KarenBusiness success, Career, Client Success, Coaching, Leadership

empty boardroom chair at a meeting table with a CEO nameplate on display

CEO Coaching isn’t quite like any other sort of executive coaching. Yes, many of the mechanics, agreements and skills are the same – but the client and what they need from their coach are quite different than clients and executive coaching at any other level. Here’s what our experience has taught us:

What is Different About CEO Coaching?

CEO coaching is, well, coaching for CEOs. Obvious, right? Perhaps the better question is “what makes it different than coaching for anyone else?”

What’s different is that the when coaching a CEO – or business unit leader, or founder – we are working with the person who is ultimately responsible for the business and so the stakes are higher than anywhere else. As result the coach has to bring better experience, sharper skills, deeper wisdom and more finely tuned intuition to the work.

The CEO coach also has to be flexible. While most CEOs I’ve met have iron clad control over their calendars, when disruptions happen they are significant. What that means for the coach is that expecting a CEO client to fit neatly into a recurring meeting schedule will work until it doesn’t. It also means that being available to the client outside the regular meeting cadence is a very valuable offering, and often times the aspect of our engagement model that is most appreciated.

CEO coaching also tends to be more introspective and reflective than coaching at lower organizational levels. Leadership behaviors, while always having room for development and growth, are clearly developed well enough to have supported the individual getting to this level, so behavior change is usually not the focus.

Perhaps most importantly, especially for extroverted leaders and those who do their best problem solving and idea generating out loud, the typical CEO has few if any “safe spaces” where they can be messy, uncertain or tentative. In these cases the CEO’s executive coach plays the role of sounding board and thought partner more so than they might at any other organizational level, and as such the executive coach needs to be credible as a peer and comparably experienced business leader.

What is the Same Between CEO Coaching and Executive Coaching at Other Levels?

Certain common elements must apply no matter the client or organizational level. The coach providing the service must be qualified to do so – meaning they must be educated and certified in the specific skills of coaching. And yes, there continues to be animated debate on whether coaches need to be trained. In our view, training is non-negotiable. In order to truly coach – rather than tell, guide, direct, teach, train, consult or mentor – the coach needs certain specific, well-developed skills. And never more so than at the CEO level, because the stakes are so high.

There must be a coaching process – some parameters around the engagement, the structure of the meetings, the overall cadence and approach. And there must be clarity around administrative and legal issues – fees, confidentiality, reporting accountabilities and so on.

In all coaching engagements there must also be a clear agreement as to the expectations of both the coach and the client, and the boundaries of coaching such that there is no migration into either business consulting or therapy.

What Do CEO Coaches Do?

The better the coach, the less they do. There is a “being” about a coach who can work competently and confidently at the most senior levels of leadership and business that ensures the client feels comfortable that they are in a relationship with a peer.

One of the greatest values a CEO coach can bring to their client is the ability to provide an open, objective, safe, non-judgmental environment in which to process their thinking and formulate decisions. To that end, a good CEO coach listens extraordinarily well – at what’s being said, and what’s NOT being said. They ask questions that the client hasn’t asked themselves, they make observations and connect ideas differently than the CEO would on their own. Their powers of observation are finely tuned such that they can read their client accurately, and their intuition guides them towards knowing exactly what kind of support or contribution will best serve the client in the moment.

An additional important distinction is that the CEO coach is coaching the CEO, not providing business advice, strategic planning or consulting services as business coaches might do.

Who Can Be a CEO Coach?

Pretty much every executive coach will say that they coach CEOs. Most of the time that means that the coach WANTS to coach CEOs, so some due diligence will be required if you are a CEO in the market for a coach.

A great CEO Coach may or may not have actually held the CEO title. What they have done, though, is had experience leadership roles in business situations where the stakes are high, the stakeholders many and varied, and the issues complex. They have also invested in learning the skills that are specific to coaching – they’re trained and they pursue professional education continuously in order to stay abreast of developments in neuroscience, human behaviour and organizational dynamics. CEO coaches have also probably had business education such that they can converse comfortably in the language and about the issues in business.

Who Hires CEO Coaches?

The leader who ought to be thinking about hiring a CEO coach might not necessarily hold the CEO title. And they might be an executive in a corporate environment, but they also might be a professional, or an entrepreneur. The better way to consider the question is to examine the kinds of decisions the leader makes, the reporting structure in which they operate, and the support mechanisms (or lack thereof) around them. If some or most of the following are true, the leader will be well suited to working with a CEO coach:

  1. They report to a board, or to a representative of investors or shareholders.
  2. The leader has no peers – no “BFF at work” per Q10 on the Gallup list.
  3. They are the final point of responsibility in the organizational system.

Top 9 Benefits of CEO Coaching

1) An objective sounding board.

None of us can see ourselves and our situation objectively. It’s impossible. As productivity expert Charlie Gilkey likes to say, “You can’t read the label from inside the jar.” The CEO coach is unequivocally, relentlessly objective.

2) Speaking truth to power.

The uppermost levels of organizations are usually bereft of feedback. Few have the courage to say the controversial, unpopular or unusual thing to someone who holds hierarchical power over them, and as a result it’s often difficult for a CEO to gain helpful perspective from the people around them. An executive coach who is capable of coaching top level business leaders will not suffer from fear when it comes to telling the truth or delivering a difficult message.

3) A safe place to process.

With an organization looking to them for guidance about what’s important or not, and how things are going, the CEO can’t risk appearing uncertain or upset. Behind the closed doors of a coaching session there’s no fear of what others will think, and the coach-client agreement to confidentiality gives the client assurance that their innermost thoughts will never reach others.

4) A peer-level partnership.

While many CEO coaches have held CEO roles, that’s not a necessary condition for success providing coaching services to an executive leader. Rather, executive coaches who have experience leading through complexity, shouldering accountability, building and leading teams and making decisions in ambiguity will be able to relate to and effectively coach their CEO or executive leader client.

5) An extraordinary ROI.

It often takes just one decision made with the support of the coach for the CEO to ascribe meaningful, measurable value to the coaching services. And most executive leaders who have worked with coaches will agree that the less measurable benefits are significant – the confidence that comes from thought partnership and objective feedback, the mental health support resulting from being able to process emotions and deal with stress in a confidential environment, and the enhanced self-awareness that comes from introspection and reflection.

6) Access to the experiences of others.

Unless they are part of a networking system specifically designed for executive level leaders the CEO often has little perspective on what their peers might be experiencing. Part of CEO coaching services is the coach sharing what they’ve observed in their other executive leader clients. An executive coach experienced with working at the executive leadership level will have examples, stories and case studies (anonymous, of course) to offer as tools with which to consider decisions and courses of action.

7) Takes the heat off of friends and family.

Particularly for someone who’s by nature an extrovert, thinking out loud is the fastest road to solving problems. But while friends and family can be supportive, they are what we coaches refer to as “attached to the outcome.” They have an opinion based on what they want for the CEO who is also their friend or family member. And – especially in challenging times – relying on friends and family for business-related support can put strain on relationships whose best role is that of unconditional support.

8) Executives are people too.

When life throws an executive a curve ball they often don’t know where to turn. Too often the leader of the business is also the leader or at least the person most relied upon in their personal life, and sometimes the load gets quite heavy. Leaders who are juggling multiple roles and sources of pressure find the safe space and objective support of coaches critical to their self-care.

9) Customized to the Client

Coaching at the executive leadership level rarely takes the form of a “coaching program.” Executive coaching is a relationship, and as such doesn’t have a predictable curriculum or structured framework as is the case with coaching programs. When coaching leaders we set goals and areas of focus and then adapt each session’s approach to the needs and interests of the executive in that moment.

The Parachute Executive Coaching Team

We have coaches on our team who have been CEOs and who have coached CEOs, executive level leaders, professionals and entrepreneurs for many years. If you’d like to speak with one of our CEO coaches or learn more about our CEO coaching services, please get in touch.