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Does It Have to Be So Lonely at the Top?

by Beverly Flaxington

I often reflect on the point in my career when I was promoted to a position reporting to the Vice Chairman of one of the largest insurance companies in the world. I was so excited to be a senior person “in charge” at a young stage of my career. However, I began to notice, in the first couple of weeks, that people who used to just drop in to my office no longer stopped by.

And, I could not schedule a lunch date with anyone – everyone was “busy” and unable to go.

While having breakfast with the Vice Chairman one morning, I mentioned this phenomenon to him, thinking he would believe me to be crazy and imagining things. Instead, he listened intently and responded, “Get used to it, Bev. It’s lonely at the top.” He went on to talk about how people who used to view me as a peer and a friend now saw me as someone with power, someone who could help them – or hurt them. Overnight, just due to a change in title, the experience others had of me was different.

It was very hard to get used to, and I felt the lack of interaction compromised my ability to be as successful. I had always been a “go-to” person and had people share information that was valuable for me to get my job done. Being cut off from that flow of information was very difficult for me.

The most dangerous thing that happens to leaders is they get separated from the people they are serving. It’s easy to see how it happens; my own experience taught me. I thought I was very accessible and approachable, and I was – until I got the title with the “C” in front of it.

Of course, it’s not appropriate to share everything once you are privy to what goes on at the top. But you still need feedback and information from below in order to make those good decisions. What are some ways that leaders can stay connected while also respecting the boundaries?

One key opportunity that is often missed is spending time doing their jobs. I used to like reading about the senior people at Hyatt Hotels who, at least once a year, visited their hotels and did the staff member’s jobs. They carried bags, checked guests in and probably cleaned the rooms, too. This way they got to see what their staff experienced every day, and what their guests did, too.

Try this at your company. Spend time sitting with someone down the ranks. Watch what they do and how they do it. Get in touch with what’s happening on the floor, out in the field, on the phones, or with your customers. See things from a staff perspective and show a genuine interest – ask questions, probe and don’t judge.

You might learn valuable information to do your own job more effectively!

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