He’s the head of a Valley insurance company that handles more than $200 million in premiums and has 200 people in his company. As we ended our two-hour coaching session, I asked him: “Did you get what you needed in our conversation?” He hesitated. We had been through a lot of deep exploration, emotions and some painful memories of his past that influence the decisions he makes today.Finally, he spoke: “I don’t have conversations like this with anyone else.”This is the power of conversation.
In these days of endless messages and screens clamoring for your attention, the chance to slow down and go deep in discussion is valuable beyond measure. For chief executives and other company leaders – who are consistently buffeted by direct reports asking for decisions and owners demanding more profit – this quiet, uninterrupted discussion with an unbiased coach is crucial in helping them make prudent, wise decisions as they lead their companies.
Reflecting on my own career as a CEO for more than 15 years, I see now that the biggest missing piece was an unbiased peer. Someone who had been in my chair and understood what I was going through, and at the same time had no personal or financial interest in the decisions I made. Such good listeners are rare. As Stephen R. Covey said: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” About a year ago I decided to make a career change and become a CEO Whisperer. I wanted to help business leaders fill the gap that had been missing in my own career. I set a goal of becoming the listener who asked questions leading them to the answers.
It’s been a fascinating journey. This is what I have learned while working with the best leaders:• Being open, vulnerable and willing to learn is a key to success. Often the answers are within them, but it often takes someone to ask questions that bring those answers to the fore.• Each leader has foundational beliefs that influence the decisions they make. Often, these beliefs come from lessons learned early in life, but they are so ingrained, the leader does not even know how these life lessons influence them.• There is no substitute for honest conversation. The truth is most of our exchanges in daily life are polite, shallow and dishonest. Candid conversations peel away the layers and make you uncomfortable. When I have asked that CEO some blisteringly honest questions about their decisions, I can see the wheels turning in their brains as they reach conclusions about their own actions.• The best leaders respond rather than react. They take in information and manage it through a measured, thoughtful method instead of making emotional decisions.• Outstanding leaders have a growth mindset.
This is not to say they need to grow their bottom line at all costs, but that they want their staffs, their products and themselves to change, grow and improve.• They are willing to work “On” the business and not “In” the business. So many leaders say they “don’t have time” to focus on their leadership skills because they are too busy. This is a bit like saying you’re too busy to find the hose while you’re trying to put out the fire. The best leaders carefully decide what strategic issues they should prioritize.• Accountability is crucial to leadership. It is important is to have someone who makes you accountable for the promises you make. The promises must have measurements and due dates.• Leaders who care about improving themselves and their companies operate more profitable companies.
What I have learned in the passenger seat helping CEOs navigate the waters of life and business is that these very smart leaders need outside and unbiased voices to help them find the success within each of them. The echo chamber within their industries and companies is loud. Nor does any consultant or outside expert have all the answers.
However, when leaders take the time to slow down, listen carefully, and explore innovation, they will discover a successful life lies within them.
Tim Gallagher of Simi Valley is a chair for Vistage Worldwide, the world’s largest CEO coaching and peer advisory organization for small and midsized businesses.