Isolation can be a problem for many CEOs and senior staff. Here, Alan Denton discusses the importance of challenge and feedback.

With the gloom of recession receding, it would be logical to assume that many CEOs and directors are enjoying a sense of relief – even euphoria – at having survived the downturn and leading their organisations into better times. However, as an executive coach I come across many MDs and chief officers who exhibit strong signs of isolation and loneliness. The reality is, they are crying out for support and challenge: someone to confide in, who is prepared to stand their corner with credibility and integrity – and even to confront when necessary.

But, when staff, shareholders and management teams are all looking to those at the top for answers, to whom does the CEO turn to formulate ideas, run through options and get ‘unattached’ feedback and challenge?

Putting on a public face

A major failing of people who hold senior positions is the belief that they should know all the answers; that demonstrating any form of weakness or uncertainty is to be avoided at all costs. This can make asking for unbiased, non-politicised opinions and feedback difficult.

However, great leaders and managers understand the power of not knowing all the answers and showing some degree of vulnerability. They have the confidence to take risks and are prepared to enter their ‘discomfort zone’. Furthermore, the principles of ‘servant leader’ and ‘leaders who listen’ are often difficult, if not impossible, to implement in hierarchical organisations with an autocratic management style.

Follow the leader

It takes tenacity, knowledge, experience, ability, good timing and great networks to reach the top of a successful organisation. It is an appointment as opposed to leadership, which relies solely on the willingness of others to follow. Unfortunately, the perception amongst many senior executives is that they are the leader because they are ‘in charge’- not because of whom they are being.

How many chief officers or senior executives are either so isolated or so ‘in charge’ that they become unchallengeable – they believe in their own power until, of course, they fall off the sandcastle? How many have confidantes in the business? And how many are truly challenged and supported to develop a dynamic and, sometimes, uncomfortable, direction for themselves and their organisation?

A source of challenge

So, with many CEOs wary of showing weakness to the people who see themselves as a future CEO, who can they discuss their fears and hopes with? Colleagues are often scared of giving honest feedback to their boss for fear that it will interpreted as personal criticism. Unfortunately, the same can be said for many business coaches who can seem more interested in keeping their job and getting the next meeting than in telling the sometimes hard-to-hear truth.

Executive coaching can be perceived by some as a failure in itself. In fact, at the start of the process, many senior executives I come into contact with have negative perceptions of coaching, with comments such as:

  • Coaching is for failures
  • Isn’t coaching about ‘fixing’ something?
  • It’s not for me
  • It’s fluffy nonsense
  • I’ll be seen as weak if I take on a coach

However, the more enlightened senior executives who choose to embrace coaching often find it invaluable. At its most basic level, it provides someone to talk to on a level and in confidence – but it can be so much more than that.

Coaching in action

In 2008/9, as the recession took hold, we worked with a managing director who ran a successful multimillion pound business. Although confident on the surface, honest conversation revealed his uncertainties about the future, particularly with regards to leading the business through the recession. However, the process of external coaching enabled him to look at his business (and more importantly, his people) in a new way. As a company, it chose to change the ‘conversation’ it was having, both internally and externally with clients, suppliers and stakeholders. As a consequence, the company powered its way through the downturn. The MD recognised the importance of being able to communicate honestly, saying in his feedback: “I had no one to turn to internally, I needed that shake and the results have been fantastic.” In the hands of the right coach, and with a client who is willing to step into real possibilities that can emerge, business stars can truly become superstars.

Executive coaching should have a clear ethos, but not a pre-determined process. It’s about digging in, challenging and exploring the possibilities and then stretching those possibilities. Applying a fixed model or process can be stifling and prescriptive.

What to look for

So, if you feel that you would benefit from the challenge and (sometimes tough) feedback that a coach can offer, you should look for someone who has a clear ethos for his or her coaching that encompasses the following:

  • An understanding of the need for external coaches to be a sounding board, a confidante – a ‘critical friend’ – one that often does not exist for most senior executives.
  • A clear definition of confidentiality and integrity. Check out what this means in practice, particularly if there is a third party stakeholder in place, i.e. what, if anything, is being reported back? This should be determined by mutual agreement between the coach and the coachee. Ideally, the results that third parties see, hear and experience in their interactions with the client under coaching will speak for themselves.
  • The need for an agreement of clear outcomes – with an expectation that these will be bettered. A good coach is not attached to further meetings although they may agree a series of coaching interventions.
  • Someone who stands for you, the client, achieving an amazing outcome as designed by you – but is absolutely prepared to stretch and challenge you, often to a place of discomfort.
  • If you are a CEO, look for someone who has had that experience – but not necessarily in your sector.

A great executive coach will push, pull and support in equal measure and comes from a place of ruthless compassion. They will also be happy to discuss ROI.

Feelings of loneliness and isolation are both common and counterproductive in business – as in many other areas of life. However, CEOs and senior executives have the ability to break down barriers of inaccessibility. They may have to take a long, hard look at the way they manage processes and people – to be prepared to receive hard feedback and admit vulnerability. However, the right external, impartial support can make the whole process easier and more likely to succeed. There may be some discomfort along the way, but the results can truly be amazing.

If you want to know more simply email alan@alandenton.co.uk or call on +44 (0)1858 414 240.