It’s lonely at the top! How to overcome your entrepreneur isolation

Since you became your own boss, have you missed having peers to share with? Do your staff not invite you out for team lunches? Being a CEO is tough. We share some top tips to overcome your entrepreneur isolation.

When most people think of the word boss or entrepreneur, they would associate words like ‘strong’, ‘confident’, ‘social’, ‘motivated’ or ‘driven’. They may not think ‘anxious’, ‘isolated’, ‘fearful’, ‘wavering’ or ‘miserable’.

You’re not alone. A 2012 report by ​​RHR International 2012 CEO Snapshot Survey™ showed that half of all CEOs feel loneliness at the top, and that 61% of this group believe it impacts their performance.

The truth is, for most entrepreneurs we simply can’t have our game face on all the time. We have the same woes as everybody else. In fact, more often than not we’ve set ourselves more challenges than the Average Joe, brought about by:

  • External pressures: Maintaining a positive brand image and meeting investor, employee and family expectations, as well as
  • Our own internal pressures: Chasing success and perfection, uncertainty, pessimism and negative self-talk, and rigid thinking.

When we begin our entrepreneurial journey, we often set unrealistic expectations, both for ourselves and our start-ups.

A 2018 survey by the leadership advisory firm Egon Zehnder showed that 68% of CEOS acknowledged that, in hindsight, they weren’t fully prepared to take on the CEO role.

Being your own boss sure is different to the way it’s demonstrated in films isn’t it? How often do you find yourself being chauffeur-driven around with a personal assistant on tap to help you organise every detail of your professional and personal life, while always enjoying non-stop, go-getting energy?

Being a CEO rarely garners sympathy from friends, associates or staff – they may think you ‘have it all’. It may also be hard to share the burden with your team, as you feel responsible for protecting their own motivation and wellbeing.

It’s common for staff not to invite their bosses to team lunches because they feel a little uncomfortable or intimidated by having their leader present – and that’s understandable.

Entrepreneurs are a wonderfully misunderstood breed. There’s constant financial stress. You have to make difficult decisions that can impact – for better and for worse – other people’s lives and even livelihoods. Plus, hours can be long, which makes sustaining relationships of any nature difficult.

There are several reports highlighting that many start-up founders find themselves working 80 hours per week, with most averaging 50.5 hours a week, which is 15.5 hours higher than the UK average. This in turn is affecting both our mental and physical health.

Loneliness is like pouring a bucket of water on a fire. If you experience entrepreneurial loneliness, you have a greater chance of burnout, according to one 2016 scientific paper.

So how do you overcome your entrepreneur isolation? Here’s a few tried and tested methods.

Avoid all-or-nothing thinking

One of the first hurdles to overcome as an entrepreneur is all-or-nothing thinking. This is when you can only see things as good or bad. Most situations are never that simple. Sometimes there is no ‘right’ decision. It’s also where you’ve adopted poor work-life balance habits where you have to crash and burn and rebuild yourself before starting all over again.

There will be plenty of rejection and moments of failure as an entrepreneur – it’s how you react to these moments that matters.

Slow and steady really does win the race – so fuel your body with nutrients, and set a bedtime alarm to make sure you get plenty of sleep. Carve out time for yourself away from business-oriented tasks and embrace leisure activities you enjoy. Put these social dates in your calendar so they become non-negotiable activities. And get that imaginary PA to hold all the calls!).

Get out of your house

This applies to those of you who have started a business out of your own home. The isolation is both physical and mental. Oftentimes, you’ll have domestic distractions – from piles of washing up and laundry, to childcare and door-to-door salespeople or tradespeople, and it’s easy to get drawn into a battle between the needs of your business and household. The best way to manage this is to create a daily routine for yourself that means you give yourself permission to avoid these distractions and demands during office hours.

When working from home it’s perfectly acceptable to ignore the doorbell or have tunnel vision to any kitchen mess when stopping for a quick cuppa.

Staying indoors all day isn’t good for you or your spirit, so be sure to spend a minimum of 20 minutes out of the house each day, even if it’s a walk around the block or visit to a neighbour’s house for some company. If you can, you might want to remote work from a friendly but quietish cafė for a couple of hours each day so you can absorb the social side of life.

Join a peer-support association and get networking

Networking events. Don’t groan just yet and dismiss them.

Most networking events have turned their back on the work-the-room, self-serving type schmoozing. What’s more, the idea of entrepreneurial competition is becoming increasingly outdated, with more business owners realising that collaboration and support better serves the entire business community. They are essential for peer support and handy connections.

They can be entirely nerve-wracking the first time you go and don’t know a single person in the room, but you won’t be the only one attending on your own, so why not give it a whirl? If you find it helps, contact the organiser of the networking event and ask them if they can arrange a buddy for the evening, or borrow a sociable friend or partner (who may be nothing connected to your business or industry) to help you find your feet at your first event.

If you find events in person difficult, then start online, where you’re in more control of your environment.

When trying to foster new relationships, we all have a tendency to become yes people to make others happy, but in the process we can lose sight of our own goals. So, when you join peer-support associations, make sure you are strict with your reasons for being there and stay protective of your time so that your own business vision and priorities do not get sidelined.

Be vulnerable

To avoid entrepreneur isolation, you need to share with others, and to do this you need to allow yourself to be vulnerable. It’s easy to discuss the highlights of life, but what about the lowlights? Yours fears and challenges? The key to being vulnerable is finding someone you can trust to be vulnerable with and who can listen without judgement, understand the issues, and help you work through any problems.

If you struggle with this, start by being honest with yourself, by journaling your feelings. You don’t need to write a book, a few lines each day is enough to get you started. We love the morning pages method as outlined in Julia Cameron’s acclaimed book on creativity, The Artist’s Way.

Remember: you are not your business

It’s so easy to get fixated on your business so that your entire identity feels like it is shaped by what you do, rather than who you are. Every business goes through hard times, just remember to separate you, the person, out from the business challenges, failures and stresses.

On those lonelier days, remember why you started your business in the first place. Perhaps it was to have a sense of freedom? If that’s the case, make the most of that freedom as much as you can by giving yourself permission to do those things you always wanted to do. Join a late morning yoga class or early evening dance class, for example. Running your own business is hard, but keeping all your passions stoked will help fuel it.

Celebrate your successes

Being your own entrepreneur means you’ve stepped away from the illusory safety net of employment – and that in itself is amazing! Many people wish to be their own boss, but don’t take the jump, deeming it too risky. Take time each day or week to reflect on all your achievements – not just for that day but since you began your entrepreneurial journey.

Consider the challenges that you’ve already overcome – and take stock of how you did this. This simple practice will help you build your courage and confidence.

Another option is to practice daily gratitude: at the beginning or end of each day, try to find three things you are grateful for. Each day, try to find different reasons. For example, if you’re feeling grateful for your partner or a parent, consider a detailed reason that is making you specifically appreciate them on that day. Be kind to yourself.

Be aware of your information consumption

When we start our own business, we have a tendency to want to know everything about everything so that we can be the best.

What this often leads to is information fatigue and sometimes, when trying to make an ‘informed’ decision – something called analysis paralysis, when you overthink so much you can’t move forward.

Be protective of what information you consume. If you are interested in the news, but feel stressed by keeping up, consider slowing down your consumption by signing up to slow journalism publications and podcasts. You will impress your friends by always knowing the full story on a particular issue, not just the newsbites of the day!

Don’t (always) prioritise your business

Socialising can actually support your business growth – a happy, healthy entrepreneur with solid human connections and relationships is a successful entrepreneur.

You may find yourself constantly saying yes to business engagements and no to social opportunities with friends and family. Or worse, you may say yes to a social event, but then something important at work comes up and you find yourself cancelling last-minute.

There will be times where you have to make these calls, but remember that if you do it one too many times you’ll find your social life barren as you just won’t be invited anymore.

“The fact of the matter is this: if you’re driven, an entrepreneur, a type-A personality, or a hundred other things, mood swings are part of your genetic hardwiring. It’s a blessing and a curse.” Tim Ferris

If you find that your friends and family don’t share your interest or understand your business, or show too much enthusiasm and optimism at a time when your business is struggling, then try to steer the conversation away from you. It’s a common entrepreneurial trait that you’ll find yourself providing vague answers (‘All fine thanks’ or ‘Yes, business is great!’) when loved ones enquire about how your business is going. What you need is to start seeking out friends and associates who will understand…

Find local connections

These days we spend far too much time online, which can be an isolating place.

When you take time out to get involved in community activities you may find support and solace in new and different friendships.

You never know, perhaps that older woman on the street who always says hello to you while out walking dogs happens to be a retired CEO with bucket loads of experience in multi-million pound trade deals and investor relationships? Or perhaps that young girl you meet at a local craft club is also a tech genius who understands all the challenges of maintaining a good CMS system.

Until you put yourself out there away from the office or desk, you never will know where lovely doses of unlikely support come from.

Try to find a fellow entrepreneur who you can meet for coffee/tennis/dinner/fill in the gap once a week to share experiences. You might find that you don’t even talk about business, and that’s okay, it can sometimes simply be the knowledge that you have a friend who understands and gets you and your entrepreneurial journey, which helps you foster a sense of connection.

Find a life coach or mentor – or become one!

If you have a business partner then you’re lucky, as it’s really beneficial to find someone you can confide in. However even if you do, you may not always see eye-to-eye, and this is where a life coach can really help you.

A good life coach is usually already an experienced business person, and someone who can help you build your resilience. They’ll help you identify solutions that may not be initially obvious, and support you with strategic decisions.

Unlike a psychotherapy session, you’re likely to receive more practical advice that’s focused on the present moment, with tools and exercises to help you with specific issues.

Similar to a life coach, a business mentor can be someone who you can regularly bounce ideas off of, and you can run through any challenges you’re having with them without judgement with the chance of business success. The difference between a mentor and a life coach is that more often than not they will be in the same business industry as you, so will be more likely to understand and support you with specific issues and may even be able to help you with developing a network of useful relationships.

The other side of mentoring is becoming one yourself. You’ll be surprised just how much value being a mentor can bring – when you’re focusing on another individual’s success, it’s easier to see just how far along the journey you’ve already come, and help you build perspective during more difficult times.

Approaching your local Business Gateway or Chamber of Commerce is a great starting place for mentorship. The other option is to reach out to someone you admire – perhaps through LinkedIn or with a well-worded letter to their company address.

Our Leadership Lessons asks experienced business leaders to offer words of wisdom to our community of founders and entrepreneurs. It may be the first step to getting yourself up and running as a business mentor.

DIY Happy Hour

Once you find your own group of entrepreneurial friends, why not arrange some down time for you all, and have that Friday night post-work drink with the team, or be your own HR department and plan an occasional ‘team day’ where you can all step out of the day-to-day and regroup?

The best part? You are in charge, so there’ll be no cliché team building exercises – unless you want them to be! The possibilities are endless: bowling, paintball, vision boarding, a ‘lunch and learn’, an escape room, a problem solving session, or even a show and tell!