Are CEO’s Too Proud To Seek Advice?

The following blog was provided by Leigh Bailey, Founder and CEO at The Bailey Group


No one has ever described me as a king, but I’ll admit to moments of grandeur when we’ve helped a client succeed. I’ve also had moments when it felt like the whole world rested on my shoulders — and it was pretty heavy.

Unlike kings and queens CEOs don’t make it where they are without a lot of people being productive and fueling success. But they do stand apart. The CEO personality and position requires confidence, communication and change management. But it can be lonely at the top. It’s sometimes difficult to know who to trust and with whom we can let down our guard.

In fact, one of the main objections I hear from CEOs about executive coaching is that they doubt its effectiveness. They’ve had a bad experience with coaching or they don’t want to be viewed as weak by their senior team or board. And…many CEOs aren’t skilled at using trusted advisors because they are used to thinking through issues and coping with uncertainty alone.

In his book “The Checklist Manifesto,” Atul Gawande describes the risks of the “go it alone” approach. According to Gawande (and it is hard to disagree), we live in a world of great and increasing complexity, where even the most expert professionals struggle to master the tasks they face. Avoidable failures in health care, government, the law, the financial industry—in almost every realm of organized activity – continue to plague us. And the reason is simple: the volume and complexity of knowledge today has exceeded our ability as leaders to understand, process and act on all of the issues we face.

When are CEOs most in need of a trusted advisor? Here are some examples of transition in an organization when the best CEOs should and do seek advice from a trusted executive coach — and why doing so makes them better leaders.

Entrepreneurial to Formulized

While some organizations stay at the entrepreneurial level in which each transaction is fairly tailored to the client, growth requires repeatable and systematic processes that can be taught to anyone coming on board. This transition period from entrepreneurial to mature organization requires many decisions and changes in order to build the structures and quality for expanded business.

One of the difficult questions at this stage highlights the importance of outside advice: Is the current leadership team capable of taking the organization to this next level? Some members of your current leadership team may have been with the organization since the beginning but may not have the strengths and skills to move beyond entrepreneurial operations. Do they need training? Do you need to hire additional leaders? Do you need to replace some members of the current team? What’s the true vision and how do you get there?

A coach with both direct business experience and years of guiding executives through this transition can help CEOs make and execute these difficult decisions. A coach can also help to align the leadership team and identify skill gaps and processes necessary to achieve goals.

Crisis to Turnaround

Organizations today are no strangers to crisis. If it’s not economic and competitive crisis, it’s personnel or customer crisis. Sometimes new CEOs are brought in to assist in faster change management than is possible with current leadership. Other times, the existing CEO needs to shift priorities and assess all areas of the organization to locate opportunities for innovation, efficiency and service, for example.

CEOs in any crisis situation need a support network to guide decision-making and encourage consensus for new ideas and change. Some CEOs join roundtable groups to gain perspective from their peers. It’s valuable to talk to someone who has been through a turnaround to gather hindsight wisdom. CEOs may also rely on board members, their executive team and direct reports to get insight on current challenges and to suggest new opportunities.

When it’s time to pull the trigger — or handle setbacks — the value of an executive coach lies in the neutral observations and tough questions internal team members or peers don’t perceive or won’t ask for fear of retribution. This is especially true in organizations with multiple shareholders or partners when one person’s opinion could derail progress. The credibility of an experienced executive coach shines through conflict; neutralizing internal politics by emphasizing common goals and strategy and working through seemingly intractable issues.

Disconnect to Trust

Some CEOs may not have a choice with executive coaching because it’s recommended in response to bad results from an employee satisfaction survey or a breakdown in communication between the CEO and senior leadership team. This is not the ideal situation to initiate an executive coaching relationship, but it can be leveraged to rebuild communication channels and set priorities for senior leaders.

Ideally, an executive coach is hired at the first signs of communication breakdown to identify specific ways senior leaders are misaligned with direct reports or board members. Perhaps the next level of leaders is unclear about the vision of the organization or their role. Maybe the board has transitioned to a governing rather than advisory role; directors now feel a larger responsibility — and liability — for performance.

CEOs and other senior leaders are the keepers of inspiration and the “right” ways of doing things, according to an article in the June 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review titled, “How Managers Become Leaders: The Seven Seismic Shifts of Perspective and Responsibility.” Their behaviors and communication styles are observed and often modeled, their influence magnified. CEOs who maintain trust with managers and employees influence more than morale; they directly impact engagement, productivity and retention.

An inspiring leader who can communicate the bigger vision, navigate change and move an organization to the next level of growth is also one who is smart enough to confer with internal and external advisors. Rather than operating in isolation on top of the mountain, tomorrow’s successful CEO is connected, collaborative and coached.

Other Top Reasons to Hire a Coach

1. A need for leadership team alignment before or after change.
2. Observed loss of board confidence or support.
3. Product or service quality is deteriorating.
4. There is resistance to change in the organization.
5. Employee engagement is falling/turnover increasing.
6. Executive team needs a sounding board for ideas and new ways of thinking.
7. Key leaders need additional development to manage new roles.

Choosing a Coach: Look for These Traits:

1. Board level or CEO experience running an organization.
2. Several years of experience coaching CEOs and senior executives.
3. Comfort in personal development as well as business discussions.
4. Well connected with other resources (legal, recruiting, finance, marketing).
5. A willingness to point out risks, challenge assumptions and ask the unasked questions.