Do CEOs Need Or Want Coaching?


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“Let’s work together but it’ll have to remain between us.” 

These are the words an Irish CEO said to me, as we sat in the plush boardroom of the mulit-million sales company.
I’m very used to this line, especially in Ireland but even still, I had to ask, “Why so?”

“My Chairman sees having a coach as ‘fluffy’ and an activity that doesn’t give a clear return.  I’m clear as to the value but there’s no sense in rocking the boat.”

“Fair enough”, I said, “But at the end of our work together I’m sure we can show a clear ROI.”

“I’m sure we will”, he countered, “But for now let’s just keep it between us.”

And so over the next 12 months, this smart CEO invested time and money into our work together – without telling anyone.

I’m sure the Chairman in question would read with curiosity, the recent July 31st survey findings from Stanford Business School/The Miles Group, where more than 200 CEOs, board directors, and senior executives of North American public and private companies were polled in the 2013 Executive Coaching Survey.

The research studied what kind of leadership advice CEOs and their top executives are — and aren’t — getting, and the skills that are being targeted for improvement.  One of the key findings is that nearly nearly two-thirds of CEOs do not receive outside leadership advice – but nearly all want it.

“What’s interesting is that nearly 100% of CEOs in the survey responded that they actually enjoy the process of receiving coaching and leadership advice, so there is real opportunity for companies to fill in that gap,” says David F. Larcker, Director of the Center for Leadership Development and Research at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, who led the research team.

Some of the key findings within this survey are:

Shortage of advice at the top – Nearly 66% of CEOs do not receive coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants or coaches, while 100% of them stated that they are receptive to making changes based on feedback.

“Given how vitally important it is for the CEO to be getting the best possible counsel, independent of their board, in order to maintain the health of the corporation, it’s concerning that so many of them are ‘going it alone,’” says Stephen Miles, CEO of
The Miles Group, co-organisers of the survey.

CEOs are the ones looking to be coached
Of the CEOs who had worked with a coach, 78% of them said it was their own idea.  21%  said that it was the board chairman’s idea, which reminds me of an interview I saw with Eric Schmidt of Google fame.

He originally scoffed at the idea of having a coach when Bill Campbell (coach to Steve Jobs and many other Silicon Valley heavyweights) suggested he get one.  If you’re interested in how he changed his mind to become a big fan of coaching, check this interview out:   http://tinyurl.com/kmstqfs

Coaching “progress” is largely kept private – More than 60% of CEOs responded that the progress they are making in their coaching sessions is kept between themselves and their coach – only a third said that this information is shared with the board of directors.   The researchers determined that this was due to ‘coaching’ being seen more as remedial work, rather than cultivating high performance.

How to handle conflict ranks as highest area of concern for CEOs – When asked which is the biggest area for their own personal development, nearly 43% of CEOs rated “conflict management skills” the highest.   Conflict not only in relation to people within their organisations but in particular ‘Stakeholder overload’ – which often included their own board, where multiple agendas can abound.

Boards eager for CEOs to improve talent development – The top two areas board directors say their CEOs need to work on are “mentoring skills/developing internal talent” and “sharing leadership/delegation skills.”

The Top areas that CEOs use coaching to improve – sharing leadership/delegation, conflict management, team building, and mentoring.   Bottom of the list: motivational skills, compassion/empathy, and persuasion skills.

This however doesn’t mean that the skills at the bottom of the list are not worthy of learning.

“A lot of people steer away from coaching some of the less tangible skills because they are uncomfortable with touching on these areas or really don’t have the capability to do it,” says Mr. Miles.   “These skills are more nuanced and actually more difficult to coach because many people are more sensitive about these areas. However, when combined with the ‘harder’ skills, improving a CEO’s ability to motivate and inspire can really make a difference in his or her overall effectiveness.”

So what was recorded as the #1 weakness in CEOs?

“Board relationships and engagement” tied with “mentoring and development skills”.   My experience would be similar with regard to the board.  And it’s a disconnect that can have multiple negative consequences.

Now before you dismiss these findings as too ‘American’, my experience working with CEOs in Ireland and the UK, over the past 10 years, would back up the above findings – with two additions:

Sounding Board – Possibly one of the biggest reasons for being hired is in getting external ‘non-agenda’ driven support.  I have never been hired just for this, but once there is trust established it is usually one of the key value offerings within the relationship.

Countless times, I have witnessed the beauty of a client talking out loud about a challenge and minutes later, the solution popping up – no involvement from me, other than ensuring a non-judgemental environment with the right questions.

Working On The CEOs Internal Game – Like top athletic performers today’s CEOs need to be very agile and resilient, mentally.   They get great value in challenging their mindset and ensuring it is free from viruses.  A lot is expected from CEOs today.  Vision, Inspiration, leadership to name a few.

There was a time when a top sports-person would have been mocked for working with a ‘mind-coach’, yet now you’re not taken seriously unless you have one.

Even the best-of-the-best CEOs have their blind spots and can dramatically improve their performance with an outside perspective weighing in.  Yet as these survey findings show we still have a ways to go in coaching being perceived as ‘remedial’ to where it should be: something that improves performance, similar to how elite athletes use a coach.”

So when we completed the work with my CEO friend, we looked at the ROI.   The key financial metrics had improved significantly – Sales were up by 52%, Net Profit had trebled and the Balance Sheet was far stronger than 12 months previous.

The intangible results were also significant i.e. more clarity, reduced stress, an improvement in state of mind and physical health.

“I think your Chairman will find those results pretty interesting”, I replied.

“Hmmm”, he countered, “Let’s just keep it between ourselves for the moment.  He’s still not a fan of coaching.”


To see the original report from Stanford, go here: