CEO Oasis: Relief for “Loneliness at the Top”

It’s 8 PM and everyone has left the building except the guy at the top, Steve, CEO of a mid-size manufacturing firm. For months now, Steve has been struggling over cash-flow problems with no solution in sight. Coming up with each new payroll has been terrifying him more and more as each deadline demands yet another inventive solution for meeting that period’s payday.

As the city lights turn on in the street below his 4th floor corner office, Steve feels as though he has come to the end of the line. He needs input from someone who has been here before yet none of his people qualify, not his CFO, not his COO, not any of his VPs. No one under him has served as the top officer of an operation as large as his, and no one outside the company comes to mind as someone he can turn to and confide in. Plus, of course, he dare not reveal to his executive team that their own paychecks are in jeopardy due to circumstances beyond his control. That would only send them slipping out the door with updated resumes in search of positions more secure elsewhere.

An antidote to Steve’s “loneliness at the top” condition does exist, however – but only if he is lucky enough to hear about or stumble across it. In most major cities, CEO “oases” of one sort or another assemble top officers just like Steve to support each other in times of trouble that only a lonely CEO is in a unique position to know.

Fred Green, Chair Emeritus of the CEO Club of Boston, explains that CEOs “often can’t ask their employees for advice as such employees simply would not know how to respond. Nor can they share much with their spouses, unless their spouse has also served as a top officer, which is usually not the case.” Green adds that CEOs would also not want to go to their company’s board of directors because directors (technically the CEO’s boss) might begin speculating that their CEO does not know what he or she is doing and, as a result, may no longer be the right fit for the job. So the CEO feels trapped, with nowhere to run or to hide or to seek help.

But CEOs fortunate enough to discover a CEO oasis can find the kind of support they need that enables them to hang on and reorient toward a profitable course of action. A CEO group affords weary CEOs a watering hole where, in addition to supportive feedback, they can also relax and socialize with like-minded peers, make contact with helpful resources (attorneys, consultants, IT vendors) and even offer counsel of their own to other CEOs stuck or confused. This last feature instills a feeling of satisfaction that they too can help their colleagues by “giving something back.”

“A CEO club is a place where you can talk to people who will understand you because you all know what being a CEO feels like,” says Joe Bodio, CEO/Founder of LAN-TEL Communications, and a CEO Club of Boston member for over 17 years. ”A lot of us have found ourselves in the same place at one time or another which makes all the difference.”

Adds Brian Urban, CEO of Sencorp and four other companies, “Being able to meet and get to know CEO peers from different industries or even a similar one can help a lot due to the sharing of like information. It has added new skillsets to my repertoire and processes useful to my companies. Investment in a CEO group setting can contribute greatly to one’s overall success.”

It should be noted however that, when trekking across the sands of a lonely-at-the-top desert, a variety of distinctly different CEO oasis “models” can be available to relieve the pain. Here are the most common:

  1. CEO roundtables: These small groups of 8-10 CEOs meet regularly to recommend action steps and takeaways to each other that might solve a colleague’s current challenges. They then hold each other accountable for commitments made from one meeting to another.  Meeting once a month for a half-day, roundtables usually include a facilitator.
  2. Vistage: Like roundtables, this national organization with chapters in most US cities operates groups of typically 8-10 who meet regularly to support each other, again with the aid of a facilitator. The difference however is that Vistage’s monthly meetings are intensive all-day sessions, not half-day.
  3. CEO Clubs: Primarily speaker- and panel-driven breakfast, lunch or dinner formats, CEO clubs gather perhaps 40-50 attendees to network and take part in shorter (one hour or less) small group roundtables as well as hear presentations.  Some of these groups, e.g., Boston, Baltimore, Dallas, also provide ongoing roundtable sessions that take place on a separate day.
  4. C-Level Community: This innovative online subscriber service provides resources, blogs, webinars, an Expert of the Week Q&A, etc. for CEOs who don’t wish to leave their offices! But offline breakfast networking and speaker programs are also provided so it offers a sort of best of both worlds.
  5. Chief Executives Club sponsored by Boston College: This less intimate format attracts literally hundreds of executives, CEOs and VPs alike, who network over a luncheon buffet which includes a keynote by a name-brand CEO. No smaller support groups or additional programs are provided.

With so many variations of CEO support available, no valid excuse exists for a top executive to continue functioning all alone. That watering hole in a nearby oasis can replenish, revive and dispel the overbearing heat of an impending business disaster. Those CEOs who have taken themselves out of such scenarios report they now face every new troubling challenge with a confidence braced by the knowledge they are not alone.

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