Standing on the shoulders of giants

A sad reality of success is that it can be lonely at the top. Anyone at the pinnacle of their field may find they have limited places to which they can turn for help and support. This can be problematic since when one is at one’s peak, one is most likely to need ongoing coaching and guidance.

Most employees will have a direct line manager who appraises their performance, provides feedback and shows them how to improve. The CEO, in contrast, has a rising or falling share price as an indication of the company performance, and they also have feedback from the board, but there is no clear boss to whom they can turn to for support. Clearly then, it is critical that CEOs find a suitable pool of people from outside the organisation who can provide guidance.

Do not go it alone

With no obvious in-house support network, a CEO might be tempted to think they should soldier in alone. Yet being a CEO is one of the most difficult and responsible corporate roles. It can be detrimental both to individuals and organisation to attempt to plough on regardless. Ignoring help is damaging and is often a sign of a fragile ego unwilling to accept they are not superior in all regards to others.

Humans have sought help from others since time immemorial. All of us have been dependent on our parents until we reached our teenage years. It is at this stage that one must learn to pull back from parental dependence and find one’s own way. It is at the adolescent stage that one must take responsibility for oneself or risk being seen as something of a parasite. This light-hearted video from a frustrated father shows the kind of expectations on teenagers and how they are viewed dismally for failing to do even the most basic of tasks:  

One needs to strike a balance between being needy or over reliant and shunning help for the wrong reasons.

The right help

In all likelihood a CEO will need to look outside of their organisation for help. In general, there are four areas of support available.

Skills training
This is perhaps the area where people are most willing to get help. A CEO of a small firm may not be able to afford an accountant so they will take a course in bookkeeping, for example. Typically seeking training meets with little resistance, since there is no ‘stigma’ attached to learning new skills and it is clear that this can help the business. However, CEOs need to look past what are known as hard skills (bookkeeping, computer programming etc) and ensure they receive the requisite training in soft skills too, including listening and communication. Afterall a skill is defined as a repeatable set of actions that, with reflective awareness and appropriate teaching one can improve on. This covers the whole gambit of takes CEOs must carry out daily. Skills training may be a one-off session or take more time over an extended period, it can be informal, one to one or in groups. 

This focuses on dealing with wounds from the past that impact one’s everyday activities and functionality. There may be a deep-seated issue that impacts how a CEO behaves and the decisions they make, which can be resolved through talking with a professional. It is sensible for CEOs to with suspected clinical issues such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety to see their GP who will then refer them to the appropriate support centre. These types of problem should not be resolved through a coach or mentor but by someone with the skillset to deal with mental illness. While psychiatry is registered in the UK, psychotherapy is not so it is important that the psychotherapist is fully trained and accredited with one of the major bodies in the UK.  

Where there are no obvious clinical issues, CEOSs can benefit tremendously from mentors able to impart invaluable knowledge and wisdom. Mentorship has been around for thousands of years and involve transferring knowledge forma senior individual to their junior. Typically, the mentor will be older then the mentee, although it might be possible somebody can be junior in age but senior in mastering a particular type of activity. People from all walks of life become mentors to help junior colleagues benefit from their years of experience and knowledge. Of course, having an appropriate level of humility as a mentor is essential – just because a person may be older or more knowledgeable it does not mean they are always correct or have all the answers. 

​ Just like a professional tennis player at the top of their game needs an excellent coach, so too does a CEO. A coach is there to helping someone understand what they need to do and give them resources and skills training to help them achieve this. A coach will analyse a CEO’s approach to the job, consider their strengths and weakness and help them refine and improve. They will unlikely provide basic skills training but rather hone existing competencies and help people to behave differently. For example, a coach won’t train a CEO in accountancy but will better enable them to think creatively about managing cash flow. 

In deciding which of these groups is most appropriate, a CEO needs to asses where they feel challenged or inadequate. If they need to brush up on an existing skill or develop a new one, clearly the answers lie in training. With suspected clinical concerns, the GP or therapist is the solution. If the problem lies in a lack of self-esteem, experience or confidence, a coach or mentor should be able to resolve issues and drive the CEO into a position of strength.

Everyone needs support irrespective of their seniority or experience. There is always something new to learn and ways in which one can improve. American entrepreneur and businessman Clay Clark sums it up perfectly: “Once you embrace the absolute truth that every leader needs a mentor, you can begin to achieve the massive growth and success that you seek.”


CEOs may sometimes struggle to find support and even where it is available, they may refuse to accept they need it. Failure to embrace help from others can be detrimental to the business and ultimately prevent individuals from achieving their true potential. Consequently, it is imperative that CEOs regularly review their own skillsets and address any challenges they face in preventing them from being their best. The four general sources of support are: skills training; psychotherapy; coaching and mentoring.

Please get in touch to find out more about our CEO support programmes.

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