Martin Senn, the former head of Zurich Insurance,
committed suicide in May this year, less than three years after two other top Swiss executives took their own lives. It's difficult to generalize from individual tragedies like these, but it's just as difficult not to see a common thread. It's long been argued that companies could do a lot more to support their employees' mental health and well-being, considering that so many of those pressures arise in the workplace.
What's clear is that CEOs aren't exempt from the pressures. Many execs face intense scrutiny in their roles and bear the mental and emotional burden of guiding their companies to success and protecting their employees' livelihoods—and that's outside of any issues in their personal lives.
So many roll their eyes at the notion that highly compensated business leaders need or deserve special attention. And at a time when so many Americans struggle just to find a decently paid job, that sentiment is understandable. But it doesn't diminish or negate the reality that the c-suite offers no shelter from psychological pressures—many of which are unique to those in leadership positions.
A survey by RHR International found that half of CEOs report experiencing feelings of loneliness in their roles. Of this group, 61% believe isolation hinders their performance. That’s a significant proportion of top executives who are suffering and not performing at their peak. Executive loneliness and isolation is bad for people and bad for business.
In my experience, fear and ego are two of the main causes of this kind of isolation. On the one hand, there’s fear of appearing inadequate and the concern that asking for help could make others doubt your judgment. After all, CEOs are supposed to have all the answers—the buck stops with you. Meanwhile, your ego is telling you that you really don’t need others to help make big decisions; who knows your business better than you do? Combined, these two factors can prevent even highly capable CEOs from turning to others for support when they need it most.
When times are good, you may not even notice this. It’s when your business faces real struggles that the risks and consequences of loneliness come into play. In the 2008—2009 financial crisis, my business was in desperate shape and everyone was looking to me for answers. I could feel the walls closing in. Here are some steps I was able to take to overcome those feelings of anxiety and loneliness and get myself—and my company—back in gear.
For me, one of the most revelatory things was simply realizing that I wasn’t alone in being alone. Lots of other CEOs out there were experiencing the same challenges and going through the same emotions. I just had to look outside my own company and immediate circle to find them.
For me, the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), a group of CEOs from companies around the world, has been an incredible channel for connecting with peers who've had similar experiences. During regular meetings with my YPO forum group—eight to 10 CEOs or other top decision makers from non-competing businesses—we all share the challenges we’re facing and speak frankly about how we're trying to tackle them.
In 2009, when BuildDirect was teetering on the brink of collapse, I confessed to my forum mates that in about a month’s time we wouldn’t be able to make payroll. This was an incredibly scary thing to admit, but just being able to say it out loud to others helped me unlock the creative thinking it took to come up with a solution.
Bottom line: There are other people out there who have gone through the exact same challenges. Finding them—even if it means looking outside your company—is a first step toward overcoming isolation.
Vulnerability is all about inviting others into your world, making it a natural antidote to loneliness. The challenge is taking that first step and letting down your defenses. I’ve found that simply
confiding in people from the get-go—essentially, trusting first and asking questions later—can dramatically improve ties with your team. While you never know what kind of response you’ll get, in my experience the benefits far outweigh the risks.
This isn’t a unique perspective on my part. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has spoken previously about the importance of vulnerability and transparency and the role they played when his company was struggling in 2008. Instead of trying to become the lone savior of Starbucks, Schultz helped his employees understand the challenges the company was facing and empowered them to become part of the solution. But he first had to let his own guard down as their leader in order to do that.
I’ve seen the power of this firsthand. During the crisis, I held a company-wide meeting and explained to everyone that we would have to shut down BuildDirect if we couldn’t figure our way out of the problems we were facing. Rather than drawing up a strategy behind closed doors and hoping for the best, laying everything out there in the open encouraged the whole team to take ownership of our challenges and work toward solving it, which we ultimately did.
When I think about how fortunate I am to have a loving family, good health, and the ability to make positive contributions to the world around me, it’s hard to get bogged down in despair or loneliness for too long. A 2007 study, in fact, found that gratitude led directly to "higher levels of perceived social support, and lower levels of stress and depression"—just one of the psychological benefits of simple thankfulness.
The challenge, as always, is remembering all of this in the heat of the moment. For me, maintaining this perspective is all about routine and repetition. I work hard to carve out dedicated time for family and friends—then try and protect that time when I do. My family sometimes takes trips to a cabin, and when we're there, I do my best to make sure I give my full attention to things like swimming, campfires, and enjoying each other’s company—not work. That may sound simple, but any business leader knows how hard it can be. In the end, gratitude is almost like a muscle: It’s something you have to consciously exercise or else you risk losing it.
Media coverage of high-profile CEOs tends to ramp up whenever things are going really well or really badly, and that can add a real psychological pressure on execs themselves. For leaders who judge their success by that popular narrative, the pressures on them can build, sometimes with terrible consequences.
But great CEOs know—and always try to remind themselves, especially when it's hardest—that it’s never about them. It’s about the impact that their businesses have on others. They build relationships and teams that pass credit for success onto other people. They stand in when mistakes are made, shielding their teams so that experimenting and learning can continue. As I've come to understand, win or lose, knowing it’s not all about you—and never has been—can make a big difference.