By, Stuart R. Levine
Published in, The Credit Union Times

Stanford Business School recently surveyed more than 200 CEOs, board directors and senior executives of North American public and private companies and found that nearly all the CEOs surveyed thought that establishing a professional relationship to receive leadership advice or coaching would be valuable.  Only one third of the CEOs were receiving professional leadership guidance currently, despite the fact that 100% of the CEOs in the survey responded that the process of receiving leadership advice was a positive one.   So the word’s, “It’s lonely at the top,” certainly reflect the rationale for why confidential and often vital strategic leadership advice can be so valuable.   Nearly 80% of directors said that their CEO is receptive to leadership advice and coaching.

One of the most significant challenges stated by 43% of CEOs is strengthening conflict management skills, based upon their need to manage multiple constituencies on a daily basis.  Negotiating and navigating through conflicting and political agendas in a strategic way can be an invaluable asset when difficult decisions need to be made.  CEOs often walk a tightrope and this can require assistance that can be invaluable.   When skills such as communication, sharing a vision, developing talent and mentoring, enhanced strategic thinking, identifying core values and linking them to strategic decisions are enhanced, not only does the CEOs career thrive, but so does the culture and organizational results.

Executives who are confident benefit from learning skills, through an independent perspective, that enhances their ability to lead. Setting clear objectives based on values, enables CEOs to engage people and build a culture of accountability. Fostering the right level of engagement behind a CEOs vision, is a desired outcome of this kind of engagement.   Inventing new ways of working is a difficult process, but it is actually a process that can be learned.  Active listening is required and incisive questioning are part of this process.  It takes an intense amount of time and energy to accomplish insightful and clear dialogue that impacts behavior and leads to effective results.  Not all advisors are created equally.  Experience is crucial to this conversation.  Always ask the difficult question of an advisor as to what their specific experience is in mentoring CEOs.  A huge benefit in this conversation are people who have served on boards and been CEOs.  Therefore, the advice is built upon practical experience, not just reading an article or getting certified.

Confidentiality and integrity are both critical for this relationship to be successful. A bond of trust develops that allows the executive to express concerns and explore alternatives through this process that might not otherwise be possible.

Some senior executives may not be aware of the skills they need to sharpen, which will limit their upside potential.  Coaching can bring awareness and action in response.

Frequently, boards ask whether a CEO should serve as a member of the board of directors.  In my experience, that is critical for the engagement of the board and the CEO. By having the CEO as a member of the board, this eliminates political jockeying and lack of alignment.  Direct communication with board members and the CEO builds trust, open communication and efficient use of time. It is incredibly important that the CEO also engage the board in between meetings at the right level and use them as a sounding board. CEOs are well-served by advisors who remind them to stay in touch on a monthly basis with their board.  Executive summaries that outline progress being made is critical.   This is enormously helpful in leveraging experience, knowledge and progress.

A good advisor supports the client’s continuous learning and intellectual curiosity, which are critical traits in today’s demanding environment.  Daily work requirements, however, often limit time for learning.  But this learning is critical to being able to articulate meaningful strategic messages that reflects key trends and currency.  Being able to articulate principles and values and taking people to a higher ground, is a strategic skill that can be developed through the right executive consultative relationship.

Part of the dirty truth is that coaching requires candid and direct feedback.  In healthcare, data tells us that if you require a diagnostic protocol, you are always better off going to a professional who conducts that procedure on a very regular basis.  As with coaching, choose your advisor very carefully.  In healthcare, a bad outcome affects your health.  In business, a bad outcome can destroy your career and your organization.