Are You Isolated as the Leader of Your Small Business?

by Sheryl Nance-Nash on February 28, 2014
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They don’t say “it’s lonely at the top” for nothing. It can be. And isolation is often hard on a chief executive’s psyche and bad for business.

Leaders may want to portray a tough-guy or tough-gal image, but they have feelings too. In a 2012 survey by RHR International [PDF], 41 percent of CEOs polled said they experience loneliness in the role. And, according to a 2013 study by Stanford researchers and the Miles Group, nearly two-thirds of chief execs do not receive support from consultants or coaches.

Truth is, if you’ve got a skewered view of reality, either because you’re being sheltered, isolated from truth by your inner circle, or you’re living the silo life with no clue about what’s what, it’s just a matter of time before your lack of knowledge hurts the business. Top brass are even aware of it: 61 percent of CEOs believe that isolation hinders their performance.

Avoiding Ivory Tower Syndrome

Whether you’re head of a major corporation, a mid-size enterprise, or a mom-and-pop shop, remember that no CEO should be an island. Here are some tips from three chief execs on how to avoid feeling isolated.

Chuck Gumbert, CEO of the consulting firm Tomcat Group advises small-business owners to establish a board of directors — a group of trusted and successful business associates who are more experienced than they are. “I would recommend staying away from having family members on the board,” Gumbert says. You want as little drama as possible, and family can be complicated, he explains.

Consider hiring a management consultant or business coach who will ask you tough questions and critique your ideas. “You need someone to help you with accountability,” Gumbert says.

The risk of isolation is very real for Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs. She and the virtual company’s 40 staffers work from home offices across the country. Her key strategy for staying in the loop is to solicit feedback regularly, especially negative or concern-related input.

“I have weekly meetings with my management team where I solicit honest feedback about initiatives and ask targeted, probing questions to get to the root of the discussion. I spend time every week on our social media channels, the company blog, and our internal message board, so I can be as in-the-know as possible,” she says.

“I not only ask for honest feedback from people, I listen to the feedback in a way that makes it easier for people to be truly honest with me. As a CEO, you can’t simply tell employees they can come to you about anything. You actually have to receive the information they’re giving you in a way that makes them want to continue being honest with you.”

A couple of questions she often asks her staff include: What honest feedback do you have for me? and Do you have any concerns we can talk about?

Participating in the Business

Vladimir Gendelman, CEO of Company Folders, says it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day aspects of running a small business. “You can be so busy balancing out working in your business, managing people, processes, and budgets, and working on your business (marketing, strategic planning, etc.), that you find yourself isolated.”

What does he do? “We go out for a group lunch several times a year, but I also make sure to have informal one-on-one lunches to stay in touch,” says Gendelman, who has 12 employees.

Like Sutton Fell, Gendelman solicits feedback. “I make sure to ask employees what they’re seeing in the business: What are we doing right? Where can we improve things to make a smoother experience for our customers and a more efficient process for us? [How] can I help empower them more to better address issues we face as a company?”

He also makes it a point to participate in multiple aspects of the business, including sitting in on customer-service calls and spending time with marketing staff.

“It’s good not only to meet with the heads of any department, but to spend some hands-on time — answering customer calls, for example, to get a sense of what issues are important for customers. After all, if you want to see the dents in your walls, clean your walls and you’ll see all the dents and imperfections. The same is true for your company.”

Sheryl Nance-Nash is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.

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