[New Rules] The CEO on the Couch

One of the cardinal sins of leaders is to think out loud. More tears have been shed by subordinates springing half-formed thoughts into reality than you can imagine. But how and who, particularly in these tough times, does a CEO talk with to make partially baked thoughts into fully formed solutions?

Short answer: it depends.

As someone married to a psychiatrist, CEOs apparently talk to shrinks. (And note that if they talk to my spouse, I would never know it due to patient confidentiality – but I’m told that they talk to plenty of others.)

While I think such a resource might be excellent for some CEOs for personal issues, it is an unwise strategy for business affairs. A common premise of most therapists (psychiatrists who are by background MDs who have done residency in psychiatry, psychologists who by training have a PhD in some psychological area, social workers who are – well – social workers, etc.) are trained to be highly reflective (“How do you feel about that?) rather than the option and action focused bias that is most helpful in business settings.

CEOs could talk to their boards, whether they are a public board of directors, or a private company with an advisory board.

Upside of that arrangement is that people are familiar with both the CEO and the business. Downside? These are the same boards – if a public company – that carries legal fiduciary duties, including CEO evaluation. And advisory boards, which many times include clients or investors, have much of the same rub.

Some CEOs talk to some of their subordinates. This approach is problematic as well as it pits those who are “in the know” versus “those in the dark.” In addition, with rare exceptions (see next), politics are frequently in the mix and it’s rare that a subordinate can consistently and comfortably give the good news with the bad to their boss.

Here are four good alternatives:

  • That business rarity , the trusted advisor – the non-political, non-queen/non-king maker – is a great option for a sounding board if you can find them. As I noted in an earlier Life Back West piece (here ), you’re blessed to have one, and lucky to be one. [Update: Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s counselor, came to mind as another example of a "trusted advisor."]
  • Mentors can be good options, particularly if they are in different companies / organizations. They typically have the advantage of history with perspective, an extraordinarily helpful thing in vetting problems and options with someone.  Preferably your mentor is someone who knows “how” to be a mentor. A decent summary of how to pick a mentor can be found here . And for those within companies thinking of setting up a program, track down Regina O’Neill (Suffolk University) and Stacy Blake-Beard (Simmons College) – their work, which I’ve seen, is outstanding.
  • Executive coaches (yes – someone like me!) who have a depth of business experience, particularly in executive roles, and understand the tensions and dynamics of the executive suite can be extraordinarily helpful. At their best, executive coaches help people vet choices rather than making choices. The purpose of this type of work is to be that sounding board that understands both client and setting.
  • Last, something of an executives organization like a Young President’s Organization or similar can be a helpful resource to find contemporaries with whom to vet ideas.

Whichever route a someone goes, the goal should be to work someone who enables the exec to make better decisions – rather than disablement by making the decisions for them.

Good luck – and good couching.