Nobody has all the answers – but who can the CEO turn to for advice and feedback? Alan Denton of executive coaching company The Results Centre (www.theresultscentre.com) looks at the role that executive coaching can play in reducing the isolation of the CEO.
Senior executives tend to be a driven breed. However, many are so focused on the journey to the boardroom that they may be unprepared for what they experience when they get there.
Basically, it can get pretty lonely at the top. With the demands of staff, shareholders and management teams all looking for answers, CEOs and senior staff can often find themselves isolated, lacking colleagues who can help them formulate ideas, run through options and supply dispassionate feedback and challenge.
Great leaders and managers are aware of the power of not knowing all the answers, showing some degree of vulnerability and being prepared to be wrong on occasions. This may mean taking risks, stepping into their discomfort zone and not always being the all-seeing, all-knowing boss.
A management position is often earned by service, knowledge, experience, tenacity, ability, timing and networks; it is an appointment. However, being a leader in the true sense of the word relies solely on the willingness of others to follow. Those who believe that leadership is automatically given with authority are highly likely to fail.
With many CEOs apprehensive about showing weakness to the people who see themselves as a future CEO, who can they discuss their fears and hopes with? Often staff are scared of giving honest feedback to their boss for fear that it will be interpreted as personal criticism or harm their career prospects. This is where an independent, external influence can be so important. Unfortunately, some business coaches can seem more interested in getting to the next meeting than telling the hard truth.
• Coaching can also be perceived as a weakness. I've lost count of the number of senior executives I've spoken to who assert:
• Coaching is for failures
• Coaching is about 'fixing' something
• It's not for me
• It's fluffy nonsense
• I'll be seen as incompetent if I take on a coach
However, the more enlightened senior executives who choose to embrace coaching see it differently. At its basic level, it is someone to talk to on a level and in confidence – but it can be so much more than that.
Coaching case study
During the recession, we worked with a managing director who, on the surface, ran a highly successful multi million pound business. He appeared very confident and sure of himself, but honest conversations revealed his uncertainties, particularly in leading his company through the recession. Through the process of external coaching he was able to look at his business, and more importantly, his people, in a new way. They made changes internally and externally with clients, suppliers and stakeholders and, as a consequence, powered their way through the downturn. As the MD said in his feedback, "I had no one to turn to internally; I needed that shake and the results have been fantastic."
Coaching in action
Whilst constructive executive coaching should have a clear ethos, it rarely follows a set process – it's often about digging in, challenging and exploring the possibilities – and then stretching those possibilities, not stifling them through the use of a fixed model or process.
So what should you look for when considering contracting with a business coach?
• If you are a CEO, look for someone who's also got that t-shirt but not necessarily in your sector.
• Someone who understands that an external coach should be a sounding board, a confidant, a critical friend – one that rarely exists for most senior executives.
• Check out what they mean by confidentiality and integrity (particularly if there is a third party stakeholder in place). What, if anything, is being reported back? This should be mutually agreed between coach and coachee.
• A great coach is not attached to an outcome or further meetings. By all means agree a series of coaching interventions, but always have clear outcomes agreed – with an expectation that these will be bettered.
• Someone who is prepared to stretch and challenge you, often to a place of discomfort.
• Someone who can push, pull and support in equal measure and comes from a place of ruthless compassion.
• Finally, a great coach will be happy to have a conversation about results or ROI.
The loneliness of the CEO is a real issue in boardrooms, factories and offices across the world. However, it isn't an insurmountable obstacle. With the right external, impartial support – and some degree of discomfort – amazing business
and personal results are truly possible.
About the author:
Alan Denton is MD of executive coaching company The Results Centre (www.theresultscentre.com). Alan regularly coaches CEOs and senior executives across a range of sectors from pharmaceuticals to the legal sector and has created several leadership and transformational programmes, including the First 101 Days Programme.