Coaching at the Top of the House

January 5, 2023

by John O. Burdett

It’s a privilege to coach; such a privilege that it should not be forgotten that it’s never about the coach. The explanation that follows explores each of the coaching elements.

The ‘Coaching the CEO’ Template

The ‘Coaching the CEO’ template below is drawn from my own work in coaching CEOs and top executives. There is no intent that the framework come across as being set in stone or mechanistically applied. I bring it to the text merely to introduce where and how the CEO coaching conversation might likely add value.

It’s a privilege to coach; such a privilege that it should never be forgotten that it’s never about the coach. The explanation that follows explores each of the coaching elements outlined the the figure above. They are presented in what might be described as a “logical sequence.” In practice each of the elements are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle: it doesn’t matter in what order they are laid down, merely that you need all of the pieces to complete the picture.

Indeed, coaching that seeks to make leadership of self the initial focus may be stepping into private space too quickly. A more comfortable discussion focusing on the team, culture and/or leadership competencies is often the best way to build rapport. There are, of course, circumstances that dictate that the initial coaching focus be on performance.

1. Leadership of Self

Personal priorities, managing family commitments, giving back, charting a rich and fruitful life and striving to be the best you can be, define leadership of self. Whatever the challenge, self-awareness and how we lead ourselves must always be the genesis of anything approaching leadership excellence.

If you don’t know where you have been … it’s tough to know where you are going. If you don’t know who you are … you can never fully access your talent. If you surround yourself with people who drain away your creative energy … being more of who you have always been is the best you can hope for. If you are not living your own story … you are living someone else’s.

Critical Tools: (1) the coachee’s story; (2) their life priorities; (3) their relationship with the rest of the top team; and (4) their support – or otherwise – from the Board.

Coaching Imperative: (1) Focusing in on what is essential vs. what is merely important; and (2) challenging defensive routes.

2. Career

I have interviewed – at times in front of an audience – a good many senior executives with a view to understand how they had reached such an exalted position. Did they have a career plan? How did they implement that plan?

Managing one’s career means finding the “golden thread” that charts a meaningful passage between the emerging context, personal goals, the expectations of others and career opportunity. It’s the challenge of becoming oneself, while concurrently shaping what’s possible:

Critical Tools: Exploring how the coachee learns. In that career success rarely follows the route defined by “the plan,” how people learn is more important than what they learn.

Coaching Imperative: Finding the golden thread.

3. Why Do You Stay?

Assessing the level, nature and source of personal satisfaction in the role, what are the factors that come together to build a feeling of well-being? What changes would yield greater satisfaction? Whose support is needed?

As a general theme, understanding why key executives stay is of paramount importance. If you don’t know why your outstanding performers stay, you can’t do more of it. There is also a case to be made that if you understand what your best people love about their role and the organisation, that insight can enrich how you attract others. If you don’t attract outstanding talent, you can’t hire outstanding talent.

Critical Tools: A robust methodology to surface why the organisation’s top performers (as appropriate, the CEO) stay.

Coaching Imperative: If you don’t know why you stay, it’s tough to know if you should stay.

4. Creating Tomorrow’s Culture Today

Tomorrow will be different. It’s no longer the case that strategy drives culture. Develop the strategy and then build the “right culture” to support the strategy. In an uncertain world, culture enables the strategy – a series of strategic scenarios brought to life, as the business environment dictates, by a strong and agile culture. We need both strategy and culture, but culture has primacy. People are loyal to the culture, not the strategy. If strategy and culture collide, culture wins every time. Always!

“Managing culture” is about creating tomorrow’s organisation, today. “Management” means measurement. Not much happens, of course, without leadership. Leaders who move the culture in a new direction do so because they know how to inspire. The word “inspire” comes from the Latin spirare (to breathe life into). Successful leaders breathe life into culture … every single day.

Critical Tools: The ability to measure the culture you have (roots) and the culture you need (wings).

Coaching Imperative: If you’re not managing your culture … someone else is (e.g., suppliers, key customers, a militant union, disenfranchised middle managers, an aggressive investment group).

5. The Performance Scorecard

A robust scorecard balances:

  1. Direction (strategy, the market, growing the business)
  2. Delivery (critical goals, implementation, innovation)
  3. Development (building the talent pool, succession, taking the team to the next level)
  4. Day-to-day dialogue (building a constituency, bringing the informal organisation on board, engagement).

What strengths should the coachee build on? What behaviours are holding them back? What should the coachee start to do, do more of and stop doing? What resources are available? Who else should be involved? When will the coachee know they have been successful?

Critical Tools: A means to bring into focus both the short and long term.

Coaching Imperative: Unless the executive in question delivers results they won’t be afforded the opportunity to lead.

6. Leadership Competencies Today and Tomorrow

The accelerating rate of change, the digital revolution that is engulfing us, shaping an organisation that, of necessity, will look very different from organisations in the past – means that tomorrow’s leadership will be very different. It doesn’t stop there, though. What social, economic, political, marketplace and forces internal to the business define tomorrow’s challenge/opportunity? How will iGen and millennials define the emerging organisation culture? How will gig employment, crowdsourcing and social media define the nature of work? What disruptive technologies lie just over the horizon? In what ways will the shortage of top talent limit what’s possible?

Defining tomorrow’s leadership success is an imperative for: (1) the current leader; and (2) as a platform for developing a successor. Can the incumbent succeed into the role they are currently in? Do they have a successor? Developing a successor is a fiduciary responsibility. It also means mastery in coaching.

Critical Tools: A library of up-to-date, future-facing, leadership competencies.

Coaching Imperative: Tomorrow will not be a replay of today.

7. Taking the Team to the Next Level

No one makes it on their own. No one! Michelangelo had a dozen or more assistants when he painted the Sistine ceiling. Churchill regularly practiced his “impromptu speeches” on his friends. And next year’s champion of virtually anything wouldn’t even consider competing without a business manager, coach, personal trainer, massage therapist, dietician, equipment manager, driver, pilot and a host of other “helpers” on the team.

The influence of the team on individual performance is often dramatically understated. The notion that you can change the organisation one person at a time is an equally flawed idea. Individual coaching not complemented by ongoing coaching of the team is to plant a tree and then forget to water it.

Critical Tools: The means to truly assess all aspects of team behaviour.

Coaching Imperative: The leader works for the team.

8. Resilience

It’s not the strongest or the fastest that sustain. When the storm is at its height those left standing are those who can draw on an inner strength, who adapt, who learn from and build on experience … who are resilient. Resilience is not unlike the plasticity of the brain; we can learn to do that which isn’t necessarily natural.

There are five sources of resilience:

  1. Heightened self-awareness;
  2. Build personal flexibility/adaptability;
  3. Develop mental toughness;
  4. Make learning a passion; and
  5. Surround oneself with resilient people.

Critical Tools: A systematic way to measure resilience.

Coaching Imperative: Only the resilient will survive.

9. Constituency Building and Resolving Conflict

Organisations designed for a different century are ill-fitted for the challenge of this one. That said, some vestiges of organisation life are unchanging. Every business needs some degree of hierarchy. Every enterprise is a network organisation. And the reason strategy fails? It’s not lack of alignment. It’s lack of buy in and support from other key leaders in the organisation.

You can’t always decide who you need to work with, but you can influence the nature of that relationship. What key relationships shape success in the role? Who on the Board is supportive? Who, if anyone, is on the fence? What other relationships need to be formed or improved – both within and outside of the organisation?

Critical Tools: Building a map of the constituency demanded.

Coaching Imperative: Addressing, building and/or extending the constituency as demanded.

10. Leaving a Legacy

There are different reasons why people take on the top job. For some it’s clearly to make money. For others it’s to make a career. The best amongst us, however, are driven to make a difference. Not just a difference in the fortunes of the business but in the lives of others. A difference that endures. A difference that – even though several years may have passed since the individual in question held down the top role – is evidenced by a clear set of footprints in the sand. A contribution that incoming tides haven’t been able to wash away.

You can’t stray very far from what it means to leave a “legacy” without employing the term “character.” Character is comfort in speaking to power. It’s constantly challenging the status quo. It’s found in a sincere apology. It’s knowing when to lead … and when to follow. Loyalty speaks to character, as does being tough-minded when the situation demands it. Character is found in small acts of generosity; it’s admitting that you were wrong; it’s working hard to not come across as the smartest person in the room; it’s “being” – not simply adhering to – the organisation’s values; and, yes, it’s open to being coached.

Critical Tools: Drawing on the example of other legacy leavers.

Coaching Imperative: Focusing on what really matters versus working on what others deem important.


The map is never the territory and the suggested coaching building blocks must always be subservient to the specific needs of the individual. I developed this material for two reasons: to capture my own learning – always a good idea! – and that a CEO or member of the C-suite might understand the potential value inherent in the right coaching relationship.

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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