CEOs Need -- and Want -- More Coaching

Poll reveals that only one-third of CEOs currently receive coaching, while the rest all expressed a willingness to work with a coach.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013
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According to a recent survey about CEOs and coaching, life truly is "lonely at the top."

The new study, conducted by the Center for Leadership Development and Research at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Stanford University's Rock Center for Corporate Governance, and The Miles Group, found that nearly two-thirds of CEOs do not receive coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants or coaches. Almost half of senior executives are not receiving any either, the survey found.

"What's interesting is that nearly one hundred percent 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 Larcker, an accounting professor at the Stanford Graduate School of business who led the research team."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,' " adds Stephen Miles, CEO of The Miles Group, a New York City firm that develops talent strategies for organizations, teams and individuals - focusing on high-performance leadership. "Even the best-of-the-best CEOs have their blind spots and can dramatically improve their performance with an outside perspective weighing in."

The survey polled more than 200 CEOs, board directors and senior executives of North American public and private companies last spring. 

Key findings from the survey include:

 *          Nearly 66 percent of CEOs do not receive coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants or coaches, while 100 percent stated they are receptive to making changes based on feedback.

*           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.

*           When asked "Whose decision was it for you to receive coaching?" 78 percent of CEOs said it was their own idea. Twenty-one percent said that coaching was the board chair's idea.

"Becoming CEO doesn't mean that you suddenly have all the answers, and these top executives realize that there is room for growth for everyone," Miles said. "We are moving away from coaching being perceived as 'remedial' to where it should be: something that improves performance, similar to how elite athletes use a coach."

To further make the case for coaching (this time, at the "high potential" level), research released in June by the Institute for Corporate Productivity, a Seattle-based research organization that focuses on the people practices that drive market performance, reports that successful leadership coaching positively affects the bottom line. Conversely, ineffective leadership coaching potentially is costing companies and shareholders in a big way.


i4cp's report, How High-Performance Organizations Accelerate Executive Leadership Development, found that coaching has the highest correlation to market performance -- defined by revenue, profit, market share and customer satisfaction -- yet 44 percent of organizations say they're not effective at coaching high-potential employees.

According to the research, the biggest source of this deficiency falls on managers and supervisors. In fact, 51 percent of survey respondents (a mix of human resource and business leaders) indicated that leaders who are ineffective at coaching high-potential employees are the top hindrance to the success of leadership development programs.

"Of course, managers who are ineffective at coaching their employees are just a symptom of a deeper issue," said Donna Parrey, senior analyst at i4cp and study author. "This latest research offers clear evidence that organizations need to do more to support their managers. Providing leaders with adequate training on how to coach effectively is critical to both coach and [the] coached, and that in turn can have a significant impact on financial performance."

Why so little coaching when it seems like a good idea and is seemingly wanted by CEOs, at least according to the Stanford/Miles report?

Karissa Thacker, a New York-based workplace psychologist specializing in senior executive development, explains that truth-telling can be in short supply by the time one becomes a CEO or reports to a CEO.

"People stand in line for the opportunity to tell CEOs what they want to hear," she says. "So straight up, unvarnished truth-telling is part of value-added coaching at that level. In short, that is the primary reason that C-level coaching is important."

Thacker had a few reactions to the Stanford-Miles Group report. For one, she says the "lonely void" can always be filled with "puppets and good soldiers." Thacker says it seems paradoxical that such smart folks who overtly seem so together can be vulnerable to listening to that sort of worthless, even potentially damaging, feedback.

"Remember that all the basic human instincts and vulnerabilities are still housed under a custom suit or the work of Giorgio Armani," she says. "Listening to puppets is dangerous and creates situations like the 2008 real estate meltdown."

She says people at the top still report the loneliness factor because, on some level, they know they are being played by people telling them what they want to hear, yet it just feels good.  "It is kind of like eating a donut for breakfast. It is fun in the moment but the staying power is not that great," she says.

She adds that when you are coaching a senior leader, quick fixes and pop psychology won't get you very far. 

"A CEO will value a sounding board that helps him or her see aspects of many different kinds of situations that the executive may be missing," Thacker says. For example, the CEO may have a history of missing it when things are not moving quickly enough in operations because he/she has a background in finance and little background in operations. 

She adds that people in the coaching profession who work with CEOs must be literate about that particular business and the kinds of decisions that need to be made at a given point in time. In short, the psychology is not enough. The coach/advisor has to understand what the business is trying to accomplish at a strategic level. 

"HR needs to screen coaches and NOT put people in front of the C-suite who do not know that particular business," Thacker says. "A good advisor listens and learns about the business and discusses key issues with people in the organization all the time.  Good advisors also keep up with what is going on in the industry and the broader economy."

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Gary Rich, president of Rich Leadership, a CEO coaching and leadership development firm in New York, has coached several CEOs and is himself a former chief HR officer at Reader's Digest. He says many CEOs may see coaching as a way to fix broken executives, so they may not necessarily want to be perceived that way.

"They are harkening back to a time when those who had coaches had personal problems and issues," he says. "They may be saying, 'I don't need that.' "

CEOs also need to understand this intervention is not about teaching specific business skills, such as how to improve stock trading, but more about how to effectively lead. If it's the former, they might believe no one can teach them about their business, so they don't want a coach.

"Often, when I get there I hear that they don't need someone to tell them how to lead differently, that they don't need to adapt," he says. "All of that falls into the category of a lack of awareness about what a coach really should do."

Rich says successfully getting a CEO to work with a coach should fall to HR, who should tell the person running their organization there is a difference between being a manager and a leader. For example, leaders must set business strategy and manage organizational performance.

"If they have the ability to do the latter, they can use themselves as catalysts for real change," he says. "Having a coach for a CEO should be like having one for a great athlete or actor. Even though they are top performers, elite even, they still need someone to hold a mirror up to them, someone they trust."

Sometimes, Rich adds, senior HR executives would like to see themselves as confidante/coach to the CEO, so the last thing they want to do is hand that to an outside party. But typically that won't work, because inside HR people are too politically charged to serve in that role.

"They may even have the skill, but they still are part of the system and can't have the same objectivity as an outside coach," he says.

Linda Henman, president, Henman Performance Group, in Chesterfield, Mo., and author of Landing in the Executive Chair, has worked as a coach with executives and Fortune 500 boards for 30 years, including working directly with Tyson Foods Chairman John Tyson after the company's successful acquisition of International Beef Products in 2001. Other clients include Emerson Electric, Avon, Kraft Foods, Edward Jones and Boeing.

She says the biggest stumbling block to CEO coaching is that leaders simply don't want to invest in it. They also feel that they may have to offer coaching to everyone, so the budget won't stretch that far. That should not be a concern, Henman says.

"Other than C-suite folks, I don't recommend coaching anyone except high potentials" she says. "In fact, I developed a coaching qualification survey that I encourage leaders to take before deciding to hire me for a coach." 

In any coaching situation, goals and results should be the focus, she says. Also, CEO coaching differs in two key ways. First, there is the confidentiality aspect.

"Coaching a CEO, I hold everything in confidence. When I coach any other executive, there are no secrets," she says.

Second, with CEOs the stakes are much higher, so the breadth of coaching must be too. When she coaches a CEO, she expects feedback from the board, direct reports, customers and anyone else who seems relevant, including Young Presidents Organization members and sometimes even spouses.

"HR needs to sell the idea to the CEO and streamline the process," Henman says, "And that will only happen when the HR professionals recommend coaches who have proven track records."

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