CEO Coaching: Start With The Basics

“Gentlemen, this is a football.”

—Vince Lombardi

Although I can’t imagine his accomplished players — back in 1961 — were excited to hear this, I appreciate that when you’re seeking improvement, you start with the basics.

It’s difficult to get onto a professional football team while lacking basic skills. But I’ve seen numerous senior managers, all the way up to CEO, who are missing some core skills that most reasoned opinions would say you should have.

They’re leadership frauds, and many of them know it. Conscious incompetents, we might call them. Even if they’re unconscious incompetents, they should have the wherewithal to get feedback about their strengths and weaknesses. “I didn’t know” can’t be an excuse when you can easily find out.

I just spoke with a midlevel manager who handled a sticky situation with aplomb only to have senior leadership throw him under a bus. His company culture doesn’t allow for healthy conflict, and the tough issues are never addressed. If you bring one up, you are a troublemaker. The senior leaders are frauds. 

The list of skills a senior leader should have is long, and you can’t be good at everything. There are, however, fundamentals that are akin to knowing what a football is. Honest communication is one of the most important. But here’s the thing: It’s not an innate skill! It must be learned and practiced just like throwing a tight spiral. It’s hard work. 

If you’re a senior leader and have an internal voice that says, “I must know this stuff because they promoted me!”, you need to change that talk track to one that says, “I should know this, so I need to work on it!”

I know of the senior leaders in the firm mentioned above, and they “grew up” in a company that has had a dysfunctional culture and historically weak leadership. It’s no wonder they’re so bad at leading through tough issues. It’d be like me trying to teach you how to golf. (You’d be lucky to break 100 in the remainder of your life!) But they should know better. 

If you can’t effectively respond to the query, “Where did you learn to have tough conversations?” you’re probably bad at them. If you’re a senior leader and have never had an effective 360 review process, you probably have numerous career-stalling weaknesses.

Do something about it! Start with the most basic skill. As Lombardi might’ve said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is how we talk with one another.”

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