The C-suite is famously a lonely place.
Without having forged friendships earlier in their career, it’s hard for top leaders to encourage a report to truly open up, hang out (outside of work) without feeling obliged to, and get genuine feedback on making sensitive decisions like hiring and firing.
It’s not impossible for leaders to be friends with their workers, but it’s an entirely different relationship from the ones they hold with those that climbed the ranks with them.
That’s why many CEOs told Fortune that they still lean on their former peers turned friends for advice and support.
The importance of friendship in the C-suite
“There is something bloody marvelous about someone who saw you crying once at the binding machine, sending you a heartfelt note the day your LinkedIn post changes to CEO,” says Katy Wright, CEO of the advertising agency FCB Inferno, who has remained in contact with workplace friends dating back to the first agency she ever worked at.
Having worked their way up the ad industry together, she says, “they understand the business I work in, thus they immediately get the context or have faced a similar situation, so the advice, the challenge, the calling BS and the cheerleading stands.”
She says that this support has become even more important since stepping into the chief executive role last year.
Iñaki Ereño, the global CEO of health insurance firm Bupa, echoes that for perspective he turns to the friends he made at the start of his career.
“I’ve been able to make bold decisions knowing that I have a network of people who will support me,” he says. “We don’t always have to agree, but we have created a safe space to have a constructive debate. Those open conversations can help me to see others’ point of view and better form my own stance on a topic too.”
Over the years, Ereño says that his former peers have taken different career paths, so his network has expanded—as has the ability to learn more from one another.
In addition to being a source of professional advice, many CEOs say, having friends dotted across the industry is why they love their job—they’ve gone on to witness one another’s weddings and, just like regular workers, they still use their buddies as a reference call when applying for a new job.
While many CEOs made their closest friends early in their career, a few told Fortune that’s when they met their future partners—both romantically and in a business sense.
“I met two of the most important people in my life through working at that first ‘real job’—my wife and my cofounder and COO, James Hirst,” said Martin Buhr, cofounder and CEO of the software company Tyk.
“And there are countless other stories like this,” he adds while pointing to another work friend who founded a separate company and became a soundboard for Buhr’s ideas.
Plus, he thinks having genuine friends in business is good for both one’s mental health and the health of one’s business: “They can spot gaps you’re blind to or call you out when you maybe didn’t follow your own advice, in a way that others in your company may not feel able to—especially when you’re the CEO.”
If today’s leaders were starting out now
It’s hard to quantify the importance of those early workplace friendships, and this throws up an interesting question in today’s post-pandemic environment: Would these businesses have been founded if there wasn’t an office for the bright minds to bond in?
Picture a TV show like The Office without, well, the office: Would Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute have become best friends if their relationship was primarily over email? Would Jim and Pam still have fallen in love and had a Zoom “meet-cute”?
That’s the reality that young new hires today face, as they enter a new working world that’s remote-first.
And while it’s an entirely different world from the one that today’s leaders look back on, the need for friendships at work isn’t going away.
The majority of hybrid workers, surveyed by International Workplace Group, reported that office friendships increase job satisfaction, and almost half said that close friends keep them at their jobs.
But at the same time, 40% of remote and hybrid workers have found it harder to connect with their colleagues and build a relationship with their seniors.
According to a 2022 Glassdoor survey, a third of hybrid and remote workers also feel that their working arrangement has stunted their progression—with this sentiment rising to 55% among 18-to-25-year-olds.
It’s bad news for career development and productivity: “When colleagues have strong relationships, they are more likely to innovate and share ideas, get more work done in less time, and generally enjoy their job more,” says Jill Cotton, career trends expert at Glassdoor.
“Engaged employees will stand out to their boss, increasing their opportunity to be identified for career growth within a company,” she adds.
So are new hires really missing out?
“The shift to increased flexibility in the workplace doesn’t automatically mean new hires and graduates are missing out,” Cotton assures. But it does require new hires to make a lot more effort to develop relationships with teammates through a screen.
“If you’re not working full-time in an office environment surrounded by people, it can be easy for interactions with colleagues to become perfunctory and focus solely on work,” Cotton says.
Her top piece of advice, for young new hires entering the workforce is to “consciously make time to really get to know your colleagues.”
More practically, this means carving out time to socialize with your peers—this could be online, in real life, or even after work.
To break the ice, Cotton suggests starting small and asking something simple like “tell me something fun you did at the weekend.” Then you can build up from there, as you learn more about their personal interests.
During your first 90 days, career coach Dr. Kyle Elliott advises setting a weekly target for how many peers you can connect with until these check-ins grow into more natural friendships, by which point you shouldn’t need the diary reminder.
“While putting yourself out there can feel intimidating, particularly when you’re a new hire, know that the benefits often far outweigh the risks,” he says.
Because although friendship isn’t critical to becoming successful, it makes the 81,000 hours we are estimated to work in our life far more enjoyable—and can provide vital perspective and support as you climb the ladder and become “the boss.”
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