Late one night he sits in his office staring out of his 6th floor window. Only the cleaning crews remain. And the security guard posted at the desk downstairs. Plus all the thoughts and concerns that accompany the CEO peering out into the night sky and the surrounding buildings.
Three years into the job he figured himself bright enough to have figured it out by now. After all, he’s successfully navigated most every water he’s stepped into. Usually with moderate ease. But this is different. At this height the air is thinner along with the company. To be fair, he’s surrounded by many more people than ever before. Sometimes nothing is so lonely as a crowd.
When he was the VP of Marketing he had peers. Six of them were the inner circle of leadership. He could always walk down the hall to his close friend, the VP of Engineering. They operated in very different worlds, but were always united in their quest to propel the business forward, along with their own climb up the mountain. Tonight, he’s thinking of that friendship and how at an hour like this, they’d likely be sharing coffee, perhaps something stronger. That was then. This is now. Now he’s alone.
Tonight’s anxiety is driven by a recent lawsuit over alleged patent-infringement. The legal team has assured him it more nuisance then substance, but they’ve also warned it could be a prolonged battle. The expense is one consideration, but not the primary one. Instead, it’s the lost years of development and the potential market losses of a new product that has been the focal point of all product development in the last 30 months.
There are risks of hitting the pause button on the project. What if the suit drags on? What if they lose? What if they don’t?
All the same questions arise when considering the risk of moving forward. It could well be throwing more money down a dry hole.
And there are the sales and profit projections hinging on the project.
No one to be mad at. He’s reviewed things with engineering, product design and the legal team. Consensus is the lawsuit is ill-founded by a company with a history of patent troll behavior. No matter, it must be fought and given serious consideration.
Tonight he’s giving it the umpteenth hour of worry. In 2 days he’s going to assemble the team again – for yet another meeting (he’s forgotten how many they’ve had) – and they want to know what he’d have them do. On his desk are three bound proposals, one from each department (engineering, finance and legal). Smart people, all of them. But none of them bear the responsibility on him tonight. To make the decision.
To Whom Shall We Go?
In the gospel of John, chapter 6, the apostle Peter answered the Lord’s question, “Will you too go away?” — and Peter answered, “To whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.” (John 6:67-69)
Many times leaders find themselves asking the question, but unlike Peter — it’s because we have no place to go, and no one to whom we can go. Too often the answer is, “Nobody.” There’s nobody to whom we can go. We simply must go it alone because the burden of such decisions belongs to us.
Friends. Family. Team members. Outside advisors. Books. Journals. Buddies. Like most in the C-suite he sometimes stretches the boundaries of input hoping for an epiphany. It’s less about helpful input, feedback or advice and more about hoping for a spark of enlightenment. No, it hardly ever happens, but it can make him feel like he’s giving it all he’s got.
It’s about 9:45pm. He smiles. Just slightly. He hears the voice of his grandmother saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” From before he entered an MBA program he had his eye on the top rung of the ladder. That’s what drove him to get his MBA. Here he is barely 36 months in and he’s afraid. It’s a longer fall from this height. With more on the line – for himself and for the company. He needs to go home. His wife knew he’d be especially late tonight. She also knows why. She’s at home wrestling her own mind gnomes because she knows she’s not equipped to help him professionally. And sometimes – too frequently for her liking – she’s not allowed to help him much personally during these kinds of things because he grows increasingly quiet. Preoccupation with work has wrecked more time off than she can remember. It’s the price the whole family must pay. Be careful what you wish for.
He logs off the computer at 9:57pm. Locks down his desk, puts the three proposals in his backpack along with his MacBook and heads out the door. On the way to the elevator he calls home. “I’m heading home. Can I pick up anything?” he asks his wife. “No, I’ll snack on something when I get home,” he tells her. She’ll be awake, waiting for him when he arrives. It’s what she does. His anxiety spreads.
This scene and millions like it are repeated daily all over the world. The size of the company doesn’t matter. Just add another zero. Maybe 3 or 4. Plug in a comma here or there. The scale of the problem may grow as the dollars involved do, but problems are problems whether you’re running a $2M enterprise or a $200M or a $2B. Anxiety doesn’t compute like calculators on our iPhone. The business owner who is barely scraping by earning $37K a year can’t be judged on having lower worries simply because he’s not running a multi-million dollar corporation. Leaders at every level know loneliness.
Endurance Isn’t The Same As Overcoming
We grind it out. That’s what all successful people do. Some challenges must be endured because they can’t be overcome. Or maybe they have to be endured until they can be overcome.
Real pain is failing to overcome an issue that otherwise could be overcome. Sometimes there are answers to help us, but we can’t find them inside ourselves. We’re often lonelier than we need to be because we’re stuck alone with ourselves. There’s nobody to help us. Nobody to help us sort it out. Figure it out. And the pressure mounts in our mind to do this heavy lifting alone. We’re the leader and it’s up to us to find a way.
Yet none of us are judged or rewarded on our loneliness in getting it done. Rather, we’re judged on getting it done. Our careers. Our lives. Our employees. Our family. Nobody cares how we find the solution. Just find a solution. We confuse outcome with methodology and in the process we vex ourselves more and more.
There are solutions. Quite a few of them actually. My work focuses on growing business and leaders: getting new customers, serving existing customers better and not going crazy in the process. It’s not about social networking. It’s not about passing out business cards. It’s not about motivational speeches. It’s not about therapy.
It’s about improvement and growth.
It is inspirational.
It’s also therapeutic.
But it’s hardcore business building and growing as CEOs. It’s the premise of all my work – coaching or consulting. Growing leaders grow enterprises.
It’s still about people doing the best work of their lives. That doesn’t happen when we’re alone. It happens when we open ourselves up to the possibilities made available by people committed to helping us purely because they know we’re there to help them. No other agenda.
That’s how you overcome the loneliness inherent in the C-suite.
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