Why is it lonely at the top?

We've all heard it before; it's lonely at the top. In this article, Haines Watts' Karen McLellan addresses business owner isolation.

The loneliness of command is the harsh reality for many UK business owners.

According to our psychological research (which assesses non-conscious responses to questions), business owners agree that they suffer with loneliness (score 55 out of 100) and that they don’t know where to turn for help (62 out of 100).

Part of the issue is historical. Owners can spend years getting used to doing things exactly how they like, and servicing clients in a particular way. However, as their business grows and they incorporate more employees, it can be hard to let go and delegate down to other people. The strength of the team around them, and the extent to which they can trust them, also has a major impact on their ability to let go.

As a result of this clinging onto the day-to-day delivery, some owners can end up assuming the same responsibilities in year ten as they did in year one, leaving them with little time to work on the business rather than in the business.

The danger is that this leaves them feeling over-worked and under-rested for years, with no solid business plan and no time to develop a strong support network or take time out to bring in the necessary support and advice, resorting instead to snap decisions and jumping from one challenge to the next. Lacking a powerful support network with trusted advisers and peers also means not having anyone to bounce ideas off, or to help them find the best solution to each challenge.

But it doesn’t need to be this way; there are several steps that business owners can take to address the loneliness of command:

Build the right support network

Clients often say to me “no business is like mine”, but that is rarely the case. Once like-minded business owners open up about their experiences, parallels begin to appear between all different kinds of challenges.

When it comes to networking, business owners get out what they put in. But given their time constraints, it is important to select the right networking groups.

The key to effective networking is trust. Ask yourself, would you feel comfortable sharing your concerns and fears with the people in the room? If not, they’re probably not the best peer group for you. Meet with company owners who are sympathetic and supportive, and make sure you can give something positive back in return.

You also need to meet people who are honest, not just comforting or “nice”. People who can hold a mirror up to you and your business and help you to understand your situation, to work on as you see fit. This is why physical networking is so important, alongside moral support from family and friends.

Nurture personal relationships 

While surrounding yourself with the right kinds of people can address the loneliness of command, you shouldn’t underestimate the power of personal relationships.

More than half (52%) of business owners say their family keeps them going when they lose all motivation to keep running their business; the highest re-motivating factor of all, ahead of remembering why they started the company in the first place.

Loneliness at the top will inevitably lead to high levels of stress, and this can of course have a negative impact on friends and family. But as our study shows, opening up can help to create a vitally positive outlook and increase the drive and dedication to succeed. Friends and family also serve as an important reminder that there is life outside of the office, and so it follows that addressing this issue of loneliness can help to improve overall wellbeing and work-life balance.

Striking the right balance

The loneliness of command also takes its toll on the mental and physical health and wellbeing of business owners. According to our research, they strongly agree with the view that their position is “emotionally exhausting” (73 out of 100) and detrimental to both their mental and physical health (70 and 60 out of 100 respectively).

This is worrying. The owner is, after all, one of the most valuable assets to the company. The first step towards addressing these issues is to recognise the situation you are in, and then to make a plan to ease the pressure and address your work-life balance. For example, enjoying a week’s holiday and not answering emails after 8pm can help, and are simple rules to follow – provided there’s a strong team in place that you can rely on and confidence in the future direction of the business.

While every owner needs to find the rules that work for them, one thing is certain, and it’s that business owners should never face their challenges alone.

Karen McLellan is a director at accountancy and business services firm, Haines Watts.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

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