Coaching the CEO: It’s Lonely at the Top

January 3, 2023

by John O. Burdett

If you are a top executive, you don’t owe it to yourself to be coached – but you do owe it to all of those whose lives you touch.

The Benchmark of Success

Research suggests that only about one-third of CEOs receive formal coaching[1]. Meanwhile, half of senior managers operate without external coaching support. The same study, paradoxically, suggested that nearly 100% of those same leaders (CEOs and senior managers) said that they would like to be coached. A wish isn’t an action; saying isn’t doing; and desire isn’t delivery.

Confidentiality, the time available, “if it ain’t broke …,” “what would I really gain,” and “I’m getting all the coaching I need inside the business” loom large among the reasons why coaching at the top gets set aside. Cocooned in a subtle veil of silence, “it ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you think you know that ain’t so.”

Although quickly eroding, the stigma of “needing to be coached” still concerns some. “I didn’t realise that the CEO had problems.” There is, of course, no need for the CEO to tell anyone they are being coached. Moreover, it’s a clear breach of trust – even if the executive in question makes it public – for the coach to discuss who they are, or have, coached.

To the above we need to add the political reality that a subordinate (or even an in-house specialist) providing negative feedback to a top executive can be a career-limiting move. And the prize for employee of the year goes to the supervisor who, at the last town hall meeting, reminded everyone that in the millennial era “coaching is at the very heart of competitive advantage.”

In virtually every other form of endeavour, where excellence is the benchmark of success, coaching is a given. No one even makes it to the Olympics, let alone medals, without a great coach. Paradoxically, that same executive who pushes coaching aside for the activity where they make a living will gladly pay for support in improving, say, their golf swing.

Culture Matters!

It’s not unusual for top executives to be so dialled into the results and share price that they overlook how impactful their everyday behaviour is. A friendly smile and addressing employees by name go a long way. Take also the example of coaching as a company-wide intervention. No matter how much time and money is invested with middle managers, if coaching isn’t evident at the top, much of that investment is for naught.

There is the Board of course. Although it is changing, all too often the Board, including the Human Resource committee, focuses on issues that directly impact the balance sheet and/or the investment community (financing, strategy, results, compensation, benefits, succession). Day-to-day executive behaviour is often too far removed for directors to be able to interpret how the business is impacted. Remedial coaching for a CEO who isn’t meeting the numbers is, of course, a different matter.

It doesn’t help that the conversation at the top around issues such as succession and leadership development – issues of genuine importance to the Board – are dominated by the organisation’s strategic imperatives. Important as “the plan” is, in a turbulent and uncertain world strategy is, at best, a work in progress. As Napoleon was quick to remind generals, “Strategy is forgotten as soon as the first cannon are fired.” Culture matters!

Coaching at the Top

Here it should be emphasised that there is a big difference between performance and developmental coaching. The former is about enhancing performance in the role as it is today. The latter implies developing the skills and capability needed several years out. The short-term nature of the capital markets puts an emphasis on today’s performance. A smart executive understands that success is a marathon … not a 100-yard dash. Here today … gone tomorrow isn’t much of a plan!

There is a case to be made that CEOs often sidestep coaching because they don’t fully understand how coaching will benefit them. Two points are significant here:

  1. Every coaching conversation is different and the approach needs to reflect the needs of the individual being coached.
  2. Coaching at the top is not the same as coaching in the middle of the organisation. The time span of discretion (how far one looks into the future), the balance between strategic and operational actions, the degree of complexity, the need to spend far more time managing from the outside-in and even the language used becomes more complex and/or is reframed, the higher in the organisation you go.

These are not small shifts of behaviour.

It’s easy to forget that a small action from the CEO can be literally life-changing for someone in the middle of the organisation. If you are a top executive, you don’t owe it to yourself to be coached – but you do owe it to all of those whose lives you touch.

1] 2013 Executive Coaching Survey by David F. Larcker, Stephen Miles, Brian Tayan, Michelle E. Gutman

This article is a modified extract from “Coaching the CEO“, © Orxestra® Inc.

John O. Burdett is founder of Orxestra® Inc. He has extensive international experience as a senior executive. As a consultant he has worked in more than 40 countries for organisations that are household names. John has worked on organisation culture for some of the world's largest organisations. His ongoing partnership with TRANSEARCH International means that his thought leading intellectual property, in any one year, supports talent management in many hundreds of organisations around the world. Get in touch with John O. Burdett »

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