The Loneliness Epidemic of Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff

“It’s Lonely at the Top”

I’ve never really liked the phrase, “It’s lonely at the top.” Perhaps its just the context from which it’s usually said – from a place of privilege, as an excuse, or as a subtle request for pity. I swear I’m not cynical! Just bear with me here. “At the top” is the part that throws me off. Because, let’s be honest, no matter where you are positioned in an organization, if you are leading a team or a division, or leading up to your Executive, it can be lonely.

Leadership is lonely. That part I can agree with. And it seems to be a topic that has been coming up more and more with my entrepreneur friends and Force Multiplier network. In fact, recently, I was asked if the Chief of Staff role was a lonely place and a week later I was asked whether I felt lonely or isolated in my role and if so, how I dealt with it. Clearly, the topic is top of mind for executive support professionals.

These challenges are often assumed to be unique to only the leaders “at the top.” But that is not true. Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff can be lonely positions too. Let’s dive into what that really means, what it looks likes, and how to navigate these very real and personal leadership challenges.

What Does “Loneliness” Mean?

There are several definitions of “lonely”, including: without companions; solitary; being without company; and cut off from others. As Force Multipliers, we are surrounded by team members, employees, and external stakeholders. We may have more people in our daily work life than we even want! As an introvert, I know that is sometimes the case for me. So, I don’t think that loneliness for Force Multiplier comes from lack of companions or company – what I do think it means is that there can be a lack of deep connection and oftentimes feeling cut off from others.

How Loneliness Affects Force Multipliers

Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff are in a strange position where they need to form strong relationships inside and outside the organization, and yet, they must also be careful about how much, and with whom, they share information. If you say too much, you may be breaching confidentiality with your Executive and could lose trust. If you say too little, you may not be able to build rapport with team members and it becomes a struggle to get anything done. It’s a delicate dance to say the least.

Furthermore, employees and other leaders in the company generally know that you have the ear of the CEO and may choose to only share the information with you that they want the CEO to know. You have to take what others tell you with a grain of salt, consider all the angles, the context, and the potential agenda of the individual. And then use your best judgement to interpret that information and decide what goes back up the chain to you leader, without breaking the trust and confidence of the individual who gave you the information in the first place! Sounds like office politics at it’s finest, doesn’t it? While I prefer to tackle many of these conversations head-on and get to the root of the issue with an employee, solve it with them, or encourage them to have a direct conversation with the Executive, we don’t live in a perfect world. So, being aware of all the ways information is relayed and the subtext that accompanies it is key.

That, in and of itself, can feel isolating at times. You’re constantly walking on a tightrope of trust, professionalism, leadership, and productivity. When you combine that with the fact that there are very few, if any, people in your organization who it’s appropriate to share your personal career challenges with, the loneliness meter keeps creeping up. Sure, there’s HR if things get tough. But, very often in Executive Assistant or Chief of Staff roles, there’s no grabbing a drink after work to commiserate about the boss. Part of your job as a Force Multiplier is not to indulge in gossip or complaints, particularly at the expense of your leader or the company. When you’re unable to freely share a big part of your life with others, that can be a lonely and isolating place to be.

Finally, there aren’t many people who understand the unique challenges of the Executive Assistant or Chief of Staff roles for all of the reasons mentioned above and much more. Sometimes you may feel alone simply because the pressures, stresses, highs and lows of the position are difficult to explain if someone hasn’t experienced it themselves. If you can share, will anyone else really understand? That, too, can feel isolating.

How Force Multipliers Can Combat Loneliness

And, that’s the job. So, what are Force Multipliers to do to combat the loneliness epidemic of their careers?

1. Find a support network outside of the office.

If you have a partner at home, friends or family who can listen and offer sound advice – amazing! But you may need to look a bit further to find individuals who truly understand what you experience on a day basis. Joining a networking group for Executive Assistants, Chiefs of Staff, or other business professionals can be incredibly beneficial to feel less alone, understood, and to work through challenges together. A great mentor can do this too.

2. Hire a coach

If group settings aren’t necessarily your thing, or if you want to get more individualized support, then a coach might be the right solution for you. A coach will challenge your thinking, provide support and advice, give you a place to share the issues you’re experiencing with your Executive or career, and help you form a plan of action to help you achieve your goals. Having a coach that you meet with on a regular basis can certainly help you feel less alone in your role.

3. Strengthen your partnership with your leader.

Your leader likely feels the effects of loneliness too. They have to be judicial with how they share information, who they trust and confide in, and when (and if) they choose to interact with other team members. They have eyes and ears on them at all times. Many times, the one person they can truly confide in is their Executive Assistant or Chief of Staff who is privy to all the same information and challenges they are. They can work through those issues together and both feel less isolated. As a Force Multiplier, building that trust, working on your own leadership and decision making skills, and strengthening your partnership with your leader will help you both. It’s a little less lonely when you both have a trusted partner to work with.

4. Work on your own personal growth.

With any leadership challenge, working on your own personal growth is a recipe for success. When you take time to self-reflect, accept that the position has inherit qualities of isolation, work on your communication and relationship building skills, and more, you will become a person who can handle whatever challenge comes your way. Including the very real challenge of loneliness as a leader. Self-leadership always precedes leadership.

Of course, a combination of all four of the above strategies would be ideal!

Yes, the Executive Assistant and Chief of Staff roles can be isolating and lonely. They are also incredibly rewarding and exciting roles to be in. When you acknowledge the realties of the position and actively put strategies in place to get the support you need, you will be unstoppable.

Do you feel lonely or isolated in your position? How have you dealt with it?

Additional Resources

Still curious about what a career as a Force Multiplier looks like? Join Hallie for a virtual Ask Me Anything on June 30, 2022 and December 22, 2022 where she will answer all your burning questions! It will also be a great opportunity to connect and network with fellow Executive Assistants, Chiefs of Staff, and entrepreneurs.

Register for the June meeting here and the December meeting here.

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