Why do C-levels need coaching?
Ironically, many C-levels don’t even consider working with executive coaches. Sometimes, it seems as if executive coaching is dedicated to serving an audience who doesn’t recognize its value. There are a few reasons behind this. First, when it comes to professional development, senior managers will often put themselves at the end of the line.
According to Lacee Jacobs, PCC, ORSCC, Principal at The Coaching Salon, “even if they are coaching, the saboteurs of time, money, and more pressing priorities take a front seat and the coaching is put aside.”
Other than this perceived pressure, C-level executives often claim that their subordinates need coaching more than they do. Lacee Jacobs explains “the arrogance of having arrived due to their level”:
Being at the “top” becomes a metaphor for having already proven that they are smart, accomplished, and know what they are doing. This is a message to all that their work is complete when it comes to growth. I equate that to the “parent-child” mindset. It’s the parent that feels that if only someone will fix their child, life will be good. If it weren’t for the children screwing it all up, then there would be no problems.
In short, execs say they don’t have enough time and complain that they’re exhausted mentally. Yet they assert that they can go at it alone - and that any manager worth anything should be able to do the same.
But the data show us that going at things alone might not be the best course of action for C-level executives. Research conducted by Josette (Goldberg) Klopfer, MSMOB, PCC, EMCC-ESQA-certified Coach Supervisor, Founder and CEO of Goldberg Executive Coaching reveals that “according to a Harvard Business Review study, 2 out of 5 new CEOs fail in their first 18 months on the job.
Moreover, a Center for Creative Leadership study found that in the past two decades, 30% of Fortune 500 CEOs have lasted less than three years. Top executives’ failure rate is as high as 75% and rarely less than 30%.” This should be enough of a wake-up call for any C-level exec who thinks they don’t need coaching.
These failures could stem from the many unique challenges C-levels tend to face:
1. Rapid change
No one has to tell us that today’s business environment is running at a supersonic pace. According to Lisa Jackson of Corporate Culture Pros, “C-level execs are facing a world of unprecedented and rapid change. Digital transformation and employee expectations have forever altered competition, the war for talent, and strategy. There is no simple road map for success, based on the past.” As a result, C-levels might even find it difficult to consult with former C-levels, who have not had to rise to the same challenges.
A C-level’s life must support and maintain internal and external demands of different strengths. Jonathan Flaks of Jonathan Flaks Coaching Associates Inc. explains that “CEOs need to balance a demanding business life, intense external competition from other companies and endless demand for nurturing and leadership development from internal forces, while also maintaining a balanced personal life.” This, of course, can lead to what Kim Ades, president & founder of Frame of Mind Coaching, calls “slippage,” which is “allowing critical parts of their lives to slip through the cracks.” While “balance” and “slippage” need to be addressed at all levels, they both become increasingly difficult challenges as executives climb the corporate ladder.
Surprisingly, CEOs seem to have less readily-available resources to support them in their role. As Anya Romanova, leadership coach at Anya Romanova Consulting puts it, “it is lonely at the top and there are no trainings on how to be a CEO…” This loneliness is often caused by a “double role” that CEOs seem to take upon themselves, as expressed in Lacee Jacob’s research: “As Kegan and Lahey shared, leaders are now performing two jobs. The job of protecting their status quo and what they don’t know and their real job.” C-levels need refuge from the mountain peak from time to time in order to remain at the top long term.
Just because a C-level has made it to the top, it doesn’t mean they’ve left their self-doubts behind. Lacee Jacobs explains her theory:
Having trained with Dr. Brene Brown, my theory on C-suite execs not wanting coaching would start with the link between shame and vulnerability. When it comes to a leader...the higher-up sometimes leads to the need for a greater cover-up. So often, leaders get themselves in a “pickle” when they are not willing to be humble and vulnerable and acknowledge their opportunities for growth and development.
Coaching can help take C-levels out of this “pickle,” which can lead to what Kim Ades (http://www.frameofmindcoaching.com/) has termed “chronic dissatisfaction” and to get them on track with an appropriate training and development program.
5. Expectations from the ranks
As with the democratization of news, rank-and-file employees expect to be “in the know” as much as possible, without which can lead to what Kim Ades deems as “strained relationships”. Anya Romanova explains: “The new generation of employees are millennials and generations below - they are looking for transparent leaders, purpose driven organizations and values based companies.”
Not only do C-levels need to disclose most of their moves, but also they no longer can hide their failures from the rest of the company. Lacee Jacobs, however, says that this could lead to serious issues: “Some of us put leaders on a pedestal and have huge expectations of them, which can make it more difficult for them to acknowledge that there is work to be done.
We need to do our part to support having imperfect and vulnerable leaders.” She adds, “The pain of exposing something that may reveal that after all the hard work they’ve done, what if there is something missing? What if where they are is not enough? What if others don’t appreciate the sacrifices they have made?”
It becomes obvious that coaching for C-levels is crucial for acknowledging, communicating, and working on imperfections.
6. Steep learning curve
Moving from middle management to the C-level often involves a much steeper learning curve than what was required in previous promotions. As Josette (Goldberg) Klopfer explains, “Making it to the senior executive level of Fortune 500 companies, or any big business isn’t for the weak of heart. Even when an executive has been a star performer, the final step up the ladder will be different.” But why is this final step so different?
In most cases, this is due to a change in focus from skills and proficiency to more strategic thinking. Lisa Jackson explains: “The skills and mindsets needed are beyond what most C-level execs have been trained to focus on - data, analysis, decision certainty.” Yvette Costa, CPC, ELI-MP, CYT and president of Full Circle Coaching concurs:
While it is likely that C-level execs got to where they are because they do have emotional intelligence, once they get to that level, their focus shifts squarely on the business. Making solid decisions, taking appropriate risks, focusing on the right things become front and center to their daily thinking.
As a result, Josette (Goldberg) Klopfer says, “To tap into the CEO’s highest performance as a leader, they must be 100% ready to ratchet beyond where they already are.” To do this, Lisa Jackson highlights the role of executive coaches, who “will help a C-level executive expand their understanding of the landscape of the future, versus what has worked in the past.”
The benefits of C-level executive coaching are numerous; here are three especially important ones:
1. Unbiased listening
Jonathan Flaks emphasizes that sometimes executive coaches are the only “unbiased listener” that a C-level will be able to consult with to have “those conversations you can't have with anyone else”, finally exposing what’s really happening. He observes: "You can't see the label from inside the bottle."
Along the same lines, Anya Romanova observes that “Most people don’t have the courage to give executives feedback (or the power dynamic does not allow it).” As a result, “A good coach will identify patterns and default behaviors to reveal blind spots.” I’ve always said that an executive coach is the only one who will help a manager look into the mirror.
2. Consciousness raising
Yvette Costa explains that an executive coach can help C-levels “increase their EQ, create goals/plans on how to use those skills” as “entering the AI era, EQ will be one of the essential skills needed by executives”. She also points out how coaches can help raise “awareness of how focusing on EQ will actually positively impact the business” in addition to “helping C-level execs become more conscious leaders at work and more conscious of how they interact with people outside of work as well.”
As I’ve seen in my own coaching practice over the years, the more a C-level coach is conscious of the changes they must make (as well as what they must give up to do so), the more successful they are at adapting to their new role. Costa concurs: “Too often C-level execs are simply acting on autopilot, reacting to situations based on habit and what has worked in the past.” The most difficult challenge for C-level execs is revisiting and decreasing what I call their “dominant” habits so that their innate potential can shine through.
3. Strategically thinking
The move to the C-level requires a paradigmatic shift towards strategy, which often can be a daunting move for the newly-minted C-level executive. As such, they need a partner to help them adopt a more strategic mindset.
As Josette (Goldberg) Klopfer explains:
An executive coach will work with a CEO in partnership and challenge the CEO to understand every aspect of their company, evaluate what makes them and their organization unique, and leverage the talents of each team member. Together the coach and CEO will build a plan that is realistically achievable based on the CEO’s unique personal strengths and leadership style.
Yvette Costa concurs in that coaches can help C-levels in “making solid decisions, taking appropriate risks, and focusing on the right things as the front and center to their daily thinking.”
According to Klopfer, the result of a successful coach-exec partnership is that “when employees see their leaders re-energized and armed with the fundamentals of leadership, teamwork, and personal effectiveness, the whole company and its bottom line grow.” This results in a “a cascading effect on the entire organization”.
You can lead a horse to water...
Naturally, some C-level execs are going to claim they have everything under control. After all, if they’ve gotten this far, why would anything stop them?
Jonathan Flaks reminds us that: If other CEOs like Eric Schmidt of Google are willing to confess that ‘You need a coach’ is the best advice he ever got, then I don't know any CEO who would be considered wise to go through the hero's journey we're talking about without a dedicated coach, or two, to ensure success and happiness the first time.
C-level execs would be wise to take up Schmidt’s advice as they plan their climb up the career ladder.
I’d like to thank the generous professional contributors to this article. Your candid voices from the field will certainly help nurture a new generation of C-level execs ready to face tomorrow’s challenges.
And always remember:
Great managers are made. Not born.
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