My first experience coaching CEOs and business owners came before I even knew what executive coaching was. It was 2001 and I was leading the efforts at GE Capital Mortgage to identify acquisition and investment opportunities. We were searching for small to mid-sized companies that provided products and services which were synergistic with those offered by our residential mortgage and mortgage insurance businesses.
This business development process involved identifying target companies and working closely with their leaders to learn about their financials, products and services, people and management methods, strategy and planning, go-to-market approach, culture, operations, customer support, etc. Through the course of this due-diligence, I developed strong relationships with the CEOs and, as these professional bonds grew, their trust in me increased.
I have always been a willing listener and intrigued by what makes people “tick,” so our conversations often veered from the areas of “typical” due diligence to other matters. The topics in which these business leaders confided in me included disputes with family members, health issues, problem employees, financial woes, challenges with spouses and children, as well as their hopes, dreams and fears.
What I learned from these conversations was that these individuals are a special blend of human characteristics that we all possess, plus others that are unique because of their role as CEO. Fast forward to today, when I work with CEOs every day…and these areas of uniqueness are part of the reason why CEOs need coaching and, in my opinion, need it now more than ever.
So why do CEOs need coaching? Let’s look at six areas where, I believe, they can especially benefit. And although these areas are not the exclusive concern of CEOs, they may find special value in focusing on them, because they are the only people who do what they do and who have ultimate responsibility for the company’s success.
Everyone else in the company has a boss yet, frequently, CEOs have no one to whom they are directly accountable. Yes, there may be company shareholders, board members, key customers, family members, or others who have a special interest in how the CEO is performing. However, frequently there is no one that the CEO reports to or is accountable to on a week in, week out basis. A coach can take on the role of accountability partner to aid the CEO in their actions and outcomes. This does not mean that the CEO takes direction from his coach, but there can be a powerful level of accountability to the coach that can help the CEO raise the bar and stay focused on his most important goals.
2. Acknowledgement and Appreciation
It is a rare occurrence when a CEO receives a pat on the back and a “job well done.” They are expected to work long hours, be “on” 24×7, and maybe even be some kind of superhero. Typically, though, most of what they hear about are the problems of the day and what is not going well. Many people assume that CEOs don’t require positive feedback…that somehow they’re above it or just don’t need it or want it. Not true! CEOs, like the rest of us, need to hear that they are doing a good job. They may not expect to hear it, but I know that it is truly appreciated when I provide a heart-felt “congratulations” after my client has had a recent success.
3. Unfettered Relationship
There are few people, if any, in the CEO’s primary professional circle who aren’t biased towards what she does and how she does it. Often it is only a coach who doesn’t have a vested interest in the opinions and decisions of the CEO. The key here is trust. Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman at Google, said that his best advice to new CEOs was to “have a coach.” Schmidt went on to say that “once I realized I could trust him [the coach] and that he could help me with perspective, I decided this was a great idea.” John Kador, writing in CEO Magazine, argues that while board members can be helpful, most CEOs shy away from talking to the board about their deepest uncertainties. Other CEOs can lend a helping ear, but there are obvious barriers to complete honesty and trust. Kador writes, “No one in the organization needs an honest, close and long term relationship with a trusted advisor more than a CEO.”
It is the tendency of most people in the organization to tell the CEO what she wants to hear (or what they think she wants to hear), either to make a good impression or for fear of reprisal if they were to speak openly and honestly. A CEO said to me once that “Nobody tells me anything!” and that it was a constant challenge for him to get people to give opposing views or to provide constructive criticism. John Shook, Chairman and CEO of Lean Enterprise Institute notes that “What great coaches can do is serve as what master musicians consider “outside ears” – someone who can listen closely and help keep them on track by providing feedback, and by helping them remain aware of where they may be falling short.” CEOs have blind spots, just like the rest of us; however, often no one has their backs. A good coach can help the CEO stay attuned to their environment and how they interact with others.
5. Share and Vet Ideas
Although CEOs frequently brainstorm alternatives and discuss options with their leadership teams, there is often a belief or expectation that the CEO should have all the answers and be the source of all viable ideas. Of course, this is not humanly possible, no matter how talented the CEO is. This expectation, however, can result in the CEO feeling tremendous pressure to always “come through in the clutch” as opposed to leveraging the combined experience and expertise of his team. It can also lead to CEOs who are hesitant to put forth new ideas for fear of them being unworthy. A CEO can help address this challenge by sharing ideas with his coach and talking through the pros and cons. This way, his ideas can be more thoroughly vetted prior to introducing them to the leadership team.
6. Be Vulnerable (Be Real)
Few people understand, or often even care, what it is really like to be CEO. The job is often high-stress and can be a constant grind, with little downtime. Marshall Goldsmith writes in his book “Succession. Are You Ready?” about how much CEO behavior matters to the people she leads. And that “If she wants to be a great leader, she will need to “make peace” with watching what she says and observing how she acts…for the rest of her career. There is no “off” switch when she is around the people who she will be leading.” With a coach, a CEO can open up and display emotions, be it joy, anger, frustration, excitement, confusion, self-doubt, contentment, pride, fear or remorse. A coach is often one of the few people with whom a CEO can fully relax and be herself, without fear of appearing less than completely “CEO-like.”
So why should CEOs have coaches now? Ray Williams, president of Ray Williams Associates, writes that “Today’s president or CEO faces more pressures than ever. Business leaders are dealing with rapidly changing markets, technologies and workforces, increased financial and legal scrutiny…and more. Top executives who feel that they can handle it all by themselves are more likely to burn out, make poor decisions or make no decisions – potentially resulting in significant loss of opportunities, human resources and financial resources.”
Mike Myatt writes in his article, The Benefits of a Top CEO Coach, that “Executives who rise to the C-suite do so largely based upon their ability to consistently make sound decisions. However while it may take years of solid decision-making to reach the boardroom it often times only takes one bad decision to fall from the ivory tower. The reality is that in today’s competitive business world an executive is only as good as his/her last decision, or their ability to stay ahead of contemporaries and competitors.”
I strongly believe that everyone can benefit from working with a good coach (including yours truly). However, based on their position, CEOs have some needs that are unique to them. According to the Harvard Business Review, 2 out of 5 new CEOs fail in their first 18 months on the job. Working with a coach can help lower that failure rate and help CEOs attain levels of success and personal satisfaction that they didn’t think possible. As Google CEO Eric Schmidt said, “The coach doesn’t have to play the sport as well as I do. They have to watch you and get you to be your best.”