Suzan Bond has been an executive coach for over 15 years. Her recently published article, “Why Leaders Feel Lonely,” documents the isolation and solitude of executive life. Over the course of several months, Suzan interviewed tech executives to gain insight into their personal experience as leaders. We spoke with her about the importance of executive coaching, the loneliness felt by CEOs, and how she helps them cope with painful feelings.
Becoming a coach
I’ve always been fascinated with human behavior, and especially with leadership. From a young age, I was a voracious reader, gravitating to stories of famous historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, Sacagawea and Martin Luther King Jr. I was so fixated on this subject that I decided to study psychology and social psychology in college. I was interested in the intersection between the individual and the group, and how it can be mutually influential. I also wanted to understand conflict better and how change is effected in society. I read Marx, Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Weber, among many others—I was super nerdy.
The goal was to get a PhD in sociology, but at some point, I realized I didn’t want to make a living as a professor. So I ended up getting a degree in American Studies, then a master’s in social work with a specialization in organizational strategy and community organizing. After college, I became a manager in a small digital agency. Very early in my tenure, I had to lay people off, it was tough. It also made me realize that I wanted to deepen my understanding of how to be a leader. Around this time I discovered coaching which spoke to me as a way of working with others. I went back to my psychology and sociology roots, did two years of training, got a coaching certificate and became an executive coach.
These days I coach senior leaders at scaling startups. While I use coaching techniques when working with tech executives I also draw on my experience as a former COO.
What it means to be a leader
There isn’t one way to be a leader. In reality, it’s hard to come up with a specific set of leadership qualities — leadership can take many different forms. Some come to leadership because they want independence, autonomy, or to have a greater impact on an organization and its people. They see problems and they want to resolve them. We think that leaders have to be strong and decisive, but people can lead in various ways, and each way differs from one organization to another.
For me, one of the most important leadership tasks is relationship building. I spend more time talking with leaders about relationships than anything else. When you start working at a company, you’re focused on your team. As you get bigger, you become more exposed to other aspects and the complexity of the organization. As leaders progress in their career, they have to move from intra-team to inter-team dynamics. And going through that process means building better relationships. They can’t just say “build this because I want you to” — there are limits to conferred power by virtue of their title and place in the organization.
Trusting yourself and your instincts is also really important. However, that has to be balanced by getting feedback from others. A great example of this is Liz Wiseman’s book Multipliers, which is fantastic. She describes two kinds of leaders: multipliers who invite more people into the conversation and bring people up, and diminishers who tend to say “I know the answer. Here’s what we’re going to do.” The latter can be disempowering for your team.
Loneliness and other pain points
Senior leaders seek out coaching for different reasons. They might be struggling to resolve a conflict or they’re dealing with a recent failure. Oftentimes, they’re undergoing a transition in their career, like being promoted from management to senior leadership. Things have changed dramatically, but they’re not completely sure in what ways, and they want someone to guide them through the process.
One of the common pain points I see is loneliness. It is prevalent among business leaders. As people get further along in their career, they have fewer people to talk to. As you move into senior leadership, that loneliness only increases.
Loneliness is a big motivating factor for people to seek out coaching. Most leaders barely have job descriptions or get annual reviews, so they have to create their own feedback loops. In this regard, coaching can provide an opportunity for introspection. Having a neutral person to talk to, one who’s outside of the organization and can view the situation from multiple angles, can be a source of growth and reflection. Having support like this allows leaders to leverage feedback loops in order to assess their behavior and change it in real time.
The first year of being in a leadership position can feel like diving into the deep end of the pool. You sink or you swim. Leaders are suddenly forced to move from a belief that says “my value is delivering the work” to one that says “my value is to guide the team.” A question that new leaders typically ask is “what’s my value as a leader now and how do I change my behavior?”
One of the hardest things about executive loneliness is that hardly anyone else can see it. It doesn’t seem like leaders should be lonely at all, but that’s because we don’t understand how loneliness works. You can be in a crowded room and feel lonely. It’s not necessarily about physical solitude; it’s a feeling of not being understood. Calling on friends isn’t sufficient, especially if they’ve never been a leader, they lack the context for understanding the complexity of the problems presented every day. If they can find a trusted person inside the company, that’s fantastic. Peer networks can connect them with others they can share feelings and ideas with. Many find an executive coach useful. Sometimes, they just say: «I need a sounding board. I don’t have anyone to talk to.» That’s often a stand-in for loneliness.
We hold leaders to impossibly high standards, so they feel a lot of pressure not only to succeed, but also to be confident at all times. This dynamic can increase leader loneliness. I’m not saying that we should give them a free pass, but we should acknowledge that they are human, and all humans have vulnerabilities and emotions.
More leaders are speaking up like Rand Fishkin, the founder and former CEO of Moz.com, who has written extensively about mental health challenges and his failures. When leaders are open about these issues, it can shift how we talk about leader loneliness and how we address it.