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Are You a Coachable CEO?

I’m proud to say that I’ve accomplished some pretty diverse things during my life: winning the U.S. National Squash Championship, completing 12 Ironman Triathlons and qualifying for the world championship in Kona, Hawaii, qualifying for the Boston Marathon, and excelling in three businesses.

I’m also proud to say that I was able to do all of these things because I’m a very coachable person. Once I’ve set my sights on a BIG goal, I rely on pros who will guide me, push me, and hold me accountable for the daily tasks that are going to get me where I want to go. And now that I’ve become a coach myself, I look for that same mix of drive and humility in CEOs and entrepreneurs who want CEO Coaching International to help them take their businesses to the next level.

Unfortunately, not every business leader who wants a coach is truly receptive to the process. When a CEO says one of these four things to me after a pointed question or some constructive criticism, all I hear is, “I am un-coachable and my business is in BIG trouble.”

1. “Nobody knows my business as well as I do.”

Of course that’s true, especially if you’ve gone from tinkering in your basement to the corner office on the top floor. You can’t do a job as demanding as CEO without pouring your heart and soul into the business you’re running, scrutinizing every detail, and molding the company’s vision and values around your own.

But when a CEO starts to feel like they ARE their business, it’s almost impossible to maintain a critical perspective on what is and isn’t working. What the CEO perceives as unique expertise and experience is really just a wall of ego that’s blotting out transformative ideas and solutions to nagging problems. If you aren’t willing to let an entrepreneur coach or trusted mentor break through that wall, your top talent will be the first to go. Profits will soon follow.

2. “I’m too old to make that kind of change.”

This kind of CEO is neglecting a top-level priority: continuous learning. If the CEO isn’t constantly scanning the horizon for the next potential disruption, then who in the company is?

Moreover, if 2020 taught us anything about what it means to be a business leader, it’s that we have to be nimble, open to new ideas, and quick to act. When I look at our clients who did the best job of navigating the pandemic, the moves they made weren’t even all that revolutionary. The pandemic simply accelerated changes in customer acquisition, global supply chain management, and talent recruiting that these forward-thinking leaders were already anticipating.

On the other hand, most of the old dogs that refused to learn new tricks last year got put out to pasture with Blockbuster, Kodak, and Xerox.

When a CEO tells me they’re too old to change, I don’t just worry about their business. I worry about their life outside the business as well. The world has a way of blowing right by people who aren’t committed to expanding their horizons and challenging themselves. If you really think you’re too old to change, then you’re too old to lead and it might be time to retire.

Although, again, without that drive for discovery and reinvention, you’re not going to enjoy retirement either.

3. “My board would never allow me to do that.”

Conflict between a CEO and an overbearing board is common, especially if the CEO is a hired gun. Clashing egos could be an issue. In some cases, the board might be the old dog that’s too set in its ways to let the CEO do the job. And in other cases, the CEO is really telling me that they’re not confident enough in their decision making to present bold ideas that might rock the boat and put their job on the line — even when it’s the right thing to do.

Mark Moses: The world has a way of blowing right by people who aren’t committed to expanding their horizons and challenging themselves.

The board might be the boss, but the CEO has to maintain the authority he needs to execute the board’s vision and keep the business growing. I coach my clients who really can’t get through to a tough board to start by reassessing how everyone is communicating. Try to keep feelings out of the conference room and focus on the cold hard facts. Do your homework. Have the numbers and the subject mastery you need to argue your case. Iron out any chain of command issues that could be disrupting the rules of engagement. Establish clear expectations, benchmarks, and deadlines.

Then go hit them.

4. “Let me run that by mom and dad.”

It’s hard enough just being a CEO. I appreciate all the extra headaches that the CEO of a family-run business has to go through, especially if you’re a second or third-generation leader. What makes these businesses special is also what makes running them so complicated: the history, the complex feelings that related stakeholders have for each other, the blurred lines between family roles and business roles, the challenge of preserving a legacy while pursuing new growth possibilities.

However, when the founders retire and it’s your turn to sit in the BIG chair, you have to learn how to be a loving son or daughter on your own time, and how to be a decisive CEO on the business’ time. This moment of transition is the perfect opportunity for you as the leader to expand your inner circle beyond people you’ll have to see next Christmas. That might mean looking outside of the family to fill key C-suite positions. It could mean hiring a triple-A marketing firm that’s going to reintroduce your brand to a new pool of consumers. Or it could mean letting an entrepreneur coach look under the hood and identify legacy best practices that just aren’t working anymore.

Mom and dad might not like if you shut down an unprofitable pet project or fire a long-time employee who’s been coasting for years. But they’ll respect your leadership more if you stop worrying about approval and keep focusing on what’s best for the business.

So, did any of these statements sound familiar?

Not every CEO is coachable. And many CEOs cycle in and out of a coachable mindset depending on what’s happening in their business and life. But if you are able to confront these mental roadblocks, swallow a little bit of your pride, and see your business from a few new angles, you might just build a relationship that will help you make BIG happen for years to come.


About Mark Moses

Mark Moses is the Founding Partner of CEO Coaching International and the Amazon Bestselling author of Make BIG Happen. Mark has won Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award and the Blue Chip Enterprise award for overcoming adversity. His last company ranked #1 Fastest-Growing Company in Los Angeles as well as #10 on the Inc. 500 of fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. He has completed 12 full distance Ironman Triathlons including the Hawaii Ironman World Championship 5 times.

Mark Moses
FOUNDING PARTNER & CEO

About CEO Coaching International

CEO Coaching International works with CEOs and their leadership teams to achieve extraordinary results quarter after quarter, year after year. Known globally for its success in coaching growth-focused entrepreneurs to meaningful exits, CEO Coaching International has coached more than 1,000 CEOs and entrepreneurs in more than 60 countries and 45 industries. The coaches at CEO Coaching International are former CEOs, presidents, or executives who have made BIG happen. The firm’s coaches have led double-digit sales and profit growth in businesses ranging in size from startups to over $10 billion, and many are founders that have led their companies through successful eight, nine, and ten-figure exits. Companies working with CEO Coaching International for two years or more have experienced an average EBITDA CAGR of 67.8% during their time as a client, nearly four times the U.S. average and a revenue CAGR of 25.5%, more than twice the U.S. average.

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