The Boardroom November 2004

It's Lonely at the Top

"Hello, my name is Joe. I am a CEO, and I am learning to listen and validate those around me." How executive coaching, philanthropic advising, and other specialized services help the modern—and newly self-examining—CEO get through the day
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Rachel Bellow, a consultant and executive coach based in Manhattan, is describing the calendar of a chief executive officer that she recently saw. "There was no white space seven days a week, not even Saturdays and Sundays," she tells me, her voice filled with a combination of awe and horror. "He was all over the place on his private jet. Because he wasn't tied to commercial airline schedules, he did everything. He would go to nine different cities in a single twenty-four-hour period." On weekends, she says, the meetings took on a "personal flavor," but they were still work. "He may have had two golf outings, but they weren't in the same city! It was obscene! There is no possible way that this person ever has the capacity to process what he's doing."

This is the situation of the contemporary CEO: work has crept into every available corner of experience. In a way, CEOs are like professional cyclists—champions in a team sport with individual winners. And just as a cyclist requires a whole entourage—coaches and trainers, soigneurs and nutritionists—to make it through the Tour de France performing at top speed, CEOs rely on speechwriters, social secretaries, private bankers, philanthropic advisers, chiefs of staff, highly trained administrative assistants, and chefs—plus faxes and cell phones, and BlackBerries for constant e-mail access, not to mention private jets and armored limousines. To some, all this may come across as remarkably indulgent; but if you're a member of the corporation's board of directors, or one of its shareholders, and you calculate the CEO's hourly rate, you probably don't want him wasting valuable time waiting for connecting flights or on hold with Ticketmaster. "The glamour associated with CEO life, the fancy jets and hotels—much of that is just a way of keeping the individual alive, given the intense stress of their jobs," says Stratford Sherman, the senior vice-president of Executive Coaching Network, in Connecticut. "It's not as if these people are sipping champagne at thirty thousand feet with their feet up. Some do, but it really isn't the norm. The norm is not to have any time."

The more CEOs work and the more responsibilities they take on, the more isolated they become. Their entourages shield them from workaday headaches. Their spot at the top cuts them off from the people lower down on the corporate totem pole, and thus from reliable, "un-spun" information. Everyone reporting to them has his own ambitions; everyone wants to look good; everyone wants a promotion.

So what's a CEO to do? Why, get more help, of course! Isolation and lack of time to think may be the bane of every CEO's existence, but for the burgeoning field of executive coaches, it's nothing less than a growth market. No single definition can capture what every executive coach does. But most coaches who work with CEOs seem to be part confessor, part behavioral therapist, and part management consultant. And all coaches will tell you that unlike the members of the "C-suite"—the chief financial officer, the chief information officer, the corporate counsel, and so forth—on whom the CEO relies, they aren't angling for his job, they have no vested interest in the company, and they will come in with a fresh perspective. At a very high cost, of course. A top coach will charge each client several hundred thousand dollars a year for bespoke guidance and support—highly personalized counseling, not just the standard stuff you'd learn from reading Management for Dummies.

CEO coaching comes in many varieties. One is aimed at helping the executive hop off the treadmill long enough to think. "Coaching is a way to have an outboard processor, someone who's helping you process your own experience, which is just coming at you too fast and too furiously," Bellow says. Call this "outsourcing your self-reflection"—bringing in help to do the kinds of thinking you might not have time to do on your own (Was I too hard on my CFO at the corporate retreat?), or would prefer not to (Was it because he reminds me of the bully from my junior high school?).

Other coaches call themselves "third opinion advisers." They focus as much on the larger problems facing an organization as on the behavior of its top leadership. "A CEO must figure out what to do despite great uncertainty, great risk, and incomplete information," says one strategic adviser, Saj-nicole Joni, a former executive at Microsoft and the author of The Third Opinion: How Successful Leaders Use Outside Insight to Create Superior Results (2004). "And then he has to get it done through a large, large number of people, most of whom he doesn't have direct control over. That's what leadership is. That's what the job is." Joni's approach is to do extensive homework on a company and then work with a CEO for half a day once a month or so, to help bounce around ideas when the executive is facing major decisions. "At the end of the day CEOs are alone ultimately in final responsibility," she says. "They mustn't be isolated in their thinking. They need to get the very different perspectives from inside and outside." You can call what she offers "perspective for hire."

Then there's the coach as imported truth-teller. "Part of the dynamic with the CEO is perhaps that the coach speaks more frankly than anyone else in his life," says Gary Ranker, a former CEO who has been identified by Forbes as one of the top five coaches in America, and who uses an "interpersonal" approach to resolving conflict within businesses. After working with an executive for an intensive initial period of six to nine months, Ranker, who is based in Manhattan, will stay on retainer and serve as a "first response" person. Much of his time is spent helping CEOs "with their own development in social interaction, awareness, and skills," he says. "The person at the top is insulated. Everyone they have contact with has an agenda."

Ranker speaks in a low, soothing voice, and when thinking he sometimes clasps his hands together between his knees, as if in prayer. You get the sense that he is listening not only to every word you utter but also to the silences between the words. After about fifteen minutes in his company, you feel that you could tell him anything—that your marriage is on the rocks, that you think you screwed up on restructuring the Asian divisions, that you envy your crackerjack new vice-president for sales (she went to Harvard Law School, and you didn't get in).

Ranker was the CEO of Hallmark Germany, among other companies, before going back to school for a Ph.D. in human organizational development and embarking on a career as a coach. His first client was a nuclear engineer who had been promoted to run a division of a major Fortune 500 company. The engineer had come from the Navy, and his management approach left something to be desired in the civilian world. He led through fear and intimidation; his staff was terrified of him. "They were beginning to bolt," Ranker recalls. "I spent a year with him. Nobody thought he could ever change." They were wrong, apparently. "He had a conversion, and it was very evident." (After hearing Ranker use words like "conversion," "miracle," and "see the light" to describe some of his toughest cases, I ask him if he sees his work in religious terms. "No," he says emphatically.) These days Ranker works mostly in the financial-services industry, where he deals largely with executives who have shot quickly to the top and aren't used to considering the effects of their actions on other people. He says he helps CEOs "so that their relationships are more positive" and so that their colleagues "experience more validation." Herein lies a striking difference between the CEO and the champion athlete: the athlete just has to win; the modern executive has to validate those around him. Which is why some companies will pay an executive coach hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to teach their CEOs daily decency, or to help them learn to play well with others.

The whole enterprise of CEO coaching and the system that supports it is profoundly American in the way that it combines a ferocious work ethic with earnest self-scrutiny, an openness to self-improvement, and a fundamental anxiety about power. After all, self-improvement is an American tradition that runs from Benjamin Franklin's chart for systematically strengthening his virtues and scaling back his vices ("Like him who having a Garden to weed, does not attempt to eradicate all the bad Herbs at once, which would exceed his Reach and his Strength, but works on one of the Beds at a time," as Franklin wrote in his Autobiography) to the young James Gatz's lists in the margins of his copy of Hopalong Cassidy ("Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling, 6.15—6.30 … Study electricity, etc. 7.15—8.15 … Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it, 5.00—6.00") on his way to transforming himself, through sheer force of will, into Jay Gatsby.

But CEO coaching goes beyond this. It's the marriage of psychoanalytic and twelve-step culture with bottom-line thinking: If I don't acknowledge my failings and change, my company will suffer. Even if it's framed in the language of moral improvement, coaching is ultimately about profit, not just about helping someone become a better human being. A company hiring a CEO coach needs to justify the decision's "pragmatic effect on the bottom line," as Gary Ranker explains. The expectation is that with the help of a CEO coach people will work more effectively, Ranker says. It's a view of human nature as optimistic as it is cruel; it's not just that you can change but that you have to change if you want to keep the company running smoothly (that is, turning profits) and hold on to your job. Coaching culture is also shot through with something of a Christian trope, in that the highest are made humble—or at least play at being humble for effect.

Even if it's in spirit more than in practice, what separates today's executives from their antecedents—be they robber barons, southern slave owners, the landed aristocracy of Europe, or the peers of the British Empire—is that self-examination is now part of the job description. Ours is the most overtly self-scrutinizing ruling class in history. We live in a culture in which the ultimate sign of power—the ultimate status symbol—is to be able to reveal your limitations openly and accept help. Hello, my name is Joe. I am a CEO, and I am learning to listen and validate those around me.

Unless they've always been expected to assume a place in a family-run company, most CEOs have traveled a long way to get to the top, and have had to change their lives repeatedly in both visible and almost imperceptible ways. Maybe a CEO got his start at a good, solid meat-and-potatoes insurance company, where he landed straight out of state college. It was the kind of place where they would take the new hires up to the executive dining room, show them the bone china, the mahogany sideboards, and the Currier & Ives prints, and say, "Someday, all this could be yours, son." Now, thirty years later, our former insurance executive may find himself at the top of a major Wall Street firm, the poshest of the posh. Here, even though money is the air he breathes, decorum dictates that it's impolite—crass, even—to discuss it. It must be very confusing, all this—learning to play up his limited wealth when he was on the rise, and to play down his extraordinary wealth now that he's really made it. Maybe when he was named to his new post they moved him to the top floor and gave him an office with a wall of windows and a breathtaking view of New York Harbor. Sitting at his dark wooden desk he can watch the tugboats forge their weekday way under the Brooklyn Bridge and the sailboats glide by on weekends, while the cars speeding past on the FDR Drive, thirty stories below, keep time with the ticker symbols racing across his screen. He has a private conference room, a private workout room, an office with plush sofas; his assistant chose the upholstery, and the art from the corporate collection to match it. He isn't much interested in art, but he's on the board of a nonprofit that helps inner-city kids get into college. Now, that's something he can understand.

Indeed, if you make it to the top executive level, chances are the company's philanthropic advisers will help you find a cause you believe in. After all, serving on boards isn't just altruistic—it's an essential part of the CEO's public persona. A company's leaders might tell an executive to start networking more broadly among other movers and shakers and find a charitable organization that has the right kind of board members. According to Rachel Bellow, "More and more CEOs and companies recognize the value of nonprofit philanthropic activities to their core business. It's very clear, especially in a business like investment banking, where firms like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs are all showing up to the client with the same numbers, the same black book. The only differentiating factor is 'I know you're on the board of the Boston Symphony with my wife.' It's an end run around the direct business relationship. Boards of not-for-profits are replete with high-power executives, and it's a way of gaining access indirectly."

Of course, it's bad form to run the nonprofit into the ground while you're busy schmoozing at benefit dinners with the guy you want to take your company public. "Philanthropy, especially if it means board positions, has an enormous responsibility attached," says Fred Schroeder, the executive vice-president and co-founder of the well-respected corporate communications and marketing firm Resnicow Schroeder, who has advised companies including Ford and Altria on corporate philanthropy. "It brings the opportunity for networking, or social position, or prominence, or visibility with opinion leaders or people who may be able to influence your business," he says. But, Schroeder points out, a board member who thinks only about what the nonprofit can do for him, as opposed to what it expects of him, risks damaging the nonprofit—not to mention his own image.

So what kind of public image does a CEO want to cultivate, anyway? That's a question a whole host of consultants would be delighted to help answer, including image consultants and corporate speechwriters and advisers on what PR people call "messaging"—that is, figuring out what point the CEO wants to make and how he can make it most effectively. Some consulting outfits will act like a CEO's personal Bob Shrum and treat him like a politician, refining his message and tailoring his public speaking to fit his speech patterns. This is a growing market because it's good to keep your company's name in the right dinner-party conversations (assuming, of course, it's not because you've been indicted). "People realize that with senior management and CEOs becoming celebrities, a high profile can enhance your corporate value," says Sunny Bates, who runs a high-end consulting and head-hunting company in Manhattan. "It's an investment you make to affect your bottom line."

But the greater the CEO's visibility, the more he needs to worry about security threats. And this, of course, requires a different kind of adviser. If a CEO lands on the cover of Forbes, he'll probably get a visit from the head of corporate security, who may suggest a one-on-one with an outside consultant—someone like Tim Horner, a former New York policeman who now works with executives and other "high-net-worth individuals" for a leading security and corporate investigation firm, Kroll, Inc. Before meeting with a client, Horner does a lot of homework. He'll find out all the relevant facts about the business: Is it heavily invested in fields that tend to generate protests, by environmentalists or other activists? Is the executive traveling to high-risk countries? Horner will also find out everything he can about an executive's life: what the traffic patterns are around his ex-wife's beach house; where the kids from his second marriage take piano lessons; what time of day his brother's son, the one who got kicked out of prep school for drugs, tends to show up at the executive's country house with his no-good friends. (Horner says "crazy-nephew syndrome" can be more of a threat to some CEOs than violent protesters, foreign terrorists, or corporate spies.)

A good security expert will know if an executive hasn't changed the locks on the one-bedroom he's kept on upper Park Avenue since the early 1980s, where he had all those cinq-à-septs that ruined his first marriage. The security guy will know everything about the CEO's house—including how easy it is to break into the safe hidden behind that mediocre Hudson River School painting his second wife was fleeced on at an auction last year. He'll know that the CEO is barely ever there, that he's usually at the office or traveling, and maybe even that when he comes home and kisses the wife and kids, he'll say, "Sorry I've been out of town so much lately. I know it makes you crazy. But I'm working with a coach and I'm trying to change."

Rachel Donadio is a reporter for The New York Observer.
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