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Top Athletes Use Coaches. Why Don’t CEOs?


Top Athletes Use Coaches. Why Don’t CEOs?

Photograph by David Madison

Top athletes routinely rely on coaches to help them get even better at what they already do so well. Not so with CEOs, the top performers in their field.

Nearly two-thirds of CEOs do not receive coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants, according to the latest study from the Center for Leadership Development and Research at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance, and the Miles Group.

Most CEOs say they would welcome an outside perspective to advance their personal development. Nearly 43 percent of CEOs surveyed rated conflict management skills the area of most concern. Not far behind was sharing leadership (36 percent), listening and communication skills (both 32 percent), and planning skills (25 percent).

CEOs don’t see as great a need to work on their softer skills. Low on the personal development list: compassion (18 percent), interpersonal and persuasion skills (both 14 percent), and motivation (11 percent).

“It’s concerning that so many of them are ‘going it alone,’” says Stephen Miles, chief executive officer of the Miles Group. In an e-mail exchange, Miles explains why so few CEOs have leadership coaches and the best combination of “hard” and “soft” skills:

Nearly two-thirds of CEOs surveyed do not receive outside leadership counsel, but nearly all say they want advice. What’s stopping them?

There is still some residual stigma around coaching that it is somehow “remedial” as opposed to something that enhances high performance, similar to how an elite athlete uses a coach. But there really is not a single top athlete who does not have a coach, and what is also interesting is that most of the greatest coaches in the world were not the best players; just think of “Coach K” [men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski] at Duke. CEOs should not have insecurity about this issue, and instead see coaching as a tool for improving what is already high performance.

Why are CEOs most interested in developing conflict management and delegation skills?

A CEO’s ability to share leadership and delegate is really about developing an organizational design that will optimize the entire team. By creating an effective complementary leadership structure—which brings in the members of the top team—the CEO can maximize the whole and get more lift. The CEOs who get this right with the correct people around them can excel tremendously.

“Soft” skills are low on the personal improvement list. Should that concern boards? Do these skills have a place in the CEO’s tool kit?

Putting into place this kind of a complementary leadership structure goes hand in hand with coaching and developing people—what some consider “soft” skills. But while many of the most successful leaders are not naturally the best coaches, learning a few simple tools and frameworks for increasing their effectiveness as a coach goes a long way to strengthening and developing the team—and has a strong positive effect on retention.

The challenge for the CEO is that coaching takes a lot of nuance: The goal is to not make someone feel badly about themselves, but to have the person get up the next morning and be excited about trying something new or doing something in a different way.

Is there a balance between soft and hard skills CEOs should strive for?

Conflict management is actually a combination of hard and soft skills, and is critical in the CEO role. Just about anything that gets to the CEO’s desk has an element of pleasing someone and making someone else unhappy. When the CEO avoids conflict, it can shut the whole organization down: Decisions are not made and problems fester, creating a domino effect of unproductive behaviors down the ladder. But conflict shouldn’t be avoided. A CEO who can manage and channel conflict in a constructive way can get to the root of issues, apply rigor to the team’s thinking, and, ultimately, drive the best outcomes. So cultivating this skill can be a powerful tool to help the entire organization.

Sager is director of special projects for Businessweek.com.

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