In The Lead: More CEOs Seek Therapy

Seeing Shrink Helped Their Career, Executives Say

Cites consultant Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Wall Street Journal Online

CEOs who have spent their careers beating out rivals, proving they can get results and masking their vulnerabilities, may not appear to be the type to seek psychotherapy. They seem too focused on achieving external goals and proving their prowess as unflappable leaders.

But more top executives are seeing therapists these days. The stigma about mental illness persists, so most keep their sessions secret. But unlike earlier generations of executives, today’s CEOs know they don’t have to be falling apart to seek help. “CEOs have the same relationship problems and life-stage issues as the rest of us,” says Robert Michels, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst at Cornell University’s Weill Medical College in New York who has treated top executives in financial services and other industries.

The CEO of a New York technology company didn’t realize he was depressed when he started skipping meetings and not returning phone calls. But he did know that his remoteness was detrimental to his employees and his business, and he asked a close friend to recommend a therapist.

Just talking about his difficulties helped, and he began communicating more regularly with his staff. But then, suddenly, after a crisis at work, he withdrew all over again. “He may have instigated that crisis, but it’s forced him to think about whether he really wants to be the boss who always has to be in front of people,” says Kenneth Eisold, the executive’s psychotherapist. “He’s under pressure to do it or get out–but he sees that he has choices.”

Once they reach the top, CEOs often find themselves isolated, with hardly anyone to confide in, yet pressured to measure up to an image. “They think others expect them to be visionary or always in control,” says Thomas Saporito, senior vice president of RHR International, a Chicago-based consulting firm that works with executives on management development and succession planning. Add to this the difficulty that high-achieving executives have in allotting time for their families or pursuits outside of work and “you have a lot of CEOs saying, ‘Oh my God, what am I up against, and who can I talk to?’ ” he says.

“Psychological change doesn’t always happen quickly,” adds Kerry Sulkowicz, a New York psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and founder of Boswell Group, a management consulting firm. “But executives are used to getting results quickly, which can make them very motivated patients.”

Scott Flanders, the chairman and CEO of Columbia House, a New York marketer of entertainment products, says he’s glad he had therapy when he was still in his 30s and climbing through middle management. At the time, he got along well enough with superiors and subordinates, but he had intense rivalries with peers. A human-resources executive at the publishing company where he worked encouraged him to attend a week-long seminar in human behavior at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan.

Soon after, he began weekly psychotherapy with a Menninger-trained psychiatrist and stuck to the process for five years. He says therapy helped him realize that much as he craved success, he also felt unworthy of it. “My therapist once said, ‘Scott, you’d be happier if you lost everything and could start over,’ and that’s when he got my attention.”

As Mr. Flanders talked about his rivalries with his siblings, it became easier for him to start forming alliances with peers “who really wanted me to succeed,” he says, noting that “I was complicit before in encouraging them to hate me.” One of his fiercest former rivals is now a close friend and golf partner.

If it weren’t for psychotherapy, “I wouldn’t be married today, wouldn’t be happy” and might not have become a CEO, Mr. Flanders says. “Once you get in touch with yourself, it’s a lot easier to get in touch with others.” Now, when subordinates seem stuck at a certain level because they don’t get along well with others, he offers frank feedback. “I don’t want to avoid the issue by simply saying ‘You’re not ready for a promotion,’ ” which a lot of managers do, he says.

Some executives worry that therapy will make them soft or weak or cause them to lose their competitive edge. But Mr. Flanders says therapy didn’t change his ambition, just made him more effective. “It didn’t change who I am fundamentally,” he says.

Executives whose relatives or close friends have suffered mental illnesses are particularly receptive to therapy. Jim Arneson, president of Professional Instruments, a Minneapolis engineering firm, was still in high school when his dad, Theodore John “Ted” Arneson, the company’s founder, suffered his first bout of clinical depression. The father, who is now 80, was later hospitalized for depression, which he has suffered intermittently throughout his life.

“My dad taught us all to be proactive” about mental health, says Mr. Arneson, who has done family therapy. His company has a more liberal mental-health treatment policy than many businesses, but he worries that there is a shortage of effective therapists. “My family is very aware of how debilitating depression can be,” he says.

Michael Leven, chairman and CEO of US Franchise Systems, Atlanta, which owns three hotel brands, says several months of therapy earlier in his career enabled him to bounce back from feeling depressed and angry after he uncovered accounting irregularities at Days Inn and quit a job he loved there. He sought therapy after he took a new job at Holiday Inn but realized he was withdrawn and less productive than usual. “As a leader, you have to jump on ideas and provide an environment where employees can be creative and take risks,” he says. “It’s difficult to do that if you’re not in good psychological shape.”

Can therapists who know little about finance or manufacturing operations help executives in those fields who are floundering? Dr. Eisold says that when he first began treating finance executives and commodities traders he felt insecure. “They’d use all this jargon as if I understood it, and I didn’t know anything about trading,” he says. But he soon concluded that the best thing he could do was not bother to understand the specifics of trading.

“What I can help them think about is what is going on in their minds when they have a good day or a bad day,” he says. Some lose money when they get caught up in rivalries. “They see someone else trading big and don’t want to be put down,” he says, “so they also trade big regardless of what the market is doing.”

But CEOs, who are used to giving orders, may be less likely than other patients to be deferential to their therapists. Roger Brunswick, a New York psychiatrist and co-founder of consultant Hayes Brunswick, treated one CEO who lit up cigars without inquiring whether the smoke was a problem.

Several sessions later, the CEO began talking about how he rarely sought his directors’ viewpoints, didn’t pick up their cues and might appear insensitive to them. “How do you think I feel about your smoking cigars here?” Dr. Brunswick asked the man. “Suddenly it dawned on him that I might not like cigar smoke, and he realized that he acted the same with me as he did in his company.”

Written by Carol Hymowitz