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Who Advises the Boss?
Published Friday, January 6, 2017

Being at the top of an organization is a very lonely place to be,” says Sheila J. Kabat, vice president and COO of Human Resource and Organizational Development Services at Snowden Associates based in Portsmouth. A CEO with a tough decision to make or a need for advice on a sensitive issue can’t simply wander into the break room and talk it out with his or her employees over the water cooler.

While trusted employees are a resource for ideas and suggestions, there are times when it is not appropriate or it’s difficult to include them in a discussion about a challenge. In those cases, an outside perspective is helpful. Kabat says some sensitive information can become a burden for employees because “you are trying to work something out in your brain, and you burden those people who are then open to questions from others in the organization about, ‘What’s he saying?’ ‘What’s she saying?’ ‘What’s he talking about?’”

The question is: Who are CEOs talking to when they need advice? According to a 2013 survey by The Miles Group and Stanford University, the answer is no one. They surveyed more than 200 CEOs, board directors and executives of public and private companies and found two-thirds of CEOs received no outside coaching or leadership advice.

The problem is executives need advice on running their businesses. There are options around the state for getting such advice and counsel whether from an advisory board, a peer-to-peer group or individual executive coaching.

But which option is right? John Hamilton, managing director of Vested for Growth in Concord, says it starts by working with a leader to understand who they are and why they are looking for advice. “One of the most important things to realize is what they ask for is not always what they need. Sometimes they ask about one thing because it is all they know is available. Part of our function is to expand their horizon of what is possible.”

Advisory Boards
What it is: An advisory board is a handpicked group of retired CEOs and business leaders often willing to volunteer their time, usually once a month, to sit down with a CEO to discuss particular challenges or issues a leader may be facing in a company.

Why it works: “Here in New Hampshire we are blessed to have many experienced business people who are retired and are no longer on the frontlines who are thrilled to help another business be successful,” Hamilton says. “The beauty of these boards is not that they’re necessarily smarter people, it’s that they are one step removed, and they provide some objectivity. They don’t live day to day in the business, in the weeds. As such, they can provide a perspective that can be very, very valuable.”

“It’s important to recruit people whose only agenda is for you to be successful,” Hamilton says, as you will be turning to them for advice on difficult issues.

“A CEO gets to a particular fork in the road and needs to make a difficult and important decision.  Sometimes it’s a strategic decision like whether and how to introduce their product into a new market. It could be HR related such as whether to move someone into a leadership role or delegate to him or her a new set of responsibilities. Or it could be whether and how to introduce profit sharing for a broader group of employees,” Hamilton says. “In each case the group asks questions to further understand what else is going on or what prior experiences the business has had with the issue. Then the group begins to share its own experiences—the good, the bad and the ugly—and what ideas or advice they would offer.  … The collective wisdom of the group often unearths unintended consequences, new questions to consider and resources that the CEO had not considered. The result is that the CEO will now make a better decision.”

Peer-to-Peer Groups
What it is: A peer-to-peer group typically brings together a group of executives from different industries to share ideas and advice in a confidential setting, usually with a moderator. Leaders can receive advice and moral support. They usually meet once a month.

Each month, says Hamilton, one of the members gets the floor to discuss a particular challenge he or she is having. The group will then discuss the issue, ask questions and offer suggestions.

“That really creates a wonderful environment to bring in problems,” he says. “Where you can unpack a particular issue and get the benefit of other people’s thinking. And the goal isn’t to come to one decision by the group, it’s to allow the CEO to come forward with a problem and get the benefit of the questions and the benefit of getting other people’s experiences.”

Why it works: Kabat says these groups are beneficial because of their diversity. “Only one person in one industry is able to be represented at the table,” Kabat says. “While nobody else at the table can really give direct counsel specific to a particular business, they can listen and be supportive and give ideas. I think that’s a whole different way of people learning, and it depends on the individuals [which method is a better fit].”

Hamilton, who facilitates peer-to-peer groups, says he looks for CEOs who are honest about their strengths and weaknesses and are curious to learn from others. “Before inviting CEOs into a peer group, I always give them an opportunity to first ‘taste test’—attend a meeting and experience the group without us or them making a commitment. After the meeting, only if the group and the invitee both give a thumbs up do we proceed with an invitation,” he says.

Executive Business Coach
What it is: The ultimate in customization, an executive business coach works one on one with a CEO to analyze the leader’s strengths and weaknesses, create specific goals and develop action plans to reach those goals, says Jim Kimberly, president of Sapphire Consulting in Amherst.

These talks usually occur every other week to once a week or more and can last anywhere from three months to a year, or even longer. Coaches help a leader think through unexpected challenges that arise in the course of the business. Kabat says they also help with writing business plans and setting priority lists of critical outcomes.

Why it works: “They focus all their time, all year long on creating the outcomes that need to be created, through thick and thin. Through things that come up that you are anticipating, through things that come up that you are not anticipating, through exiting some people for various reasons, through hiring people, all of that is the partnership,” Kabat says.

Choosing Advice
Kimberly describes the difference between the options this way: While peer-to-peer groups are great for talking out specific business issues that might come up, such as how to raise capital, how to increase revenue or how to change the culture of a business, one-on-one coaching is better at developing a long-term, specific leadership goal and strategy.

“Both can be really quite helpful, but it comes down to what the executive is trying to accomplish,” he says.

Kimberly says a leader should do a readiness assessment before deciding on an approach. That assessment involves asking a series of questions such as, “What is the compelling reason to develop my leadership?”

And whichever avenue a leader chooses, they must be open to feedback. “The executive has to be willing and ready to take a long hard look at themselves and be open to feedback because this is not about them looking great and always doing the right thing. This is about actually looking at all your warts and all your strengths and saying this is what I need to work on,” Kimberly says.

The executive also has to be willing, with any of the models, to commit time and resources to an improvement plan. And that’s not just the time spent with the coach or on the phone, he says. It also includes time outside those sessions working on the improvement plan, taking risks, trying new behaviors and improving relationships.

Executives can reap rewards from dedicating the time to this endeavor, says Russ Ouellette, president and managing partner at Sojourn Partners in Bedford.

If someone wants to play golf, he or she can join a club or maybe exchange tips with friends. But if someone wants to be a pro golfer, he or she will invest the time and money in expert, intensive coaching. Ouellette says coaches help executives to achieve their goals faster.

Finally, whichever choice the executive makes, he or she needs to make sure that the coach, peer group or advisory board all adhere to strict confidentiality rules, which most do. “I would say that confidentiality is job one across all of these,” Hamilton says. “You have to have complete confidence that there is mandatory confidentiality. It is such a flagrant violation to share any information that you receive because someone lets their hair down and talks about their weaknesses. They deserve 100 percent confidentiality.”

If working with a coach is the choice, the question then becomes how do you find the right coach? “The decision starts with identifying what the business owner needs, which is rarely obvious. It’s easy, when you are working on your business day to day to focus on a symptom and miss the underlying problem. So spending enough time with the owner to properly diagnose the issues is essential. A more objective outsider can ask questions that help the owner peel back the onion to discover what’s really going on,” Hamilton says.

Selecting the right coach then becomes a matter of not just expertise but also chemistry. “We try to offer two or three experts within our network that the business person interviews before deciding. Ultimately the business owner needs to feel empowered and own their choice so they are committed to the learning,” Hamilton says.

Most CEOs find coaches through web searches. When looking for a coach, though, it’s good to speak to other CEOs.

“You want to work with resources that have been field tested so I encourage people to reach out to other CEOs. They tend to give unbiased opinions. If you get only one referral from a business intermediary, perhaps ask for referrals from other business people,” Hamilton says.

So what should you look for in a coach? “What are their qualifications? What is their executive business experience? Small or large company, for profit or not for profit, leadership roles held, etc.,” Kimberly says. “You may want the same industry experience, other times you may not. What successful outcomes have they achieved and how do they achieve them?”

You can also find professional coaches through organizations such as the Coaching Federation, says Ouellette.

“The best results are to seek a coach who has some formal coaching training and years of experience as a coach. Certifications are important, as are coaches who practice full time,” he says.

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