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3 Reasons Why a CEO Needs a Coach: It’s Truly Lonely at the Top

Marty Petty at bat in Rays uniform
February 22, 2024
February 22, 2024
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Coaching a key executive is an honor, often humbling, but always a sport - all packed into one unpredictable experience. Most will tell you, the best coaches have been in the game - and in my business, this means having sat in the CEO chair. We’ve felt the exhilaration of the hunt and the success, the frustrations and the pain of disappointment and failure. Some days, it can be a very lonely job. 

Do I agree to coach every executive I meet? No. I want to first determine if the exec is willing to ask for help, to admit to not having all the answers and, most important, willing to do the work necessary for personal and professional growth. 

I pose several exploratory questions to seek clues to the possibility for our success:  

  • What will be your legacy when it’s time for your next chapter?
  • What keeps you up at night?
  • What will always be your No.1 priority? 

In the case of one long-term client who was at the helm of a shareholder-owned, mid-sized business services firm doing business nationally and referred to me by his board chair, it was an easy decision. Even though this CEO wasn’t initially convinced, he shared the following in retrospect: 

"I initially was reticent and didn’t understand the need for an executive coach. I had been in my role as CEO for over four years and felt I had matters well in hand. However, as the old saying goes: You sometimes resist what isn’t comfortable.”

Our first meeting was not at all what I expected, primarily because he immediately hijacked the meeting and proceeded to recite his entire career history, hardly stopping to take a breath. It was clear I needed a strategy to get a word in. There was no doubt he had deep experience in the core lines of the business, however it was the confluence of his years as a JAG in the Navy, ultimately making Captain, and his French Canadian roots on the ice hockey rink that had shaped his communication style. This would be a coaching challenge I could not pass up. 

There are two important first steps once I establish a client relationship:

  1. Develop a baseline of data upon which we could shape goals for both personal and professional growth using my Hartman Value Profile ™ tool that enables future measurement of progress. 
  2. Find ways to get embedded into his or her world. Go to the company’s home office and see the executive's environment, get to know each of the other executives, sit in on various meetings and begin to understand the culture, leadership style and hot buttons.

This particular client rarely took a note in meetings and had a mastery-level command of the business stats in real-time, enabling him to spot trouble before anyone else had even gotten their coffee on most mornings. During my visits, we began the day in his office, me with my coffee and him with his standard beverage, one specific brand of iced tea. It usually began with him airing his frustrations and me listening, while jotting a few notes. This is perhaps one of the most valuable benefits for a CEO or key executive - always knowing there is an independent person whose role some days was simply to listen, where anything could be said - frequently unvarnished, often soul-bearing. Yes, although there are always NDAs in place, a signed document does not build the critical foundation of locked-tight confidence and trust. That is earned. 

This client was clearly a leader with many strengths, but one who needed to develop a very new approach to his communication style - one that redirected his impatience and razor sharp business smarts into a newfound willingness to change. He needed to show vulnerability and to enable and hear honest feedback from his team. To be able to accomplish this, he simply needed a guide.  

“Marty is an independent advisor, who will provide frank and neutral advice. This is often impossible to find within the confines of one’s workspace.”

It quickly became clear he suffered from a common C-Suite reality, one that builds walls of loneliness. He was surrounded by colleagues who did not push back or challenge him, afraid to be wrong or terrified of possibly making career-ending mistakes. Bailing Navy sailors out of jail around the world for drunken misconduct or busting the boards for a hockey puck flying on two sharp blades had clearly shaped how he had come to perform his job, only slightly tempered by his enduring and generous commitment to the Jesuit university where he received his undergrad and JD degrees. These life experiences combined with his humble beginnings provided valuable insights as we progressed in our work. He later shared:

“Be prepared to be challenged, you will be entering a hard hat zone. You need to check your ego at the door if you want to reap the benefits of Marty’s extensive years of wisdom and toolkit.”

Over time, we were able to channel his penchant for control, competitiveness and decisiveness into a truly  effective leader whose big heart and personality was beloved by his colleagues for being very deeply vested in their success and the many constituents they served. He found a productive approach to working with his board. He learned it was okay to ask for help, accepting that he could not be the one to “fix” everything and that for others to grow, he needed to let them make mistakes and learn from them with his coaching.

It’s important to note that with almost all coaching engagements, I grow as well. The world of business is rapidly changing as are requirements of the top jobs. This particular engagement sharpened some of my skills and challenged me to explore new strategies and approaches. When he repeated my Hartman assessment from a few years earlier, he gained new and valuable data - statistical proof he had grown both personally and professionally. In many ways, it’s the same kind of reward and motivation a CEO needs and values in the running of the business - a positive statistical trajectory of the key indicators. We’re much better prepared for the next big challenge.

Lastly, the lonely job of a key executive requires a coach who is the constant ear and confidante, any time day or night. The best coaches know that what happens outside the office or normal work hours is as important, if not more important, than what happens at the office. Plus, most don’t have normal work hours. Personal and professional growth are intrinsically linked and as I tell them, “life does not happen on a calendar.”

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