A 2013 survey conducted by Stanford’s Graduate School of Business found that nearly two-thirds of CEOs and almost half of senior executives do not receive coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants or coaches. “What’s interesting is that nearly 100% 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 F. Larcker, who led the research team and is the James Irvin Miller Professor of Accounting and Morgan Stanley director of the Center for Leadership Development and Research at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
The reasons why so many executives would like coaching but hesitate to get the help they need is the stigma that is attached to the term ‘coaching’. In sports, it is unheard of for an athlete who is at the top of her/his game to go it alone without a coach. It is understood, that to perform at the peak of their athletic prowess, athletes need a person other than themselves, who can objectively study their performance and critique them, and offer constructive solutions to any problems they might be facing. A coach is seen as an essential part of the process of becoming an uber athlete.
But in almost any arena other than sports, coaching is seen as a remedial process. This is especially true for executives. While it is obvious that sportsmen and sportswomen train to constantly improve their performance, an executive is somehow expected to arrive at their position fully-formed. Any shortcoming is seen as a failure, and the need for coaching is seen as a cry for help. But as any executive will tell you, executive talents can be learned, just like any other skill. An executive will get better with more experience, and coaching can streamline that process and provide a shorter route to the destination.
It’s lonely at the top
Executives and CEO’s have to make high-stakes decisions every day, and sometimes several times a day. The price of failure can be steep. Executives are required to project confidence in their decisions and have learned to rely on their intuition and judgment to make these decisions. This is one of the reasons acknowledging that they could use coaching is seen as a sign of weakness. They don’t feel like they can reach out to others as a sounding board, or to discuss and debate their decisions. They operate in the vacuum of their own thoughts. This can also lead to tremendous stress and anxiety. It truly is lonely at the top.
This is where executive coaches provide their biggest value. Executive coaches act as a confidential sounding board and thinking partner for executives. They engage the executives in conversation, question their beliefs and force them to examine their assumptions. They provide the executives a safe space where they can air their doubts and misgivings and arrive at well thought decisions. These conversations allow the executives to grow and learn without the fear of judgment. These conversations tend to be deep dives and are essential to the evolution of the executive for success.
Top areas that executives want to improve
The Stanford GSB survey also revealed the top skills that executives want to improve.
1. Conflict management
The area that most executives say they need help to improve is conflict management. The reasons for this are obvious. Most decisions reach executive desks because they couldn’t be made at lower levels, and that is usually due to conflicting agendas. Deftly managing these conflicting interests and keeping stakeholders happy, while at the same time ensuring the best decisions are made for the company is a tightrope act. Executives are naturally stressed about this, and could use a lot of help from executive coaches in training to be objective about the pros and cons of such decisions, and then communicating them effectively to all the stakeholders.
Another area that executives say they need help with, is delegation. The old advice “If you want something done well, do it yourself” doesn’t really scale well in today’s world. The mantra for executives today is more “Hire carefully, then delegate, delegate, delegate.” It is impossible to do it all themselves. Executive coaches constantly work with their clients at every level to make sure they are working only on those things that have the highest impact on the success of the company and their team. Everything else is best delegated to someone else, who will be able to give it the attention it deserves. This is especially true of new executives who have trouble letting go of their previous responsibilities and need help up-leveling their mental landscape.
3. Team building
Any executive is only as good as the team they have hired or developed. To really scale their impact, they need to have a team that will execute on their vision and strategy efficiently and flawlessly. Every executive dreams of being the kind of leader that will inspire loyalty in their team members and be able to have them function as a tight-knit cohesive unit. But this doesn’t happen by accident. This requires a great degree of communication of vision, transparency and alignment in decisions. An executive coach works with executives to identify blind spots the executives may have and brings them to light so they can be dealt with effectively before they become a detriment to success. They coach them on effective communication strategies and help them align the goals of the team members to that of the executive, so everyone rows to the same beat.
Mentoring and succession planning are fast becoming areas of focus in a lot of companies, and executives are naturally interested in improving their skills in these areas. Mentoring is a skill that needs to be learned and not everyone comes to it naturally. Executive coaches have this skill in spades, and executives can learn a great deal from simply observing them in action and using the same techniques to mentor their team members in turn. Executive coaches are also able to advice executives on the best techniques for mentoring each team member, depending on where they are in their career trajectory.
No matter what areas executives are looking for help in, the best thing they can do for their team, company and themselves is to work with an executive coach. After all, there are plenty of others that depend on the executives and their organization, and it is imperative they succeed in the challenges they are facing and be the best leaders they can be.