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Yes, even CEOs need mentors. Here’s why

When you’re responsible for an entire organization, you need someone in your corner who can give you support and advice.

Yes, even CEOs need mentors. Here’s why
[Source photo: Marcelo Dias/Pexels]

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “It’s lonely at the top.”

And as much as it sounds like a corporate cliché, there is truth to that statement. When you ascend to the role of CEO, you don’t get the same level of camaraderie or support like you do when you’re part of a team. And it becomes less and less obvious who you should turn to for support.

People who become leaders tend to view their role as as a guide to others. In the process, they overlook the fact that they still need help and advice themselves. The truth is, great leaders need great mentors. Even at the top, leaders need someone in their corner. The problem is that finding honest feedback becomes more and more like trying to catch a unicorn. It feels elusive and, at times, downright impossible.


CEOs face a landscape fraught with complexity and uncertainty. Sure, they might be equipped with invaluable experience that got them to the top in the first place. However, the nature of leadership at this level requires a shift in perspective.

When you’re a leader, it’s no longer just about executing your work to the best of your ability. You need to make sure that strategic thinking, vision-setting, and stakeholder engagement takes center stage. Your decisions and actions also have a greater potential impact as you become responsible for more people and an increased budget. One wrong move, and it’s not just your reputation on the line—it’s the company’s bottom line, too.

In this high-stakes environment, the need for support and reliable counsel becomes even more important than ever.


One of the greatest obstacles that CEOs encounter is the isolation that accompanies their position. In most instances the leader is often sealed off within an echo chamber, void of the truth and brewing concerns. Subordinates often hesitate to offer bad news or dissenting opinions. Winston Churchill famously complained that “The temptation to tell a chief in a great position the things he most likes to hear is one of the commonest explanations of mistaken policy.”


This brings us to the importance of mentors for CEO, and the need to take a discerning approach when looking for one. CEOs, by nature of their position, need to cast a wider net beyond their organization.  Former colleagues, retired executives, or industry luminaries can serve as invaluable guides—especially those that have been in the CEO roles themselves.

One European CEO of an international bank illustrated this challenge in a conversation with Andy. He drew a pyramid on a flip chart and explained how, when he had many peers around him, he could turn to any number of people for advice and support—both among those peers and also above him in the organization.

But, as a CEO, those options had disappeared. There were few peers, all facing their own burden, and nobody above. So, he had to turn to networks outside his own organization, he explained, as he drew a second pyramid.

Outside the organization, leaders can find peer mentors or friends who take on the dual role of mentors—which we like to call Friendtors. They might also be leading organizations and are facing similar challenges and frustrations. It might also pay to look outside your own sector to find peers to work with. This way, you can get an objective (and diverse) perspective without running the risk of falling into your own industry’s groupthink.

Additionally, cultivating relationships with peers in different sectors or engaging in reverse mentoring with junior employees can provide fresh perspectives and keep CEOs attuned to emerging trends. Jack Welch—the former CEO of General Electric—realized for example that junior employees were more internet savvy than the executives. As a result, he ordered the leadership to spend time with the younger employees and learn what they can about this new technology, which was taking the world by storm.


At the pinnacle of their careers, CEOs need to resist complacency and embrace a mindset of continuous learning. Mentorship offers a dynamic platform for growth, enabling CEOs to stay abreast of industry developments, refine their leadership acumen, and navigate the evolving corporate governance landscape. By fostering a culture of curiosity and receptivity to feedback, CEOs can fortify their leadership prowess and drive sustained organizational success.


Real-world examples underscore the transformative power of mentorship for CEOs. From forging strategic alliances with industry veterans to harnessing the digital savviness of younger colleagues, mentorship catalyzes innovation, fosters resilience, and empowers CEOs to confront challenges with confidence.

These anecdotes serve as testaments to the enduring value of mentorship in the highest echelons of corporate leadership. Ultimately, it’s simple: give back, but don’t forget to ask for help when you need it. And despite what the old corporate cliché says, it doesn’t need to be lonely at the top.

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Andy Lopata is the author and co-author of six books on networking and professional relationships, including The Financial Times Guide to Mentoring. Ruth Gotian, EdD, MS, is the chief learning officer and associate professor of education in anesthesiology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. More

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