News & Insight
March 2010

Not So Lonely at the Top - Advisorship Coaching A Firsthand Observation

Scott Litchfield<br />Senior Vice President, WJM Associates

For the past 14 years, WJM has been providing executive assessment and development services to senior-level executives at hundreds of organizations. WJM's Advisorship™ service differs from what is typically thought of as "executive coaching" in that it pairs C-level clients with peers who themselves have had the many years of high-level management and direct P&L experience necessary to truly empathize with and advise these top executives. I recently had the pleasure of sharing dinner with two-C-level former WJM clients. While this was not a formal Advisorship™ assignment, it provided me the opportunity to witness the benefits of two peer-level executives interacting and advising one another.

First, some background. One executive, John (names have been changed to protect confidentiality), is the current Chairman and CEO of a publicly traded global chemical company that generates approximately $4 billion in revenue. WJM has had a long relationship with John and his organization. The other executive, Steve, is the Executive Chairman and former CEO of a specialty paper company, also with revenues of about $4 billion. I coordinated the dinner to connect two peers who could freely interact and share their experiences with one another in a comfortable and relaxed setting. After all, as we all know, it can often be lonely at the top.

On a recent late afternoon in New York City, I picked up Steve who had just concluded a meeting with a private equity firm that he works with as a senior executive consultant. During our drive, I brought him up-to-date on WJM's relationship with John's company, providing him with an overview of their business, as well as highlights of John's background. Since we arrived at the restaurant before John, I had an opportunity to further interact with Steve. I asked him a question I always like asking senior level executives: "What are the qualities that have made you successful as a senior leader over the years?" There was a slight hesitation, and then he simply stated "I have been successful because I figured out early on as a leader that I needed to create a clear vision of the future while engaging and empowering my subordinates to get us there. Many of the skilled executives, mid-level managers and individual contributors I have led are far more creative and develop better solutions than I could ever come up with. Supporting people and allowing them to do their jobs has been my greatest attribute and a proud legacy I will leave behind". Steve in those succinct sentences reinforced my understanding and definition of effective leadership.

John arrived on time and as the two executives greeted one another, I felt there was an instant connection between them, even though they had never met before. Perhaps the fact that they have had similar positions, stresses and experiences created an instant bonding as if they unspokenly acknowledged: "I understand." For the next two hours the dialogue never waivered and I witnessed the fundamental dynamics of an effective, peer-to-peer Advisorship coaching session.

There were three key discussion topics during the dinner that resonated with me:

  1. There was a fast, mutual understanding between the two executives. They spoke the same language, spending considerable time discussing the commoditization of their respective industries and how they are handling and working through this tough issue. They traded thoughts regarding outsourcing certain functions to save money, the impact of globalization and their overall concern regarding the loss of manufacturing positions that may never return to the U.S.
  2. The majority of the dinner conversation centered on leadership and talent management. Steve was particularly interested in learning how John back-filled his old position when he was promoted to CEO within the company. John mentioned that he inherited a strong succession and talent management process that helped identify and develop talent one to two levels down. Additionally, he mentioned his company is doing a better job rotating high potentials to different business segments, which had not been done historically. Steve commended John on his efforts and they both agreed that developing leaders is an ongoing and never-ending process. Finally, John mentioned he is encouraging his direct reports to gain exposure and experience by exploring board membership opportunities with other companies. Personally for his own development he hopes to be on an external board within the next 6 - 12 months.
  3. One of the last conversation items we had was put in the form of a question. Steve asked John where he hoped the company would be within the next 5 - 7 years under his leadership. To his credit, John mentioned that he is still formulating the future vision of the company, but he did share with us that his goal is to have 80% of the products his company offers in new, less commoditized businesses. He acknowledged that a lot of work had to be done to achieve this goal, but he is confident that he has the right team in place to realize this opportunity.

While the food was sensational, the conversation and company were even better. The opportunity to spend an evening with two accomplished executives reinforced for me the benefits of an Advisor-level relationship. As I drove Steve to the airport, he shared with me one last thought. He explained that new leaders have a grace period early on, usually the first 18 months, during which they can make significant changes that will ultimately benefit the company, including the composition of the senior leadership team. After this period, it is generally assumed that the executive has the right team and strategy in place and any subsequent significant changes may be viewed with a good deal of skepticism from within and outside the company.

Reflecting back on the evening, I was struck by the instant chemistry that was established between Steve and John. Being leaders of substantial businesses is rare company and the fact they were able to share ideas and experiences with each other was invaluable to them. While it can be lonely at the top, it does not have to be.

For more information on WJM's Advisorship™ coaching and our other services please click here.

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