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Several years ago I wrote articles for the Financial Post (2012) and the International Coaching Federation (2016) explaining why every executive, particularly CEOs needs a coach. My assertion was based on my decades of coaching dozens of CEOs, business owners and directors on boards as well research.

Why CEOs Need a Coach

The practice of executive coaching has boomed in recent decades, an increasing percentage of the $50 billion per year leadership development industry. It is estimated that the number of coaches working for businesses increased by 500% between 1996 and 2003. This growth has been attributed to changes in the modern business environment, which have created a shift in emphasis toward the development of human capital, as well as a need for more flexible and adaptable development processes. Executive coaching began as a developmental intervention for upper-level executives. However, it has evolved and is now used for individuals at lower levels in organizations, especially at managerial levels. There is a conceptual overlap between executives and managers in many aspects of their jobs (e.g., managing others, the necessity of well-developed emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills, the importance of critical thinking, etc.), though there are also areas where they differ (notably the scope of responsibility and the level of strategic thinking required).

The job of a chief executive has never been more challenging or rewarding. Despite generous compensation, perks and attention it can be a lonely one. This may be why boards and chief executives are increasingly turning to executive coaches to assist the heads of companies in their performance and growth and reduce attrition.

While earlier generations managed without coaches, leaders today face more pressure than at any other time. They must deal with rapidly changing markets, technologies and workforces, increased financial and legal scrutiny … and more. Top executives who feel that they can handle it by themselves are more likely to burn out, and make poor or no decisions, resulting in significant loss of opportunities, human resources and financial resources.

Gretchen Gavett, writing in 2013 in Harvard Business Review, reports: “ Two-thirds of CEOs don’t receive any outside advice on their leadership skills, and yet almost all would be receptive to suggestions from a coach. These stats are from a Stanford University/The Miles Group survey released this month, which asked 200 CEOs, board directors, and other senior executives questions about how they receive and view leadership advice.” Gavett says her research shows that “Comparatively, there’s a reluctance to be coached on so-called “soft skills” like motivation, compassion, and persuasion.”

Figure 1: Areas That CEOs are Getting Coached On

While Gavett’s study was done in 2013, which shows relatively less of a coaching focus on areas such as compassion/empathy and interpersonal skills, I believe that has changed in 2022 recognizing two things: first, many executives get into trouble because of personal behavioral issues, and second, there is a demand by employees for their leaders to be more concerned about the mental health and well-being of employees.

The CEO’s job is unique from several perspectives: No one else needs to hear the truth more, yet gets it less from employees; no one else is the focus of criticism when things go wrong; no one else is the final decision maker on difficult and often lose-lose decisions, and no one else enjoys the same type of hero-celebrity status and rewards.

A skilled CEO coach gives business leaders access to timely advice and counsel from a knowledgeable outsider who may have also been in their position before, is not affected by office politics, and has no personal stake in the company’s internal or external operations. In other words, as the CEO, you can look to someone with a broad network outside your company who can provide a variety of ideas, frameworks, and experiences not always found inside the firm for unbiased information and business advice.

Paul Michelman, writing in the Harvard Business Review Working Knowledge, says most major companies now make coaching a core of their executive development programs. The belief is one-on-one personal interaction with an objective third party can provide a focus that other forms of organizational support cannot. A 2004 study by Right Management Consultants found that 86% of companies used coaches in their leadership development programs.

Marshall Goldsmith, a high-profile coach to leaders in Fortune 500 companies and author of The Leader of the Future, argues leaders need coaches when “they feel that a change in behaviour — either for themselves or their team members — can make a significant difference in the long-term success of the organization.”

Eric Schmidt, chairman and chief executive of Google, said his best advice to new CEOs is to have a coach. “Once I realized I could trust him [the coach] and that he could help me with perspective, I decided this was a great idea…” he said. While he admits the cost of executive coaches, particularly a good one, is not cheap, he adds “compared to the decisions CEOs make, money is not the issue.” “If you have a new perspective, if you feel better with your team, the board and the marketplace, then you have received real value,” Schmidt says.

While board members can be helpful, most leaders shy away from talking to the board about their deepest uncertainties, argues John Kador, in CEO Magazine. Other CEOs can lend an ear, but there are barriers to complete honesty and trust. “No one in the organization needs an honest, close and long-term relationship with a trusted advisor more than a CEO,” writes Kador, who reports conversations with several high-profile CEOs.

The much-asked question about coaching is its return on investment. The majority of studies including one by Joy McGovern and her colleagues at research firm Manchester indicate that executives who received coaching valued the service between $100,000 and $ 1 million. Joyce Russell, the Dean of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland contends that assigning a coach to an executive is now viewed as a privilege and a sign the organization values the executive’s contributions and is willing to invest money in his or her growth and development.

Executive coaching is designed to bring about attitudinal and behavioral changes that result in improved performance (whether in a particular task, or more general performance on the job), the development of the executive in their career, and benefits to the organization

When To Engage an Executive Coach

  • Assisting a newly appointed leader to make a successful transition into a key role, particularly when the individual is new to the organization.
  • Helping a valued executive with a specific performance problem to develop new skills and make necessary, often difficult behavioral changes.
  • Assisting a high-potential employee to fast-track by developing his or her leadership skills to expedite their readiness for a more senior role.
  • Acting as a confidant to senior executives as they wrestle with difficult strategic and operational decisions. As both a sounding board and devil’s advocate, the coach helps the executive analyze issues, generate and test different courses of action, identify obstacles and move toward successful implementation.
  • Facilitating personal growth, particularly in the areas of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and emotional regulation.

Numerous best practices articles as well as surveys of coaches and clients regarding the effects of coaching have cataloged more specific performance and developmental outcomes of coaching including improvements in relationships, managing people, productivity, goal setting, adaptability, understanding the perspectives of others, mentoring and delegating skills, self-awareness, and leadership effectiveness.

There is also widespread agreement that the quality of the relationship between the coach and client is an important driver of coaching effectiveness. Some assert that the relationship between the coach and client is the principal tool coaches have to effect change. More specifically, the existence of trust in the coaching relationship is widely discussed as a critical facet of the relationship.

The Remedial Coach

Coaching for leaders hasn’t always been seen favourably. It was frequently referred to as counselling and a technique used when things weren’t going well.

For instance, a corporation may turn to executive or CEO coaching when a CEO was unqualified for the position or out of their element. Other causes of leadership coaching could have included a high-performing executive’s poor behaviour or a decline in business results. It was essentially considered therapy for subpar performance. During my coaching career, I was brought in by boards or the CEO to help the executive who is not performing as expected or has significant relationship issues. And truthfully, it wasn’t always successful, and some executives ultimately left the organization. As a coach, trying to help, while I didn’t take those failures personally, I was nevertheless disappointed. This is why executive coaches need to be able to manage their own emotions and egos.

A Case Study

One of my CEO clients was a micromanager, having achieved a stellar reputation in middle management which can focus a lot on “hands-on” activity. He was the CEO of a large company working 70 hours a week and was tired, tense and short-tempered by the time he engaged me as his coach.

After a full discussion with him about his situation, I suggested I observe his work patterns and chat briefly with his direct reports. A common pattern of behavior emerged. The CEO was using his direct reports like executive assistants, distracting them from focusing on their priorities and responsibilities. At the same time, the CEO was encroaching on areas of the business that were the functional responsibility of his direct reports, causing duplication, resentment and animosity among the direct reports.

I suggested to the CEO that he should meet with each of his direct reports to rebuild a trusting relationship. Before those meetings, each direct report was to create a list of what was important, things they should be doing less of and things they should cease altogether. They also created what I would term an empathy list — i.e., what they thought would be on the other person’s list.

I facilitated these meetings which helped the CEO and direct reports realign their responsibilities. The CEO also learned that he needed to nurture himself and realign his work-life balance by working less.

As a result, the toxicity that had been affecting interpersonal relationships was greatly reduced and eventually eliminated.

The CEO Coach

The average longevity for CEOs in North America is less than 3 years. CEOs are beleaguered by pressure from shareholders, boards of directors, government regulators, the media and special interest groups. And the list goes on.

The job of CEO is unique from several perspectives: No one else needs to hear the truth more, and gets it less from employees; no one else is the focus of criticism when things go wrong; no one else is the final decision maker on difficult and often lose-lose decisions; and finally, no one else enjoys the almost hero-celebrity status and rewards.

For these reasons and many more, no one in the organization needs an honest, close and long-term relationship with a trusted advisor more than a CEO. As many CEOs have told me, the most significant issue for them to deal with is the feeling of intense and profound loneliness at times.

Examples of the Issues and Problems I Presented With Coaching a CEO

  • Difficult Relationships with the Board of Directors.
  • Developing good conflict resolution and influence and persuasion skills
  • Developing good motivational, inspirational and empowerment skills.
  • Dealing with politicians and civil servants, or issues that are political.
  • Prioritizing their agenda and narrowing down the number of goals they have to a more manageable and focused level.
  • Approaching the issue of underperformance on their team.
  • Retaining the top talent upon which the CEO depends.
  • Generating a culture of disciplined innovation.
  • Managing the workload and intensity associated with the role; the need to prioritize and “let go.”
  • Identifying key strategic partnerships with others beyond the organization.
  • Organizational restructuring and identifying gaps within the organization.
  • Taking regular time for reflection before and after events.
  • Managing the CEO’s energy and physical well-being.
  • Engaging in a rigorous self-assessment and 360-degree assessment.
  • Learning more about and implementing emotional intelligence skills (empathy, compassion, emotional regulation, open-mindedness.
  • Ensuring alignment between the CEO’s espoused personal values and behaviors.
  • Focus on the development of virtues and good character.

Conditions For Successful CEO Coaching

So the role of the CEO coach becomes critical for a CEO who uses the coach wisely. And for the coach, working with a CEO poses several potential minefields and dilemmas that must be dealt with:

  • Over-identification.The coach must be able to immerse himself/herself in the CEO’s world and experience without merging identities. While the coach’s presence in the organization may be commonplace, they are not part of the organization. So while the coach can empathize and be compassionate with the CEO, the coach’s job is to be detached and sometimes brutally honest.
  • Communication. How much information and the kind of information is provided between the CEO and the CEO’s boss — the Board or President — and employees can be very dicey. The coach must be vigilant about peoples’ ulterior motives and yet be a source of information that can help the CEO.
  • One of the CEO’s most important tasks is to develop leaders in the organization, which requires honest assessment. The coach’s feedback can have an enormous impact on careers.
  • Loyalty. If the CEO pays for the coach, it’s obvious the coach serves the CEO. But if the coach’s bill is being paid for the organization, the board may require some kind of reporting of results by the coach. In this case, the nature of the data collected and information about personal discussions must be handled transparently.
  • Often, the coach develops a friendly, personal relationship with the CEO, who will often share more personal information with the coach than anyone else. And while friendship can help, it can sometimes be too close. The coach must still maintain a professional perspective, one that allows the coach to be honest with the CEO.
  • Ego. Being a CEO coach can give the coach considerable status which could inflate the coach’s ego. The coach must ensure that his or her self-worth is not intimately tied to that of the CEO’s status.
  • The CEO must be receptive to new ways of looking at problems and solutions.The CEO must be willing to examine whether the CEO is “doing the right things” in addition to “doing things right.” And the CEO must be open to engaging in serious self-reflection.
  • The CEO must agree that the coach will act as an “ego check.”A strong and healthy ego and self-esteem typically lead to considerable ambition and high achievement. At times this can result in an exaggerated perception of the CEO’s persona, and this can subsequently spell trouble for good judgment and positive interpersonal relationships. The coach must be prepared to confront the CEO in a supportive but honest manner.
  • There must be a “values harmony” between the CEO and the coach. If the CEO’s behavior is not consistent with his values, dissonance occurs with negative consequences.Also, if the CEO embraces values and beliefs that are destructive and harmful to people and society in general and not consistent with the coach’s, the coaching relationship is unlikely to succeed
  • The CEO coach must have a significant background, credibility and skills.Someone who coaches senior executives requires superior cognitive ability, self-awareness, high levels of empathy, strong impulse control and sound judgment, wisdom and patience. In addition, the CEO coach has a considerable advantage having had senior leadership experience and “real-world” (as opposed to academic) experience and knowing what it’s like to reside in the corner office.

Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, INSEAD Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change, and an experienced top-level executive coach says in his article in INSEAD Knowledge says “’ Knowing is the easy part; saying it out loud is the hard part.’ — Nicholas Evans, The Horse Whisperer. The term ‘horse whisperer’ was first associated with Daniel Sullivan, an Irish horse trainer who became famous for his ability to rehabilitate intractable horses more than 200 years ago. Today, it refers to those gifted with a deep understanding of equine psychology, enabling those who can ‘whisper’ to elicit the horses’ cooperation. Some coaches very much resemble horse whisperers. Instead of dealing with difficult horses, however, they whisper to CEOs. Their effectiveness is due to an intuitive understanding of what drives these executives. They know how to interpret their verbal and non-verbal language. Also, they recognize that many of these executives — despite their success or perhaps because of it — may have acquired dysfunctional behavioural patterns along the way.”

He says further that coaches working with CEOs need to provide a lot of time for reflection, both before and after coaching sessions. “To sum up, the role of a CEO whisperer is to help executives act out less and be more reflective. A CEO whisperer coaxes them to examine their lives and maximize their potential. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living: Too many people cruise through life without reflecting on their destination or purpose. These people are just moving in the dark. This is where CEO whisperers rise to the fore, helping their clients dispel the shadows and see things as they are, not how they wish they would be.”

Final Thoughts

A CEO coach can be a trusted role model, advisor, guide and mentor who helps the CEO shape visions, tap new energies and generate desired results. But more than anything, the CEO coach can provide an oasis of calm, a relationship of trust and honesty to help the CEO fulfill an extremely demanding role.

Coaching CEOs senior executives and business owners was a rich and rewarding experience for me, and it was gratifying to see so many of them grow, learn and perform in ways that brought respect and loyalty from their employees, employer and others.

And the experience of having the opportunity to get to know some outstanding leaders, and knowing I made every effort to help the ones that would not or could not engage in learning and growing was invaluable. Both experiences helped me grow personally.