CEOs: Don’t hide behind the job

The Problem with Executive Isolation

This article from discusses the “dark side” of executive gatekeepers: “…it shields the senior executive from direct contact with many of the issues, dynamics, and ideas that are percolating throughout the organization. As a result, all too many senior executives only receive views that have been filtered, orchestrated, and often censored to include only what the ‘senior circle’ thinks he or she should hear.”

This is only one way CEOs become isolated in an organization. It’s definitely lonely at the top for most of them, but this is often of their own making and can be minimized. In the case of gatekeepers, you must not let them isolate you from your own organization. Practicing “management by walking around” and trying to have as many firsthand interactions as you can with employees, customers, partners, prospects and others will help. Only by keeping your hand on the pulse of the organization can you fulfill your strategic role of determining the company’s future path.

Many CEOs are afraid of micro managing, which is a legitimate concern (see CEO Fail: The Total Control CEO). As I’ve said before, if you’ve set a clear strategic course and continually communicate a compelling mission, vision and goals, you should trust your people to do the right things. But you also need to be aware of how your teams are performing, measuring and verifying that performance consistently at all times, to ensure that the company is on the right track.

Other CEOs believe all they have to do is set a winning strategy and then sit back and watch as employees make it happen. As I mentioned in my CEO Fail: The Master Strategist article, this laissez-faire CEO is so removed from day-to-day happenings in the organization that they aren’t aware of problems until it is too late. Then they blame the employees for failing to do the simple things necessary to execute their brilliant strategy.

Another isolating factor is that as a CEO you have no peer or superior in the organization with whom to share your thoughts and doubts. This also makes it the only job in a company without a direct feedback mechanism. After spending an entire career having a manager, the new CEO faces a vacuum of direct input on their performance. There is no day-to-day boss to provide guidance or to act as a sounding board when making the tough decisions. Every other job in an organization has someone assigned to provide management guidance and feedback on how well you are doing your job.

As CEOs we are expected to self-diagnose our weaknesses, because rarely will subordinates directly point out our shortcomings. Because of this, I think it is important for CEOs to build a network of contacts outside the business that they can look to for objective advice. In addition, it’s important to take advantage of executive training and coaching programs.

CEOs seem to want help. According to the just-published 2013 Executive Coaching Survey (conducted by the Center for Leadership Development and Research at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance, and The Miles Group): “Nearly 66% of CEOs do not receive coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants or coaches, while 100% of them stated that they are receptive to making changes based on feedback.” This was from a poll of more than 200 CEOs, board directors, and senior executives of North American public and private companies.

Seeking out the opinions of others you can trust is important as well as making time for personal training and development. The CEO job is isolating by definition. Good CEOs know how to prevent themselves from becoming too insulated from the very organization they’re trying to run.


  1. In the spirit of seeking outside advice, can we get you an office here at HW?

  2. The strangest, saddest thing I saw in business was at Data General in the 1980s. I had a meeting there and was taken to the cafeteria for lunch. The CEO was sitting by himself having two hot dogs and the employees I was with said that happened almost every day – including the hot dogs.


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