Don’t Be Cowardly When Addressing CEO Coaching Needs

By Patricia A. Miller, SPHR, GPHR Jul 16, 2008
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Q: Our CEO needs coaching. How do I address this?

A: CEO feedback is not for cowards. In the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, the king’s advisors, fearing ridicule, did not inform him that the new clothing he’d had made for himself was invisible. Consequently, when the king decided to show off his new clothes publicly, he was seen as parading through the streets nearly naked.

Human resource professionals also hold up an elegant robe of air if they fail to speak up to their organization’s leadership. And this failure to give honest feedback is an injustice not only to the CEO, but to the entire organization.

When HR and others close to the company’s C-level executives withhold or filter information, CEOs typically become isolated from their constituents—a phenomenon referred to as “CEO Disease” in the book Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee (Harvard Business School Press, 2002, p.92). This disease manifests itself from two particular circumstances:

  • Lack of honest feedback. Generally CEOs are very dynamic people who are not always approachable to receive feedback that is not solicited. Oftentimes staff members avoid giving CEOs unpleasant feedback, fearing a “kill the messenger” response, reprisal in promotion/raises, being shut out or viewed as not a team player. Others simply do not feel comfortable giving feedback to those of higher stature. And if there is a lack of feedback on the CEO’s pet projects, feedback is practically nonexistent on the CEO’s own performance.
  • Lack of self-awareness. CEOs typically have had great success in getting to their position. But, as Marshall Goldsmith writes in his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, they often are not aware that competencies that have gotten them to where they are may not be the competencies that will continue to ensure their success.

Addressing this situation takes a multi-step approach. A successful executive coaching strategy hinges on three key components:

  • Eradicate labels: Coaching should be an integral part of a leadership support system rather than a performance appraisal correction tool. When labels are taken away, it is easier to avoid the defensiveness sometimes associated with coaching and to address areas that support leaders and the organization’s strategic plan. If CEOs see coaching as a positive action, they are much more likely to take advantage of it.
  • Outcomes: CEOs are interested in immediate results, so look to address areas that cause them frustration, burnout, or are just plain time consuming. CEOs wish to leave a legacy, and HR can point out ways to make this happen by giving them examples of how executive coaching has helped other successful CEOs produce business results.
  • Trust: HR executives need to build a relationship with CEOs that helps to put them in the position of being a trusted advisor. As such, they can recommend an outside coach who will be frank and supportive but with whom the CEO can build a good rapport and feel comfortable airing concerns of vulnerability.

Coaching Tools and Techniques

A variety of tools and techniques that can be used to facilitate coaching. For example, use data from anonymous 360-degree surveys or climate analysis surveys to identify objective behaviors that can be linked with business outcomes.

Personality assessments can help diagnose what traits are dominant or lacking and what might be easy or difficult to change. CEOs are very often shocked at the disparity in their rating and their subordinates’ ratings. This might be the first awareness that they are out of touch.

Strategic coaching should integrate organizational and personal needs. Self-awareness generally does not result in changed behaviors. The CEO will need six to eight months of one-on-one coaching to ingrain new behaviors. Practice, observance and feedback are key to changed behaviors.

Finally, treat this endeavor like any other strategic goal. Successful execution requires commitment from the CEO, a plan to obtain results, qualified coaches and follow-up evaluation.

Coaching isn’t for everyone. Some CEOs are not open to feedback, and some are unwilling to change. But for those who make a commitment to coaching, it can open a whole new world for the organization and the CEO in terms of more candor, more engaging employees, more respect and better skills to reach strategic goals.

As for those folks in HR charged with CEO coaching projects, be courageous. This might be the biggest difference you can make in your organization.

Patricia A. Miller, SPHR, GPHR, is president of the Seven Valleys, Pa.-based organizational development consulting firm P.A. Miller Consulting and isa contributor to the Washington Post employment column “Ask the Expert.” Miller also is an adjunct professor at Penn State University, a local York SHRM chapter certification instructor and former member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Organizational Development Special Expertise Panel. She can be reached at

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