It’s Lonely at the Top?
I don’t agree (if that’s the assertion) that CEOs are lonely people, however, there are some issues about which there aren’t many folks to whom a CEO can speak completely candidly. Everyone needs to just think aloud sometimes, but it is hard for CEOs to find an appropriate forum for some topics. Foremost among these sensitive topics are personnel issues, I’ve found.
For example, let’s say a CEO is dealing with a marginally underperforming executive and is trying to decide upon a course of action. That’s not exactly a topic that can be candidly discussed (in fairness to all involved) with the other executives on his or her team. It’s also not something that can always be candidly addressed with board members for fear of getting an over reaction and putting a black mark on said marginally underperforming executive. How many of you CEOs have tried this and gotten a "What?! You’ve got a "VP" problem?" from your board members? In the example I mentioned, maybe you’re wrong about the executive or maybe the real issue is your leadership. Sometimes you need someone to whom you can just think aloud on the issue on your way to a conclusion (which may involve talking to the other executives and one or more board members).
In my experience, issues like this (and there are many) are frequently topics of dinner time conversation with the CEO’s spouse (who after a while responds something like, "can we please talk about something other than work?"). I’ve found that one of the best forums for discussing this is in periodic meetings with other CEOs. While you can talk with friends and acquaintences about this, it’s really helpful to have a formal or informal group of peers to whom you can go on topics like this…at least that’s what I have found.
In Boston, the best CEO network I’ve come across is organized by Clark Waterfall, a partner at the Boston Search Group, a headhunting firm. Clark really does an amazing job with the network; every participant I’ve spoken with raves about it.