Last month, we had a leadership team meeting at my organization. It had been a while since we’d had one. Things got in the way: the holidays, proposals, internal work and a lot of client work. I had set aside just the first 10 to 15 minutes of the meeting to check in on how everyone was doing. An hour later we were still going. What was going on? Why did a check-in to start the meeting essentially become the meeting?
There was a general theme for most of the check-ins. At the heart of each issue was a leader who had been working hard in his or her area. In some cases, the leaders were working with a team and in others, they were working alone. But in each case, the person was missing time with peers to bounce ideas around, vent and just generally interact. Each person was feeling isolated. It reminded me that I often see federal leaders in this situation.
There’s the old cliché about how it feels lonely at the top. That might have some connotations of 1950s hierarchy but there is a truth in it that we shouldn’t dismiss. The higher you get in an organization, the fewer people there are who share similar job responsibilities and the fewer peers you have. You can form strong bonds with people on your team, but as a leader you also have a responsibility to provide a vision, resolve conflicts, and stay positive and focused despite challenges. Sometimes you can’t process everything you are thinking or going through with your team as a whole, and that can lead to a certain amount of isolation. Many leaders even feel guilty about taking time to plan and think about more than just the latest crisis. Somehow it seems indulgent to them.
Our team was feeling isolated, and a good hour-plus of working through issues did a world of good. It left people feeling more energized and focused on what was coming up. Based on our experience, I think there are three key things every leader can do to avoid feeling isolated:
1. Set aside an hour or two a week for thinking, feeling and analyzing. Every leader needs time on his or her own to think about more than just the latest phone call or email in her inbox. Block two hours somewhere in your calendar to shut the door and process.
2. Find someone to give you perspective. All leaders need someone or some group of people to help them process and gain perspective. CEOs have boards, consultants and advisers. Some leaders have peers and colleagues facing similar issues who can help, but for others, consulting someone inside their organization is politically untenable. If you have the resources, bringing in a coach or adviser is a good way to gain outside perspective. If resources are an issue, seek out mentors who are retired or have worked in similar roles for other organizations. They might be willing to help you for the price of a cup of coffee.
3. Set time aside to interact with colleagues who don’t work on your team. Not everyone can or should use their colleagues as their sounding boards but that doesn’t mean that connecting with them isn’t useful. Just having a lunch with people in your organization, but outside of the team you work with daily can help give you perspective and build stronger relationships and networks.
What are some of the ways you keep from feeling isolated?