“For CEOs, there is no off-season,” says Mr. Miles. “They need to constantly quarterback multiple constituencies as well as communicate effectively with their boards, and these interactions can challenge even the most talented corporate chiefs. A CEO may be a brilliant creative mind or strategic thinker – but may need coaching to improve their board relations or boost their effectiveness as a corporate leader.”
Mr. Miles, who is brought in by boards to help refine leadership styles of sitting CEOs or assist in onboarding new chief executives, explains that feedback at the top can be elusive. “When you reach a certain level, there are many fewer people giving you advice – especially inside the company. But even the most talented CEOs have their blind spots, and can use constructive feedback to leverage an already-gifted mind.”
Having worked with some of the world’s top business leaders, Mr. Miles has advice for those surrounding CEOs – including their boards – on how to best navigate the delicate path of coaching high-performers.
5 Tips for Coaching Star CEOs (Plus One Work-Around)
- Establish credibility. “Genius leaders don’t want to work with just anyone, and they will balk at a cookie-cutter approach to coaching. To influence this person, you have to have content credibility that is established through your experiences and track record. You can’t waste their time by getting up to speed on their time, so you must go into the situation knowing the circumstances and context. Once you are ‘in’ with the CEO, and become one of his or her trusted advisors, the impact of your work together multiplies geometrically.”
- Understand what you can change – and what you can’t. “One of the first things I hear when I am in the boardroom discussing a potential CEO coaching engagement is that ‘the CEO is not really that coachable.’ And the fact is, I am not going to change someone’s foundational leadership style. What we can change is to add range to their style that they can apply to different situations. For example, a CEO may require a more facilitative approach when he or she is leading a brainstorming session with a team, but a more directive approach in a situation where a decision has been made and the focus is on the ‘how,’ not the ‘what.’ CEOs need a broad range of styles at their disposal so that they can increase their overall effectiveness tremendously.”
- Focus on improving performance vs. fixing what is broken. “There is often an education process that starts when approaching the coachee – that this is high-performance coaching, not remediation. This is not the time to put up the mirror and describe in gory detail all the things that are wrong with them. Like Steve Jobs or Larry Ellison, most geniuses have extreme behaviors, many of which may have contributed to their business success. So coaching these leaders requires focusing on the one or two areas that really will make a difference in improving their leadership effectiveness.”
- Pay homage. “Let’s face it, CEOs are human, and every human being has an ego. Even a brilliant CEO – or maybe especially a brilliant CEO – needs you to understand what they are good at. By affirming who they are and understanding their specific situation in detail, you can begin to gain their trust and influence their behavior.”
- Be gradual. “While some CEOs might be a bit resistant to change, an equally problematic issue may be the type-A CEO who wants to change too quickly. He or she may want to be the 2.0 version the very next day, and this can be a catastrophic error. If CEOs try to implement their new ‘style’ before they are ready and have a bad experience, they will never try it again and often will retrench even further into their old form. The key is to practice adding range to their style, first through role play and then gradually in safe environments, while over time adding to their skill level and adding to the degree of difficulty. As they reinforce the new behaviors in increasingly difficult environments, they build their own confidence with the approach and eventually it becomes part of their foundational style.”
The work-around: bring in the CEO’s “right hand man.” “For leaders who are truly uncoachable, you have to improvise. There are individuals like Steve Jobs who are genius but are highly unlikely to be changed through any type of coaching. In these situations, we can use organizational design and complementary leaders to enhance the overall genius. Apple installed the Chief Operating Officer role and recruited Tim Cook to come into the company and complement their genius founder and CEO, which he did remarkably well. This allowed Steve to focus on what he liked to do and Tim did everything else, allowing the entire system to function at a much higher and more effective level.”
“When the CEO starts to ‘get it,’ the coaching process can have significant returns for the company and tremendously help the CEO himself or herself,” says Mr. Miles. “We can see a CEO’s relationship with his or her board absolutely transform. As UCLA coach John Wooden said, ‘it is what you learn after you know it all that counts.'”
Named by Bloomberg Businessweek as “the rising star of CEO consulting,” Stephen A. Miles is the founder and CEO of The Miles Group, which develops talent strategies for organizations, cultivates high-performing individuals and teams, and ensures effective leadership transitions through readiness coaching and succession.