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It can be lonely at the top, so it helps if CEOs turn to peer groups for support. (Thinkstock)
It can be lonely at the top, so it helps if CEOs turn to peer groups for support. (Thinkstock)

LEADERSHIP LAB

What to do when it’s lonely at the top Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

It’s lonely at the top; it remains a truism about leadership. It’s difficult to speak to anyone honestly. Trust is hard to come by. Even colleagues cannot understand a leader’s experiences.

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To overcome this isolation, more and more leaders are turning to formal or informal peer groups; many wonder about the benefits of joining one.

Peer environments, a place for leaders to connect, think and grow, are professionally led, with veteran executives as moderators – and are highly confidential. For an inside look at these groups, a few members of my executive leadership program, Presidents of Enterprising Organizations, have agreed to share their experiences with the Leadership Lab.

Here are eight of the most common questions asked about these organizations:

1. Is it confidential?

“The peer environment is group therapy for CEOs,” said Hildy Abrams, chief executive officer of Gourmet Settings, a table and flatware designer and manufacturer. “You’re sharing your challenges in a trusting confidential atmosphere – that’s what group therapy is.”

“My group helps me think about how I can grow, how I can motivate people, how I can compensate them,” Ms. Abrams said. And being part of a group of strong business people you hope that “a little of it might rub off.”

2. Can you really be honest?

“As president, you lack peers and people to talk to who are like-minded, with a similar understanding of what you’re going through,” said Dean Johnson, CEO of Sodexo Canada, the foodservice and facilities management company. “I was cautious for the first few meetings, but came to realize it was a place where I could be really transparent and honest about my experiences,” he added.

3. Can it change your leadership style?

“You are asked about what kind of a leader you want to be, what kind you think you are and how you want to be perceived,” Mr. Johnson explained. “Through various 360 [degree]leadership assessment tools, we took the feedback back into our peer advisory teams and shared some of the opportunities and challenges before us. In my case the results were at odds with the way I saw myself.”

4. How can you change?

“The leadership impact exercise we did was a turning point for me,” Mr. Johnson said. “A leader’s profile has dramatically changed and everyone at the workshop shared those insights. From a personal leadership development perspective, it was one of the biggest things that I did that triggered me to change and think about how I would lead differently.”

5. Are there special capabilities within groups?

Each group is typically comprised of a diverse group of senior executives. That diversity helps bring different experiences and mindsets to leaders’ personal and business issues. The variety of industry backgrounds, expertise, and geographic experience helps leaders learn what others do differently, leading to innovative thinking.

6. Do you know what will happen in advance? Is there an agenda?

“We have an agenda, but often do not follow it depending on our individual needs,” said Sarah Beech, president of Pal Benefits, the benefit, retirement, and compensation consultants. “If someone takes up the whole time, we are all happy with it. The real value in the meeting has been about the immediacy of a problem.”

“Sometimes in a business planning cycle, we say now it’s your turn to share your business plan with us,” she added. “Then we ask for input on where can it be better, how could you get your point across in a more succinct and successful way.”

7. What is the greatest benefit that you derive?

“Many of us have lunch outside or get together at various times,” Ms. Beech said. “The community is something that one doesn’t expect to find when joining a peer advisory team. The relationships one develops both within a group or in the community are invaluable to not only developing as a better leader but also assist your organization to grow.”

8. What kind of businesses are these executives from?

“There are a couple of service business leaders within our group, a few from the corporate and one from the non-profit sector,” said Lisa Kimmel, Toronto office general manager for public relations firm Edelman. She added that her group is “a crucial sounding board for key decisions I need to make – both for the business and personally speaking, for my own professional growth. I like the fact many are 10 years older and can provide me mentorship advice.”

Discussing common business issues, thinking outside of the box, and taking the time to reflect helps with both a leader’s personal and organizational growth. In the changing business environment, leaders must invest the time to focus on their leadership skills and tap into fresh perspectives. Peer executive networks help leaders reduce loneliness at the top.

Leon Goren (@LeonGoren) is president and chief executive officer of Presidents of Enterprising Organizations, a leadership training organization.

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