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.

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