CEOs need help, but few get it

Portrait of a tired young business man bored during meeting
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(MoneyWatch) Everyone needs help with their work -- but CEOs are unlikely to get it. That was the finding of new research from the Stanford Business School's Center for Leadership Development. Polling 200 chief executives, David Larcker and his team found that nearly two-thirds of CEOs received nothing in the way of mentoring or coaching.

"I had expected it to be higher," Larcker told me. "I thought everyone was doing it! You need independent, informed advice and that has to be both positive and negative. You need to work with someone who knows - if I can put it this way -- when to ride your ass and when to applaud. You might not like it at the time but it's what you need: going to a safe place and getting another opinion. Independence is key."

The issues CEOs did most work on are illuminating: few felt the need to work on empathy, motivation and persuasion. Those were skills they'd honed on their route to the top; without them, they would probably not have made it. Instead the tough areas were conflict management, delegation and -- surprisingly -- mentoring.

The issue around conflict management doesn't surprise me at all. Most people are conflict averse even though constructive conflict is how organizations do their thinking.

"Sometimes people make it to the top by avoiding conflict," Larcker told me. "But in the top job, you can't avoid it any more. Problems fester. Conflict resolution is about finding a middle ground where people aren't angry on both sides. A lot of these guys (sic) are pretty tough nuts and the softer aspects may not come naturally to some of them."

In my experience, many senior executives have got to the top being pleasers. Many have been so since schooldays. But at the top of the organization, it's unclear who to please: the board? Shareholders? The executive team? Effective leaders have to move beyond pleasing others to being able to explore and evaluate options. This is impossible to do alone.

One of the biggest dangers in being a CEO is that you risk imagining you are perfect. After all, everyone around you expects and hopes for omniscience. Most people treat you as though you do or can know everything. It's tempting to imagine that you are as wonderful as they say you are -- and chances are, you're pretty good or you wouldn't be there. But of course no one is perfect and everyone knows that. So how do you handle the gap between expectations and reality? That's when you reach out for help.

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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.