CEO coaching, Big Red Car?
Big Red Car here on a grayish morning. I wonder if the guy who has been praying for rain is happy yet?
Hey, stop praying for rain.
So, the Big Red Car gets a longish email from a pal who gives him a hard time about his subject matter on The Musings of the Big Red Car. Says he wants to hear what a typical coaching process looks like.
To get rid of him, I promise to do that.
I hang out a shingle under the name of The Wisdom of the Campfire because I like the picture of sitting next to a campfire and absorbing wisdom from others gathered next to it. It’s an easy picture as I lived it in places like the DMZ in South Korea or Grafenwohr in Bavaria when I was a young Army officer.
The Wisdom of the Campfire is the imagery of what I do. I want to be that guy at the edge of the campfire, with 33 years of CEO-ing, who can talk you through the process based not on theory, but on real world experience.
CEO coaching – initial contact
Typically, I get an email, a text, or a call from a CEO who is looking for assistance. These calls fall into two distinct categories:
1. The thoughtful CEO who is thinking, “I can do a lot better than I am if I can figure out how to do it.”
I call this the “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear” type CEO.
2. The CEO who is wrestling with a particular issue.
I call this the “my hair is on fire” CEO.
I do no advertising or marketing, so the contact is always from the CEO. I do get a lot of referrals from existing or former CEOs with whom I have worked.
I get a few referrals from VCs. The VCs always have a problem. They never contact me when things are going fine.
Once I agree to work with a CEO who is referred by a VC, I rarely talk to the VC again. My loyalty is only to the CEO.
What happens then, Big Red Car?
First, the Big Red Car listens. Listens. Listens.
There is a long The Wisdom of the Campfire checklist that seeks the basic information on the company and I send it to the CEO, but not until I have had an opportunity to hear what they think.
One of the most sacred of the tenets of CEO coaching is to assign no homework, create no additional burden, to pass no judgments, and to focus on actual deliverables which are battle tested.
Usually, the progress is something like this:
1. CEO gets a clearer handle on Vision, Mission, Strategy, Tactics, Objectives, Values, Culture, and the business engine canvas.
Each of these is a little victory and each of them may already exist in some form or fashion. If so, they get dusted off and updated.
2. The CEO sorts out their own compensation. This is something you wouldn’t think of unless you’d done it a lot of times, but it is a very common element in a CEO getting the operation under control.
This is the kind of thing which a CEO needs to resolve to marshal their energy on the work. If you don’t have a living compensation arrangement, you’re not living.
The deliverable here is an Employment Agreement. You would be surprised at how easy this is, but you have to initiate the conversation with your board of directors. Rarely, will the board initiate this conversation.
You would be surprised at how fair minded boards will be when this subject comes up. I tell CEOs that all the time and they surprise themselves. Search for this topic on this website and you will find a ton of information.
3. The CEO typically has some element of her relationship with her board that needs to be sorted out, streamlined, documented, or discussed. Sometimes, it has to be created from the whole cloth.
Many times it is as simple as a board charter and the creation of the appropriate committees (nominating, compensation, operations, audit) with their own charters.
How board meetings are run – frequency, agenda, length of time, minutes, follow up, independent directors meeting, committee meetings – is always improved.
As you can see, the emphasis is on definitive, measurable improvements, and deliverables.
4. The CEO is constantly dealing with the issue of people. It drives every company.
The coaching focus is on the organization chart – identifying who is needed. The hiring process, the onboarding process (first minute of the first day is the most important minute of the entire relationship), the assignment of initial objectives, the performance appraisal process are all part of this critical issue.
There are a lot deliverables here – organization chart (dollar weighted), job descriptions, objectives (flowing from Strategy and Tactics), and performance appraisal.
As a former CEO, I have all this in the form of exemplars which can get the CEO out of the blocks at full speed.
5. Every CEO is worried about funding, fundraising, burn rate, and break even.
The motivation of a lot of initial contacts is about fundraising.
Fundraising is a process and it is structural. You have to get the Vision right and then develop a way to communicate that Vision through a pitch – pitch deck, one pager, business engine canvas, taxicab pitch, elevator pitch, boardroom pitch, target list.
The one I find CEOs struggling with the most is the creation of the target list. They all want to get out there and start pitching before they have developed a comprehensive target list.
5. There are a set of problems — the horribles — which every CEO deals with — the changing roles of co-founders, the necessity to discipline a top flight manager, the requirement to terminate what had looked to be a first rate team member, but something went terribly wrong. The list is about 25 entries long. Every CEO I have ever met has dealt with this list and most of them have the scars to prove it.
I lend to the CEO my 33 years of CEOing and my 6 years of CEO coaching. I have never been stumped (let me clear, some of the experience fits on the ledger which says, “Never Ever Do This”).
6. Every CEO is dealing with scaling the business. Everybody is growing or wants to grow. It is a short sentence, but it is a big deal.
7. Many CEOs are faced with the consequences of their own success — selling their baby, liquidating their position, somehow monetizing years of work. It is emotional and it is important.
8. Being a CEO is very stressful and can be very draining. One of the things a good CEO coach does is to recognize when their CEO is out on a ledge looking down.
One of the most useful bits of advice I ever give a CEO is this, “That burning sensation in your gut, that sensation the butterflies are growing into condors with sharp talons? Unfortunately, that is NORMAL.”
It is useful and illuminating for CEOs to hear a former 33 year CEO tell them, “That is normal.”
It is also useful to tell them, “You will live through the experience as I did many times. Now, let’s focus on the work.”
9. One of the most important benchmarks for the newly invigorated CEO is an offsite in which the “new” CEO communicates the changes and gets buy-in from the team.
I have seen teams just blossom and the CEO come home from an offsite floating on a cloud. It is miraculous. It is real. It works, but you have to do it.
This is a list of the highlights. Let me give you a real world experience.
Real world experience, Big Red Car?
This is a composite of a number of CEOs with whom I have worked. The circumstances are changed a little to camouflage identities, but some of y’all will recognize yourself. All of you will recognize something.
CEO sends me an email saying, “Hey, I’m looking for a CEO coach.”
“Why?” asks I. The CEO tells me why. I categorize them as either “the student is ready” or “hair on fire.”
We Skype a couple of times and get an idea of what the CEO needs done. I send him the The Wisdom of the Campfire checklist. He says, “Wow.” I say, “One bite at a time is how you eat an elephant.”
In the next year, the CEO runs his company and gets a lot of stuff done — cleans up all the Vision stuff, gets an Employment Agreement on much more generous terms than he imagined, sorts things out with the board, gets the running of board meetings down to a yawn, raises some money, grows the top line, fires a critical member of the team without any bloodshed (turns out it was overdue), and a year later you cannot recognize this CEO.
He is confident where before he was tentative. He can feel it, see it, taste it, smell it, and know it.
The company reflects the same growth as the CEO.
This has happened so many times as to be mythical. The CEO looks back a year later and says, “Who was THAT guy?” meaning himself a year ago.
Here’s the real secret – every improvement (with the exception of the exemplars I furnished) was inside that CEO’s head. I knew where they were. He did not. I knew how to pull them from him. He did not. I could tell him what worked. He didn’t know. But, no mistake, it is in there. This is a journey of self-discovery.
Poetry v prose
It is often said that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. The same is true about CEO development.
Coaching is an exercise in poetry. Running companies is hard written, exacting prose, but your prose will be better if you are whispering a bit of poetry to yourself.
One of my favorite images is driven by this poem (stolen from Guillaume Apollinaire and modified). Imagine a CEO and a CEO coach on the edge of a precipice. They have been working together for a while and this is what happens.
“Come to the edge,” the CEO coach said.
“I can’t, I’m afraid!” the CEO responded.
“Come to the edge,” the CEO said again.”You are ready. I can tell.”
“I can’t, I will fall!” the CEO responded.
“Come to the edge,” the CEO whispered, his hand seeking the CEO’s back.
And so the CEO, having grown to trust the CEO coach, came.
And the CEO coach pushed him.
And the CEO flew.
CEOs with whom I have worked have made magical transformations – they had the magic in them the whole time. I helped them find it.
So, there you have it, dear reader. It is not hard, but it requires some work.
But, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car. Have a great weekend and stop praying for rain, y’all. If I can help you. Drop me an email [firstname.lastname@example.org] or call me [512-656-1383].