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Why a CEO Coach is Needed Where the Air is Rare
Dig into the biography of a cultural icon, and there’s a good chance that person has or had coaching. Top actors work with dialog and dialect coaches to be able to put across the best performance on the screen or stage. Olympic athletes, whether competing as an individual or as part of a team, have coaches who helped them get there, and who remain by their side throughout the competition.
The incomparable Soviet-era pianist Sviatoslav Richter worked with Heinrich Neuhaus at the Moscow Conservatory long after he developed the tone and interpretive ability that set him apart even among the great. Just because someone is accomplished and talented doesn’t mean they don’t need coaching, and that’s just as true in the executive suite as it is on the playing field or in the concert hall. Yet to some, the idea of a CEO coach feels odd, or counter intuitive. But it shouldn’t.
The Title CEO Doesn’t Confer Special Abilities
Becoming a CEO isn’t like becoming an imperial ruler or a knight. Nobody taps the CEO on the shoulder with the flat side of a sword or hands him or her the key to a special safe full of secret knowledge. Yet the CEO’s responsibilities multiply significantly once the role is assumed, and up at the top, there really aren’t that many people to turn to and ask, “How did that go?” or “Did I nail that speech, or were they just being polite?”
That’s where the CEO coach comes in. The CEO coach offers a point of view that can’t be matched from within the organization. An executive coach has enough detachment and impartiality to be something other than a “yes man,” yet offers a privileged partnership that improves performance, helps recognize and overcome obstacles, and results in better leadership.
Coaching Isn’t Remedial
Some people perceive coaching as a “remedial” task, but that is far from the case. Most people who are exceptional at what they do also understand that performance isn’t magic, but relies on good principles regularly put into practice. Elizabeth I of England, considered to be one of the greatest monarchs in history, was smart enough to know that leadership required behind-the-scenes consultation and learning, and she surrounded herself with people suited for the work. William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, was her advisor throughout most of her reign, and part of the reason she relied on him was that he was not only highly knowledgeable, but honest and impartial enough to provide perspective that perhaps no one else could (or would) offer.
What Effective CEO Coaching Does
Effective CEO coaching is about maximizing performance. A great CEO coach has enough rapport with his or her client to establish a real dialog, but also has enough detachment to avoid viewing the CEO through the lenses of fellow executives, underlings, board members, or other interested parties. An executive coach isn’t a therapist, and isn’t a “yes man,” but is someone who understands what outstanding executive performance is, and can detect the differences in the CEO the coachee is, and the CEO he or she is capable of being. And then the coach accompanies the client at every step of getting there.
The Paradox of Making It to the Top Yet Still Needing Help
Sure, it may seem counterintuitive that someone at the very top of the organizational chart would need help doing what they do. But that is almost always the case, and most top executives realize this. A large percentage of CEOs are receptive to coaching, but only a fraction actually work with a coach. Is an executive coach a frivolous expense in an era of corporate belt-tightening and a focus on leanness? Absolutely not. In fact, the investment in a CEO coach can pay off long term, in the form of outstanding leadership, and organizational performance that consistently exceeds expectations.
My belief in the power of executive coaching is as strong now as it was when I first started in the field of leadership consulting.