5 things you have to relearn after becoming a CEO coach
There are always a few bumps in the road to becoming a CEO coach. Once former executives settle into their new reality, they often find there are some lessons from previous roles that they now have to relearn.
Vistage Chairs Kurt Graves and Steve Johnson both went through the transition from company leadership to mentoring practices. Both emerged on the other side at the helm of thriving (and growing) CEO advisory groups. Here are five lessons they gleaned along the way.
1. Renovating Your Ego
One major stumbling block CEOs might face in the transition to executive coaching is the shift to a service-oriented mindset. As a coach, they are no longer the boss; instead, they’re advising others on how to be better bosses.
Doing that requires a certain degree of humility and a need to check one’s ego — or at least, as Graves puts it, to renovate it. “You can’t ask people to ruthlessly challenge the assumptions in their lives if you haven’t done it yourself,” he says.
Honesty, vulnerability, and trust are all key to building a thriving mentor-mentee relationship, which can be impossible to achieve if ego takes up too much space in the room.
Part of submerging one’s ego is never violating a trust, says Johnson. “You know when you are truly a ‘trusted advisor’ when your member tells you something no one else knows. I’ve learned about sickness, divorce, addictions, and family troubles before anyone else because I was the only person they trusted to tell their story to.”
Johnson notes that trust is precious and can never be violated. “While I always encourage them to bring the issue to the group, sometimes it takes months for them to develop the vulnerability necessary to do that. Until that time, I have to keep the confidence sacred, or else I lose all credibility forever.”
“Another thing that I had to learn was that I was not ultimately responsible for the success of my members’ companies,” Johnson adds. Though his advice frequently proves invaluable, the wins that result belong to the members themselves.
Without ego in the way, both Johnson and Graves find pride and fulfillment in taking a backseat, while still recognizing when they are needed. “I get joy out of sitting back and watching my groups as they’re working through issues,” Graves says. “Then if they get off track, I’ll insert my personality at the table.”
2. Keeping A Routine
Another big change as one shifts to coaching is the size of the operation. Former executives go from having teams of people to get the work done to running a whole coaching group (often, more than one) single-handedly.
When unbound from the built-in structure of a large organization, the best way to keep from getting overwhelmed is to rebuild a routine.
As a former naval officer, Johnson is familiar with the benefits of a regimented schedule. Graves, too, keeps meticulous spreadsheets, and recommends setting aside certain days each month for certain tasks, whether that be administrative work, financial bookkeeping, or anything else that needs doing.
“Every month has a rhythm, and the rhythm has to be followed,” Graves says. And while sometimes that means carrying over the organizational systems from jobs past, it can also mean adapting old practices to fit the unique demands of a coaching gig.
3. Going With Your Gut
Coaching is often a much less precise art than running a business. For CEOs, many decisions can be based on hard data and laid out in well-curated spreadsheets. But for coaches, the answers aren’t so simple — and the coach may have to make a leap.
“It takes a lot of courage to coach. There are times when you just have to say it,” Graves says, referring to the need to deliver hard truths. “If it’s going to hit like lightning bolts, you just need to say it softly.”
The value of an executive coach comes from lived experience, the wisdom they’ve gained throughout their career. It’s that wisdom which coaches must draw on.
“I always say that as a coach, when your best player is having a bad day, listen very carefully,” Johnson says. “If something is going on, find out what it is.” For Johnson, this strategy has unearthed various points of conflict that he has then been able to address and resolve. Recognizing that kind of situation takes practice — and no small amount of intuition.
4. Embracing Silence
Being an executive coach means a lot of one-on-one time with clients or peer advisory group members. In those sessions, “the three most important rules are to listen, listen, and listen,” Johnson says. That differs from a CEO’s usual impulse to lead the charge, a characteristic especially common among individuals with big personalities.
“The thing that I’ve found is that my job is not to guide my members. It’s to be a mirror for them,” Johnson says. “Ultimately, you want them to grow and do the work and figure it out for themselves.”
One tool for coaches to keep in their toolbox is the power of asking a question and waiting in silence, however long it may take, for the answer. Patience and a willingness to sit with discomfort are sometimes essential to unearthing the truths clients know, but might not want to admit.
“I’m in the game of getting ‘aha’ moments for people and helping them to dig underneath that and make commitments,” Graves says. “I bring accountability — that’s different than having to make the decision and drive the results.”
5. Digging Deeper
Finally, one of the most significant characteristics of an outstanding executive coach is a willingness to move beyond a business-oriented mindset. For Graves and Johnson, it has proven more effective to approach their mentees’ problems with a holistic, person-based strategy.
“The transition for me probably came when I stopped focusing on growing the business and started focusing on doing everything I could, one conversation at a time, to make it valuable for the person,” Graves says.
That means addressing emotional and personal roadblocks alongside occupational ones. This can represent new ground for former executives who were used to expecting work-life separation while pursuing the bottom line.
Learning how to connect on a deeper level with mentees, however, fosters growth on both sides. “I became much more sensitive and empathetic and much less judgmental,” Johnson says. His statement is another proof point that, although the relearning process can be difficult, the personal growth that ensues can also offer great reward.