When people hear that I coach executives, they often ask, “When you’re working with CEOs, what are the common themes that you come across?”
Let me start by saying that no two CEOs are alike, nor are their specific viewpoints, challenges, gifts, or struggles. However, as much as the uniqueness of one’s own humanity requires a personalized approach, there are some themes that are common to high performers and CEOs.
Theme One - Most CEOs are high achievers with a harsh inner critic.
High achievement and harsh inner criticism tend to go hand in hand. As one CEO shared with me, "How can I be assured that I will continue to attain great heights if I’m not militant with myself personally? If I start being too nice to myself internally, I will get complacent, right?”
Most of us have a story that we must be a certain way or behave a certain way, or something bad could happen. This can have us living life as a win-lose. Can you hear it in the prior example? I can achieve great success, but at a cost of being strict with myself. In coaching, we explore what a win-win would look like. What would be possible if you could be a high achiever AND be kind/compassionate to yourself? Identifying these win-lose dynamics and converting them in to win-win’s is a natural consequence of working with a coach.
Theme Two - Much of CEOs’ identity gets wrapped up in what they do which makes it difficult to step away from work.
Success can be addictive. When we are great at something, we tend to keep doing it because, let’s face it, it’s fun to be good at something. However, there can be an automaticity to this way of being that can come at the expense of other things. Namely, we get our sense of value from what we do or don’t accomplish at work. This can have many consequences; people become workaholics, people work themselves to a nub, people constantly put off family time in service of work, work becomes a thing they can’t turn off, work-life balance becomes impossible….to name a few.
One of the biggest challenges for people who resonate with this is that their sense of self-worth is extrinsically generated, where they only feel good about themselves when they are performing at a high level at work. Their sense of feeling good about themselves is dictated by the outside world and they often struggle finding peace in themselves. This can make it hard to retire, move on to another chapter in life, spend more time taking care of their health/well-being/family, etc. Much of the work I do with clients is supporting them in creating high levels of self-esteem, which is code for self-love, apart from the success they find at work.
Theme Three – CEOs thinking other people are wired like them.
Most executives are self-starters and don’t need to be reminded to do their work. They typically are well equipped to take responsibility for themselves and demonstrate a high degree of ownership in what they do. These ways of being typically come naturally as they are vital to creating an environment of success in their place of business. Many executives can be dumbfounded when they meet people who don’t bring the same work ethic or level of responsibility and have a difficult time accepting that people are wired differently.
This issue can create a breakdown in communication and/or in relationship with members of their team/staff. It’s common for the executive to feel “burdened” by this experience, leading to heightened levels of stress and a propensity to work long hours and/or micromanage underperforming employees. As a result, the CEO can feel stuck and at the effect of their employees and/or work schedule.
Fundamentally, the opportunity here is to help the CEO get clear about the kind of life they wish to have – inside and outside of work. To create this experience, there is both a “being” and “doing” element that needs to be addressed. The “being” component involves shifting one’s mindset/expectations that result in the desired experience; the “doing” component is about taking actions and implementing structures that make the desired outcome a predictable one. By realizing that they are responsible for how their internal experience goes, they are empowered to be the change they seek.
Executives hire coaches because they want to experience life in a different way. The challenge for executives is the willingness to put down their belief system in service of “bringing a beginner’s mind” to the coaching process. Being that their belief system has gotten them to the level of success they are currently living, it’s an active practice of choosing to trust the process of coaching which may feel counter-intuitive to what the executive thinks should happen next. This is the gift of coaching. We bring a different conversation that can generate life altering results.