Lonely at the top? You need a group

Photo by Saksham Gangwar on Unsplash

Recently I realised that, despite being in meetings all day, I feel like I spend my work day alone. I’m back in familiar, but uncomfortable territory…

I started my career as an accountant and found the role so isolating, tinkering with spreadsheets all day, speaking to very few people as I analysed my numbers, that I would come home at the end of the day frustrated and miserable.

After 7 years (and a number of birthdays in college, revising for professional exams) I couldn’t take it any more. I quit my job, decamped to China to learn kung fu and when I returned, changed career into sales. This played to my relationship building and persuasion skills, and was a balm to my outgoing personality. I traded ideas with my team, went to meet clients several times a day. It was adrenaline-fuelled, target-chasing, exciting work.

Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

But it was short lived. Sales was too far towards the other end of the spectrum for me. My role was very repetitive. Not analytical. So much talking, to the point where I’d fuel myself with coffee during the day, socialise heavily after it and come home at night feeling burnt out.

After 3 years doing this I changed again and found a happy medium, a career with some relationship management, some analysis and a lot of team working. And I thrived – loved my work.

I progressed, took on more responsibility, more senior roles and inevitably moved away from day to day contact with my teams. Now I’m not directly involved in problem solving and ideation, more of a strategist and culture builder and an escalation route when things go wrong.

Recently I’ve started getting my direct reports back in to the office after the Covid 19 pandemic, and realise I’m a bit out of touch with them. They all work with their own teams day-to-day and I’m (by design) not involved.

The person in the role before me said: ‘this is where you want to get to, have people seeing to everything and free yourself up to manage upwards and network’.

Putting aside all the positives this gives me, the downside is there are very few people for me to ‘sound off’ to day to day, to have a laugh and unwind with. I attend a lot of meetings, but I feel like I always have to be the adult in the room. And (grab your tissues people) I get lonely.

That’s natural for people in leadership positions. I hear this from others at work, from parents at school. And there’s lots online about it which you can Google (just my first result here).

There are ways I’ve found to overcome this and get out of the funk I sometimes find myself in, all by connecting with others:

I have a monthly check in with my leadership training peer group

As these are (mostly) external people I get to speak freely about the challenges I’m having at work. It’s a great opportunity to reflect about what’s going well and not. This week I talked about how I messed up in applying one of the tools, had to work through a mess of my own making afterwards, but also what I learned from it.

The positivity I got back from the group was immense. Being able to open up and be vulnerable with them and also speak openly about challenges which were too sensitive for work was hugely valuable.

I run a peer coaching circle at work

I have a weekly get together with people from across the company who want to be held accountable for working towards their goals. We use the Working Out Loud method, but any check-in process would do.

As the others work outside my immediate area, the real value comes from knowing I’m not competing with them for anything, there’s no politics, just a climate of support.

I’m taking a much more fun approach to team meetings

I recently described my predicament to some friends: how do I run a good team meeting for people I don’t work with and who don’t work together?

My friends Tom and Rishi both said their team members take it in turns to choose the agenda and run their meetings. A rotating chair, if you will.

Great idea!

So far we’ve played games (two truths and a lie) and had a presentation on something the chair is passionate about.

I’m early days in this experiment, but the team love it, I’ve bonded more with them in those sessions that in any other, and we get to have fun. One of the things I look forward to most in my week.

How about you?

These were some simple ideas to overcome the isolation that comes with a leadership role. What groups are you associated with or could you put together? How could you switch the focus of some of your team meetings to lighten the mood and bring people closer together?

If you have other ideas, I’d love to hear them – please leave a comment!


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