Surviving the Limelight

When is an Executive Coach most valued by a client?  Not surprisingly, often when a client is most surprised!  Getting blindsided by the unexpected is part of the job for executives, but how they handle an awakened dragon is what really matters.  As an Executive Coach, your role in this rebound cannot be underestimated.

Consider as an example Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who recently attracted more visibility than usual when she set a reasonably straightforward human resources policy for her company to limit telecommuting.  Regardless of whether you agree with her on the necessity of employees being present at an office every day, it is hard not to be surprised by the public outcry in response to her internal company announcement.  She is the company’s Chief Executive Officer, she is in the midst of a tough turnaround, and she has the board assigned authority to run the company day-to-day.  The fact that her decision attracted so much public attention – headline news around the world – likely surprised even her.

Was the reaction of non-Yahoos likely to cause her to change her mind?  Pretty unlikely.  Was the media sensation that found reason to demonize her an easy punch to deflect?  That seems equally unlikely.  Had you been her Executive Coach, what would you have said to her?  More importantly, would you have been ready to say anything at all?

I would presume that Ms. Mayer has a well-established support system including personal and professional mentors to help dust her off after a fall, but what about those executives a notch or two down from the top job at companies like hers?  Surely the loud reaction to her memo represents an extreme, but as a former CEO myself, I assure you the spotlight can shine unfavorably without warning.  Senior executives are almost always operating at a high level of visibility, both within their companies and to the outside world.  Say the wrong thing or implement an otherwise innocuous tactic in any compromising manner and the wallop that follows can be bone crushing.

There are unlimited roles an Executive Coach can play in serving a client, but perhaps none is more vital than the quiet sanctuary of crisis management.  Wherever the Executive Coach might be weighing in on the spectrum of support – from consultant to mentor – the sounding board an Executive Coach provides to an executive under fire can ensure continuity over severance.  A seasoned Executive Coach might be the only individual qualified, prepared, and able to help an executive repel hyperbole and steady the ship.  How much the executive can depend on a coach in times of unwanted celebrity may mean the difference between getting through the interrupt or falling prey to demoralization.

To be clear, it may not be the surprise act causing an unusual uproar that delivers material damage to the executive’s business agenda.  It may be the executive’s immediate and unformed response.  There is an extraordinary distance to navigate between thoughtful, timely reaction and analysis paralysis.  An Executive Coach remains in the executive’s corner with 100% objectivity, without conflict of interest, and without intellectual or emotional compromise to help the executive sort through all available options in near real-time.

Remember, an executive is a champion, just like a star athlete.  The executive has signed onto the team roster to win.  All executives know they will be surprised by the response to one of their decisions sooner or later, but that does not mean they want to dig themselves out of the muck alone, especially when they never saw the sinkhole coming.  Where an executive has a trusted Executive Coach accessible for counsel, that Executive Coach can guide the executive toward accessing empowered resilience to any potentially catastrophic attack.  Responding to attack will always be part of an executive’s job, but incorporating the focused perspective of an Executive Coach to respond with inspiration can make for a brilliant recovery.

When John Vercelli and I run our simulations and role-plays for Coaches Training Institute to help ready a CTI Executive Coach for the highest levels of client service, we are not just thinking about how to help an Executive Coach win a client.  We are deeply concerned how an Executive Coach retains a client, adds tremendous value to the critical work of a client, and is always available to help that client keep winning no matter the obstacles they encounter.  Because an executive must be nimble and responsive in today’s 24 x 7 x 365 competitive environment, an Executive Coach must be equally if not more nimble and responsive.  Anticipating the unexpected is of course impossible in the specific, but necessary in the abstract.  You never get an extra beat when the spotlight shines.  You sing when the light comes on.  Being ready is what makes you great, and being present is what makes you forever dependable.

No one can ever tell you when a fire is going to ignite.  The only thing you know for sure is there will be a fire.  Being an Executive Coach means you are a vital part of your client’s response team, often where the team is just you and the executive.  Are you ready for that level of responsibility?  Are you ready to help your executive win when the odds are at their lowest?  If so, the difference you make can mean everything.  For that you will always be cherished.

CTI Global

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Built to Launch?

I aspire in this post to be among the elite—one of the few business bloggers on the planet currently not commenting on Marissa Mayer becoming CEO of Yahoo. I have never met Marissa, but her reputation speaks strongly for her. I wish her well because I always want good people to succeed, and in this case I also want to see Yahoo succeed. I hope she reads my article about Yahoo from last year that predated her last two predecessors and figures out a way to restore much-needed competition to the landscape of search. Hmm, seems I’m writing about her. Okay, enough said. Got get ’em, Yahoo! Stop.

Now my real topic for the week—not surprisingly, also about succession.

Venture investors Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz have been steadfast in their support for keeping Founder/CEOs at the helm of the companies they back, from early blog posts on their site that state their philosophy to more recent comments in the Wall Street Journal that reinforce their sometimes contrarian assertions. Not only do they believe most deeply in the Founder/CEO success model, they have championed multiple class shares that keep CEOs in authority with majority control even without majority ownership. Their point of view is clear, consistent, and well-argued—and thus far their financial returns in aggregate have been extraordinary. They want vision, they want independence and long-term creative thinking, and they want continuity.

I am not sure I have an absolute opinion yet on absolute power for a start-up CEO; we’ll have to see how those play out over the next ten or twenty years. I do worry that without senior team loyalty and continuity, it may not matter whether a CEO stays or goes. Teamwork is what matters in today’s intellectual property centric companies, and if your team is not stable, I wonder if your company can remain so. Surely new blood is a great infusion when parsed appropriately, but it needs to be in balance, at equilibrium with a set of players we can count on.

What about the top-tier executives, perhaps a level down, who seem to jump freely from ship to ship, following their own personal muses, particularly after liquidity gives them the ability to set themselves free? Is this good for companies and long-term shareholder value, for companies with massive capitalization that are taking on investment—public or private—ostensibly with some hope of being Built to Last?

Clearly within our pressured and fragile economy, the bonding relationships between employers and employees have become increasingly tenuous. “At-will employment” is not just boilerplate in an offer letter, it means what it says, that jobs are temporal. Employees not under contract may depart a gig when they wish without much obligation, and employers may equally freely dismiss them (to the extent those decisions are not discriminatory) without much warning or explanation. Companies are predisposed to protect earnings and cost-cutting can be a tactic to achieve those goals, the favor of which gives employees good reason to always be in the market. Although there are any number of topics I can extract from that thread and will do so in the future, that is not my key focus here. This is not about everyday turnover and the anxiety it creates, it is about senior level turnover as a litmus test for investors.

Reality is, a lot of high-profile employees in high-profile start-ups seem to jump ship early these days. I am not so sure that they are cashing in as much as their attention spans or personal desires lead them from one thing to the next. Some examples:

• Two of Twitter’s co-founders who served as CEO left the job and their day-to-day roles, although one returned, not as CEO, but as head of product. The third co-Founder also left day-to-day responsibilities.

• Facebook’s most recent CTO, who joined the company in 2008, departed voluntarily almost immediately following the IPO. Facebook also lost an extremely high-profile CFO in 2009, and a number of other prominent C-level executives have churned through in the years leading up to the IPO.

• Groupon’s former COO, a Silicon Valley veteran brought in to steady the ship, spent about a year on the job day-to-day before moving to an advisory role.

• Yahoo continues to make headlines with five CEOs in five years, although the situation here is different. The last one to leave on his own timeline was media veteran Terry Semel, who preceded the five. Perhaps more curious at Yahoo is the level below CEO, where the turnover has been even more active, voluntary or otherwise.

• Google is now being celebrated as iCEO University, for which it has reason to be proud with strong executives like Sheryl Sandberg, Tim Armstrong, Dick Costolo, and now Marissa Mayer all willingly accepting significant challenges. My sense is this is sustainable as long as founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin stay on the job (guided by the advice of Eric Schmidt), but at some point the spinning off of entrepreneurs may take a toll as it did at once great legendary giants like Sun and Silicon Graphics (also keep an eye on HP).

It is hard to fault someone with talent and wealth for leaving a position with an “old company” to tackle a brand new start-up concept. They have the creativity, they have the yearning, and they can absorb the personal risk. Yet these aren’t exactly old, mature companies they are leaving, even in internet time. If talent retention is critical to continuity and leadership is demonstrated by example, what does it say about loyalty to the “rank and file” millionaires of Silicon Valley hungry to pursue their dreams when so many of the top dogs or near top dogs are endemically antsy?

Can you build a company that is Built to Last when many of your brightest employees—especially those made wealthy with capital they can reinvest—are thinking Built to Jump? Should shareholders in emerging high-valuation private and public companies be concerned with the New World of high turnover that is largely viewed as the way things are? There is already risk enough in holding stakes at the high valuations these companies will need to grow into, but if these are essentially knowledge-based companies where the key assets go home to their families each night, how much should owners worry whether they come back tomorrow or start a new company that’s more fun? Are these companies Built to Last or Built to Launch—launch themselves to early prominence, and launch the careers of the stars who emerge from their ranks?

Retention and the war for talent are surely talked about a lot, but I wonder if these are just buzzwords now, if key stakeholders really are losing sleep over the next spun-off employee or just prepared to roll with the punches. For anyone who has ever led a company, the notion of culture is no small issue, and companies where the culture is strong have a heritage of continuity that gives them a shot at longevity. Do we now assume Creative Destruction is such a powerful force that short-lived companies are a norm, regardless of culture and continuity? I wonder, and look forward to checking the Fortune 500 again for a few more decades to see how this plays out—not to mention the long-term trend on aggregate net job creation we so desperately need for our economy to go the distance.

I am not suggesting that employees should stay past their welcome or interest level, and in no way would I ever want (or tolerate as a manager) any form of stagnation in the form of tenure-based retention or retention for continuity’s sake. The case I am trying to make is for a tiny bit of balance in an Old World concept known as loyalty—which has been very good to me on both sides of the desk for most of my years on the job. It has been said that in today’s world loyalty is between individuals, not within companies, and there is every reason to understand how that has come to be. Yet if companies are not loyal to employees and employees are not loyal to companies, can these kind of companies really be long-term investments for shareholders? Said another way, if the system and talent are not demonstrating loyalty and commitment, should investors?