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Coaching To Prepare A Senior Executive
for the "Top Job"

by Rink DeWitt and George Stiles

 
   
 
   

Most American corporations find their CEO right inside their own company.  This makes for the smoothest transition because the incoming CEO knows the corporate culture, knows all the ‘players’ at or near the top, knows a good number of middle management people, perhaps many of the employees and he knows the Board of Directors.  He also will be well versed in the problems facing the company as well as the opportunities.

This prospective CEO usually has had many years of grooming from his own boss and  perhaps the current CEO.  He undoubtedly has been observant and knows what works in this company and what doesn’t.  He understands the internal and external politics (in the good sense of the word).  But he normally has not had time to really sit back and think about his role as CEO.  What is it going to be like that first day?  What do I want to accomplish in the first 6 months?  In the first year?  Where can I realistically take this company?

When I’m CEO how will my role really change from today?   Who will be my friends?  My adversaries?  Will I be accepted on Wall Street?  Where is my list of the ten things I have to do first?

When we have been called in to coach a new CEO there are many shapes this coaching can take.  It depends strictly on who is being coached … where he or she has been and where they are coming from.  Most of the time the prospective CEO needs a little ‘organization’ help … he’s got to get himself organized and start answering some of the above questions.   Undoubtedly, he’ll have many of his own that we can talk about. This process can take 90 to 180 days but is time well spent.

In most modern American corporations, there is a CEO and a Chief Operating Officer (COO).  We view the CEO as spending 90% of his time working with his Board, with his shareholders and all the other external stakeholders who can effect the life blood of the company … he is ‘Mr. Outside’ and the chief strategic thinker..  And we see the COO as ‘Mr. Inside’ and the person in charge of daily events and quarterly earnings! 

The new CEO must quickly learn that his job is very lonely.  There aren’t a lot of people to really talk to … confidentially or confidently.  And he or she needs to learn quickly a new perspective on strategy and strategic thinking.  When we are engaged to coach a new CEO or a prospective CEO, one of our first tasks is to decide how strategic he or she is.  Strategy is the new game … perhaps the only game … for the CEO. 

The CEO is conducting a show … a very complex and demanding show.   So, the second issue the CEO must address quickly is who exactly are his audiences.  We believe the most important audience on day one is the employees … their morale and their interest in going the extra mile is crucial to his success.  They can ‘sell their company’ better than anyone else but they need to be believers.  So, the CEO, while maintaining his strategic focus, must pull all the employees into his vision of the future … be it local, national or world wide.  He is their leader and therefore must lead … he must be ‘out front’ but always inviting all the employees into his dreams … his vision.  We think that ‘painting a picture’ of the future helps everyone understand their own piece of the puzzle and, thus, insures healthy morale.  Most employees can get excited about a leader who is focused, articulate and enthusiastic about his company and its future.

Other audiences in this show who are immediately important include the shareholders … large, dominant, vocal shareholders will catch the new CEO’s attention quickly.  Directors on the Board are important … they’re the CEO’s immediate boss.  If the company is public, Wall Street (or your investment banker) is critical.  And so are all the politicians who can effect your business … local, state, and federal.  Which regulators can put you out of business? What other audiences are critical to your business?

Once the audiences are identified, the coach needs to work with the CEO on ‘strategies’ (there’s that word again) on how to invite in all these audiences so they feel a part of the new CEO’s world.  They all need to feel important to the CEO.  This is an on-going exercise … many discussions between CEO and coach.  It takes an incredible amount of time (the coaching and the actual doing).

Thirdly, the new CEO needs to learn anew how to communicate.  He needs to figure out how different audiences listen.  What do regulators hear?  What does the union hear?  And the shareholders?  Etc!  The new CEO must learn how to speak … must learn what to say … to whom.   Because everyone is listening and looking for clues.  “What did he say? … What did he mean? …What do you think he meant?”

Since the CEO has to be careful what he says, it naturally follows that he has to be very careful whom he talks to … and what he says then.   So, a fourth very important dimension of the coaching function is to establish such a close relationship with the CEO, that the CEO is comfortable talking to the coach about his deepest and most confidential or embarrassing fears or expectations.  This is where the coach may be the most valuable.  The CEO needs a sounding board … and who can he totally trust and confide in who knows the business?  Perhaps the coach is the best answer.  This role of the coach can go along way toward minimizing the loneliness issue.

Finally, a new CEO needs to learn about ‘pace’.  That is, he needs to understand work and family balance.  He needs to figure out his own private time.   He needs distractions from the job.   He needs to learn how to speed up and slow down.  He needs to understand that he is human … he is subject to all the human frailties that the rest of us are.  And that he is not much good to the company or his family or his friends if he works himself to death.  And, by the way, a really good coach is just that blunt!


     
   
     
   

The Author

 

Rink DeWitt and George Stiles are Managing Directors of Executive Options, Wellesley, MA,  a firm specializing in developing career strategies with serious executives.  They focus their practice on executive mentoring, executive coaching and executive transition.

     
   
     
   
Many more articles in Coaching in The CEO Refresher Archives
     
   
     
   
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Copyright 2000 by Rink DeWitt and George Stiles. All rights reserved.

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