Why most CEOs embrace a coach or mentor

Business leaders are dealing with rapidly changing markets, technologies, workforces and increased financial and legal scrutiny. When it comes to making big decisions, the buck stops with one man or woman. In today’s business environment the performance, expectations and professional standards of the CEO are under constant scrutiny by everyone in the value chain.

The result is that in the past two decades, top executive failure rates have soared, with the Harvard Business Review finding that 2 out of 5 new CEOs fail in their first 18 months on the job.

What’s that failure down to? Often it is because those at the very top of an organisation, be it the CEO, MD or C-level colleagues don’t have the right proactive approach to managing their own development, attempt to manage everything themselves and are more likely to take a one sided view of issues; resulting in poor or slow decision-making. These top executives are prone to suffer from stress and exhaustion, while their businesses face risking lost opportunities and serious financial consequences.

One of the most famous supporters of business coaching is Eric Schmidt (the former Chairman and CEO of Google) who when asked “what was the best advice he had ever received” his reply was “to get an executive business coach.” Schmidt admits that at first he was somewhat offended and saw the suggestion as an inference he was doing something wrong.


The misconception that business coaching is “remedial” is not uncommon. But when you consider that behind every successful athlete is an experienced, skilled and carefully selected coach that works with their client to develop long-term high performance and not just fix problems.

Rather than ‘crisis councillors’, executive coaches or business mentors are more like a personal trainer in a gym. Effective coaches like trainers aren’t a short-term New Years resolution, instead they are on hand to map and support their clients and help them to develop and operate at the very top of their game.

Now not everyone can always afford a coach and for smaller businesses in particular that support mechanism is often most effectively performed by trusted colleagues or your peers. One of things that is always apparent to me is just how generous people in business are with their time, even when they have very little of it.

The key to any great coach is that they provide perspective. A challenge for most successful CEOs is the risk of becoming inward looking and blind spots developing. An effective coach providing an objective assessment is a reality check for executives.

Coaches do this by facilitating highly skilled conversations that apply a laser focus to an issue, (challenge or opportunity) that the coachee is facing. This enables the coachee to gain a greater sense of clarity, allowing them to decipher and examine their own options and with the coaches support, take action with a sense of motivation and commitment.

For some CEOs the experience can quite literally be life changing, for others it is merely a slight course correction, enabling them to solve a challenge or embrace an opportunity. For anyone being coached however, they should experience an increase in their self-awareness and begin to unlock more of the hidden capacity and potential that all of us posses.

It is perhaps surprising then that research by Stanford University/The Miles Group of 200 CEOs, board directors, and other senior executives found that two-thirds of CEOs don’t receive any outside advice on their leadership skills.

However, almost every single CEO in the survey said that they would be receptive to having a coach and that they enjoyed receiving leadership advice. This final point is key – coaching works best as a team effort. Not only does the CEO need to be on board, so should their directors and teams, supporting them and their objectives in working with a coach.

It’s probably not surprising then, that 79% of CEOs that do receive coaching said it was their idea. The benefits of increased self-awareness, honest self-knowledge about one’s motives, personality capacities and values are all critical to effective leaders.

For those CEOs looking to develop their leadership skills or if you are currently planning to take your career to the next level then there are a number of institutions who can help you identify the right coach for you. The Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) are internationally recognised and a great place to start on the journey of building the rest of your career.