By Greg Ast
They say “it’s lonely at the top”. Most leaders of any organization will agree with that statement. There are often few people that a leader can truly confide in, ask questions of, or seek advice from. There are usually several “yes” people around to tell them what they think they want to hear, but not necessarily what they need to hear. Gaining candid feedback and being held accountable as a leader is one of the most important requirements for any President/CEO.
More valuable than having just an “open ear” to lean on is finding someone or a group that will hold the leader accountable. These should be individuals, not just available when you need occasional advice, who regularly schedule time to ensure you’re doing what you committed to do. Pressing, even pushing, you out of your comfort zone to make tough decisions, complete the “important but not urgent” and follow through on the commitments you’ve made professionally and personally.
Most good leaders have access to these three specific resources for both accountability and advice: board of directors or advisors, peer groups, and executive coaching. It is not uncommon for a leader to use more than one resource at a time. Let’s explore each.
1. Board: Whether a legal board of directors or an advisory board, the role of the board is to represent shareholder interests and hold the President/CEO accountable. A competent and dedicated board is arguably the best resource to ensure the President/CEO is successful in accomplishing strategic and organizational goals.
There are two advantages of having a board over the other two resources mentioned. First, the Board is focused specifically on the success of the organization and leadership team. While a peer group must balance the time and needs of perhaps 8-15 different leaders, every discussion with a board is focused on the same President/CEO. Second, a strong board will bring multiple individuals with specific skills and experience that align with the business strategies and leader’s needs. Multiple advisors, with their ability to bring different perspectives, provide an advantage over one coaching resource.
2. Peer Groups: Many strengths of a board can also apply to a peer group setting. This different accountability perspective is appealing to many leaders. Since a peer group balances the time, views, and needs of a diverse group, the President/CEO is able to receive advice and accountability while at the same time giving it to others. This is a different dynamic than a board where the leader is the central focal point in every meeting. Some leaders enjoy the social aspect of interacting with their peers and find this time also rewarding.
In some peer groups (i.e. Vistage), the group moderator also serves as an individual coach to the leader, bringing that value as well. A good group moderator/facilitator usually is the catalyst in a self-sustaining and highly effective group.
The biggest disadvantage to a peer group is that leaders may not specifically choose their peer members. They may have input and even “veto” power, but peer members are typically not chosen for their alignment with one company’s strategy in mind.
3. Executive Coaching: An increasingly popular and well-established resource is the executive coach. This individual typically meets on a regular basis with a leader to discuss goals, accountability to results, management challenges and even personal issues. The strength of a good coach is that they can address more challenging issues in-depth. The confidentiality and accountability factors are very important in a successful coaching relationship. Coaches can help executives during very difficult times as the leader struggles with tough decisions. Of course the detriment of the coaching relationship is that there is only one perspective. The board and peer group offer the value of several unique and distinct experiences and views of the members. Executive coaches, especially if inexperienced, could steer a leader in the wrong direction.
Regardless of which resource a leader chooses, the important point is that they fully leverage the value of those who are truly invested in their success. Many successful leaders take advantage of two or even all three of these resource options.
As leaders, consider which option might be the best fit for you and your organization. Talk to other leaders about their experiences. Research peer groups like Vistage, YPO or EO. Network for executive coaches that work with leaders of organizations similar in size to yours. Often industry associations can give direction in these areas as well as provide potential peer group resources.
And just as you might hear from a board or coach: “If it’s important to your success — do it!”