The solution to executive isolation
I was talking with a client this week who is working with one of our Senior Coaches and he was telling me about the impact working with his coach has brought to his life. The impact he talked about had nothing to do with direct leadership development but one that reduced the loneliness and isolation of leadership.
One of the approaches we offer to clients that we don't talk a lot about has little to do with leadership and executive development and much to do with leadership resilience and strategic thinking. A sounding board. We don't just talk about development all the time, oftentimes we talk about the weight you are carrying with you and what you really think. Leadership is tough, ambiguous, uncertain, murky, vulnerable, risky and there are seldom clear-cut right answers. Sometimes we get so mired in our thinking on an issue or idea that we get stuck and feel like we're going in circles. Other times, we can feel overwhelmed and lonely with the weight of the world in challenging circumstances.
What is a sounding board anyway?
Google dictionary defines a sounding board as a person or group whose reactions to suggested ideas are used as a test of their validity or likely success before they are made public.
I describe a sounding board as a safe, confidential, non-judgemental and objective thought partner to help you sort through and refine your thinking on issues and ideas. The outcome is greater clarity in your thinking, lighter weight and a freer mind.
Exploring ideas with an objective thought partner frees your mind and gets it “out there”. What you’re thinking is always bigger and harder to sort through in your brain. Magic happens when you think out loud with another human being and it helps you gain new perspectives and often solve your own issues.
Your thought partner will ask non-judgmental curious questions that expand and challenge your thinking. You are in your own bubble, your thought partner is outside the bubble, they can see things you may not see from your vantage point. They may also show you how you might be getting in your own way or contributing to the problem and making your situation more difficult. Ultimately, a sounding board helps you refine your thinking through deeper examination. You gain greater clarity on a course of action.
What are the benefits of a sounding board?
Why do leaders and executives make use of a coach as a sounding board?
- Senior leadership positions really are a quite isolated place to be.
- Some decisions involve issues that cannot be made public yet to anyone.
- The stakes are often high: millions or billions of dollars may ride on a single decision. A single decision can impact the lives of many.
- The opportunity is so exciting you don’t want to get it wrong.
- Challenges in your personal life are a heavy weight when unexplored and unresolved leading to distraction in your work life.
- Gaining perspective on tricky issues where you know you may have bias but are unclear on what your bias is or how it impacts your thinking.
- Venting in a safe space the challenges and crazy situations that only you know about.
With my own clients, I am most often engaged as a sounding board for tough decisions in both personal and business issues. Leadership is a lifestyle career and your life becomes intermixed with your leadership and your leadership is significantly impacted by occurrences in your personal life. It’s not that the leaders and executives I work with can’t make the decisions. They are strategic and brilliant men and women who didn’t get to where they are by shying back from making the tough calls or by playing small.
I find these leaders recognize the benefit of having someone to challenge their thinking, reflect back what they’re saying, and ask curious unexpected questions that offer new perspective. They are seeking a completely confidential relationship where they can explore their thinking to see where it will lead them without judgment, jumping to conclusions or anyone making a big deal out of it.
A good sounding board is an unconditional confidential thought partner who brings reflective deep listening, curiosity and empathy. There are issues as a leader that you may not want to or can’t talk with the people in your everyday life and work. Sometimes sharing is inappropriate to the context of the relationship, can lead to judgment, can cause unnecessary stress and worry for others, or is highly confidential and has repercussions in sharing it with anyone.
Where can you find a sounding board?
An executive coach is not the only option although a great one. Anyone in your life could be a potential effective sounding board provided that they are able to keep confidentiality, impartiality, objectivity and non-judgmental. Here are some other avenues you might consider for finding an effective sounding board to fit your situation:
- Peer mentorship groups such as CEO and Leadership Peer Forums
- Mentors who are not invested in your decisions and career direction
- Cultivate a co-sounding board relationship with a peer at a similar level of leadership and scope of responsibility in a different industry.
- Create a personal board of advisors with a signed confidentiality agreement made up of up to six key mentors who come from different vantage points.
Leadership can be isolating and lonely. You were never meant to do this work alone. Engage a sounding board in your support team, I know you’ll find clarity and reduce the weight on your shoulders.