5 ways to help an overwhelmed CEO

Numbers don't lie. If profits are not showing, if market share is decreasing, if the number of employees leaving the company is increasing, if projects encounter a growing number of unplanned difficulties, chances are there’s a problem with the top leadership and the way it leads change. It is often about where the CEO's time and attention go, their posture, the unclear articulation of the strategy, and/or how they orchestrate the troops. Does this ring a bell?

A desperate HR Director recently insisted that I met the CEO of a struggling global company to explore a coaching engagement. I made the mistake of agreeing to meet him before checking more closely whose agenda it was. I knew the company well, as for some time I had trained the executive level below and understood very well their challenges; I witnessed key executives burning out or planning to leave. So, I was more than excited to explore how to unite our expertise and improve the situation.

This talented CEO was expecting to hire a life coach to help him with his deeper needs – a goal that is unquestionably useful and recommendable. Unaware of this, I approached him as an organizational performance coach with a focus on empowering the people below – also absolutely necessary. Our miscommunication and the CEO's demonstrable pride resulted in our meeting being a missed opportunity. Darn! So frustrating. Looking back, I contemplated why it had gone as it had, and five valuable insights emerged:

Don't be trapped by the CEO's ego

CEOs are typically highly talented and powerful people under tremendous pressure and, unfortunately, may not realize how isolated they have become. In this instance, nobody around the CEO wanted to confront his misplaced certainty and offer their honest feedback about how to handle the level below – bad news. Worse, the coach (me) was being set up to deliver the unwelcome message. (Admittedly, it is hard to earn the top person's trust and engage them in a robust conversation.) Such a CEO may become their own worst enemy. The key? Find a way to start a conversation about mutual respect and common purpose. I should not have trusted the misleading secondhand information I received; I also should have requested an initial short phone conversation to verify whether there was a real fit. Won't happen again.

Differentiate personal needs from organizational needs

Many CEOs are actually exhausted, unable to find valuable support and struggling to manage their time. Worse, some are hooked on stress and agitation! These ones actually feel reassured when they are overwhelmed. A client of mine loves making deals and telling all that the spirit of the company is about being entrepreneurial. That would be exciting if the level below was not desperate to get him to stop, to worry about integrating the latest acquisitions and to make sense of the decisions he loves taking.

This explains the increase in requests by CEOs for life coaching, intent on developing a stronger personal awareness. This is indeed crucial to their sanity and resilience. At the same time, there is insufficient time spent stepping back and diagnosing collectively what is really going on in the organizational ecosystem. A crucial urgency often lies with how to empower and leverage the level right below.

Challenge the CEO with concrete facts and a clear demonstration

When wisdom does not come from the very top, there may be an opportunity to create wisdom from below and influence-up. Is there an opportunity to team up the people below and elaborate a "discovery" report based on concrete facts and testimonies? I have never seen a CEO ignore a well-crafted business or operational plan.

Diagnose on a full stack of logical levels

This time again, I was reminded that fully diagnosing the current situation is where the work needs to start. Many questions must be asked on several logical levels.

  • The Identity Level: Who are we today? Who do we aspire to become? How is the brand perceived by outside customers? Is the company's core purpose clear to all? Does the CEO's role need to change?

  • The Strategic Level: How is our company positioned? What are the top 5 critical success factors that differentiate us? What are the 3 pillars of our strategy? How do we explain this to the level below?

  • The Operational Level: How do people spend their time? What are the top projects, and how do we lead them? Are our project reviews systematic? How do we develop people to handle the future? And so on.

Put in place the conditions for effective collaboration

As a consultant, HR Director, or key contributor, ultimately, there will be a need to ask yourself how to best serve your CEO. It starts with establishing clear ground rules. Some of these are quite simple, such as respecting time, organizing more structured meetings... or delivering on commitments. Finally, I suggest that your courage, integrity and unabridged feedback may be the best way to support them. Ask yourself:

  • Are you willing to tell this boss the truth? If not, what is stopping you?

  • Is there an elephant in the room that nobody is speaking about? Why?

  • What are your CEO's top 5 pain points? How are those handled?

Make the answer to these questions the common basis for exploration. 

Are you facing serious transformational challenges in your company? If you are, why not take a look at this case study, or contact me to arrange a quick chat about how we can team up: [email protected].