It’s Lonely at the Top

Preston: CEOs often feel very lonely. Although that may surprise many who have never been a CEO or business owner, it won’t surprise those who have. Many people clamor for time with the CEO. In addition to employees seeking the CEO’s time, there are customers, prospects and suppliers to meet with. The CEO of a highly structured, well managed organization would seem to have the luxury of only dealing with strategic issues. Unfortunately, that is not the case. In such an organization the problems that end up on the CEO’s desk are the ones no one, individually or as a group, could solve. “What should we do boss; none of us can figure it out?”

Every CEO struggles with the issues that the business feels only they can handle. As a CEO you can form a team to deal with those tough issues, to give you their perspective and opinions. But there’s a problem. Most employees are not inclined to tell the CEO what they think. What the CEO typically hears is what the employee thinks the CEO wants to hear. Even when you have a spouse you are comfortable sharing your tough business problems with, they are more likely to want to make you feel good than really dig into the problem and uncover all the necessary, probably ugly, facts.

Of course, consultants can give you an answer. Some will even ask many of the questions that need to be asked. But consultants have a vested interest in you keeping them around. Their “answers” may be delivered with confidence based on their years of experience but how germane is their experience to your issue? Sometimes they give you an answer that makes you feel good, that seems good for the relationship but is it what you really need? Other times they will seem blunt and tell you what a mess you have but with enough (billable hours) analysis they can figure it all out.

Where can you as a CEO go to get honest, unfiltered, unique input to the toughest business challenges? An obvious answer is another CEO in your same industry with a similar-size company.  This can be a good solution when you are in different geographic markets and therefore don’t compete. But ask yourself how unique their input will be. Their perspective is going to be similar to yours. How do you transcend the “institutional knowledge” of the best and most experienced CEOs in your industry?

You need other CEOs who understand the loneliness of the CEO job. CEOs who have nothing to gain or lose from giving you their input (other than returning the favor), whose perspectives and experiences differ from yours. This is why Napoleon Hill’s “Mastermind Group” has been a key to the success of many business people. If you are familiar with the Observe – Orient – Decide – Act (OODA) process, you will recognize the incredible contribution to “observe” and “orient” that such a group can make.


Brian: Preston, your essay brings back a lot of memories, not all of them pleasant. During the Great Recession, which hit Las Vegas—and the marketing profession—harder and longer than most, I found myself feeling lonely for years on end. From 2009, when we first felt the effects, through 2014, our company almost closed its doors many times, somehow managing to stay afloat through hard work, shared sacrifice, reinvention and more than a little luck. It certainly led to many sleepless nights along with those intense feelings of loneliness you describe.

To be sure, I had a wonderful group of people I could talk to. But I couldn’t be 100 percent honest with any of them. My wife is my best friend and closest confidant. We spent endless hours discussing work. But she’s a Realtor and was knee deep in her own problems. The last thing I wanted to do was burden her with more.

Similarly, I’m blessed with the greatest business partner in the world. He and I have always been on the same page and the time we spent in the Recession trenches only brought us closer together. Our business motto is “We’ll figure it out.” And we did, one way or the other. But with both of us being on the inside of our organization, we were too financially and emotionally invested to always bring our A-game. We never had the luxury of objectivity.

As for the Imagine team, we walked a fine line. Honesty was extremely important because we never wanted to sugarcoat our situation. I’ll never forget the day we brought in our financial guy to open the books to our staff in an effort to quash all the doubt and uncertainty and rumors. It was a risky move, but what did we have to lose? And it worked. That being said, if we’d revealed everything, they’d be heading for the exits faster than lemmings off a cliff. And through it all, my partner and I had to project an air of confidence we rarely felt. That may have been the hardest thing of all.

Occasionally, we’d get in a heart-to-heart conversation with a client in which we shared genuine empathy and real tactics. It was helpful. But again, we always kept the brakes on for fear of the client seeking out another firm.

In retrospect, I wish we’d had a peer group to rely on. I’m sure such a thing existed, but I never thought of it because I was too exhausted and deep in the weeds. Fortunately, I’m in one now and it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve made. Should the economy decide to take another dip or worse—that sound you hear is me knocking on wood that it doesn’t—I’ll have a built-in support network at my disposal.


Brian Rouff is a creative business owner. As managing partner of Imagine Communications (, a leading Las Vegas based marketing communication firm, he is responsible for business processes. However, Brian is also part of Imagine’s creative team and a published author, so he has a foot in both camps.

Preston Sumner, President of CEO Focus of Nevada (, is a curious observer of and participant in business. His curiosity extends to domains such as psychology, sports, physics, and warfare. He finds that these other domains offer models and lessons for business performance. Preston is fascinated by the intersection of knowledge and performance. Together Brian and Preston will explore this tension between creativity and the process of business.