Sunday, August 5, 2012

Exec friendships are hard too

There was a terrific article in the New York Times this week on how very hard it it to make friends over 30. The discussion is buzzing and comments are flying. Clearly lots of people feel the pain of forming deep friendships once they have kids, and a job, and all the time conflicts that prevent us putting the time in to form deep friendships that seemed so much easier in college and pre-kids.

But it also got me thinking about how much harder it is to make friends when you are an executive. Some people see you differently as you take on more responsibility, and their view of you creates a barrier to forming genuine friendship.

For example - one assumption folks make about me is that I don't have time to make friends. Because I am a CEO surely I am busy all the time working and would not have time to go out for a drink with no work purpose. Wrong. I am human and enjoy socializing as much as the next person. Yes I am busy, but I make time for my life as well as my work. Especially when it comes to cooking together.

As an exec you do have to weed out the people who just want something from you, but wrap it in "friendly" behavior. There is a group of casual friends who I have now learned only contact me when they are looking for a job. Why they don't realize I have figured that out escapes me, but I help them anyway because it's the right thing to do. Or the people who want a reference, or they want me to coach them - but they never give back. There is an ask every time I see them.

Don't get me wrong, I love coaching, but I want an authentic discussion. "Penny, I'm facing an issue, can I get some coaching" is great. The "hey, Penny we haven't have breakfast in a while" bugs me.

People project their issues too. Some assume that because of what I do I must think I am above them, or not be interested in them. Rubbish. Everyone is equal, people either interest each other or they don't. But someone with a social status complex is tough to be friends with. The relationship just never feels balanced. I work hard to bust this perception with my employees right up front. It's hard to design together, or sell together when one person has a status complex.

Confidentiality can be an issue too. Clearly I never reveal company confidential information anyway, but as an exec you can only relax with people who you know are not going to talk about what you said, or did, the next day. Gossip is a nasty but tasty social currency. I consciously think about whether the group I am going out with is safe or not. Not that my behavior is ever actually interesting enough to gossip about these days but in the day of cellphones and social media I am always ON unless just with close friends.

Given that forming friends is harder over 30, and harder the more senior you are professionally, it makes it that much more painful when you lose a friend. I've lost friends in the last few years to cancer, to misunderstanding, to friends moving across the country (which doesn't mean you lose them, but you certainly see them less often), to spouses not getting along. Losing friends to death is heartbreaking. Losing friends to people not being able to get along is just downright annoying, and bad ROI on my time.

I do believe that as we move through different phases in life we do, as the NY Times piece says, have to invest in friends for the phase of life we are in. And as an exec that means finding people to whom my job is not relevant to the friendship. Funnily enough, this doesn't mean they are people I don't work with - I like working with my friends. It just means they are people with a healthy self image who don't attribute any special social status to my being a CEO. And the most fun are the ones who know my foibles, are absolutely irreverent, and can make fun of them with me when the day is over.

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