I’m Always “On” – How Do I Disconnect from My Executive Role?

June 26, 2024

By Dave Bushy, PCC

I occasionally read about movie stars who do their best not to be noticed when they are out in public.  They sometimes yearn for anonymity, preferring a quiet time with friends and loved ones over staring crowds and adoring fans.

Movie stars use the big screen as their vehicle for delivering performances and it is understandable when,  if they choose to do so, they decide to be anonymous outside of theatres. 

But this isn’t as much of an option for senior executives in large public companies. These leaders cannot disappear from view because the job itself is the role and their stage is everywhere they appear in front of employees, customers, the press and even their own board members.  They become the face of their companies.

And it has its costs.

I was speaking with a senior executive of a large public company a while back when we explored his role in the corporation. He shared with me how he wanted to learn to listen more and speak less to help mentor the next generation of leaders at this company.  He was working hard at recognizing his very well-developed tendency of public speaking and how it had served him and the company for which he worked. 

At one point in our conversation, though, he became lost in thought.  I paused, giving him time for reflection, allowing him to process what might be going on in his mind.  His gaze cast downward for several minutes.  After several moments he looked up and asked, “How do I disconnect from all of this?”  It was as much a plea as it was a question. 

I paused longer even than my own well-developed tendency to provide space for thought.

Because his plea resurrected thoughts of my own experiences long ago.  It stirred visceral feelings of my time as a senior vice president, where I managed a department of more than 10,000 people – almost all of whom were professionals who had strong thoughts about how our company should be run.  Everywhere I went in the company I encountered people who wanted to voice opinions.  If I tried to become inconspicuous, I would be challenged for “trying to hide.” 

As a consequence, I chose to lean into every conversation, to be a leader who listened, who explained, who cared, who was visible and who always wanted to serve others.   During union negotiations I would encounter people who became strident and felt as if I should be the willing recipient of their emotions.  After venting to me – often angrily – they would walk away appearing satisfied that they had told an executive “What he needed to hear” – often telling others about their success.

And I would carry the heat of their emotion and their frustration for which I had no outlet. I would just encounter the next person and the next.  I was the heat sink for the department.

True, it was not always about anger.  Very often it was delivering good news, speaking at onboarding events, providing positive input for a job well done and working to inspire others to achieve great things for each other and the company.  In each of those situations, however, I continued to be the voice of the department and even the company, as I would often be “voluntold” to attend black-tie events to deliver a speech or attend a ribbon-cutting or even to represent the company on Capitol Hill.

Each time I spoke, each time I listened, each time I attended to others, I gave away more and more of myself.  I often staggered into my home after a long day and felt hollow and empty and knowing that I had nothing left to give.  And there sat my family who really deserved my compassion and my presence and I had given it all away.

So what does all of this have to do with the question my client asked? Everything. Because there are very real limits for each of us.  And knowing that we have limits is an admission that we are humans, even though we are in high profile executive roles. 

My client and I went on to talk about what it might feel like for him to say “I am powerless*” to be everything to everyone.  By exploring the enormous cost of his well-developed skill at being the face of the company he began to gain perspective and an ability to frame some alternative paths forward.  From there we moved more deeply into exploring opportunities for him to seek others who experience the same things and can provide support and encouragement.  People who might give him permission to choose times to disconnect and practice actually doing it. 

I wish I had tried it so many years ago.  I could have used it effectively to hold myself more accountable. 

*“I am powerless,” is the first step in any 12-step program.  And knowing that gives perspective and frames a path forward.  

Dave Bushy of Boston Executive Coaches – bostonexecutivecoaches.com – is a an ICF-certified coach who was trained at the Gestalt International Study Center (GISC).  Dave is a former U.S. Army officer and senior airline executive who works with leaders throughout the world.

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

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