Less lonely at the top

No one wants to see ignorance or indecision in their CEO, but leaders are human too. Here's how executive coaching can help.

No one wants to see ignorance or indecision in their CEO, but leaders are human too. Here’s how executive coaching can help.

No one wants to see ignorance or indecision in their CEO, but leaders are human too. We look at how coaching and mentoring can help company chiefs develop their skills.

Pilar Martinez-Vidal set up courier business Impulse International in the late 1980s. Three years ago she bought out her original business partner, who had been suffering from personal problems.

‘I felt very lonely because although her involvement in the business had lessened, at least we could share our worries and plans for the future,’ recalls Martinez-Vidal. ‘From the moment I bought her out, I felt the whole responsibility for the company falling on my shoulders. There were no excuses any more, no one else to blame.’

The solution was joining a chief executive development organisation, which arranged meetings with other CEOs and one-to-one mentoring sessions that helped Martinez-Vidal share her problems and get useful feedback. Three years later Impulse’s turnover has doubled to £4 million and she says the discussions she’s had as part of her group have been invaluable.

‘Though the other businesses [in the group] have nothing to do with my own, I’ve had discussions that have been very helpful. We talk about things that I wouldn’t have been able to share with my own management team.’

Lone rangers

For CEOs, being ‘lonely at the top’ is an occupational hazard. Even Christina Domecq, the ostensibly steely and self-reliant CEO of global technology business Spinvox, admits that she wouldn’t be where she is today without listening to people who know what they’re talking about.

‘Mentors give me an outlet – someone to bounce ideas off and ask questions no matter how stupid those questions are,’ says Domecq, who started her first business when she was 20 and now has six mentors who advise her on different issues.

She wasn’t always this open to advice. ‘When I started my first business, my mentor told me you have to hire well, even over-hire, especially if you are young and inexperienced,’ she recalls.

‘I didn’t listen. I had a tight budget and thought I couldn’t afford it – so my business trundled along and didn’t grow as fast as it could. When I started Spinvox, the same mentor asked me, “Are you going to do it the right way this time?” That’s why with Spinvox we’ve hired some very highly qualified individuals who have given us a platform from which to grow.’

Domecq’s experience shows how valuable it can be for a CEO to be challenged. Tony Price, the interim CEO of chief executive development organisation Vistage, says that many leaders remain unaware of how they’re holding back their own businesses.

‘A lot of owner-managers have been running their business for a number of years, it’s reached a plateau and they don’t know why. Very often it’s because they’ve always done everything themselves. They think they know all the answers, and they haven’t brought in a management team around them to take the business to the next level. In those cases they have to realise that they’ve plateaued for a reason, and that reason is themselves.’

Strength in numbers

A group of CEOs who meet regularly and get to know each other’s problems can act as a valuable sounding-board, providing both a sympathetic ear and ‘robust challenge’ where necessary, adds Price.

It can also be a goldmine of practical advice. Martinez-Vidal explains that when she upgraded Impulse’s IT system, two CEOs in her group gave her detailed guidance on how to run her old and new systems in parallel for a few months before making the switch.

‘I’m pretty impulsive, so I would probably have just switched off the old system and gone ahead with the new one the next day,’ she says. As it was, she avoided the risk of alienating clients and missing out on new business during a choppy transition.

Though they may have similar goals, mentoring and coaching are very different in approach. Katinka Nicou, founder of organisational development business Integrate, explains.

‘Mentoring is usually done between someone who is an expert in their area and a protégé, while a coach will ask questions that help the executive come to a realisation they would otherwise have struggled to understand.’

Steven Miyao, CEO of New York-based financial consultancy Kasina, has used both mentors and coaches to develop himself and his team. ‘With a mentor you’re looking for specific advice from someone who has been there and done it themselves,’ he explains. ‘A coach’s primary skill is being able to ask the right questions, to identify issues that your business has and make you feel comfortable talking about them. They are very similar to a shrink in that respect.’

Miyao brought in a coach when his company began to struggle with internal communication. As the business grew, important information about clients tended to stay with account managers, rather than being disseminated across the company. The coach interviewed key executives to ascertain where problems were, then ran a series of workshops in which the executives themselves developed appropriate solutions.

‘It was helpful to have someone come in and help us organise our thoughts,’ says Miyao. ‘The other benefit was that bringing the coach in was like a guarantee that something was going to get done – otherwise the issue could have been buried.’

The buck stops here

Coaching and mentoring can provide a mechanism to make CEOs accountable – something the heads of private companies often lack. Martinez-Vidal explains: ‘As the head of your company, it’s very easy to leave things undone and say “I’ll do it tomorrow.” But [in group meetings], when I tell the group I’m going to do something, they will follow it up. You can’t just go back in a month’s time and say you were too busy.’

What company chiefs find most valuable about coaching and mentoring is getting an informed perspective from someone who is not an employee, partner, competitor or investor. It doesn’t matter whether relationships are brokered through a formal organisation or not, but an element of structure seems important, as opposed to an entirely ad hoc arrangement.

‘Identifying a coach or mentor doesn’t have to be something formal, but as the relationship becomes more established it’s very valuable to formalise it to make sure it is happening,’ says Miyao, who flies twice a year to Pittsburgh to talk to the CEO of a software developer and, in return, plays host to him twice a year.

The scope of mentoring and coaching can be broad. Laurence Walker, CEO of software company SSP, says he discusses ‘everything to do with the business’ within monthly group sessions. ‘That’s everything from finance to the cultural aspects of acquisitions,’ he explains, adding that issues such as restructuring and dealing with difficult individuals also surface.

For Walker, the group sessions are a chance to ‘effectively, sit down with 12 other non-execs’. The difference is that the individuals in his group have nothing to do with his business: they are carefully chosen so that any potential client, competitor or partner is excluded.

Frank exchanges

A spirit of openness and trust is essential in coaching and mentoring. It’s particularly important when personal problems begin to affect business performance, as Integrate’s Nicou explains: ‘In many cases people are held back by something in their past – anger, fear or lack of self-esteem,’ she says. ‘You can sit down and evaluate every option and every possibility, but that’s not going to solve the problem.’

In such cases, Nicou uses an array of techniques including hypnotherapy and neurolinguistic programming (a form of psychotherapy) to get to the heart of the issue. ‘Coaching helps people to see more possibilities than they can see themselves, but also helps them feel more powerful to act on those possibilities,’ she states.

Perhaps the ultimate vindication of coaching and mentoring is the fact that many of those who have benefited feel motivated to give something back. SSP’s Walker says he is now ‘looking not only to take out but to put in’, while Domecq of Spinvox, at 31, is already sharing her experience with others.

‘I learn a lot from being a mentor,’ she says. ‘A simple question can tell you a lot about a person and their business. What I love most is helping somebody who’s already helping themselves.’

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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