CEO fears: ‘I can’t trust others with my secrets & strategies’
Executives spend their days leading people, making decisions and solving tough problems. But the life of a CEO can be lonely.
CEOs fear that if they share too much or the wrong thing, they could risk it leaking to competitors. If they share a fear or insecurity, will other people judge them? Will they lose the confidence of their peers?
Wayne Coffey understands these fears. Now a CEO coach based in Maryland, Coffey first joined a Vistage group 27 years ago to get some honest feedback from other executives in non-competing industries.
Back then, Coffey was a new executive facing a challenging set of circumstances. There was a conflict between him and his company’s CEO. Coffey later learned the CEO was embezzling money from the business.
Coffey spilled his guts to his group about his challenges, trusting the confidentiality agreement required in all Vistage groups. Though it was difficult, Coffey says that being open with his group helped him get through one of the toughest moments of his career.
Later, Coffey’s group guided him through starting his own agency. Coffey saw so much value in sharing problems with a group that he now leads groups of executives as a Vistage Chair.
Many executives like Coffey have learned that peer advisory groups give CEOs the rare opportunity to share their issues with other executives. And those groups can provide invaluable feedback that can help them develop into better leaders.
“In groups like this, you’re getting an unbiased opinion from somebody who is in the same position as you,” says Coffey. “You can trust that they have your best interest at heart.”
A Transformation Can Happen
Carla Corkern agrees that sharing with groups can give executives an edge. But she also knows that sharing can be tough for someone who worked their way up to being an executive.
Now a Vistage Chair in Bainbridge Island, Washington, Corkern first joined Vistage a year after being asked to step into her first role as an interim CEO. It was in 2008 — in the middle of the financial crisis, no less — and she was trying to figure out how to run a big company for the first time as the financial market fell apart.
With her group, Corkern shared fears, frustrations, and mistakes. She also shared that she felt stuck in her role.
Corkern learned to trust her group fully after a shocking moment of honesty from a fellow group member. After another meeting where she complained of feeling trapped, a groupmate pulled Corkern aside. She had money from selling her previous company, he said, so why not quit if you feel trapped? Or at least find positive reasons to be there. “You have to ask yourself why you keep doing it,” she recalls him saying.
Corkern felt furious, nearly quitting the group. How dare he tell her to quit? But the question of why she’s leading the company got under her skin.
Eventually, she saw that her groupmate was right — she rededicated herself to the role and continued to lead as CEO for eight years. She also made a conscious effort to cut down on complaining, both in her mind and within the culture at work.
In leading her groups, Corkern has continued to see the power of letting other executives see you, hear your true issues, and give you feedback even when the feedback is painful.
“There are things others see about you that you don’t see,” Corkern says. “When other group members hold up that mirror up to you, that’s when transformation can happen.”
For executives interested in finding a group, here are three tips for finding the best fit.
Confidentiality is a Must
Before each meeting, Coffey has all his members read Vistage’s confidentiality pledge. He believes that confidentiality is the linchpin of why peer advisory groups work. He’s never had a leak from his Vistage groups in nearly three decades.
“The only way to build trust is to know that what’s said in the group stays confidential,” Coffey says. “As a Chair, I have to make it very clear that if anybody breaks confidentiality, they’re done. There’s no second chance.”
In addition to groups that promise confidentiality, executives should look for groups with shared values.
Executives should meet with the group leader and group members and attend a meeting if the group will allow it. Coffey says that he allows potential members to visit the group, though they aren’t allowed to join during confidential portions. If executives attend meetings, he says they should ask everyone questions and watch how the group interacts.
Comfort in Sharing Through Noncompetition
In Vistage groups, none of the members are competitors. This allows group members to be comfortable speaking frankly about sensitive issues without worrying that it could hurt their company.
And Corkern says that restricting competitors goes beyond business. Once, a member told her that he didn’t feel comfortable with his wife’s best friend’s husband joining a group — the member wouldn’t feel as comfortable sharing personal issues. And personal issues are a big part of group discussions, so Corkern tried to help this man find a different group from hers.
When group members are allowed to share vulnerably and without fear of leaks or judgment, massive growth can happen. But this growth will remain out of reach if executives are too afraid to share.
Find a Group that Relates
Sometimes, the best way to relate to an executive from a different industry is to simply share a conversation and a drink.
After meetings with Coffey, his group members stay to drink a glass of wine and more conversation. Some have formed partnerships as goal buddies, helping to hold each other accountable outside of meetings too. None are in the same industry, but all have found ways to relate together and share insights.
“There’s nothing like having a glass of wine with somebody and feeling uncomfortable,” Coffey says. “If you build the group well, it almost becomes like a family that cares for one other.”
Coffey says that many of the issues executives face are common. Executives want to know how they can grow their business, how they can keep customers satisfied, and how they can hire new talent. When they can apply cross-industry feedback to these issues, CEOs can often forge new paths of growth for their businesses.
And even when issues are specific, expertise from other industries can be helpful.
While leading a healthcare company, Corkern met a commercial refrigeration maintenance executive who helped her reduce operating costs. He knew that she was overspending on maintenance and helped her find a different way. She’s seen this scenario play out multiple times, as a group member and Chair.
“Usually, somebody in the group will know something that will give you a little bit more than you came in with,” Corkern says.
Category: Personal Development
Tags: executive development, Peer Advantage, peer advisory groups