Feedback May Be Big at Companies, but Not at the Top

Nearly two out of three CEOs don’t seek outside coaching or training

By Dana Wilkie Aug 7, 2013
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At a time when professional development is mandatory at many companies and 360-degree feedback is the rage, nearly two in three CEOs in North America fail to seek outside leadership training, according to a recent survey led by Stanford University.

Although the CEOs who participated said they’re receptive to changing their management approach based on feedback, nearly 66 percent don’t rely on outside consultants or coaches for leadership advice, according to a July 2013 study by 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, which provides leadership coaching to CEOs and others.

“[Not getting feedback] can come across as very arrogant or narcissistic,” said David Larcker, who led the research team and is the Morgan Stanley director at Stanford’s Center for Leadership Development and Research. “If CEOs are willing to be coached and make changes based on coaching, it stands to reason that companies and boards should make this happen.”

The researchers polled more than 200 CEOs, board directors and senior executives of North American public and private companies. They found that almost half of senior executives also don’t seek outside leadership training.

The 34 percent of CEOs who do seek leadership advice typically turn to neutral third parties (consultants or coaches) who can dispassionately assess a leader’s weaknesses and create a plan to address them. The issues that often send CEOs to outside coaches, Larcker said, include:

  • High turnover of senior employees.
  • Difficulty motivating workers.
  • Difficulty communicating with workers, shareholders, customers—or all three.
  • Failing to balance constituent demands.

“Here’s someone—he’s a good guy, and he’s made it to the top, but he has some apparent weaknesses that are giving rise to problems in the organization,” Larcker said, adding that it sometimes takes an organizational crisis to persuade a CEO to seek outside advice.

Asked in what areas they believed they could use professional training or coaching, nearly 43 percent of the CEOs put “conflict management skills” at the top of the list.

“How to manage effectively through conflict is clearly one of the top priorities for CEOs, as they are juggling multiple constituencies every day,” noted Stephen Miles, CEO of The Miles Group in New York City. “When you are in the CEO role, most things that come to your desk only get there because there is a difficult decision to be made, which often has some level of conflict associated with it. ‘Stakeholder overload’ is a real burden for today’s CEO, who must deftly learn how to negotiate often-conflicting agendas.”

Many companies require rank-and-file employees to spend a specified number of hours each year in professional development courses. Performance evaluations have become nearly scientific, with weights for goals and rankings for productivity that affect salaries and bonuses. Some managers and directors undergo 360-degree feedback that subjects them to praise—and criticism—from subordinates, peers and supervisors.

So why are two of every three CEOs not requiring the same rigorous assessments of themselves? 

​“If you think it’s a good idea for other people, it ought to be a good idea for you, as well,” Larcker said. CEOs who refuse outside training may believe “they’ve got things nailed down and they’re running the show. Maybe they’re leery of acknowledging their limitations, or they [acknowledge them but] don’t want to share this information with the board of directors or other senior executives. It may be they’re so busy doing other stuff there’s no room to do this.”

“But everybody has blind spots,” he added. “Nobody’s great at everything. It’s the introspective person who tries to work on” his or her shortcomings.

Although it’s common for a CEO to have a personal relationship with someone on his or her board of directors, Miles emphasized that turning to such friends for leadership advice isn’t ideal.

“Given how vitally important it is for the CEO to be getting the best possible counsel, independent of their board, in order to maintain the health of the corporation, it’s concerning that so many of them are going it alone. Even the best-of-the-best CEOs … can dramatically improve their performance with an outside perspective weighing in.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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