How CEOs Can Prevent the Scourge of Isolation

Heads of companies are sheltered in the C suite. Here's how to break out of the Fortress of Solitude.

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By Joel Trammell

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The role of the CEO is inherently isolating. They're expected to be on top of the game at all times, yet it's often lonely up there -- and many CEOs don't know how to break out of their Fortress of Solitude.

Here, some isolating factors and how to mitigate them.

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  1. They have no peers in the company. As the top dog, they have no one to confide in at the office. They have no boss on a day-to-day basis. If they were promoted from within, they're now managing their former colleagues.
  2. They don't get honest feedback. With no immediate superior, CEOs receive little input on their performance outside of quarterly financial results and shareholder feedback. This can be especially disconcerting for a first-time CEO. Also, subordinates will be reluctant to point out any shortcomings and will filter what they say when -- if -- they say it. Often, the information CEOs do hear is overwhelmingly positive or so diluted that it doesn't represent reality.
  3. They must make decisions in areas where they're not experts. CEOs get jobs as CEOs because they excelled in a functional role such as sales, marketing or engineering. All of a sudden, no longer the smartest person in their area in every meeting, they must make major decisions in unfamiliar territory.
  4. They have total responsibility. The buck stops with the CEO. If the company succeeds, the CEO gets the credit. If the company fails, he or she gets all the blame.
  5. Yet they have limited control. Despite having total responsibility, CEOs quickly realize they don't have a lot of control. No longer an individual contributor in a functional role, as a CEO they must act through people instead of doing things themselves. They can't order people to be engaged in or excited about their work -- which is a major part of delivering performance as a CEO.

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Now, here's what CEOs should do to prevent becoming too removed from the very organizations they're trying to run.

  1. Seek out mentors and trusted advisors. CEOs need to build a network of contacts outside the business that will provide objective advice. They should cultivate relationships with mentors and coaches who can be sounding boards. In addition, they should take advantage of personal training and development programs. Ask for feedback from all levels of the organization.
  2. Minimize the interference of their gatekeepers. Gatekeepers mean well but often shelter the boss from important information. CEOs should get out of their offices and practice management by walking around to hear about developments, successes and worries firsthand. In addition, anonymous feedback mechanisms can help bring challenges to light. Another valuable source of information for CEOs is a formal system of record that keeps track of employee objectives and progress and allows employees to raise a red flag on any pressing issues.
  3. Learn to make decisions with incomplete information. CEOs need to become comfortable with making decisions even when they don't have all the information. They should study the art of good decision-making, and apply it. This includes knowing which decisions to make as a CEO, acting quickly and coaching staff on making quality decisions. Balance having total responsibility with limited control.
  4. Understand their influence. Somewhere between micromanaging everything and taking a hands-off approach lies the answer to being a good CEO. They may have little control, but he or she does have influence. CEOs cultivate this by developing and instilling a compelling vision and then tying that vision to every employee's day-to-day job. Effective CEOs create a culture of performance, where employees understand their objectives and know that they'll be measured on them regularly and consistently. Employees who know how their roles contribute to the company's strategy will be more engaged and perform better.

Being a savvy CEO means one knows -- or learns -- how to escape the trappings of that corner office and keep a finger on the pulse of the organization.

Related: 10 Behaviors You Never See in Successful People

Joel Trammell

Veteran CEO; CEO, Black Box; Founder, Khorus

Joel Trammell is CEO of Black Box, which provides IT infrastructure services, and the founder of CEO software company Khorus. He is also the author of the The CEO Tightrope.

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