The Secret Lives of CEOs

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

There are two dominant narratives about CEOs and success. See if these sound familiar.

The first narrative is that CEOs follow their ambition, work hard, and achieve amazing success that makes them rich and powerful. Hence, they’re as happy as someone on top of the world would be. This is the Mark Zuckerberg / Jack Welch / Anita Roddick narrative.

The second narrative is that CEOs achieve amazing success, but then have big setbacks and failures. They become unhappy, at least for a while. But, being strong and determined, they dig into themselves, focus on their vision, and then come roaring back with an even bigger success. This is the Steve Jobs / Elon Musk narrative.

These narratives are quite believable to most people. We tend to have mixed opinions about CEOs and senior leaders, in terms of what kind of people they are, whether they deserve the money they make, and whether they are competent, but our imaginings about the experience of being a CEO is pretty much limited to the two success narratives above.

There is, however, one key group that knows that these success narratives are basically false: CEOs themselves.

CEOs Need Career Development, Too

The reality of being a CEO is different from our projections. I have worked with CEOs and I have news to report: every CEO is a human being with questions, problems and desires that are difficult to navigate alone. Once you get to the top of an organization, the challenges and potential for growth don’t stop, but you have less personal and professional support. Everyone is looking to you for the answers.

The dirty little secret of CEOs is that they need career development and career help as much as anyone else. They’re not invincible, few are fully self-actualized, and only some could say what their next steps are. In other words, in a lot of respects, they’re just everyone else. The real question is: would you get help if you’re not supposed to need it?

There’s a saying in recovery circles that, “We compare our insides with other people’s outsides.” This pretty much sums up how we look at CEOs and most senior leaders. We focus on the outside: the salaries, the board seats, the Fast Company articles, the stock prices, the TED talks, the Davos speeches, the whole shiny exterior. What we pay little attention to is the human inside the image.

This becomes a problem for CEOs themselves when they also fall prey to this image: holding themselves to a false standard and struggling alone when they don’t have to.

Because CEOs are actually human, they occasionally—or maybe frequently—feel anxious or at least confused about their careers. They face thorny questions about their career trajectory, about the content of their work, about the issues they face, about the match between who they are and what they do, about how to deal with partners and stakeholders, about their families and personal lives, about their lingering insecurities, and so forth.

And even if things are going as great as it looks to the outside world, that doesn’t mean that CEOs have any idea what they should do next. As with financial markets, past performance (and happiness) is no guarantee of future performance (and happiness).

Complex Career Questions for CEOs

If you are a CEO, you’re likely to wrestle with complex career questions for which your previous experience doesn’t provide clear answers. So the question isn’t whether or not you’ll face them, it’s if you’ll seek help from other people to figure them out.

Is your job doable?

Just because you’ve been selected to run a company, or have chosen to start one, doesn’t mean that the company’s business model actually works or can be successfully be repaired.

However, as the CEO, you will get blamed for lacking the magic to turn things around. Did Marissa Mayer take on a job that was actually possible to do? I doubt it. Is your job doable? It’s important to gain clarity about what is possible and what is not.

What do you do when the level of challenge has diminished and your activities have become routine?

Years ago, sociologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi propounded the idea of “flow,” a state of peak engagement in which individuals find great fulfillment. Csikszentmihalyi discovered that flow came from the confluence of three factors: high challenge, a level of skill matched to the challenge, and constant feedback.

If these three factors are present, you can experience flow for years. But when the level of challenge diminishes and your activities become routine, you move into boredom, and what was magical is now pedestrian. If you’ve fallen out of flow, it’s important to identify why and how to manipulate the levers of challenge and skill to re-engage. Sometimes this can be done within your current role, other times it requires a career transition.

What do you do when you are no longer drawing the same meaning from your work identity, yet you are not clear how to change things?

In your career you’ll pass through periods when your work feels in sync with who you are and periods when it does not—all of our lives go through this type of seasonality. You’ve probably spent certain periods in your life waking up each morning eager to start the day—what psychologist Frederic Hudson called a “Going for It” state.

This is what most of us aspire to in work. But Hudson argued that the “Going for It” state inevitably transitions to something else, either because of external events (e.g. mergers, personnel changes, politics) or internal shifts (your own values and needs evolve). You’re then in a “Doldrums” state, adrift, no longer drawing the same meaning from your work identity, yet not clear how to change things. If your solution is to double-down to get back your original oomph, you’re unlikely to get anywhere, since you’re not actually changing anything.

Instead, you need to pass through processes of internal exploration and external testing, what Hudson called the “Cocooning” and “Getting Ready” states. This may be hard to do on your own. For deeper insight, you need a coach, therapist or other wise third party unvested in your current identity.

How do you redefine work life balance and navigate different ways of leading when facing personal concerns, challenges and setbacks?

The definition of the successful CEO doesn’t allow much room for being human. But company leaders are human and deal with both the good and bad sides of being alive.

Last May, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s husband died suddenly at the age of 47 from heart-related causes. How are you supposed to act when the your spouse and the parent of your children dies young? What does work mean at that moment? What does “carrying on” mean? Our public discourse about corporate leaders focuses on their successes and business challenges, less often on what it’s like to struggle with grief, life transition or just keeping things together for another day. It’s not just about getting emotional support.

If you’re in this situation, you may also need a way to redefine your work life balance and navigate different ways of leading.

How do you manage the loneliness of being at the top?

As a CEO, you play a certain role. People who haven’t been in your shoes might think you are all-powerful, but it’s unlikely you feel that way before your own board, shareholders, and customers or to the public at large. You are probably not free to communicate everything that’s going on even to your senior team. We can also question whether people want you to be fully honest—true honesty means showing vulnerabilities and as a culture we may not want to see our leaders being vulnerable.

When you’re a CEO, to many people you are just a kind of projection: of people’s ambitions, desires and anger. We may think we know a lot about Zuckerberg, Welch, Nooyi, Mayer and Rometty, but actually we know very little about the people inside those names. Overcoming the loneliness of being a CEO requires that you have trusted confidants who can see your vulnerabilities without judgment and help you think through uncertainties.

Coaching for CEOs

If you’re a CEO, one of your secrets is that you need help as much as anyone else. You have career issues, you have leadership questions, and you have personal concerns and problems. But it might be hard to get help because people think you shouldn’t need it.

The CEOs and other top leaders who manage their careers well—meaning, the ones who deal with the messy questions in their careers and lives, instead of ignoring them or rolling over them—find ways to get help. This help could be from friends or colleagues, it could be from executive coaches, it could be through spiritual means—but they seek help from someone, whether that’s guidance, coaching, or an ear to listen to them.

CEOs who don’t ignore career questions, who don’t feel a need to go it all alone, and who ask for and get the right help for their career questions, become better leaders. They end up learning what they previously didn’t know. By defining questions, identifying fears and competing commitments, experimenting with new ideas and behaviors, and examining tradeoffs, they figure out what to change and what to accept.

Through this process, they make the hard decisions—not the fake kind of “tough business decisions” that are written about in the popular press, but the truly tough personal choices that require self-awareness, sensitivity, creativity and grit.

By figuring themselves out, and figuring out the questions in their own careers, they end up more able to contribute, create and lead. They take their leadership to the next level, and everyone benefits.



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