It's Lonely at the Top - Coaching The CEO

A study by Stanford Graduate School, co-authored by Stephen Miles and David Larcker, suggests that only about one-third of CEOs receive formal coaching. 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. Although quickly eroding, the stigma of "needing to be coached" still concerns some. "I didn't realise that the CEO had problems."

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 thier golf swing.

It is not at all unusual for top executives to be so dialed 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 lost.

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.

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.

Insights from "Coaching the CEO".

3 Ways To Improve Focus
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For someone in a leadership role, focus is dynamic. It's recognising that even a small act can cast a long shadow. For those with a strategic mandate, focus has to address both the here and now and look to the horizon. It is about initiating action, but also ensuring that the way forward supports the culture the organisation needs to create. Focus, for the business leader, thus, becomes a way to think and act that is: 1) rooted in wisdom; 2) shaped by purpose; and 3) immersed in a paradox.

3 ways to improve focus:

  1. Set goals and review those goals as your first action of the day.
  2. Measure the important stuff - organisation culture (today and tomorrow), team effectiveness, why your best people stay.
  3. Ask for feedback regularly; especially from the customer.

For someone in a leadership role, focus is dynamic. It's recognising that even a small act can cast a long shadow. For those with a strategic mandate, focus has to address both the here and now and look to the horizon. Discover 10 ways to improve focus in "Focus and the Power of Paradox".

Focus: The Power Of Paradox

Combine learning-based experience, leadership reach, the ability to "think slow" and practical intelligence and you have a pretty good understanding of what "wisdom" looks like in today's business environment.

Purpose underscores why the business does what it does. Purpose on its own, however, amounts to a "why" without the "how". The framework (behavioural container) that defines the how is the organisation's values.

As the world gets faster, more complex and less stable, focus purposefully prompts the power of paradox:

  • Embracing the context becomes at least as important as understanding the "content" of the problem/issue.
  • Leadership agility necessitates that focus have an immediate, medium and strategic face.
  • An assessment of "Is this issue truly important?" has to be flexed against both the underlying assumptions and the mindset demanded.

Insights from "Focus and the Power of Paradox".

Developing An Eye For Talent

Particularly in today's media-influenced world, we can each point to a multitude of examples of how someone successful enough to become chief executive of a major global corporation, the coach of a well-known sports franchise, or the next big thing in entertainment is lavished with praise by others either unaware or unwilling to voice such lavish praise while they were on their way up.

First appointed, then anointed it seems. Of course, sometimes the hype and hyperbole about one's accomplishments takes on mythical proportions, with the truth subject to all sorts of distortions.

While there are lots of reasons to celebrate stories of business achievement and incredible leadership success and influence, there are just as many good reasons to go in search of the next great performer before they are discovered by the rest of the world.

One of the real tests of leadership acumen and ability for today's business challenges is the question of whether any leader - for any role - has had a hand and played an active role in the coaching, mentoring and sponsorship of others in terms of their growth and development.

The very best leaders, and those most suitable for recruiting and promoting, are those who have committed themselves to letting others flourish, grow and learn and then move on to their own next challenge.

Developing an eye for talent requires your investment getting to know your team members' strengths, weaknesses, hopes and fears and advocating for their advancement once they've proven their merit. It's also a great way to pass knowledge to the next generation of managers and build your legacy as a leader.

The Succession Imperative

If you don't have the leadership you need, regardless of what else works, you still don't have much. As for a crisis, it might not - as has often been suggested - create leaders but it lets you know about the capability of the ones you have.

The leadership challenge describes a talent management system with a good many moving parts:

  • The capacity to attract talent
  • The talent acquisition process
  • Executive integration
  • Performance management
  • Leadership development
  • Building great teams
  • Traditional and tech-enabled teaching/training
  • Coaching/mentoring
  • Expediting the organisation's diversity and inclusion goals

And at the centre of that system, the straw that stirs the drink? The organisation's approach to succession. If talent management is the vehicle that supports business longevity, succession - an often misconceived, misaligned and misunderstood process - is its engine. It is a critical investment that you cannot afford to get wrong.

The narrative around succession is, invariably, drawn to big jobs with big companies. The reality is that every poor succession decision destroys value. In family businesses this is especially the case. Unfortunately, the evidence demonstrates that organisations don't exactly excel at succession.

Ultimately, the true measure of a leader isn't what they achieve while in office - it's what they leave behind. That even after the heaviest storm … you can still clearly see their footprints in the sand.

Insights from "It's Time To Rethink Succession".

Direction - The DNA Of A Great Team

Striving to create a great team isn't simply to end up with a nice, bright, shiny and highly admired group of people. The only reason for building a great team - the utility implied - is to better facilitate tomorrow's winning value proposition, create value, bring about change and retain talent. Anything less is to shortchange everyone involved. Results and relationships are the central tenets in a series of synergistic sub-processes that move from Direction, to Development, to Delivery and, eventually, to Decline. As it moves through each of the building blocks, a great team leans heavily on these DNA markers.

In this article we explore "Direction".

A compelling purpose

The team's purpose is obviously drawn out of the organisation's purpose. Purpose should answer two questions - one, essentially, a subtext of the other:

1) Why do we do what we do?
2) How does what we do make a difference in the world?

With a big enough "why" ordinary people can, and do, achieve the extraordinary. Ask yourself:

  • Does the "why" have real emotional impact … both within the business and with customers? Does it inspire people?
  • In what ways does the purpose give team members a deeper sense of meaning?
  • What unanswered questions does the purpose raise?

The right leader

To lead is to be the first one to smile and the last one to speak. Those who excel as leaders blend courtesy, compassion and comfort with ambiguity into an in-the-moment presence. Peter Drucker referred to courtesy as "the lubricant of leadership". There is no such thing as a leaderless team. Lack of a leader runs the risk of introducing the wrong leadership. That said, as the team matures, there are times when the leader has to follow and members of the team are asked to lead. Ask yourself:

  • Is there a clear leader? Are they the right leader? Who should the leader be? In the case of an outgoing leader, what was their most significant contribution?
  • Does the team leader live the organisation's values every day in every way? How do they deal with those who don't always live the values?
  • What is the team leader's leadership point of view?
  • In the way they lead, do they deliver leadership "balance"?
  • In the absence of an appointed leader, who takes the lead?
  • How does the team leader deal with conflict? What conflict will a future leader need to deal with?
  • How are rivalries dealt with?
  • How much freedom to act do team members have? How much freedom to act should they have?
  • How does the team leader delegate?

The right strategy

The strategy describes "what" needs to be achieved. The organisation's values outline "how". Ask yourself:

  • Is the long-term direction for the team clear? Is it congruent with the strategy of key teams one level up?
  • Are the delivery assumptions built into the strategy consistent with the organisation's values?
  • Does the strategy contain within it messaging that reinforces the culture the organisation needs to create?
  • In what ways does the strategy balance the short and the long term?
  • Who, if anybody, on the team disagrees with the agreed strategy? How have they been given a voice?

The right people

Whom you hire and/or promote dictates what's possible. The default selection process in most organisations is skewed towards hiring the "best" person. Great teams are built on finding the "right" person. Based on the situation, the right candidate will be someone who can grow and continue to grow in the role, who adds to the team beyond the horizons of the functional role and who is a natural fit with the leadership development agenda offered within the organisation. If you can't attract top talent, you can't hire top talent. Top performers are drawn to an organisation with a great story. Ask yourself:

  • With the agreed strategy in mind, do those on the team have the basic talent needed to thrive? What's missing … as a team … and/or on an individual basis?
  • Is the behaviour of those on the team aligned with the culture the organisation - and by implication - the team need to create?
  • Is there an obvious successor to the leader? How has the potential success of that individual been validated? What development steps are under way?
  • How does the team add someone new? Is that approach effective?
  • Are those who make recruitment decisions fully trained in interviewing?

Insights from "Great Organisations Are Built Around Great Teams".

Leaders Are Legacy Leavers

The seeds of greatness are sown in how the leader in question deals with the unexpected, with crisis, with personal disappointment. Many, bruised by failure, dial back on their own personal goals and look for a position away from the heat of the kitchen. Others, stripped of self-confidence, recalibrate their personal value proposition and, as likely as not, look for an "advisory role". A precious few - those with character, those with tenacity, those drawing from a deep well of resilience - see setback as merely one more brick in the road to success.

Few of us are going to literally change the world. On the other hand, not too many of us want to be quickly forgotten. Sadly, the accepted definition of success is somewhat shallow. It tends to focus on the 3Ps: power, position and personal wealth. Ultimately, success isn't about what you have; it's about what you create. It's not about how big your garden is; it's about what you plant there.

Not all leaders are cut from the same cloth: start-up, growth, running a mature business and turnaround demand very different skills. At successive stages of personal maturity different motivational agendas also tend to put in an appearance: "to make a career", "to make money", "to make my family proud", "to make a business" and "to make a difference". Important and rewarding as the latter is, the very best leaders are compelled to do even more. They are on a quest. They are driven to "make a legacy". Legacy leavers believe that they are on a mission.

Pressure from the capital markets makes success in the short term an imperative. An executive who fails to make money won't be around long enough to leave a legacy. To succeed is to dance to the tune played by the capital markets. Legacy leavers understand that but they still do more. They rarely follow the accepted path. They find a better way. They ignore the cynics and the naysayers. They turn a deaf ear to the critics, especially those who themselves have not ventured into the arena. They part company with the timid and those of a tepid disposition. They blaze their own trail. Does that mean they do it on their own? Not at all! They draw like-minds to the cause. Legacy leavers chart their own path.

Insights from "Leaders Leave a Legacy".

Admitting Failure (And The Lessons It Provides) A Key Test Of Leadership Capacity

Beware the executive who can't describe their biggest business failures and who doesn't harbour some emotion about them, whether in the form of profound disappointment, frustration, regret or gratitude, perhaps.

While it may seem counterintuitive or selfishly counterproductive to any executive being interviewed for what could become their next management career opportunity, the collective insights of executive talent masters suggest getting the candidate to open up about their business missteps and what they learned from them - assuming they did - is a critical prerequisite for determining whether the individual is poised for success in a new leadership role.

Experience, is, after all, a great teacher. Imminent business decisions may summon the wisdom of smart manoeuvres that led to past glories, but they must also surface the lessons of poor judgments and outright flubs so they aren't repeated.

Executives unwilling or unable to detail at least one bad business decision during a recruitment interview actually relate volumes about their ego and lack of self-awareness, as do those who find themselves likewise challenged by an inability to spread the praise for excellent outcomes widely.

Of course, the real challenge of failure as set against today's contemporary business pressures is not only to learn from it but also to avoid the loss of energy and confident contemplation that can impinge on sensible decision-making.

In some sense, the lessons of failure are most instructive if leaders retain them in their collective memories, but also forget them just long enough so they don't become obstacles to personal and organisational growth.

FOCUS and the Power of Paradox
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For someone in a leadership role, 'focus' is dynamic. It's recognising that even a small act can cast a long shadow. For those with a strategic mandate, focus has to address both the here and now and look to the horizon. It is about initiating action, but also ensuring that the way forward supports the culture the organisation needs to create. Focus, for the business leader, thus, becomes a way to think and act.

Download "FOCUS and the Power of Paradox" today.

Coming Down the Mountain: Coming Out Of This Crisis Stronger

Breakthrough technology, uncertainty and the unprecedented and ever-increasing speed of change demand an organisation that is a fit for the challenges of the 21st century. We are describing not just a better, but a very different kind of way to operate. An organisation built to change; one where disruption, agility and speed of learning dominate the leadership conversation.

Which brings us to the COVID-19 crisis. A crisis has three stages. Stage one: acceptance. Stage two: survival. Stage three: growth. And the winners will be? Those who come out of this crisis stronger.

Amid the veritable avalanche of "me too" advice on how to get through this crisis it is easy to overlook two central questions:

  1. "How will your business come out of this stronger?"
  2. "As a leader, how will you personally come out of this stronger?"

"Part One: Coming Down the Mountain" looks at how to come out of this crisis stronger:

  • The Three Stages of Crisis
  • Letting Go of Our Past
  • Following a Script From a Different Century
  • The New Normal
  • Coming Down the Mountain
  • Why Culture Matters
  • Next Steps
  • Appendix one: 3 X 3: Crisis, Culture and Change
  • Mindset Assessment: Will You come Out of This Crisis Stronger?

Download your complementary copy today »

Leadership: Moving Beyond The Crisis

"Leadership: Moving Beyond The Crisis" is a complementary book series, specifically aimed at enhancing how leaders respond to times of crisis.

The books cover concepts such as how to come out of this crisis stronger, culture, leadership agility and learning, what makes great teams. Also included are essential skills to enable us to start having conversations about moving forward while taking appropriate actions.

Read on for more information about the book series:

Or, Download Now

Coming Down the Mountain

Part One, Coming Down the Mountain, looks at how to come out of this crisis stronger:

  • The Three Stages of Crisis
  • Letting Go of Our Past
  • Following a Script From a Different Century
  • The New Normal
  • Coming Down the Mountain
  • Why Culture Matters
  • Next Steps
  • Appendix one: 3 X 3: Crisis, Culture and Change
  • Mindset Assessment: Will You come Out of This Crisis Stronger?

The Culture Conversation

Recognising, as we move forward, how important organisation culture is, Part Two outlines the Culture Conversation:

  • The Culture Carriers
  • Look, Listen, Learn
  • The Building Blocks
  • Culture Is A System
  • Is the Organisation Managing Its Culture?
  • What Makes the Business Special?
  • One Culture or Many?
  • Measurement
  • Strategy Versus Culture
  • A Team of Teams
  • Without Leadership You Ain't Got Much
  • The Orxestra Change Model
  • Culture Assessment

Leadership, Learning and Agility: The Way Of The Dolphin

Part Three explores the need for leadership agility and what that implies: Leadership Agility and Learning - The Way of the Dolphin:

  • Agility is a Way to Think
  • Bass and the Shark
  • Agility and Speed of Learning
  • The Way of the Dolphin
  • Conclusion
  • Assessment: How Good a Coach Are You?

Great Organisations Are Built Around Great Teams

Drawing on the reality that tomorrow's organisation will be a team of teams, Part Four examines what it means to be an outstanding team - Great Organisations Are Built Around Great Teams:

  • Who We Were is Who We Are
  • It's All About Culture
  • Organisational Lessons from Nature
  • The Organisation of Tomorrow
  • Building a Great Team
  • Team Assessment

When the Trees Get Bigger and the Forest Gets Deeper - It's Time To Sharpen Your Saw

Part Five moves beyond leadership as a philosophy and drills down into essential skills - When the Trees Get Bigger and the Forest Gets Deeper, It's Time to Sharpen Your Saw:

  • Are You The Leader They Need?
  • Assessing Your Organisation's Leadership Balance
  • If Ever There Was a Time to Listen - It’s Now
  • The Listening Tree
  • To Lead Is To Care
  • 50 Ways To Say You Care - In a Covid World
  • If You Are Not Living Your Own Story, You Are Living Someone Else's
  • Resilience Assessment

Download your complementary copy of "Leadership: Moving Beyond The Crisis" from TRANSEARCH Downloads.

Tomorrow's Leaders Are Comfortable With Ambiguity

There are points in time when the more we know, the more we realise how little we know. We are in such a time. The future role of robotics/cobotics, the nature and design of tomorrow's corporation, the potential impact of medical breakthroughs and how tomorrow's technology, generally, is going to shape the endeavour – arguably, the most innovative creation our species has ever achieved – that we call "the organisation" remain, at best, "uncertain". If you think you "know", take an aspirin, lie down and hopefully the feeling will pass.

"Anticipation" is to identify that which can be expected. We don't really know what tomorrow holds other than … to expect the unexpected. Furthermore, the scope and nature of change that lies ahead isn't like passing through bad weather. It's akin to being engulfed by a hurricane that is merely a harbinger of the even bigger storm front that lies ahead.

"Comfort with ambiguity" is being comfortable with being uncomfortable. It's the art of not knowing but, when necessary, making the right decision anyway. It's far less about being right than it is doing the right things. It's about interpreting the organisation's values as a springboard for action and providing the freedom to move beyond what has been – not as a restrictive set of rules.

There is a well-established relationship between entrepreneurship and comfort with ambiguity. It's called risk. Recognising a great idea, relentless focus, a results-driven mentality and real-time awareness are the mark of the entrepreneur. As is avoiding, what Jeff Bezos calls, "day 2 stasis." Day 1 leaders keep the customer at the centre of everything they do, are quick to embrace meaningful trends, are paranoid about the bottom line and fail fast and move on. Most leaders see rejection as a setback. Entrepreneurs view it as just one more step on the road to success. Above all, successful entrepreneurs know how and when to say no. Corporate executives manage risk … entrepreneurs live it every day.

There is also an important team dimension to comfort with ambiguity. As a long-suffering child of the perceived need for rigid hierarchy, it has long been assumed that the team worked for the team leader. "Fast", "flat", "flexible", "focused" and "fertile" changes all that. Moving forward, the leader will work for the team. This implies a far subtler relationship; a bond where formal authority gives way to trust, mutual respect and the quest for authenticity. Instruction and "telling" were relatively straightforward. Followership rooted in influence moves the leader into far murkier waters. Not that there is much of a choice when technical know-how and customer insight are shared across the team. If you can't coach, you can't lead!

And the difference that makes a difference: Recognise that only those who can see what others cannot see … can do what others say cannot be done. Differentiate between those who deliver based on what is asked of them and those who show true initiative. Support the former … invest in the latter.

Insights from "Tomorrow's Leadership Will Be Different".

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