Advising CEOs

Advising CEOs sounds like a dream job. The executive office is viewed as the center of power, home to some of the most charismatic men and women in business. But, over the past decade of helping CEOs, I’ve come to realize that coaching a CEO can be as perplexing as it is rewarding.

The role of a CEO adviser is unique because the role of the CEO is unique. MOST advisers have complimentary relationships with their clients, breathing the same air, grappling with the same challenges. In business, no air is as rarefied, and no challenges are as complex, as at the top. I watch CEOs becoming increasingly beleaguered under pressure from boards, investors, special interest groups, the press, and politicians. For many, the job is all consuming.

Consider these distinctions of the job:

No one else in the organization is so starved for unbiased information. While CEOs understand in principle that everyone who seeks their attention has an agenda, they don’t always know a bias when they see one.

No one else so needs to hear hard truths. Yet in the CEO’s presence, people are guarded, unwilling to raise difficult topics. 

No one else is such a lightning rod for criticism of the business, with all the anger, frustration, and occasionally outright humiliation that such a role entails.

No one else is the final arbiter in so many vital business decisions and, consequently, so vulnerable to self-doubt.

No one else is the subject of so many statements beginning “No one else.” Within the company, the CEO has no true peers, no colleagues in whom s/he can unreservedly confide. The job often brings intense and profound loneliness.”


Secrets of Greatness

None of us become great without hard work. It’s nice to believe that if you find the field where you’re naturally gifted, you’ll be great from day one, but it just doesn’t happen. There’s no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice.

Reinforcing that no-free-lunch finding is vast evidence that even the most accomplished people need around ten years of hard work before becoming world-class, a pattern so well established researchers call it the ten-year rule.

And as John Horn of the University of Southern California and Hiromi Masunaga of California State University observe, “The ten-year rule represents a very rough estimate, and most researchers regard it as a minimum, not an average.” In many fields (music, literature) elite performers need 20 or 30 years’ experience before hitting their zenith.

So greatness isn’t handed to anyone; it requires a lot of hard work. Yet that isn’t enough, since many people work hard for decades without approaching greatness or even getting significantly better. What’s missing?

For most people, work is hard enough without pushing even harder. Those extra steps are so difficult and painful they almost never get done. That’s the way it must be. If great performance were easy, it wouldn’t be rare. Which leads to possibly the deepest question about greatness. While experts understand an enormous amount about the behavior that produces great performance, they understand very little about where that behavior comes from.

The authors of one study conclude, “We still do not know which factors encourage individuals to engage in deliberate practice.” Or as University of Michigan business school professor Noel Tichy puts it after 30 years of working with managers, “Some people are much more motivated than others, and that’s the existential question I cannot answer – why.”

The critical reality is that we are not hostage to some naturally granted level of talent. We can make ourselves what we will. Strangely, that idea is not popular. People hate abandoning the notion that they would coast to fame and riches if they found their talent. But that view is tragically constraining, because when they hit life’s inevitable bumps in the road, they conclude that they just aren’t gifted and give up.

Maybe we can’t expect most people to achieve greatness. It’s just too demanding. But the striking, liberating news is that greatness isn’t reserved for a preordained few. It is available to you and to everyone.