Who do CEOs turn to for advice?

It is important to have people who can show you the mirror, and are not just mere yes men

Bhavna Dalal
Updated: Oct 6, 2016 09:50:37 AM UTC
An advisor should be someone who will keep your interests ahead of their own agenda. (Photo: Shutterstock)

From Merlin to King Arthur, Birbal to Akbar and Aristotle to Alexander the great, history has several examples of the significance of advisors to powerful kings and leaders in the past.

The leaders of the corporate world today, the CEOs of an organisation, are exposed like no one else at the company. They are answerable to their shareholders, customers, the media, their investors, employees and the board. It is said that it is lonely at the top. CEO often face challenges that they have not encountered earlier like high-profile decisions, greater accountability, deep scrutiny from board members and much less personal time. They have to deal with immense pressure situations while keeping their wits about them.

CEOs  often need to step into their role with very little room for mistakes and even less time to get up to speed with all eyes on them for direction. Some CEOs rise through the ranks in an organisation and are groomed for the role, while others find themselves suddenly at the top, making it even more challenging.

The nature of their role prevents CEOs from being completely candid with most people they work with. Where do they go to talk things through in a trusting environment?  Where can they turn to for sage advice?  Who do they use as their sounding boards? How can they connect to mentors who really have "been there, done that"?

I was lucky to be a part of a Corporate Directors Forum's breakfast event in San Diego California, where these questions were raised for discussion. There was a panel of three esteemed speakers -  Leonard Comma Chairman & CEO, Jack in the Box, Inc, Neil McDonnell, CEO, Metacrine Pharmaceuticals, former Chief of Staff, Global Health, Gates Foundation, and Marshall Goldsmith, PhD bestselling author; #1 Executive Coach in the World, who had generously invited me to this event since we had a one-on-one meeting right after.

They all talked about how using coaches and mentors had always been helpful to them in their journeys to give unbiased advice. Executive coaches ask powerful questions to help CEOs come up with their own solutions and work through tough business challenges. Mentors are usually industry veterans who can guide them using directly relevant experience.

Another avenue is finding support in peer group specific forums.

Comma shared his experience of how sometimes he has picked up the phone and reached out to other leaders who may have been in this situation in the past. He mentioned how at the time they needed to make some decisions regarding franchising, he had reached out to the CEO of Starbucks asking for his advice, quite transparently. He said it is amazing how happy people are to help, if you are open and genuine instead of masking it under a mutually beneficial network meet.

Comma said he rose within the ranks in the organisation, so some people with whom he had great relationships and alliances with, were not necessarily the right people to give advice at senior levels. He discussed sensitive issues with them which required discretion and confidentiality. However, they could not maintain it because their own jobs were in jeopardy. There is definitely a need to be careful about who you confide in when you are part of the senior leadership team.

Marshall highlighted that there is an unspoken hierarchical attitude towards people at the top, no matter what the culture is. It is very important to have people around you that you can turn to who will show you the mirror, and are not just mere yes men. He related a story of how his friend Alan, the CEO of Ford, admitted his own vulnerability of not knowing all the answers to invite his team to admit that there were challenges that they did had no clue on how to resolve and come up with solutions together.

Some CEOs are lucky to have family members they can rely on for clarity, advice and their best business decisions.

Whether you choose a coach, mentor or a confidant, the core of every successful relationship is TRUST. The importance of trust came up very often in the discussion.

What can you look for in your advisor? •    Choose someone independent outside your company and its board to avoid controversy, to be safe in your position and to be impartial.
•    This person should be able to see the bigger picture and offer a strategic perspective.
•    Someone who will keep your interests ahead of their own agenda.
•    Someone with relevant experience and specialist knowledge.

Where can you find your trusted advisor?
The answer to this question is just about anywhere. You could have more than one advisor depending on the challenges ahead and your specific needs.

An ideal advisor has integrity and is someone with whom you build personal trust to be able to be unguarded and talk about anything without being judged. There are no set rules as to who the best advisors may be. The individual needs of CEOs differ depending on their personalities and the challenges they face. Leaders need to acknowledge that they will benefit from confidential, unbiased sound support and consequently, so will their company.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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