nobel in Psychology Today“The relationship between burnout and loneliness is a reciprocal one. Burnout can lead to increased feelings of loneliness. When people feel overwhelmed, exhausted and dehumanized, it heightens their risk for isolation. Loneliness, too, can exacerbate burnout, by decreasing one’s capacity for resilience.”

Particularly for the chief executive, “it’s lonely at the top.” Studies show that half of CEOs experience feelings of loneliness in their roles. It makes sense – isolation is inherent to the senior position, which carries the solitary responsibility of making many of the hard decisions. Also, the often-frenetic pace of the job makes it hard to find time for professional connection and conversation with other leaders. The burden of responsibility can lead to feelings that further isolate.

With weighty issues, the risk of making a bad decision – or even a good one that will have painful consequences for others – can bring feelings of fear that undermine the leader’s confidence. In those times of self-doubt, the CEO rarely feels free to lean on those above (the Board of Directors) or those below (the Executive Team) for moral support. Doing so would seem to expose weakness and erode the leader’s reputation. Other C-level executives may face the same fear. As a result, the leader decides to go it alone; decisions are too often made without the full benefit of advice from those best equipped to help. In this environment, leadership can come across as disconnected, lacking in objectivity, and even self-serving.

According to the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus, an antonym of “isolation” is “camaraderie.” It describes a feeling of closeness and fellowship, and it relies on mutual trust. One appropriate antidote to isolation for the CEO is connection with peers – the result of intentionally developing professional relationships with other CEOs or senior leaders. For me, the benefits of a monthly lunch meeting with the CEO of another company included fellowship, encouragement, and insight. As trustworthy, non-competing peers, we each became a sounding board and strategic advisor to the other. This safe environment dissolved our fears, broke us out of our isolation, and made us better decision-makers. Participation in a local or national CEO roundtable would provide a similar benefit. For the rest of the C-suite, connection with others in your role might come from trade association councils. And of course, as an Executive Coach, I have to mention the value of a coaching relationship. It gives executives a way to get out of their own heads and connect meaningfully with a solid source of support.

Another fruitful option for connection for the CEO is the Board of Directors, beginning with the Board Chair. As long as there is clarity about roles and responsibilities, a healthy professional relationship between the CEO and the Chair can feel like a partnership. The roles are interdependent, with reciprocal responsibility for the success of the organization. As mutual trust increases, the CEO who has been reluctant to reveal struggles will feel freer to express feelings and concerns and to seek counsel. In my experience, the strong sense of camaraderie and partnership with the Board Chair spills over into the Board as a whole, as well as its relationship with C-suite executives. As a result, overall leadership becomes more collaborative and connections are strengthened.

Burned out executives: before you quit, I hope you’ll examine your own level of isolation. I hope you’ll do what it takes to make meaningful connections. And once you’re feeling grounded – once the urge to flee has subsided – I hope you will turn your attention back to your team and tackle the very real problem of workforce well-being.

I help CEOs and other executives get strategic clarity and implement their plans with confidence. Reach out anytime: ken@reliance-leadership.com.

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