You’re not alone in feeling alone

A year ago, as many Australian start-ups and scale-ups were dealing with the uncertainties of the still-new pandemic, I wrote about the importance of founder resilience. There are times when one of the toughest aspects of being a founder or CEO is the loneliness of the job. At one time or another you will feel isolated and on your own.

While being a founder is hugely rewarding, there are times where it can be gut-wrenchingly tough. I remember sitting in a hotel room in Silicon Valley on the back of a two-week trip to the US. We were in the middle of a capital raising and I felt under enormous pressure. I was working through the weekend and had had no downtime for what seemed like months. I could hear kids playing in the pool outside and I had never felt more removed from my young family. It was tough and emotional time.

The life of a founder or CEO can be a lonely one for a multitude of reasons, some real, some less so. There will be moments when you wonder – with good reason – if your company will make it through. Its fate may not be in your hands alone, but you are seen as ultimately responsible. Most problems, particularly the big ones, come to you. And in some cases, those problems might be down to a decision that you personally made or didn’t make.

It can be hard to share the load with others even if we recognise that it’s a rational and healthy thing to do. When the pressure is intense, and no matter how supportive they typically are, turning to the Board, executive team or even your co-founders can be a challenge. It’s certainly easier with a co-founder in my experience, but even then, there are times when you are under the pump and that important relationship may be under strain.

Things can get to the point where, even if you’re a confident and self-aware founder, you wonder if you’re up to the job. This ‘imposter syndrome’ has been well documented but is hard to dismiss when it takes hold. The best defence may be to expect and recognise it when it does.

I had a lot to learn as a young CEO and was fortunate to have strong support around me in the early years of Aconex. I learned that personal growth and development were a continuous journey, and I was able to rely on my support networks to assist me over the years. In fact, I still do.

These are some of the things that helped me build the skills I needed to navigate challenging times:

  • Keep a sense of perspective. It will help you build resilience. Remember that your company is not you. It is your baby of course but, like a child, your identities should diverge as the company grows.

  • Get a mentor – or two. If you are pushing the envelope, you can expect occasional problems, and you will need someone outside of your board and executive team to turn to. At Aconex I was fortunate to have a number of early investors who had run businesses and, in particular, built technology companies. They were great mentors, always generous with their time and experience and willing to act as a sounding board. I learned about the importance of having mentors outside the board, and the value of being able to turn to trusted people to discuss things I couldn’t talk to the board or the executive about.

  • Join a peer CEO group. This is easily done and very worthwhile. I was part of such a group for many years and learned a lot from other CEOs from how they responded to the challenges they faced. While many were from outside the tech world, it struck me that the issues they dealt were familiar – such as building and retaining a strong team, investing in company culture, managing change, communicating to staff and developing their leadership style.

  • Engage an executive coach. A couple of years before Aconex went public, a board member suggested that I work with an executive coach. It turned out to be great advice. I worked with the same coach right up until the Oracle acquisition, meeting every two weeks to review current challenges. Having that personal relationship, independent of the business, allowed me to be completely open about what was on my mind and to reflect on my leadership style and approach.

The coach provided a stable context to think through strategic decisions and kept me accountable to myself and others. Because he worked with many other CEOs, I found that I learned a huge amount from him through our work. Over time, he became key to my professional development, helping me to manage board relationships and increase the effectiveness of the executive team.

Your role as founder or CEO will be lonely at times. Acknowledging that even when things are good it is important to be prepared. Don’t wait until the pressure is on to build your support network. Try to always keep things in perspective and go a bit easier on yourself when you need to.

Do that now and it will make you more resilient and better able to handle the pressures of building a company. You’ll learn about yourself; you’ll develop your capabilities and you’ll scaleup as a leader.