This week I have been asked to talk to a group of senior executives about what we see when we are working with and coaching CEOs. One of the organisers was quite explicit, “They want to know what the great people do, and they want to know what’s blocking them from getting there.”

Research suggests that CEOs can account for 45% of a company’s performance. According to McKinsey, only three out of five new CEOs live up to expectations in the first 18 months in the role.

How CEOs think, behave and perform is of the upmost importance

The first thing we see is that CEOs are an increasingly stressed, anxious and lonely set of individuals. More and more they are turning to external executive coaches as sounding boards and are key to making better decisions and maximising performance.

A while back, working with some other coaches, we identified seven areas which most frequently came up in our coaching as the blockers for our clients rising to the top. We described them in a way that spelt: LEADING.

  • LOOKING like a leader
  • EMPOWERING and delegating
  • AWARENESS and self-awareness to improve yourself
  • DELIVERING things that matter
  • IMPACT – Communicate with brevity and clarity
  • NURTURING and inspiring your people
  • GAME CHANGING – Adapting your style and communications to treat different types of people in different ways

CEO excellence

But there is a lot more expected from CEOs when they are in the top jobs. What got you here, won’t get you there! McKinsey mined 25 years of data from 7,500 CEOs to come up with a model for CEO excellence.

They came up with the following “Big Six”

  1. Do Only What You Can Do – Manage time, choose authenticity, guard against hubris.
  2. Focus on Beating the Odds – Refocus what winning means. Make bold moves early. Stay active.
  3. Centre on the Long Term Why – Look at the big picture. Prioritise and shape. Build resilience ahead of the crisis.
  4. Manage Performance and Health – Match talent to value.  Go beyond employee engagement. Combine speed with stability.
  5. Put Dynamics Ahead of Mechanics – Show resolve. Defend against biases. Ensure coherence.
  6. Help the Board, Help the Business – Work with the board. Think beyond the meeting. Promote a forward-looking agenda.

This week, amid trying to answer the CEO question, a journalist asked me another cracker. “Did I think that executive coaches were becoming the new priests?”

I wasn’t sure about that. But I was sure that the good ones are becoming increasingly valuable to helping CEOs and senior execs navigate an increasingly difficult personal and corporate path.


Atholl Duncan, Black Isle Group, Chair
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