Nick Jonsson Executive isolation

In a throwback to the pre-Covid-19 world, senior executives could rarely look forward to spending any extended period of time at home. The problem of countless overseas meetings and stresses of the job leading perennial separation from loved ones might’ve been somewhat abated by teleconferencing (and now, the coronavirus outbreak) – but what about the future?

We speak to Nick Jonsson, who has worked in various managerial roles in South East Asia since 2004 before acquiring franchise rights for Executives’ Global Network in Singapore. The company offers confidential peer groups for senior executives, providing them the opportunity to discuss business-related challenges, seek feedback or simply discuss any pressing issues with a group of like-minded individuals.

With over 250 members in Singapore, these group meetings also provide some much-needed support for members, as well as giving them a chance to network with other senior executives – especially important when it turns out that the old adage “It’s lonely at the top” really does have some truth to it.

What do corporate leaders face today?

Harvard Business Review commissioned a study that revealed that 50% of Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) have reported feeling a sense of loneliness, which held them back from delivering their best at work. The problem is particularly acute in Singapore due to the varying work cultures and long working hours. If you’re a regional director based in Singapore, you’d also be likely to directly report to the CEO or a board of directors in another continent, further exacerbating isolation.

Of course, this was before Covid-19. With most companies now in crisis mode with many of their employees suffering, executives often carry this burden alone. They’re currently coping with unprecedented amounts of stress: cost cutting, mass layoffs and so on. They make these business-critical decisions at pace, on a day-to-day basis while working extended hours. It’s no wonder many executives are experiencing fatigue.

Our peer networks don’t solve these problems, but they do provide an opportunity for executives to discuss these issues with their peers and help each other better manage these issues – personally and business-wise.

What’s more, they’re making these major decisions surrounded by family. They face a dilemma: trying to support their children through home-schooling for example, as well as potentially making life-and-death decisions. In this rush, they neglect their mental health and well-being, either due to stigma or by treating it as a nice-to-have.

However, it is now abundantly clear that the mental well-being of senior executives isn’t just a bonus: in our current climate, it’s a commercial imperative.

Has the ongoing digital transformation changed how business is done?

In general, yes – though a lot of new technologies were not accepted or used until Covid-19 hit us in the face earlier this year. As with all new technologies, there’s always two sides of the coin.

The pros of novel technology like Zoom includes less travel, particularly for internal meetings. Of course, it isn’t an option now with most borders still closed: but we can expect that the C-suite will prefer to meet virtually even after the crisis is over.

The cons of doing business online are undoubtedly privacy. Back in February this year when the world turned to Zoom, several security and privacy flaws were detected. These were quickly dealt with and today it is accepted as part of the new normal.

How has Covid-19 worsened executive isolation?

I’ve spoken to executives who say that when working-from-home, they struggle to separate work from their personal and family lives. It’s all blended together, leaving very little family time – and even less for exercise and leisure.

As I’ve said, the current situation has led to very long working hours – for example, if you have conference calls with Europe, US and so on. The different time zones make this very challenging to arrange without having to work around the clock, or at least irregularly.

How else do you think executive isolation during Covid-19 affects corporate leaders? Is there a silver lining?

Though the work-from-home restrictions might bring families closer, it could pull them further apart – especially in an expat hub like Singapore. With around 2 million expats in Singapore, about half of the senior executives at the highest levels are expatriates. So even if they’re currently isolated with their immediate family, their parents, grandparents and other family members and friends are now isolated in their home countries and cannot meet. This is a huge issue.

Coupled with the extreme pressure, very few leaders I’ve spoken to have reported being able to spend more time with their families: they’re physically near, but their mind is on other things.

Moving beyond Covid-19, it seems that telecommuting and working-from-home might become the future. What’s your take on it?

I’ve already mentioned some pros like less travelling for internal meetings. However, humans really are social animals and working-from-home doesn’t replicate that. We rely on human interaction to get energy and to feel a real connection with another person. That’s why it’s easier to keep secrets when you’re speaking virtually as opposed to in-person.

As for networking, it was traditionally done in hotel ballrooms or other event spaces and revolved around socializing. The difference with virtual networking seems to be that it is more time efficient and straight to the point. What took four hours physically can get done in 90 minutes online. For us, we met six times a year in person – executives might now prefer more virtual meetings. I expect us to see many hybrid networking models like this moving forward.

Do you have any advice for business leaders moving forward regarding loneliness?

Stay connected. Everyone needs a group of close personal friends who they can pour their heart out to about pressing issues. Equally important for business leaders in today’s world is belonging to a professional network of like-minded peers who they can reach out to for confidential discussions in regards to career and business challenges. It’s essential for leaders to not carry the heavy burden of leadership in isolation, as this can be harmful not only to themselves, but also their families.