CEO Coaching — Zone of Safety

Big Red Car here.  Up early this morning to get ready to enjoy another day in the paradise that is the ATX.  Going to be cold today BRRRR!

It is 35F right now and only going to be 51F later today.

So we’re back on our rant about CEO coaching.  We’ll give it a rest soon but today we’re going to talk about the mythical Zone of Safety!  The Zone of Safety is a critical element in any healthy CEO coaching arrangement.  It is essential.

Never confide in anyone who can FIRE you

The Big Red Car has told you time and again a very simple truth.  Street truth.  CEO truth.

Never confide your problems in anyone who can fire you!

This means, beloved CEOs, do not confide in Board members, venture capitalists, investors who might translate your innermost thoughts into a threat to their interests and therefore fire you to protect their interests.  This shit happens all the time, Grasshopper.   Know it and be forewarned.  The vast majority of startup CEOs do not survive.  Don’t become a statistic.  Be a survivor.

Oh, the Big Red Car knows how touchy feely and peachy every Board member can be when things are going swimmingly but just let them know you have some misgivings about their investment and it’s Katie Bar The Door.  And you will find yourself on the other side of that door, Old Sport.

Yes, and the Big Red Car knows how nice and cuddly all the venture capitalists have all become but they are still guys investing OPM and they are loyal to the Benjamins and not much else.  Say the wrong thing to them and they will be cutting your underwear up for scraps.  If you are lucky you will not be in your drawers when they are wielding the pinking shears.

Loose lips sink ships.

OK, Big Red Car, who can I talk to?

CEOs have problems which are unique to their position.  When the Big Red Car uses the term “CEOs”, he means founders, entrepreneurs and partners who are investing their life force in starting a company and developing a product.  The risk takers.  The change makers.  The innovators.  You, Old Sport.

Being a CEO and having problems is the Promised Land.  It will happen.  I promise you.  It is what you bargained for and it is what makes you unique.  It is what separates you from the rest of civilization.  You can’t help yourself.

Well then, yes, here is the nub of the problem — who can a CEO talk to about the things that really keep her up at night, Big Red Car?

1.  Old school advice — talk to your spouse or parental units if they have the requisite experience, knowledge, instincts to be helpful.  Sometimes all a CEO really needs is an opportunity to vent.

2.  Avant garde new wave approach — develop a strong relationship with an experienced CEO coach who can rent you his years of experience to be able to pay down the mortgage on your problems.  The Boss was a CEO for over 33 years and has been advising other CEOs on such matters for years.

Bottom line, confide in someone who is not inclined to fire you and who clearly does not have the power to fire you.

[Pro tip:  Even when you do not think that your spouse can provide the resolution or advice you need, always — ALWAYS — keep them informed as to what is going on in your head.  Your beloved needs to know that you do not need a visit from the in-laws just when the Board is turning the thumbscrews or your CTO has disappeared somewhere in Mexico.  This is essential as you have a shared future and you can often convert this into a damn good home cooked meal and a foot massage.  Remember to reciprocate, Old Sport.  When you go to the pay window this will all be figured into the accounts and final settlement.]

Zone of Safety

An experienced and competent CEO coach provides a Zone of Safety in which the first rule is absolute and total confidentiality.  No exceptions, no excuses.  The CEO must have confidence that her utterances are not going to become the next Twitter tsunami or that it will filter back to her team, Board or investors.

The CEO coach has to be a good listener and allow the CEO to frame and describe the issue.  A damn good listener.  OK to ask a few questions to size up the nature of the problem but mostly it requires the CEO coach to STFU and listen.  Lots of CEO coaches can’t do this.  Find one who can.

The CEO coach has to coax the entire matter out of the CEO.  Part of the Zone of Safety is the right of the CEO to just vent.  The CEO coach is not doing anyone a favor by releasing only part of the irritant or problem.  Get the whole damn thing out and let it flop on the table.

When the CEO coach thinks the CEO has laid out the problem, the CEO coach should “brief back” what they heard.

“Brilliant CEO, this is what I heard you say.  Have I got that right?”

This simple brief back is essential to effective communication.  It saves time to ensure that both parties are working on the same problem.  It is also good for the CEO to hear the problem as described by another person to ensure that the size is quantified.  An experienced CEO coach will immediately be able to tell you whether you are dealing with Gamma, Beta, Alpha radiation or just the latest LED light.  Size up the problem.

The CEO is best served when the CEO coach is not even tempted to be judgmental or to react until asked to react.

The Boss has had some CEOs whose burdens have been so intense that the CEO has burst into tears.  Not the overwhelming norm to be sure but not even the least bit remarkable.  If you feel a tear coming up rest assured you are not breaking virgin sod, Old Sport.  It happens to all of us eventually.

Hell, The Boss has wanted to shed a tear from time to time himself and certainly when he was a CEO there were frustrations so great that he felt the need to relieve stress.

[One day get The Boss to tell you about the summer he swam a mile every single day in Barton Springs because he thought his head would crack if he did not apply the soothing and cooling waters to his troubled pate.  That was a tough time indeed.  He was involved in a huge lawsuit that was ultimately resolved in the favor of his company including having the defendants deliver a big check, their dogs and children to The Boss as well as having to perform on a very good contract and pay his legal fees.  It was an extraordinary mind fuck for a long time.   But he survived and so will you.  That’s what you get when you rent his experience.  All of the learning, none of the pain.]

We have been talking about the nature of a healthy and productive CEO coaching arrangement in the following posts:

CEO Coaching — Experience

CEO Coaching — Chemistry

CEO Coaching — Relationship

CEO Coaching — Sounding Board

We have only a couple more such posts and then back to other things.

If you think you could use some CEO coaching or an exploratory discussion, call The Boss at 512-656-1383 or email him at [email protected].  Tell him the Big Red Car sent you.  Maybe I can get a paint job out of it?  [Haha, this is serious stuff, Big Red Car, STFU already.  Everything is not about you.  Sheesh!]

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway?  I’m just a Big Red Car.  Be good to yourself for the rest of the year.  The year of 2014 is going to be YOUR year, Old Sport.  I promise it.