Lonely at the top
May 16, 2016
By Martha Sullivan, CPA, CVA/ABV, CM&AA, CEPA
Partner, Succession Planning Practice Leader
It is often said that “it is lonely at the top.” While it is not clear where the phrase originated, it is certainly a sentiment that many business owners, executives and managers can appreciate. This is particularly true for the business owner.
Business owners are a special breed. Key characteristics of business owners include a strong sense of independence, perseverance, high levels of energy, creativity and initiative and a higher risk tolerance. They take on risks and responsibilities other people simply don’t have the stomach for such as making sure that the business is generating enough sales so that the owner can meet their financial and moral obligations to pay their vendors, lenders and employees. But, while the rewards may be many, the burdens are plenty too and often the owner faces them alone.
You may be thinking “So what? It comes with the territory.” Well, as it turns out, loneliness can be a big deal. Extensive studies at UCLA show that loneliness influences our physical health – right down to the cellular level and biological pathways. Loneliness impacts our immune systems and other key systems accelerating the negative consequences of everything from diabetes, to high blood pressure and heart disease, to cancer and Alzheimer’s. These studies have determined that loneliness increases the levels of specific neurotransmitters known as norepinephrine that signals the “fight or flight” part of our brain, which feeds inflammation while suppressing the cells’ ability to fit viruses. Science is showing us that isolation or loneliness is ranked as high of a risk factor for mortality as smoking.
If it is inherently lonely at the top, and science is telling us that loneliness is bad for your health, what steps should you as a business owner take to mitigate the compounded stress?
- Set up a board of directors for your company: A board of directors, correctly selected and structured, provides a valuable sounding board for business issues that deserve consideration from diverse perspectives. Whether advisory or binding, the input of the board can provide clarity as well collaboration in addressing the challenges faced as a business owner.
- Set up your personal posse: Surround yourself with a team of trusted, experienced advisors and build a relationship with them so s/he understands your business well enough to help you brainstorm ideas and vet concepts. Find that advisor or two, be it your financial advisor or accountant or attorney, that you know you can go and vent to and know that they will have your back as best they can.
- Expand your network: Get involved. Whether it’s an industry association, business owner’s council, family business center, country club or other organization that provides the opportunity for networking and education, it will provide you with the chance to meet others with which you share a common interest.
- Find balance: Kind of like breathing, running a business is a 24/7 job. Sometimes you breathe fast, like when you’re running, and sometimes it just feels good to take a few long, slow deep breaths to get grounded again. Explore and cultivate other interests. Build a social life outside of the office. Go play catch with your child.
Someday you will leave the business behind. It is vital that you invest now in the other important elements of your life like your relationships, activities and interests outside of work, so that when you move on, there are things you are excited to do and people you want to do them with.
Yes, it can be lonely at the top. But the truth is it doesn’t have to be if a business owner builds their support systems to be connected to others. After all, it’s good for your health.