How executive coaching helps senior leaders
To be an Executive is to be a decision maker
Being an Executive, by definition, is someone who makes decisions and puts them into action. Board members generally have a lot of experience they can lean on when making decisions but being at the top, particularly being the CEO, means that you will face choices and situations that are outside of previous experience.
Even with some prior knowledge the stakes are higher. Take conflict management for example. A break down in relationships may have a small operational effect at a lower level whereas at board level it can literally bring a whole organization down. This is where the opportunity to talk through decisions can be vital.
Vision and strategy require time to think
The higher you climb up the leadership ladder the more demands there are on your time. Above other demands the most important thing as a leader is to set the direction for the team.
It takes discipline to carve out time to think in a busy schedule and yet most people would agree that you need quality head-space in order to refine the vision and strategy for an organization.
Coaching should provide a thinking environment (Kline, 1999). A good coaching experience should be a place where a person feels completely at ease. It provides more than just a sounding board, it is a creative exercise. Coaching is a place where assumptions can be challenged and overcome. Visionary leaders such as Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates new this and used coaches (Eckfeldt, 2017).
We can always be better
You may well have heard the phrase ‘Every day is a school day.’ In other words we always have something new to learn. Even the wisest and intelligent people realized their limits. Socrates said “The one thing I know is that I know nothing.” Einstein encouraged us to never to stop questioning. Benjamin Franklin noted that success has no meaning without continual growth.
Why does Roger Federer still have a coach? Surely he knows more than anyone else about winning tennis tournaments? The fact is that all top sports men and women know that they can always improve their game and the better they are, the more targeted they need to become.
At this level multiple small improvements can have dramatic effects. As proved by the multiple Olympic Gold winning British Cycling Team, it is the aggregation of small gains that makes the difference over time in both individual and team performance (Harrell, 2015).
The leadership expert John C Maxwell defines leadership as influence. Therefore it is no surprise that executives want to hone key attributes such as decision making, relationship management and communication. In the same way a top sports person refines one part of their game with a specific coach, so a senior leader can improve one key skill if they can get the feedback they need (Hansen, 2018).
The higher you go, the harder it is to find a mentor
There are differences between coaching and mentoring. There is a lot of overlap but generally a mentor is someone more senior or experienced in your sphere of work. A mentor is generally someone who can guide you and open up new opportunities in your line of business. It therefore goes without saying that the higher up you go the harder it is to have a mentor of this type.
When you are forging your own path it is important to develop relationships with other people facing similar challenges. But in the business world it can be hard to be truly open and honest about all our concerns. The confidential nature of a coaching relationship can provide the safe environment to explore any issue. It can be very hard to show vulnerability, even to good friends, within a working environment. In a good coaching relationship any challenge can be discussed without judgment or unsolicited advice.
It can be lonely at the top
Even at the top of the pyramid you need a good team. Within an organization the number of people who you can reach out to support you are fewer and therefore senior leaders have to have a network that expands beyond their immediate situation.
At the top level, especially as a CEO, there may be no line manager to lean on. It may be harder to have a mentor. Family and friends therefore become ever more important but at the same time it is often unfair to overly burden them with work concerns.
There are many important issues that are hard to discuss with work contacts, family or friends. Take for example talent management. When you are considering the sensitive subject of hiring and firing people it requires a level of confidentiality and objectivity. Many CEOs find that a coaching environment can provide the appropriate context.
Maintaining life work balance
Being a CEO is rarely (if ever) a 9-5 job. Even if you can contain your office hours then the concerns and demands of leadership will go far beyond the average working week. The lines between work and other aspects of life can become blurred. Balancing priorities of leading an organization alongside other roles we have – be that spouse, parent, friend, or whatever – can suffer in the competition.
The phrase ‘work-life balance’ makes the decision sound binary but for those with significant management responsibility this is rarely the case. It is more akin to spinning multiple plates than just choosing between two things; work and everything else.
Coaching, for people at boardroom level, can help take this into account. Life has to be looked at holistically and coaching can help explore how our values and priorities and played out in every area of life. It is also a major concern of most employees which is another good reason the coaching relationship can benefit more than just the person being coached (Colbrese, 2018).
Cambridge Dictionary (2018) Executive, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/executive (accessed Sep 2018)
Colbrese, Julie (2018) Six Reasons You Should Work for a CEO Who Has a Coach, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2018/04/19/six-reasons-you-should-work-for-a-ceo-who-has-a-coach/#3143d64c7d6a (accessed Sep 2018)
Eckfeldt, Bruce (2017) How Great CEOs Like Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates All Used Coaches, https://www.inc.com/bruce-eckfeldt/how-great-ceos-like-steve-jobs-eric-schmidt-and-bill-gates-got-even-better.html(accessed Sep 2018)
Hansen, M T (2018) Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, WorkBetter, And Achieve More, New York: Simon & Schuster
Harrell, E (2015) How 1% Performance Improvements Led to Olympic Gold, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2015/10/how-1-performance-improvements-led-to-olympic-gold(accessed Sep 2018)
Kline, N (1999) Time to Think. London: Ward Lock
Maxwell, John C (2007) The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Nashville: Thomas Nelson
Plato, Tarrant, H; Rowe, C (2010) The Last Days of Socrates, London: Penguin Classics