By the time a rising business leader reaches the CEO level, he or she will likely have had plenty of mentors, supporters and advisers along the way. But even at the loftiest heights in business, executives can still benefit from having a coach.
In a story for Inc.com, Amy Vetter likens it to sports: “Behind every great athlete there is an even greater coach. There isn’t a top athlete — from Muhammad Ali to Tiger Woods to Serena Williams — who did not need a mentor to help them reach the top of their profession.”
Though mentoring is valuable at all levels, executive coaching is a bit different. Coaches are generally found outside of the executive’s network of contacts and peers. They evaluate the executive and may utilize 360 leadership assessments to incorporate other perspectives.
A 2013 study by Stanford and coaching firm The Miles Group illustrated how CEOs are eager to receive coaching. Among the findings, as reported by Susan Adams for Forbes:
- “Almost 66 percent of CEOs get no coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants.”
- “A full 100 percent of bosses say they would be receptive to making changes based on feedback.”
- “The survey asked CEOs who are currently being coached where they got the idea to get help. Some 78 percent said it was their own idea. Twenty-one percent said it was the chairman of the board’s idea.”
- “Nearly 43 percent of CEOs said that ‘conflict management skills’ was their highest priority.”
Here’s a look at how executive coaches can assist leaders in navigating the twists and turns of the corporate world.
New CEOs may experience self-doubt as they explore their lengthy list of duties and responsibilities. A CEO’s initial impressions can be crucial — especially when representing a new business in fund-raising mode — so enlisting an executive coach early on can be a smart move. Katie Belding examines this in a story for Entrepreneur.
“For entrepreneurs pitching ideas to VCs, in addition to a business plan and product or service concept, there is the all-important impression and connection that the individual makes,” Belding explains. “Once a company is launched, the personality and mannerisms of a founder and CEO can set the tone for the entire workplace culture. Indeed, some of the largest companies have been known to take on certain personality characteristics and attitudes — both good and bad — that can be traced up the ladder to the executive suite.”
Everyone has flaws, and reaching the corner office doesn’t mean CEOs are somehow exempt. There is always room to grow, and ways for those in leadership positions to improve. Writing for Entrepreneur, Mike Hoff notes that leadership flaws can be glossed over when things are going well for the business.
“But it takes one market shift, one product recall or one disgruntled customer to change that,” he writes. “A neutral third-party situation assessment provides a reality check. Coaches help you notice, focus on, and fix blind spots that weren’t as visible previously. At the same time, it’s common for individuals in a business environment to have their own agendas and specific areas of focus. A coach proves to be an ally, who rationalizes and uses a specific, scientific set of tools to determine how the CEO can best address the issues at hand.”
Time to analyze
Business leaders often find themselves tied up in the day-to-day grind, putting out fires and keeping everything on track. There may be little opportunity to step back to get a larger view of what’s happening, and how their leadership skills are developing. As Hoff writes in his Entrepreneur piece, coaching sessions can help CEOs break out of this pattern, noting that this time is “considerably less pressured.”
“The coach encourages the CEO to use this time to think strategically about every aspect of business — something he or she probably doesn’t have time for during normal working hours,” he writes.
Executives will need to gain a larger understanding of how their strengths and weaknesses play a part in guiding the business. Self-awareness is an essential part of leadership, and executive coaches can help to shine a light on its importance, as Erika Anderson writes in a story for Forbes.
“When you engage with a good coach, he or she will generally gather input about how others see you at the beginning of the engagement, and share it with you,” Anderson writes. “… Throughout the coaching engagement, your coach will also share his or her perceptions of you, based on observation of you and your interactions with others.”
Anderson adds that coaches can assist leaders in developing a clearer vision of managers and employees: “Over the years, we’ve often seen leaders run into problems because of their inaccurate assessments of those around them. They may lose good employees because they don’t recognize and support their capabilities, or keep poor performers too long because they think they’re better than they are. … A good and insightful coach will often have more neutral and accurate perceptions of those around you than you will, and will share those perceptions with you (especially if he or she is doing other work in your organization).”
This is another crucial aspect of leading a business, and setting a good example for employees. Accountability comes into play when mistakes are made, and also in keeping all parts of the business running in an efficient manner. Coaches can help to keep executives honest in these scenarios, as Gordon Tredgold writes for Inc.com.
“It’s so easy to make excuses to yourself to get out of doing things that you know you should do, or persuade yourself that if we let it slip to next week, it will be okay,” Tredgold notes. “Having a coach act as an accountability partner helps to make us keep our commitments, because when we think about making those excuses to our coach we can hear how weak they are, which then negates them.”
Everyone has personal preferences, and we tend to gravitate toward certain kinds of people in our professional and personal lives. But a business may be loaded with people who have widely varying personalities, skills and work methods. An executive coach can help a business leader to understand how these pieces can fit together and how to be more inclusive, Anderson says in her Forbes story.
“Leaders can dramatically limit their effectiveness by only being willing or able to build strong relationships with certain kinds of people,” she writes. “And all too often, that means people like themselves — in background, race, gender, beliefs, or work style. A good coach can help you recognize that tendency in yourself and work against it, both by helping you see and question the limiting assumptions you make about people who aren’t like you, and by offering you tools to support you in understanding and creating strong and vital working relationships with a wider variety of people.”
A negative attitude can be dangerous for business leaders. Yet it’s not hard to see how someone could head down that path, strictly from the stress and chaos that running a business can bring. Conversations with an executive coach can help these feelings to come out, and allow CEOs to see how their attitude may be perceived by others.
“Our negative self-talk is one the biggest inhibitors to our success,” Tredgold says in his Inc.com story. “It’s so easy to see all of the problems, the pitfalls, and reasons why failure await us, so much so that it can actually stop us from even trying. Good coaches will help you picture success, help you put in place a plan or strategy that will help build confidence, and eliminate doubts. Confidence is critical to success, but it can be difficult to build our own self-confidence.”