Executive Coaching

Beware of the CEO Who Doesn't Need Coaching

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Working with an executive coach can give invaluable support to entrepreneurs, sometimes making the difference between failure and success. When entrepreneurs are open-minded and enterprising enough to seek help, they can transcend any number of challenging scenarios, resulting in improvements in both their business and their quality of life. However, coaching doesn’t solve all business challenges, and some entrepreneurs are less open to coaching than others.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve met quite a few CEOs who’ve claimed they didn’t need coaching. Experience has shown me that this can be a red flag -- and that often these particular executives need coaching more than most. Here are a few examples of what I mean.

Related: Clients Are Free to Ignore Your Advice But They Own the Consequences

Meet Jim, a CEO who is larger than life. When I met him, he was poised, commanded a room with aplomb and was quite likeable. The company he ran was successful on paper, and being proud of this, he quoted the numbers and shared financials to prove it. Jim hired me to coach the seven members of his executive team. When we talked about each person on the team, he enumerated a list of behaviors that in his estimation needed correction. He said, “I want you to coach this one to stop bullying the others,” and “This one needs to stop judging people so quickly,” and “I want this one to stop complaining about how we do things.”  

While these aren’t rare or unreasonable coaching requests, I intuited that I’d serve Jim better if instead of working with his employees, I could coach him to lead more effectively. I told him I thought it would be most helpful if he learned to coach these executives himself, and understand how their particular tendencies and reactions to working together were communicating valuable information that he was ignoring.

He seemed a little offended by this. He didn’t need coaching, thank you very much. After all, the business was doing great. So, instead of coaching him, I worked with his direct reports. Some embraced the coaching, but the team members who were creating the biggest problems resisted, feeling they didn’t need coaching either -- see a pattern here? They were following Jim’s lead.

That was 10 months ago. Since then, the team’s dynamics and morale have worsened. The bully on the team has received several complaints from staff about his aggressive behavior. The problems with the other leaders who resisted coaching have continued and become exacerbated. Several of the company’s employees are ready to quit, and some don’t feel safe in the workplace. Meanwhile, Jim still has his head in the sand.

The second example is a 24-year-old venture capitalist (VC)-funded tech luminary named Scott. Scott is the founder and CEO of a boutique app studio. He’s arrogant, disrespectful and has a problem with managing his temper. After hiring a well-known industry expert away from a competitor because of her great ideas, he screamed --right in front of a client -- that all of her ideas were stupid. Apparently, this kind of behavior was a regular thing for Scott.

When his human resources manager set up a discussion with me to talk about coaching, he complained to her, saying, “I got funding, and I know what I’m doing. Who cares if people leave? Who cares if people are offended?” It doesn’t take much to realize that Scott is not fully aware of the scope of his responsibilities as the CEO of a new business and is in desperate need of leadership coaching.

VCs who have invested in his company may soon become concerned about whether or not they’ll earn a return on their investment. They may soon start to see that while he has extraordinary talents as a developer, he sorely lacks many other skills that are necessary when at the helm a company. If Scott wants to succeed, he’ll need to concern himself with many issues, like motivating his team, preventing attrition, reducing recruiting costs by keeping morale high, meeting goals and inspiring a safe, respectful work environment.

Related: Coaching Makes All the Difference

The third example is a really nice woman named Jan, who called for a 30-minute free coaching session, and during our discussion had several important breakthroughs on issues she’d been wrestling with for months, including her company’s positioning, their priorities and her short-term action plan. I really liked her company and philosophy. It seemed like a business that was bound to succeed.

Jan took copious notes and told me that our session was really beneficial to her. A few days later, however, she emailed to say that while she appreciated our work and thought it would help her company immensely, she didn’t really want to be coached. I told her I understood and wished her the best of luck. That was two years ago. Sadly, I just read that Jan’s company went out of business, losing a sizable investment from four angel investors and a venture capitalist. I wish she’d been more open to working together. Her unwillingness to commit to coaching may have made her a liability to her own company.

So, why do CEOs who need coaching avoid it? Here are the top reasons that in my estimation, CEOs resist coaching.

1. Arrogance

They think that since a few key metrics are good, everything else is OK too, and that things are bound to stay that way. Also, they may feel more comfortable with the idea that other people need help instead of them.

2. Fear

It takes courage to ask for help and commit to your own self-improvement. Many CEOs are actually quite afraid of judgment and failure, identifying above all else as successful people. Other times, it may actually be a fear of success that keeps a CEO from seeking the tools he or she needs to thrive.

3.  Stubbornness

When people are great at one thing in particular (i.e.- coding) they may make the mistake of leaning on this talent too heavily, at the expense of developing the other aspects of themselves -- like patience, leadership and interpersonal relations. They become intractable, lacking the flexibility necessary to negotiate challenge with grace, and to grow.

4.  Control

Some people are terrified of losing control. They’ve got a system in place, and undoing it for the purpose of making improvements would mean total chaos, leaving them vulnerable to disaster. However, the life of an entrepreneur is one that requires the courage to embrace constant change and let go of old habits and patterns, making way for new methods of doing business.

5.  Exposure

Some people lack the life experience to fully comprehend the importance of healthy group dynamics. Not surprisingly, these folks often have little exposure to coaching and don't realize how it can vastly improve their business.

Being a CEO means being ready to work hard, and this work is not limited to crunching numbers or making deals. Learning how to lead effectively is a crucial aspect of leading a business. If you’re a CEO who’s claimed he doesn’t need coaching, consider your current skill set, and ask yourself if you might benefit from support in becoming a more effective leader. If the answer is yes, don’t be afraid to reach out to an executive coach.

Related: 4 Ways a Coach Can Help You Lead Your Business to Success