After two decades as a stay-at-home mom, I was certain it was the loneliest way to pass the day. I talked to myself and was relieved when we got our first dog, not just for the companionship but because I looked less crazy talking to the dog. Often, my most exciting interaction was brokering a peace agreement between two screaming toddlers fully committed to sole possession of that day's most coveted toy.
When I made the massive leap from stay-at-home mom to founder of a mobile civic tech startup, I brushed off advice from another CEO that this new endeavor -- not staying home with children -- would become the loneliest position I would ever know. This insight came from a man who had never known what it was like to be the only person on the job old enough to work the microwave, unclog a toilet or unlock the front door. Besides, he was abrupt, outspoken, and a bit rude. I was pretty sure that most of his loneliness was a direct result of his flawed social skills, not because he was a CEO.
I was so very wrong.
As rewarding and exhilarating as it is to build a company from an idea, it is also the loneliest journey I have taken. If I could leave only one thought with anyone who is either already a CEO or considering launching their own company, it would be this: if you aren't taking steps right now to build an appropriate support system, your risking burnout and failure to deliver the energy, drive and vision that your team relies on you to bring every day of the year no matter what is going on in your personal life.
Unlike the loneliness I experienced as a mother at home, CEO loneliness is not a result of limited interactions with others. In fact, I often struggle to carve out enough alone time to recharge. Despite being naturally friendly, somewhere along this journey, I've turned into that aloof traveler wearing headphones simply to avoid chitchat, because I need the quiet to prepare for the packed agenda once I land. Thankfully, the positive energy that flows within the walls of our office means that when I am not traveling, I find it exhilarating to be fully engaged with our brilliant team of engineers and designers who are creating cutting edge technology. But on those days when everything has gone to hell in a hand basket -- and we all have those days, it is the loneliest of journeys to set aside whatever personal struggle I am facing to be fully accessible to everyone.
Even away from the office, CEO's are continually networking. And while I actually love this part of my job, I've also learned that as the face of the company there is absolutely no room for pity parties or bad attitudes -- whether I've just had a big blowup with someone or whether I am still grieving the loss of a loved one. As a founder, the day I encouraged others to tie their future success to my own, I gave up the right to bring anything less than my best to our joint pursuit of success.
CEO's also learn to live with a continual filter in place, even around family -- especially if they've invested in your company. It is selfish to burden loved ones with the transient and often extreme roller coaster of emotions that are a very normal part of the startup life but have the power to leave permanent worries on those counting on you to stay strong and not set fire to their investment in your startup. The result is that you carry the burden of the dark days completely alone. And while you may have been free in an earlier part of your life to complain about your jerk of a boss, it is your job to filter your conversation to protect the reputations and privacy of your team, whether others choose to show you that same respect or not. You must privately bear the burden of difficulties and even betrayals that happen within the walls of your company.
How, then, do you deal with the CEO loneliness factor? About a year ago, I worked with my dear friend and the cofounder of my second company, a premier network for women entrepreneurs and leaders, to launch our first Design Council, a safe sounding board and mastermind group made up of women entrepreneurs from myriad walks of life. Protected by legally binding nondisclosure agreements, our monthly sessions provide a platform to discuss personal and professional challenges. Through collaborative feedback and advice, we all leave empowered, renewed, and with specific action items to move our businesses forward while proactively addressing issues with the potential to adversely affect our emotional and mental vitality.
As a CEO, it is vital to find a safe support network, not only to keep your personal difficulties private but to gain access to invaluable advice. With the right support, you'll bring more to the table for those depending on you, and you might even discover you have the energy to engage in idle chitchat. You might decide not to, but it's nice to feel like you can.