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It's Lonely at the Top—Peers are Vital to CEO Sanity

I have spent most of my career as an advisor and coach working closely with CEO’s in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. While there are marked differences, what’s commonly found in both is that it is lonely at the top.

The nonprofit leadership study Daring to Lead found that 75% of executives plan to leave their job within 5 years, many because of burnout. Nearly a third of this study’s participants had been in their position for less than 3 years, when the cycle of dissatisfaction is greatest.

Being a nonprofit Executive Director/CEO brings with it a tremendous number of rewards, but these leaders frequently find themselves stressed and lonely. After all, the CEO ultimately serves as the boss to everyone on their team, creating a natural sense of separation; on the other side of the equation, the CEO is hired (and in some cases fired) by the board. It is not surprising that CEOs feel isolated and concerned about being completely open to their staff or board for a number of valid reasons.

Don't let yourself suffer from CEO loneliness or burnout.

Being a successful nonprofit CEO is hard work. Many GCN members were very happy to accept the appreciation recently shared by Tom Tierney of Bridgespan at our Give Smart event, where he acknowledged just how hard it is to successfully lead a nonprofit. Although he built a successful 2,200 professional worldwide consulting firm Bain & Company, he has gained firsthand knowledge and respect for the difficult job of a nonprofit CEO as a co-founder of the nonprofit Bridgespan.

At Georgia Tech’s high-tech incubator, ATDC, I spent a decade building programs for startup high-tech companies who were working against great odds to build breakthrough companies with limited capital. There I learned what makes fledging companies start to flourish: networks of peers and experts working together in the startup ecosystem. Now as the VP of Consulting for the Georgia Center for Nonprofits, I am working to transfer these lessons of connection to my consulting clients. In November, GCN facilitated connections among nonprofit CEOs through the launch of the Nonprofit CEO Peerspectives Program, which built from our experience running CEO Central but also greatly enhanced the peer learning aspect.

“Peer learning, framed from experience, is fun and invaluable. When I listen to my peers, I know they are walking in my shoes."

This program brings together approximately 40 nonprofit CEOs for practical CEO-level workshops, peer connections and connections to valued experts. The benefit goes beyond the professional development of a typical leadership program. Through roundtables and facilitated interactions, the CEOs gain camaraderie with their peers, sharing comfortably and providing and receiving empathy and understanding and invaluable advice. Many will form relationships with fellow CEOs that will last for years.

If you do not have a peer group with whom you can share honestly and can call upon for support and advice, it is time for you to invest in building this peer group.

You can start by making a list of respected leaders that you’d like to get to know better. And think about where you would like to learn and further develop. To start, reach out to one or two of those individuals asking them to meet with you over a cup of coffee or to do lunch.

There are a variety of leadership programs offered by the Georgia Center for Nonprofits that bring together the same group of leaders across multiple program days where relationships can form naturally over time. These include comprehensive executive and leadership programs for emerging leaders and seconds-in-command, as well as for other management team members, such as financial or development leaders.

As one of our Peerspectives participants wrote in a recent program evaluation, “Peer learning, framed from experience, is fun and invaluable. When I listen to my peers, I know they are walking in my shoes and deal with many of the same realities I do in moving from idea or strategy to execution.

Don't let yourself suffer from CEO loneliness or burnout. Reach out to your peers, connect, learn and have fun doing so.

Cindy Cheatham is VP Consulting Services at Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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