The Stress and Dark Side of Life at the Top

Scene: You get on the elevator and push the button for floor #31. As the doors close, a hand thrusts in between the doors causing them to re-open. In walks the CEO and the elevator starts to climb.

CEO: “Hi Bob, how are things in Finance?”

You: “Been working late hours. Lots of stress.”

CEO: “Must be hard on your family with two toddlers at home.”

You: “For sure. My wife isn’t one bit happy about it.”

CEO: “Be very careful about that. My first marriage ended in a messy and expensive divorce because of my grueling travel schedule.”

The elevator stops and just as suddenly as he got on, the CEO is gone. You scratch your head saying to yourself, “That was pretty dark. I thought he had it made.” Well, maybe not.

People who deal with C-level executives — or have aspirations to sit in the big room themselves one day -“ may have misperceptions about life at the top.

For my book Speaking Up: Surviving Executive Presentations, I interviewed a number of CEOs about their lives and careers with the hope of uncovering the truth, including the dark side, of life at the top.

First of all, a little background. The average C-level executive has a short-lived top-level career of just 23 months. In addition, they deal with huge performance pressures right out of the box. After one year in a new CEO job, if the stock price is up, 75% of them are still there. If the stock price is down, 83% have been fired. Few of us live that kind of unrelenting pressure.

Marriage and support are critical -“ yet elusive
Scott McNealy (Co-founder of Sun Microsystems) addressed a group of budding entrepreneurs with this advice: “The most important strategic decision you make in your business career is who you choose to have babies with.” His advice was reflected by other leaders who described stories of wrecked marriages because of the demands of the job. Brenda Rhodes, CEO of InTouch, observed, “I have talked to many CEOs who have lost their relationships.”

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