“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena … who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
For all the popularity of models of collaborative leadership in the management literature, the prominence of CEOs in large corporations has, if anything, grown in recent years. They are increasingly like footballers or prime ministers, inhabiting a strange, rarefied world of great pressure and rewards. The performance expectations placed on them are huge – and, as in the example of Antonio Horta Osoria of Lloyds Banking Group, can overwhelm even the most apparently robust individual. With the average CEO’s tenure now less than six years the need for effective CEO coaching has probably never been greater.
It is concerning therefore that the 2013 Stanford Executive Coaching survey of CEOs revealed that two thirds of them weren’t receiving any coaching or leadership advice from outside their organisation – even though 100% of those who were getting it believed it helped them. And of those, nearly 80% said they had had to take the initiative to make it happen.
From the CEO’s perspective coaching can provide an invaluable space for honest self-reflection. The coach can help him to unpick the complex threads of his role: its intra-psychic and interpersonal dimensions as well as the concrete business challenges. If it is his first CEO position, then an experienced coach can act as a guide to some of the mechanics of the role. How to manage board and chairman dynamics. How to deal with analysts and shareholders. Above all, the coaching relationship can be one of the places where the CEO can unburden himself of the loneliness of command. A good coach, like the wise fool in a medieval court, can also help the CEO by puncturing his grandiosity. A CEO may understand intellectually that people may unconsciously invest him with ‘magical’ powers, or not want to challenge him because of their desire to retain his favour. But understanding alone will not make it any easier to avoid getting caught up in his organisation’s seductive webs of transference. Sensible CEOs will usually be grateful, therefore, for a coach who, while seeing the best in them will also speak truth to their power.
There is a surprising shortage of writing or research about CEO coaching. This article therefore tries to identify what is distinctive about this type of work, drawing on the author’s experience and interviews with three leading UK-based coaches: Lorraine Bateman, formerly Group Organisation & Management Development Director at Diageo and now an independent coach; Martha Graham, founder and Director of Morris Graham; and Helen Pitcher, founder and Chairman of Advanced Boardroom Excellence.
The New CEO
All the coaches agreed that a newly appointed CEO can provide a unique opportunity for coaching to have a significant impact. Where there has been more than one internal candidate for the role, coaching can also help each to develop their awareness of the stretch in the job while they are going through the selection process. For the successful candidate this will accelerate their induction into the role. For the unsuccessful candidate, coaching can help them manage their disappointment in a mature and practical way.
An important factor is whether the new CEO is an external or an internal hire. If from outside, then a key area of focus will often be to help them achieve an accurate understanding of the business culture and its key dramatis personae as quickly as possible. If the coach knows the organisation well then clearly their capacity to add value can be considerable. If the CEO has been appointed from inside the organisation, then two critical issues will often be how they can make a mark on the organisation that both builds on and distinguishes them from their predecessors, and how they can manage their colleagues’ preconceptions of them.
If it is their first CEO role then the coach may need to perform an educating, mentoring function, for example by helping them get to grips with the complexities of Board processes and dynamics.
CEOs occupy a unique role on the edge of their organisation. Their every move and statement is scrutinised by investors. How they present themselves will have a direct influence on how the business is perceived by the stock market and customers. The CEO also has to proactively manage the relationship with their Chairman and the Board.
The coach can play two useful roles in this area. Firstly, by working with the CEO on issues of self-management and presentation – the leading with a capital L issues. How do I want to show up? How do I manage the tension between my persona and my true self? And secondly, by helping the CEO manage the subtle yet mission-critical nuances of Board and Chairman management. Who are likely to be my allies on the Board, the people I can really trust? Who are more Machiavellian, disengaged or for other reasons less able to be trusted? How can I be proactive and strategic in how I build my relationships with my Chair and Board?
The coaches agreed that engaging the Chairman in the process was useful: as a sponsor and provider of feedback, and in tripartite conversations to agree and review progress against coaching goals.
The Top Team
It is unlikely that the CEO will have been appointed without considerable experience of managing senior teams. Having a powerful top team to whom he can delegate is a key priority, because without this he will not be able to give sufficient attention to his external responsibilities.
The coach therefore needs to be able to work with the CEO to help him develop his team leadership skills: in particular in the areas of delegation and empowerment. The Stanford Survey also highlighted skills in conflict management as an area of coaching focus. Without this tensions between individuals in the team can fester or blow up. Being effective in these areas will also lessen the risk of the CEO giving in to the temptation of micro-management – difficult to do when either under pressure from multiple constituencies or lacking the confidence to let go. A CEO coach therefore needs to be proficient in team as well as individual coaching.
The perspective the CEO needs to take on issues is long as well as broad. The CEO’s time horizon will typically be 5-10 years. They need to have a fluid, strategic understanding of how their business is likely to evolve and interact with its environment over time and multiple scenarios. Like top chess players or battlefield generals they need to develop an intuitive feel for how to sequence their ‘moves’. Supporting the CEO in these kinds of conversations requires both sufficient business knowledge to understand the issues, and a level of insight that, at its best, can be a form of wisdom.
Time is precious to the CEO. After their health and a good PA it is probably their most valuable resource. Coaches need to recognise this. They need to be available when needed, and to recognise that the CEO may not be able to commit to regular, neatly diarised coaching sessions. As Harold Macmillan said when asked what was most likely to blow his government off course, ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ When they need you they need you. Helen Pitcher is clear about this: ‘You need to be responsible and accessible so you can get them in the moment.’
The implications of ‘CEO time’ for the coach are considerable. The coach needs to have the flexibility, confidence and speed of thought to know how to seize the moment. Lorraine Bateman: ‘You can’t muck about … you may only have a ten minute call to get your point across. You need to make your interventions memorable.’ Martha Graham has noticed that a sudden external shock can make a CEO realise that a long-standing pattern of behaviour that has been bubbling across their career suddenly needs to be addressed urgently. ‘You need to have the capacity to change gears, to go deep quickly when the CEO is ready for that kind of work.’
All the coaches agree that you can’t just ‘play the question game’ with CEOs. The coach needs to be comfortable with content as well as process, to understand both the issues and the range of potential solutions to them. The coach needs to have relevant knowledge in order to be a useful sounding board. As Lorraine Bateman points out, training in the process of coaching can only go so far: organisational and business experience are also needed in order to make the coach’s contributions on content useful.
Lonely at the Top
The uniqueness of a CEO’s position and responsibilities brings a range of psychological questions that the coach may be called on to help resolve.
The ‘Is this it?’ issue. Having strived all their careers to get there, new CEOs can find that the reality falls surprisingly short of their expectations. They can doubt whether the personal and family sacrifices were worth it, if the gain has been worth the pain. These doubts can provoke existential anxieties which, at their worst, can lead to depression. Martha Graham believes it can be useful for the coach to help the CEO turn them into more practical questions such as: What kind of leader do I need and want to be? How can I use my time at the top to make a contribution I’ll be proud of? She also believes the coach may need to help the CEO disentangle their personal identity from the role, ‘So that they can separate themselves a bit from it. So they can objectify it. And to help them realise that they may in fact have more opportunity to define their role than they think.’
The CEO’s loneliness is in part a structural reality, but can be amplified by a variety of other causes, including the disproportionate financial rewards that can be a burden as well as a pleasure. The leader’s isolation also has archetypal roots. The chieftain cannot avoid having the unconscious hopes and fears of his tribe projected onto him: what management theorists call the ‘Leadership Fallacy’. This can make his position precarious – especially when the shine starts to come off his crown – and can make him despised and feared as well as admired.
However seductive it may be for the CEO to be the person with the answer to everyone’s problems, it is a seduction to be resisted. One of the most important roles of the coach is to help the CEO build positive relationships with his colleagues in order to reduce isolationism. As Lorraine Bateman says, ‘They are guests on the Board, they sit on top of their executive team, they are quizzed by analysts – they need all these relationships to be productive.’
Ultimately, one of the most important functions of the CEO coach is to be a trusted sounding board. To provide a space where the mask can be allowed to slip, where ideas can be kicked around unimpeded by the tyrannies of competence and decision-making. But the coaching relationship must not become a place of indulgence or collusion. As Lorraine Bateman puts it, ‘The role of the coach is about providing support, but it is also about providing challenge, insight and reflection for sustainable and real change.’
Coachability and Other Challenges
The kudos and fees that come with coaching a CEO can make coaches reluctant to turn the work down. It’s important, however, that they don’t allow vanity to get the better of them if the CEO isn’t sufficiently coachable. It’s all too easy to persevere with a coaching assignment in the hope that the client will eventually develop the capacity to learn. If this doesn’t happen, however, then it’s important the coach disengages – otherwise they become part of the problem.
Helen Pitcher is clear about this, ‘If they’re omnipotent or a closed thinker you’ve got no chance. They’ve got to be willing to listen and learn.’
More problematically there are still organisations led by CEOs who are stuck in narcissistic or sociopathic patterns of behaviour. The psychopathic CEO of popular belief is, fortunately, a relatively rare beast. Brain science has, however, identified the changes in brain chemistry that being the boss can lead to, resulting in the ‘Winner Effect’ or hubris. These can lead to increases in confidence and risk-taking, and decreases in empathy. This may explain why CEOs so commonly excuse themselves from leadership programmes that the rest of their organisation is being put through. Which then places HR departments in the awkward situation of having to explain the reasons for this without undermining either their programme or their CEO.
If the CEO does not take seriously the work of his own leadership development it will become obvious to everybody and will over time undermine his authority.
Conversely, when CEOs do engage in meaningful coaching work the effects on their whole business can be transformational. By demonstrating a willingness to learn and make himself vulnerable he can play a critical part in building a high performance and developmental culture. Making reference to the two thirds of CEOs in the Stanford Survey who aren’t receiving coaching, Martha Graham makes the point that CEOs who have benefited from coaching can play an important role in promoting its usefulness to their peers in other organisations.
The Coach as Leader
It is clear that CEO coaches need some specific coaching capabilities. They need a thorough understanding of business, organisations and change leadership. They need sufficient power and speed of thought to keep up with the CEO’s agenda. They need to be politically astute and have their own standards and values – so that they can maintain effectiveness and integrity amidst the dynamics that pummel the C-suite. They need to be flexible and pragmatic in approach, and not beholden to a rigid model of coaching.
They also need a healthy ego. Healthy enough to hold their own in a high stakes environment. Healthy enough to avoid the temptations of collusion or flattery. And healthy enough to disappear into the background when necessary, to walk away quietly having done their work. As the Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu pointed out, ‘A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.’
By Jock Encombe