How To Go From CEO To CE-Coach In Four Steps

Ben Levitan, Forbes Councils Member

The role of the CEO has changed significantly in the past few years. Pandemic-related stresses, supply chain disruptions, inflation and the rise of the human-centered workplace have all contributed to the demand that CEOs evolve their leadership approach to serve their teams in a coaching capacity, rather than as commander in chief. However, CEOs are often underprepared to provide this type of leadership development and address changing markets and circumstances.

A common first response to a need for improving team performance is for CEOs to attempt to serve as leadership coaches themselves. However, the Center for Leadership Development and Coaching at Stanford University indicates that only one-third of CEOs have received independent coaching for themselves that would help them develop their leaders and adapt to rapidly evolving business environments. In addition to a lack of training, the DNA of a CEO is often at odds with what is needed to serve as a coach.

For example, CEOs are usually trained and rewarded to view business problems as separate from people. Few—though more, in recent years—have risen to the top role because of their empathy, team building or people skills. Alternatively, coaches are trained to view people as the key to business problems and are skilled in deep listening, trust building and transformative conflict resolution.

To help CEOs become better leaders who can not only drive toward “hard” business objectives but also inspire their people and develop the leaders at their company, here are four actions a CEO can take to get started.

1. Deepen self-awareness.

The first step to becoming a great coach is deepening your internal and external self-awareness. It is crucial to understand and be able to evaluate the impact of your actions from your own perspective, but also to have a clear view of the way your actions impact others from their perspective. This awareness can help a CEO understand their communication style, conflict style, personality, strengths and areas of opportunity, which can be informative in working in the role of coach with leaders. Through behavioral assessments, journaling or working one-on-one with an executive coach, a CEO can begin this process.

2. Become a seeker.

CEOs are trained to follow Occam’s razor in assessing a situation and making decisions. By simplifying and looking for an easy answer, extraneous facts are ignored, a clear decision can be made and the CEO leads the organization forward. However, when it comes to people, answers are often complex, requiring time and consistent engagement—something a CEO can’t always provide. To avoid the “solver” trap, a CEO-as-coach should become a seeker of information, approaching the situation with curiosity, an open mind and questions that help the individual see things differently and come to new conclusions.

3. Dedicate time.

The CEO-as-coach process often breaks down because the CEO is being asked to simply listen and explore, not to decide or act. Listening takes time, and CEOs are constantly juggling packed calendars. The CEO-as-coach intentionally sets aside dedicated time for multiple conversations with a leader to listen deeply, consider the issues and help carve a path forward.

4. Neutralize the power dynamic.

By exposing uncertainty, frustration or despair to the CEO, a leader puts themselves in a vulnerable situation. In the absence of clear communication about confidentiality, expectations and ground rules for a coaching engagement, a CEO’s intentions can be misinterpreted given the power dynamics at play. Successful CEOs-as-coaches start the first coaching conversation by establishing ground rules, including a written set of guidelines that clarify the intention of simple questions and deeper exploration. Even with a commitment in place, the CEO must continually recognize that they are “judge and jury” and act accordingly.

CEOs who successfully shift their mindset and behaviors to serve as coaches begin with an awareness of themselves, strengthen their emotional intelligence and communication styles by becoming effective active listeners, learn to ask great questions, dedicate the time and establish clear guidelines to help neutralize the power dynamics inherent with the title.