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Vulnerability: The Surprising Component of CEO Success
In our previous installment in this series, we talked about the first of many reasons why CEOs need a coach, i.e., “It’s lonely at the top.” I included a short video featuring Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who talked about why he has a coach. In my experience (and in the conclusions of many recent research studies that now exist), most CEOs know in their minds that working with a coach is a good idea. However, when it comes to actually acquiring a coach, most ultimately decide against it, fearing there is a negative stigma attached to coaching. This means, unfortunately, that most CEOs are more concerned that their boards and key stakeholders will view coaching as a remedial process or a sign of weakness, when in fact, the opposite is true.
I’m glad we have CEOs like Eric Schmidt who are willing to talk about why coaching is an outstanding investment for the best and the brightest. If we are going to move this needle in a positive direction, more CEOs need to acknowledge their work with a coach and the benefits they experienced. Most, however, still require coaches to sign non-disclosure agreements to ensure their work together is kept strictly confidential to the outside world.
As a CEO coach, I respect this decision, and I understand where it comes from. Yet, I strongly believe that the best of the best CEOs (like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Genpact’s Tiger Tyagarajan, Xerox’s former CEO Ann Mulcahy, and FedEx Freight’s former CEO Bill Logue) would cite their willingness to be vulnerable and engage in coaching as one of the singular decisions that allowed them to break through and achieve leadership greatness.
The vulnerability decision is one that some leaders make early in their careers, while others only realize the value of vulnerability later. Some leaders never make the vulnerability decision. And this leads to my second powerful reason why CEOs need a coach. An effective executive coach will help the CEO realize the value in vulnerability and guide them effectively to make this decision, and to make it so that everyone benefits.
That decision to be vulnerable is without question the toughest, yet most liberating decision an executive will ever make, whenever it happens in the career trajectory. It’s about admitting that while you are good, you’re not as good as you could be. Internalizing and coming to grips with this powerful realization, and then having the courage to share this with peers, employees, and board members is a breakthrough experience precisely because it frees you up to focus on two critical levers for improvement: strengthening your gifts and talents and addressing your leadership deficits.
Make no mistake. You can’t truly activate these levers without first making the decision to be vulnerable. And there’s nothing wrong with the executive allowing his or her world to know they are human – real, authentic people. When employees, peers, board members, and others know that the executive knows he or she is vulnerable, it unleashes an unexpectedly powerful character element of the leader: humility.
The effective CEO coach helps the executive make the decision to be vulnerable and guides them through sharing that decision with their world, helping them realize the multiple benefits of admitting to being human and imperfect. Just think of the power that is unleashed when a senior executive says to the board, the executive team, employees, or even customers:
- I know I’m good, but I also know I can be better.
- I need your honest feedback on what you regard as my leadership strengths and talents as well as areas where there is room for me to improve.
- I realize I cannot become the most effective leader without you and your ongoing, honest feedback.
- I will learn to understand and accept my gifts and talents and also learn how to best use them in support of your goals, my goals, and our organizational goals.
You may be surprised to know that in my coaching work, I have discovered a real problem many executives have with how they embrace and accept their gifts. There’s nothing positive about deflecting positive feedback and accolades. Rather, the effective leader will learn how to leverage, strengthen, and polish those attributes that have served well in the past. Courage and willingness to accept both strengths and weaknesses, and to work on both are necessary for leaders to fulfill their potential. I invite and encourage you to learn more about your leadership coaching options and the positive results you can expect.