It’s official – CEOs are people too!

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that those we look up to can suffer the same vulnerabilities and insecurities as the rest of us, and maybe with more reason. Recent research suggests that those at the top of the pile may be the most in need of a bit of TLC, rather like the encouragement we used to get from our parents who told us we could be anything that we wanted to be… 

Peter Hutchinson is a coach and mentor with Merryck and Co, and an alumnus of Henley. He specialises in leadership under pressure, and contends that no matter how high up the corporate ladder you look there are CEOs who crave purpose, relationships, preservation of status and freedom. They share all the deep insecurities felt by most other people.

However, CEOs differ in that the demands on them come from so many places and the expectations are so high; being at the top can be a very lonely place. When everyone else in the organisation is looking to them for guidance, direction and inspiration, they are the ones who may have to argue against their principles or suffer threats to their position, incur the wrath of the press and face the potential for public humiliation. The need to think clearly in the face of environmental, financial or legal crises can be a massive burden, and no amount of remuneration can make the task easier.

In a recent study, Merryck & Co asked business leaders how much stress they endured: they reported that they felt ‘moderate’ stress levels 55% of the time, rising to ‘severe’ stress for 19% of the time. This cannot fail to impact on their ability to take important decisions, and Peter has suggested that CEOs exhibit one of three coping strategies:

  1. They go into denial – simply hiding the stress from work colleagues, family and themselves.
  2. They engage in work – lots of it! So they rush around, giving themselves an excuse to avoid the issues that cause the stress.
  3. They stop thinking and deliver only the short-term deliverables that they can focus on.

Whichever strategy they employ, the result is usually less emphasis being focused on stakeholder requirements and long-term challenges. The pressure can be exacerbated by their boardroom colleagues, who – seeing stress levels rising – will often award an extra discretionary bonus, further increasing the expectation to deliver, and masking the real issue.

So what’s the answer? Peter suggests that every CEO needs a high-quality coach or mentor to provide the listening they need, and an objective voice to challenge them. There are other people around who want their time, but they are only takers; only a coach will give unconditionally.

Of course, Peter reminds us, there is a cost for this, but a quick calculation of what is it worth to the company to have the CEO firing on all cylinders, rather than being close to breakdown, usually makes it easy to justify the fee.

Coaching can achieve great things with individuals or teams: replacing stress with positive energy, building relationships of trust, encouraging bold thinking, giving CEOs time and space, building self-awareness and developing better habits to enrich their lives – in exactly the same way we all developed from the reassurance and confidence-building that our mothers instilled in us.