No-one ever told me …. It’s lonely at the top

Do you think leadership training prepares you for everything the role demands? What is your perception of a  business leader and entrepreneur?

Confident. Knowledgeable. Charismatic. Good orator. Natural Leaders. Ready Made.

Few may be expert at all, but they probably have elements of most. Is this all that leadership training attends to?

How about lonely or isolated?

You don’t tend to see those descriptions emerge within a leadership training manual and/or CTO job description. And yet, it’s a major issue for all senior executives and in particular the CTO.

Of course, it’s their job to be showing the positive side of their nature in the public domain. To be driving and motivating their team to achieve ever greater heights. To be shielding their team from some of the collateral emerging from the boardroom, the CEO, the market. To be liaising with customers and helping deliver the impossible.  To be handling a day in the life of a CTO.

But there are days when it’s harder than others. There are days when the smile is more painted than natural. When the bonhomie more forced that playful.

There are days (and wee small hours) that can crowd in and feel darker. When you wake up and think … “I haven’t got a clue – and the world knows it”. That’s when you realize no amount of leadership training can save you from your own thoughts.

Ever heard of imposter syndrome? Most people have it, very few acknowledge it.

Who takes care of the carers?

Leaders are expected to be supremely confident and show no signs of weakness.

But there is always self-doubt. Self doubt is natural and applies to everyone. Anyone who declares they have no self-doubt or never suffer from any element of the imposter syndrome, is probably deluding themselves and best be avoided.

Despite undergoing extensive leadership training, self-doubt remains a familiar feeling across the c-suite.

In an article called ‘Conquering Loneliness at The Top’ the author quotes studies suggesting >50% of CEOs report feeling alone most of the time.

From our experience and research, that number is replicated and worse for CTOs, who often carry huge responsibility for the core technology driving that business. The article continues .. “many newly promoted CEOs learn ‘You become a title not a person.’ overnight, relationships change and the information you receive becomes filtered. People want to meet with the CEO, not you as a person”

You might see it in your CEO but how many tech leaders reading that article, recognise their own change of identity and role?

The key here is how to deal with it. What are the support mechanisms you can put in place to help you negotiate these moments of isolation and self-doubt? How to deal with the isolation and sheer, bloody fear of leadership?

Because when you’re at the top, the people who can understand and empathise with you have thinned out. The peer pyramid has become very narrow and whilst earlier in your career, there were similar people in similar roles, plus line managers to advise but now, when you need to turn around and seek help … you’re more likely to find just the sound of distant tumbleweed.

Of course you can fall back into the comforting bosom of family and friends, but the problem with those fine folk is they tend to treat you like Chandler out of “Friends”, where none of them understand what you do anyway. Your partner is more interested about who is taking that rusty bicycle to the tip this weekend.

Acknowledging Vulnerability, Changing Habits

The reality is that someone somewhere probably knows more than you but not in your area. If you know what you’re doing then there should be minimal bullshit. If you don’t, you will be found out.

There is always new tech coming so keep on your toes and stay up to date by reading and creating space to consume the latest. One consistent element of most great entrepreneurs, is that create “me” time to read. Absolutely crucial, to take that step away from the guts of what you’re doing every day.

Also, when you have your successes, mark them down and remember them. Give yourself a pat on the back. Small wins matter, particularly within early stage companies. You need to build up a bank of ‘small wins’ to lean back into when the tougher times inevitably arrive.

Visualise what the future successful you looks like, what is the vision of where you want to be, how you will feel? Classic technique for high level competitors is visualisation. Drives them forward during the rainy nights of leadership training.

Eat well. It’s often overlooked by hard working managers. Good diet tends to help you deliver great leadership.

Get those tough tasks out of the way early in your day, don’t let them linger. I rather like the eat the frog time management process. Clear out as much baggage as you can early then work on added value and big ticket issues.

Feel chuffed with your productivity then go grab your bike and blast off a few miles.

You Are Not Alone, Finding Support

These feelings are common to all leaders and entrepreneurs and successful high fliers.

We know people high up in the corporate world, in law, in entertainment who wonder how they ever got there and … when they’re going to be found out.

Others who have successfully built and sold businesses, but don’t have a recipe for success and fall back into self doubt when the next one doesn’t work out.

If you’re a CTO or senior tech leader then the first key point to make is simple, you might feel alone, but you are not alone.

Those feelings of fear, isolation and vulnerability are shared by millions of other people, in your very same shoes. It’s not just YOU!

OK, now we’ve established that truth, what to do about it?

Most days you will wake up and can take on the world. But what to do with those bloody negative feelings? That sense that someone knows more than you? That you may be found out for talking bullshit or that there may be new tech that makes redundant some of your products or systems. All of which can lead to stress and burnout.

It’s great if you can share these issues with colleagues, but that is not always possible when dealing with the very specialised role of CTO.

The CMO and CEO will often have similar backgrounds and outlooks, to bounce against each other. Some companies will have a CTO and CIO but most don’t, so tech leadership tends to be a more isolated role.  If the relationship with your CEO is super supportive (ideally if your CEO is a fellow techie) then this helps, but generally a CTO will have to look for additional support externally, to help negotiate some of these issues.

Look for like minded individuals and groups who understand your challenges, recognise that journey and can provide at the very least, support and sense checks that what you’re doing is right, or at least along the right lines.

Mentoring and coaching can benefit the senior tech leader in many ways.

Finding someone who immediately “gets” your challenges, will feel like a breath of fresh air. The experienced mentor provides you with an external channel of insight that helps you unlock knotty problems, build your skill set and maximise your career/business potential.

With online access, it’s never been easier to find a mentor for longer term career planning and/or quickfire advice and guidance about an immediate issue.

You’ve reached the top (or close to the top) because of the skill set and personal character that’s already in place.

Part of your leadership training is to keep building those skills, keep reading, find like minded people, individuals who share your positive and growth mindset but who understand, it’s lonely at the top.

For more information about the CTO Academy Mentoring service, please contact [email protected]


CTO Academy has been Ranked #2 Best CTO Course in the World. We provide online management skills training, mentoring and career development advice for tech leaders and managers around the world. Membership starts from just $49 per month, more details available here.

“The skill set CTOs and IT Managers now require are a world away from what was needed just a few years ago. I have found the CTO Academy training modules to be highly valuable resources, providing broad-based business skills and awareness that are essential for succeeding in the modern workplace.” – Eli Oshorov, Sydney

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