Coaching executives to improve performance
“Even the best-of-the-best CEOs have their blind spots and can dramatically improve their performance with an outside perspective weighing in,” says the Miles Group CEO Stephen Miles. “We are moving away from coaching being perceived as ‘remedial’ to where it should be something that improves performance, similar to how elite athletes use a coach.”
The Miles Group 2013 survey polled more than 200 CEOs, Board Directors and senior directors of public and private companies in North America. Some of the findings:
– Almost 66% of CEOs receive no coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants.
- A full 100% of bosses say they would be receptive to making changes based on feedback.
- Nearly 80% of Corporate Directors say their CEO would welcome coaching.
- CEOs want to be coached, apart from the desires of their Boards. The survey asked CEOs who are currently being coached, where they got the idea to get help. Some 78% said it was their own idea. Twenty-one percent said it was the Chairman of the Board’s idea.
- CEOs prefer to be private about their coaching. More than 60% said that they keep news of the progress they’re making between them and the coach. Only a third said they share the information with the Board. Stanford professor David Larcker, who also worked on the study, says that sharing progress with boards can improve the relations between Boards and CEOs.
- CEOs’ chief area of concern: getting help handling conflicts. Nearly 43% of CEOs said that “conflict management skills” was their highest priority. Top bosses often get tapped for difficult decisions above all other problems.
- Boards’ chief area of concern: CEOs need to improve talent development. While CEOs want help resolving conflicts, Boards are eager for CEOs to work on their mentoring and motivational skills, and to improve their ability to show compassion and empathy. Boards also want CEOs to hone their persuasion skills. These are obviously more nuanced, less tangible skills and possibly more difficult to coach. “However, when combined with the ‘harder’ skills, improving a CEO’s ability to motivate and inspire can easily make a difference in his or her overall effectiveness,” says Miles.
As someone who has coached CEOs for the past 40+ years, this most recent research was entirely consistent with my own observations. Apart from developing conflict management skills, other topic areas which I have observed as germane to coaching CEOs, as well as other senior-most leaders, are:
- Succession planning and implementation, including selection of top talent
- Leading transformational organization change
- Dealing with challenging Board members
- Building strong executive teams, including managing difficult executive behaviour in otherwise strong technical people
- Intergenerational transfer in family-owned and run companies
- Strategies for either leveraging or sustaining corporate culture
- Personal career progression
- Retirement planning and implementation
- Communicating effectively and inspirationally to differing audiences
- Balancing career and personal demands
- Managing executive stress characterized by tendencies to worry excessively, poor lifestyle habits (sleep problems, over-eating, lack of fitness), and marital and family concerns
If this list doesn’t surprise you, well, it shouldn’t. Whereas the majority of CEOs have a strong business and results orientation, generally with a strong track record of success, their concerns frequently relate to the strategy, process, people and personal concerns which need to be attended in order to consistently attain high personal and organizational performance.
While some may have the benefit of fellow executives who they are able to confide in and seek counsel from, CEOs are generally sensitive to sharing concerns of this nature with others, not being seen as having areas of potential weakness, or playing favourites in terms of who they choose to share confidences with. Additionally, while colleagues may be effective listeners, that does not necessarily translate into effective coaching or advisory capabilities.
So what does CEO Coaching look like? In many respects the skills employed are essentially the same as those required to coach anyone, save and except a few other critical competencies and experiences. These competencies and experiences include, but are not limited:
- Having been in the leadership chair and experienced the challenging dichotomies and complexities faced by CEOs daily;
- Understanding and relating to the challenges associated with:
a. making complex decisions in the absence of definitive data and an ambiguous future;
b. Recognizing that just about every one of your behaviours is scrutinized by others;
c. Recognizing that many decisions result in someone’s disappointment;
d. Having been personally responsible for consistently growing results while being challenged by able competitors;
e. Listening to advice from numerous sources, often reflecting different perspectives, yet being confident in making choices; f. Standing in front of an audience, be it Board Members, employees and the community and communicating with passion and integrity without appearing distant or egotistical….including answering challenging questions on the fly;
- Coaching the CEO yet being directive and advisory when the situation calls for it (CEOs assume their coach has a depth of expertise which results in a willingness to “say it as it is” and not simply reflect or paraphrase);
- An impeccable commitment to confidentiality;
- A wide range of skills and experiences which allows the coach to be flexible regarding the issues covered;
- A strong sense of the coach’s commitment to the success of the CEO and the success of the enterprise;
- Having tools and methodologies but not inflexible or jargon-prone;
- Willingness to provide feedback which the CEO may find challenging, whether about the organization or the CEO themselves;
- Holding the CEO accountable to commitments both to the coaching process and goals;
- A desire and willingness by the coach to learn about the CEO’s company and industry;
- An ability to formulate insights not readily within the CEOs consciousness and the ability to articulate these in an impactful yet sensitive manner;
- A sense of humour;
- Willingness to receive and ask for feedback themselves…..and make adjustments as necessary;
From a coach’s perspective, the opportunity to act as a catalyst for change at the top is highly rewarding. Coaching inputs can have meaningful and observable impacts both on the individual and the enterprise. It is always a growth opportunity for the coach.
Coaching CEOs also brings with it inherent risks. CEOs tend to be quite impatient thereby challenging a coaching agenda which recognizes that some behaviours don’t change overnight. The ability to accelerate without sacrificing the necessary coaching process can be challenging. CEOs are frequently not hesitant to provide the coach with feedback of their own…..rightly or wrongly.
To do this work, the coach needs to honest with themselves and willing to accept meaningful feedback. CEOs require that the coach be flexible with their time. Waiting for scheduled appointments or working 9 to 5 is typically not within the CEO’s mindset. There are realities which CEOs need to contend with and that CEO Coaches need to honour.
Finally, CEOs are human and have their own intrapersonal dynamics which motivate their behaviours and choices. Focusing only on the observable will in many cases not lead to the achievement of development goals which CEOs are seeking coaching for. Understanding and dealing with the CEOs dynamics, whether personal or interpersonal, is essential in helping CEOs learn and progress. In my experience, they value these insights, value learning about themselves, typically enjoy the growth process and recognize that change is not easy.