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Lonely at the Top?

Lonely at the Top?

Workplace isolation can be a serious issue; it is not something that people can or should be instructed to "just get over". According to the National Heart Foundation, depression or social isolation can be as great a factor in determining a person's risk of developing coronary heart disease as factors such as high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure or smoking

It's a long climb to the top - and when you get there it can be lonely

Two men: both have reached the top of their game in significant organizations; both are responsible for the information systems underpinning their businesses. Yet they have very different emotional responses to the position.

Mark Newton, the CIO of Mortgage Choice, says: "I can't say I've ever experienced a strong sense of loneliness." PricewaterhouseCoopers's CIO, Graham Andrews, meanwhile, says the role can get "bloody lonely".

Workplace isolation can be a serious issue; it is not something that people can or should be instructed to "just get over". According to the National Heart Foundation, depression or social isolation can be as great a factor in determining a person's risk of developing coronary heart disease as factors such as high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure or smoking.

Although Chris Gillies, a former CIO and now a board director who also provides mentoring and coaching services to senior executives, believes loneliness is a state of mind, she stresses that there are antidotes that ought to be sought out by people in such a position. "If you do feel isolated and lonely then you are not doing your job properly. It is critical that you network and are not in your own little world," Gillies says. "When I was a CIO I was never lonely. It can be hard to be a CIO. You can walk into the CIO role and suddenly be part of 'that IT lot who never get it right'. But you have a choice. You can be a victim or part of the solution.

"Just because you are at the top of the tree doesn't mean you have to take your decisions in isolation. You have your direct reports, and part of your job is to grow them into your job anyway. Also you have joined an executive team and they can become confidants."

When Gillies was CIO of the Bank of Melbourne in the late 1990s the CFO was one of her closest confidants - a great source of ideas and suggestions, she says. "A CEO with the right relationship can also be a source of ideas. The CIO should be helping the rest of the executive team on the management of their information assets. The executive team really wants IT to work - so don't be too proud to ask for help."

Gillies does acknowledge, though, that loneliness can be real. "I come over as overconfident - but there are times when I think: 'Whoa, I'm out there on my own'. That's where your network is really important and you need to be out there constructing networks of people in similar positions to you and not hesitate to call on them for support and advice.

"You may act alone, but you should not make your decisions in isolation. If you make decisions in isolation and act alone then very likely you will screw up. If you do it without consultation then you're a fool. If there is a feeling of loneliness from non-communication then I would seriously question how well you are doing your job."

It is a little like the difference between the "Level 5 (great) manager" and "Level 4 (good) manager", described in Jim Collins's book Good to Great. The Level 5, more successful manager, sees themselves as one spoke of a management wheel, where the Level 4 manager wears the mantle of "genius with a thousand helpers".

Always a Team Player

Mortgage Choice's Newton feels very much part of a team. While he himself is not lonely at the top, neither is he agnostic about CIO loneliness, and says he has seen many CIO peers suffer from it. What has shielded him has been an "innate capability to identify an issue" and know who to talk to about it.

"It is such a changeable environment. You can't put yourself in a position where you think you will know everything. You need to be recruiting good people to give support and feedback." Some people are not able to do that, though, and like to hold all the cards, he says. "You can see it in CVs sometimes where they go from job to job. These are very clever people but they don't have the courage to share."

They also do not like to deal with failure. "The worst executive is the person who doesn't like to deliver bad news to people. You need open, working relationships," Newton says.

It is that type of frank, open relationship that buffers Newton from loneliness. He has invested heavily in developing strong relationships with other CXOs, since, "to the extent that I might be lonely, then so are they".

With 100 staff and 800 users in the franchises, Newton says Mortgage Choice is reasonably compact. "So in some respects we have a more intimate relationship. You do need to manage the relationship up and down. The place that you might be lonely is in working out whether you are ahead of the competition," he says.

"My role is to provide services to the business and it's clear what the business requirements are. The next step is identifying the solutions and whether they the right solutions. We are in a very changeable technical area. I have good relationships with outsourcing partners and previous colleagues and I turn to them for comfort: that the things you are doing are what other people are doing. It gives you a heads-up to look into new technologies and areas."

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