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CEO as Leader and Coach
by Daniel D. Elash, Ph.D. and James R. Long, Ph.D.



Leading a business is a tough job in the best of circumstances. How one balances the complex roles of business leader, steward of corporate assets and fallible human being can lead to vastly different outcomes. The roles often have conflicting demands and may leave the CEO feeling, at the end of the day, that there's no way to win. While there are no easy answers, the CEO can change these circumstances with a deliberate, considered effort to lead in collaborative ways. Leading in a way that draws others into the process as thought partners, rather than dependants, optimizes your organization's capabilities, and isn't that what leadership is all about? You can productively play the role of a player-coach on the company's executive team. While it takes practice, these skills can be mastered.

Getting Oriented

Relationships become key to the effective sharing of needed information. Collaborative relationships create the connections inside the organization required to operationalize its strategic intent. We refer to these relationship interconnections as "thought partnerships." More specifically, a thought partnership is a relationship formed among two or more people, in a value creating enterprise for the purpose of generating social or intellectual value. Thought partnerships are the fundamental ingredient needed to be successful in any collaborative relationship between the CEO and coachees.

The implementation of this model is a simple business review process utilized to create collaborative leadership. Introduce collaboration with your executive team by initiating focused, on-going authentic conversations about their roles in generating the value promised by the enterprise. Emphasize dialogue and strategic listening as key conversational components. Strategic listening, as differentiated from listening in general, occurs when you listen to conversations with an ear on more than specific content. It involves listening to implications of what's said in the context of your company's purpose. What are the ramifications of people's assumptions? Are you hearing hints of confusion or misaligned priorities? These and similar questions can be addressed if you listen to the conversation within the context of your strategic intent. (Elash and Long, "Lessons in Authentic Leadership" CEO Refresher, October, 2001)

These suggested dialogues strengthen the working relationships between the CEO and the executive team and between and among the team members themselves. They develop partnerships designed to enhance everyone's thinking about the work. Identifying key working relationships as thought partnerships create opportunities to examine individual and shared thinking, to understand how work products are passed across organizational boundaries, and to engage in authentic conversations about the work.

Contracting For Purpose

Begin these disciplined conversations by contracting with coachees about the desired enterprise outcomes. You'll want to proceed in a way that focuses on the work, that's thought provoking for you and them that focuses on learning rather than blaming, that emphasizes collaboration, and that allows you to see their business realities through their eyes. Fundamentally, these conversations are a vehicle for you to partner with your direct reports to:

  • Encourage and inspire them
  • Facilitate individual and collective successes
  • Examine unspoken assumptions about the organization's purpose
  • Gather the intelligence to run your business successfully
  • Develop cohesiveness around a common, compelling purpose
  • Plant seeds in the minds of your people

The Process

Your role is to purposefully communicate with, as opposed to talk at, your people. By listening strategically to their feedback, you'll listen to both the content and the contexts of their conversations. As a thought partner, you are trying to help the coachee by listening and understanding. One part of understanding is to help identify the potential pitfalls in the process. Another part is to look for opportunities to weave connections or create advantages. While team members will most often report their input from their functional perspectives, you must be listening from the perspective of the overall experienced business leader - as the steward of the business idea.

Too often, the CEO becomes enmeshed in the mire of solving day-to-day operational problems. Only through understanding, clarification and delegation can the coach be a thought partner and avoid the feeling of sole responsibility for operational issues. The CEO/coach not only listens, but also observes the nonverbal reactions of the coachee noting different reactions to various comments and ideas. The CEO also helps the process by clarifying the discussion, keeping it focused and rigorous. To be most effective, the CEO/coach manages the timing for introducing new or different information. It's the responsibility of the CEO/coach to understand the limits of his or her coachees and avoid overwhelming them. By doing so, the CEO/coach creates the best opportunity to be understood. There is, obviously, both skill and artistry involved in coaching well, while feeling responsible for performance measured by quarterly financial results.

Listening In and On the Process

While listening strategically to the debriefings, you'll hear the thinking behind the priorities and activities of your direct reports. The conversations enable you to look for alignment between their perspectives and the business idea. What's reported and what's overlooked are both rich sources of data.

By listening authentically, you also tend your personal relationship with each member of your team. This provides opportunities for demonstrating your commitment to their success by being thoughtful and not reactive. These conversations will allow you to ask for feedback about their frustrations, while listening for the following:

  • Invalid assumptions in their thinking
  • What you didn't know, overlooked, or interpreted differently from what you're hearing here
  • Where the coaching needs to include the examination of new perspectives
  • Where are they frustrated beyond their individual ability to remedy their situation

These conversations provide opportunities to listen for areas of team stress and strain. Your unique perspective (hearing independently what each feels about the collaborative efforts of the others) also enables you, as the organization's leader, to make note of the apparent leverage points that you can address, over time, that will produce significant dividends to the enterprise overall.

By listening from a strategic perspective throughout these conversations, you will learn. First, there is feedback from the trenches that you continually need to hear to stay in synch with your organization. Second, you can gather feedback relevant to your leadership style. You can listen to tales of your impact and calibrate them against your intentions. Don't be defensive. Indeed, other people perceive what they perceive, whether you like it or not, whether it is accurate or not. If the implications are that you will have to work harder to accurately market your ideas and initiatives, so be it. By listening well, you ensure the communication pipeline stays functional and unclogged.

Talking With a Purpose

These conversations provide an opportunity for information to flow back and forth. If the efforts of your team are to be orchestrated effectively over time, you must provide on-going input and collaboration. Here are opportunities for you to plant seeds in the minds of your team. Think of these conversations as opportunities to market your vision to each member of the team. By asking well-timed, considered questions, you can expand or focus the thinking team members. By engaging your team as thought partners, displaying amiable curiosity, you help them consider the implications of their thoughts, assumptions and perspectives.

These conversations provide rich opportunities for coaching. Points can be made, agendas set, and information shared. By listening to the content of specific conversations, while thinking from the broader business context, you'll shape your feedback in a way that better aligns their actions with the goals and values of the enterprise. During these conversations, the coach assesses the gaps or deficits in the team's collective knowledge.

  • What are the things that no one seems to understand deeply enough to fulfill their collective mission?
  • Where are the gaps in their collective expertise?
  • What must you know to exploit the intellectual capacity of the leadership group? (Elash and Long, CEO Refresher, October, 2001)

Through dialogue and thoughtful responses, you will introduce and model changes in the way they will think about the work going forward. It is worth noting that these same conversations not only provide you with new data, but also stretch your thinking and perhaps teach you a thing or two. It is vitally important for the CEO/coach to catch and correct his or her own invalid assumptions. It is critical for the coach to be open to hearing ideas that may change his or her perspective as well. It will not be the first time that a CEO has learned something about his or her organization that was new and enlightening. It is also the responsibility of a thought partner to equally examine that which he or she is asking others to examine.

Final thoughts

These conversations provide an excellent venue for you to learn about the good habits and practices being employed across your organization, thus putting you in a position to cross-pollinate ideas. You can ensure that good practices are recognized across this group. You can use the perspectives you've gained to help others share those practices throughout the company.

This approach reduces the isolation of the CEO, sharing the sense of ownership for the decisions made in business. It also provides a business posture for strengthening the bonds between and among people in the company. It positions leaders to be thought partners rather than pretending that they alone have the answers. Finally, it minimizes the need for you to rely on personal power to influence people at work. The role of leader as coach places you in position to be the best steward of your company's human assets.

It is becoming more prevalent for CEO's to also seek out an executive coach to help them examine the process and provide the right kind of leadership. While it is not a requirement of the process, the CEO must be careful about the message that he or she is communicating to direct reports. If the CEO asks the direct reports to be open to this partnership, he or she also must demonstrate the same by examining his or her own needs for a coach. CEO's who need help with the process but are reluctant to seek assistance can find themselves not growing in the role, and providing a "mixed message" to their direct reports about the process, and limiting their company's growth as a result of their own blind spots. In the final analysis, the CEO must also be a steward of his or her own human assets.


The Authors

Dan Elash

Daniel D. Elash, Ph.D is the principal of Syntient. Dan's Doctoral Degree is in Psychology from the University of Kansas. Dan's consultant expertise includes enhancing organizational capability through collaboration and facilitating change at the individual, team and organizational levels. Dan is a speaker and teacher who places strong emphasis on developing social innovation in client organizations. His goal is to help client companies realize their untapped potential.  Dan uses communication and community building as fundamental platforms for generating and sustaining personal and organizational capability.

E-mail: and visit .

James R. Long, Ph.D. - Jim Long is a principal and senior consultant with PERSOMA Management, Inc. Jim holds a Doctorate in Rehabilitation Counseling from the University of Pittsburgh. His leadership experience includes roles as military officer, manager, executive coach, consultant, business principal and board member. Jim has always had an interest in viewing organizations as systems. He has first-hand managerial experience leading organizations during various stages of change, in both growth-oriented and downsizing circumstances. He has worked with both small and large profit and non-profit organizations and firms. His clientele includes organizations in healthcare, technology and manufacturing areas. Jim has worked with individual leaders, executive teams and leadership groups of managers. Jim can be reached at or by calling 412-824-5359.

Many more articles in Collaborative Thinking and Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2002 by Daniel D. Elash and James R. Long . All rights reserved.

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