I was with a pal of mine named Charlie — no, his name is not really Charlie — and I received a call from a former CEO coaching client who is a big deal these days. BIG DEAL.
I say to Charlie, “Let me talk to this guy.” We’re sitting under a grape arbor at a restaurant drinking expensive latte that Charlie insisted on rather than good, old fashioned black coffee. Charlie has forgotten more about the CEO business than I will ever know and I was at it for 33+ years.
I start listening to the guy, the CEO — giving off the vibe of his hair on fire. Burning hair has a distinctive odor you can smell if you have 5G cell service.
“Take your time and tell me exactly what the problem is,” says I. I listen for a long time with a few “got it” type comments thrown in.
When the CEO finishes, I ask, “What else?” He remembers a few other things.
During this convo, I have whipped out my notebook and pen and taken some notes. I am sipping on my latte under the grape arbor — a pergola. The sun is on my face, a slight breeze is cooling me, I am alive and well in Austin By God Texas. Life is good. My CEO, a former client, has called me with a problem and I think I can help him. Is this a great country or what?
“What else?” I ask. He adds one last thing.
Then, I say, “Let me say back to you what I heard you say.” I look at my notes. I recite what I think the problem is, but I have condensed it a little and re-organized it. I’ve had a little time to consider this. I am good at re-organizing things like this into short sentences and orderly paragraphs. [This is called “brief back” a technique I learned at Ranger School more than 40 years ago.]
“Did I get that right?” asks I.
“Yes. What do I do?” queries the CEO.
“What do you see as the best possible outcome?” I ask, to which the CEO answers. It is a glorious outcome. I nod my approval.
“What do you see as the worst possible outcome?” I ask, to which the CEO replies. It is a nasty outcome, a beastly outcome, and will cost a lot of money. I shake my head in disapproval.
“What do you think is likely to actually happen? What does your gut tell you?” I ask, to which the CEO responds. Seems like a winner to me.
“So what do you think?” asks the CEO who already sounds better for having gotten it off his chest and sharing it with a sympathetic ear. [I operate on a “Not my circus, not my monkey” approach to problems. I don’t take ownership, but I am always helpful, nigh on to sympathetic, surely empathetic.]
“How big a problem — on a scale of 1 to 10 — do you see this? You betting your job or the company on it?”
“No, but it’s a big deal. Could be real bad. Board will be pissed.”
“Will you and the company both survive?” I ask.
“Yes. But it’s a big deal. Like I said, the board.”
We thrash it out for another five minutes, after which the CEO miraculously says he knows what he wants to do. I think I hear angels singing in the background, though I cannot identify them as either seraphim or cherubim. There’s too much road noise even in the pergola which is quiet.
He thanks me and I return to Charlie who has been listening this whole time. He even got us a refill on our lattes (that’s at about $4.25/latte) as I was drinking mine as I spoke to the CEO.
“You know what you just did there, hoss?” says Charlie.
“No, tell me.”
“You listened all the way to the . . . . . end, before you started solving the problem. That old boy knew what he had to do. He just needed a first class listener, one of those sounding board type persons and he needed some organized, adult conversation. You always were a good listener.”
This last part is a joke. I am the worst listener in the world, except when I am in my CEO coaching mode, then I listen to the . . . . . end.
I listened. I restated the problem to make damn sure I knew the problem. I didn’t offer any solution. I plumbed the depth of the possible solutions. I found out what the stakes were. I made damn sure the CEO knew everybody and the company would survive. I listened as he figured out the solution. He. Figured. Out. The. Solution. I was an innocent bystander. Well, not really innocent, but you get the idea.
He had the answer in his head the whole time. I helped him find it, but it was his solution, not mine. [Let me honest here — sometimes the CEO doesn’t have the answer in his head, so I do make some suggestions that I have deployed a few hundred times. This is why you hire former CEOs to advise you. Pro tip.]
If you can do that by yourself — which experienced CEOs can do all the time — you do not need a CEO coach. If not, find somebody who has been a CEO for a long time and talk to them.
An experienced CEO — 25 years + — can talk you down off the ledge if they will listen to the . . . . . END.
This is how problems are solved in the real world with real CEOs running real companies. It is easy if you remember to do it.
And, that dear reader, is how the cow ate the cabbage on that particular day under the pergola at Texas French Bread on 29th Street in Austin By God Texas in the year 2019 of Our Lord, wherein my pal Charlie bought me two lattes. Be well and root for Clemson tonight. [I have LSU in a romp.]