Columns / Positive Cultures

Does every CEO need a coach?

We all can use a little feedback

May 9, 2013
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It is challenging enough to run a business in tranquil times (if such ever truly exist). But in the “new normal” of business, the challenge for top leaders has grown exponentially. Put differently, it’s easy to be the boss when everything is humming along just fine, but much harder when everything is changing, rapidly and unpredictably.

The recognized need for highly effective leadership, especially just now, has helped to fuel the dramatic growth in interest in leadership coaching, also called executive coaching. There is a growing call, trumpeted from a number of directions, for a coach for every CEO.                                                   

Last-ditch effort?

Does that mean that CEOs are in trouble?

 In the past, coaching was often, even most commonly, done as a last-ditch effort to save a faltering leader (or to provide external justification for terminating said de-railing leader. More recently, though, coaching has been done with high-potentials, or individuals newly promoted to higher levels of responsibility.

 Increasingly, the old stigma of coaching has largely given way to a radically different spin. (“Have you heard about Smith in accounting? She must have a bright future. The organization thinks enough about her to get her a leadership coach!”). Coaching has gone from remedial (something is broken) to developmental (there are opportunities for growth).

How would coaching help a successful leader at the top? Does that winning CEO need a coach to stand on the sidelines and shout, “keep up the good work”?

Leading in a vacuum

Consider this. In the rarefied air of the Corporate Suite, top leaders often receive little or no meaningful feedback about their performance as leader (other than the bottom-line business results, for which they are ultimately held accountable), and little or nothing by way of constructive suggestions as to how they might continually improve. The people who work for CEOs may carefully give some positive feedback, hopefully accurate and deserved, but few if any will be so bold as to offer constructive corrective feedback.

 In the relative absence of such feedback, CEOs commonly do what they think is best, and what has ostensibly worked for them in the past. Surely their usual way of doing things has not only been good enough, it must have been excellent (or so they think). So, hearing only occasional praise, and no objection, they press on, doing what they have done in the past. In recent literature, this attitude is identified as the “success delusion.”

Everyone has blind spots

It is very easy to fall into such traps up in the C-Suite. As long as business results are being delivered (the CEOs primary responsibility), Boards and shareholders may be willing to overlook dysfunctional behaviors on the part of the CEO... at least for now... and the employees are not going to bring it up.

But for long-term effectiveness, the boss needs somebody who can and will shoot straight with said boss. Behavioral science tells us that in the absence of timely, specific and accurate feedback – corrective as well as positive – performance tends to drift, and usually in the direction of less effort and less effectiveness.

 Even the most successful CEOs can have blind spots (“everyone knows but the boss how intimidating he can be...”) or areas of conscious incompetence (“I know I am a terrible listener, but that’s just how I am, and by the way, the business is doing great...”).

Athletes, even the very best among them, seek and use expert coaching and feedback. Today’s success does not guarantee tomorrow’s. Things can change. Some CEOs are successful at one time and at one place, but over time or at another company, not so much.

Some CEOs figure all this out, and create an organizational climate that encourages such ongoing coaching and feedback from their team. They seek constructive feedback, take it to heart, and don’t punish those who take the risk to give it. But such fresh air in the C-Suite is not all that common.  And even if a CEO is one of the very few who set the humble tone of the servant-leader, many team members still may not be willing to be so open with the person who most controls their career.

For the majority of CEOs who work in a relative feedback vacuum, there can be great and enduring value in enlisting a competent neutral third party, who can establish a supportive peer-to-peer relationship with the boss, and can challenge the CEOs thinking and behavior, as needed. Such an executive coach can provide the CEO with the kind of specific and accurate ongoing feedback that is so valuable, and so often minimal or absent in the usual course of events up on “mahogany row.”

So, does every CEO need an executive coach, here and now?

Probably not.

Does every CEO need coaching?

Probably so, like the rest of us. And given how little straight-talk feedback the typical CEO gets from those around him or her, that coaching will best come from a competent executive coach.

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