WHO REALLY KNOWS YOU?

by Matt Thomas

Recently, I sat down with a new coaching client for a kickoff session. He is at the helm of a 10mm organization, young forties, with an impressive track record of growth and expansion. A few hours into our meeting he started to open up about the loneliness he feels at the top of his organization. I asked him to speak to the strength of his relationships outside of work. He shared, admirably, about the bond he and his wife have and described her as his best friend. I asked him a follow-up question, “other than your wife, who really knows you?” Crickets. Unfortunately, the response, and reality, are not unique to my friend.

An HBR study in 2012 found that “half of CEOs report experiencing feelings of loneliness in their role, and of this group, 61 percent believe it hinders their performance. Nearly 70 percent of first-time CEOs who experience loneliness report that the feelings negatively affect their performance.” The truth is that these statistics are likely not limited to CEOs. They are true for middle managers, non-profit leaders, and entrepreneurs. Loneliness is an equal opportunity emotion.

An HBR study in 2012 found that “half of CEOs report experiencing feelings of loneliness in their role, and of this group, 61 percent believe it hinders their performance.

I hear the same set of excuses all the time. Some combination of, “I’m just too busy to focus on anything but work and my family gets the minimal free time I have.” Or, “Nobody in my circle knows what it is really like leading an organization, they just don’t get it.” And occasionally from the more honest leaders having a hard go, “I really just don’t want anyone to know what a train wreck I am, there’s too much at stake!” Many leaders suffer from a disease I’ve long been afflicted with; “terminal uniqueness.” Sure, you might have challenges, but I’ve got REAL problems. We tend to think that we are the only human beings on earth dealing with whatever it is that is eating our lunch. So we bury our heads in the sand and hope things will just get better, or more often we try to work ourselves out of a funk. Either way, we’re missing out.

The real problem with isolating ourselves is that we can start to believe things that aren’t true about ourselves and our organizations, and even worse, we will make decisions that flow out of our inaccurate beliefs. Often, when a pressing issue on the business front has me completely undone, I’ll grab lunch with a mentor or trusted friend and present the problem with all of my angst and hopeless despair. My friend will smile and kindly offer a few potential solutions, then the lightbulb goes off! Voila! That could actually work! Why didn’t I think of that? Over and over again, the outside perspective and support get me unstuck and moving in the right direction.

The real problem with isolation is that we can start to believe things that aren’t true about ourselves and our organizations, and even worse, we will make decisions that flow out of our inaccurate beliefs.

A few months back I was at lunch with my mentor. Unbeknownst to him, I came in questioning the effectiveness of my leadership after blowing it in back to back critical conversations with two separate team members that morning. He offered some words of encouragement and affirmation that put some serious wind back in my sails. I had started to believe things that weren’t true about me, and he, being the Jedi that he is, reminded me of who I really am. These mission-critical moments don’t happen in isolation.

Here are a few questions to consider if you struggle to answer the question, “Who Really Knows You?”

What are you afraid of?

Meaningful relationship demands exposure to meaningful risk. That is the way a leader I have tremendous respect for defines vulnerability. Most of us are afraid of letting people in because we have been burned in the past. Our ability to trust has evaporated and so we find it easier to keep to ourselves. Identify exactly what it is you are afraid of and deal with that fear head-on.

Who are your peers?

There are men and women leading comparably-sized organizations in your city. Go find them. At a minimum, schedule regular lunches with them. I’m not talking about networking opportunities. Only salespeople really enjoy networking events. There are phenomenal peer groups out there worth considering as well (Vistage, Convene, YPO, Core Leadership, etc.). Consider joining one.

How many great ideas were birthed in isolation?

The answer is almost none. Having the ability to pinball an idea with like-minded leaders is invaluable. Good friends and mentors will push on our convictions and force us to figure out what we really believe. They’ll shoot down our bad ideas and help refine our good ones.

What’s really holding you back?

Most would answer that a lack of time and energy is the primary reason they are not cultivating meaningful relationships. If that is true, then the reality is you have structured your organization and your role in a way that is unsustainable, much less scalable. It is probably time for an overhaul of your organizational structure which I don’t recommend going at alone.

If you, like my new friend, cannot name a single person who really knows you outside of your significant other, then you are probably not operating at the level you could and should be. We weren’t built to lead alone.