Why Every Leader Needs a Third Opinion

Last Updated Jun 1, 2010 10:50 AM EDT

For the last week, I've been surrounded by CEOs. First there was a weekend leadership conference with international business leaders. Followed by teaching a course for higher-education leaders. Capped by an evening with founders of high-growth entrepreneurial businesses. It's been a whirlwind of ideas, energy and pain. Out of the maelstrom, one big theme emerges: the challenge of staying ahead of the business. All the chief execs I met are leading their businesses through turbulent times, finding in themselves previously unexplored supplies of resilience and optimism. But here's the problem: as they use up the energy, learning and insight that they've gathered from their years in business, where will their new learning come from? How do they replenish those stores of expertise? While they're ensuring that the people around them grow and develop, how do they make sure that they do likewise?

This is not a new challenge, but it feels more urgent these days, because everyone is running so fast that it's harder to keep ahead. And it's lonely at the top. But the best CEOs already have a solution: they have a network of advisers and peer mentors. These are people they may have met in the course of their working lives, through established networks like Vistage (formerly TEC) or Footdown, or by working with companies that specialize in peer mentoring, like Merryck & Co. All of these leaders know that they need an experienced adviser and sounding board, someone who has stood in their shoes.

Saj-Nicole Joni calls these advisers "third opinions." She argues that most leaders tend to get advice from technical experts (who see everything through the lens of their discipline) and from their management teams (who all have their own agendas). Such input is essential, part of the natural course of business. But no leader will thrive, she argues, without a third opinion -- insight from someone outside the business, without an agenda, who has only your company's interests at heart. A third opinion is a thinking partner: not someone with answers, but a partner with whom you can think more profoundly about the future. No leader, she says -- and I agree with her -- can succeed without at least one such adviser.

That does not mean that all leaders have them. But from the evidence of the last week, I'd say that there's never been a time when the need for them was greater. I see a number of CEOs who, because they've always worked alone, think they can still manage that way. But I also see them thrashing and exhausted; the times are just too volatile for soloists. All great leaders know that the best way to grow a business is to grow its people. But the very best know that that has to include the leaders themselves.
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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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