A common refrain of CEOs and other senior-level executives, regardless of industry or context is, it’s lonely at the top.
Current research challenges a long-held belief that the CEO of a company is “sort of this all-powerful being [who] can drop into the business and solve problems,” said Paul Jones, director of client solutions at the Center for Creative Leadership’s Colorado Springs campus.
“But increasingly, it’s [becoming] more important at that level to get the collective perspective from their executive team. Over time, the ability to draw the information and talent and perspectives of their senior executive team in and have a collective perspective tends to result in better decisions and more movement in alignment with their mission,” Jones said. “The more they can operate at that collective leadership level, the more likely their chances are of success.”
Workforce development is a critical component of any CEO’s job — so much so that they often neglect their own, said Hillary Reed, executive director of Leadership Pikes Peak.
“As higher-level leaders, we constantly need to be growing and adapting our own skills,” Reed said. “One of the first steps to leadership development is understanding yourself. You cannot be an effective leader if you don’t understand your own personality styles, preferences and strengths.”
Leadership Pikes Peak’s Signature Program, which will kick off its 40th class in August, is designed for established professionals who are looking to expand their own skills, personalities and preferences to become more effective leaders in both their community and individual organizations, Reed said.
“Our intent is to give them the skills, the abilities, the network and the contacts to go out and make their community a better place, but also to be able to take those skills back to their business and improve that as well,” she said.
The 10-month program guides leaders through finding their Myers-Briggs personality type as well as their top five strengths, in order to both understand their own communication styles and adapt those styles when working within an organization, Reed said.
The curriculum focuses on a single topic each day facilitated by subject matter experts in that field, with presentations, discussions and activities that help participants develop a robust knowledge of all sectors of work and life in the Pikes Peak region, as well as build relationships with dozens of leaders in a variety of fields, according to LPP’s website.
Reed, who went through the Signature Program in 2013 prior to taking over at LPP, said its insights have proved invaluable time and again in her various leadership roles.
“I tell everybody I talk to that I would not be in the position I am today had I not gone through the Signature Program,” Reed said. “I learned where I’m most comfortable, but I also learned how to flex my style so I can work with other people and communicate with those around me. I think knowing how to flex my style has been essential in helping me move up into my leadership positions.”
LEADERSHIP AT THE PEAK
Programs such as the Center for Creative Learning’s “Leadership at the Peak” provide a controlled environment for top executives — and their direct reports — to dissect their leadership style and maximize their effectiveness.
C-level and senior executives in the top three tiers of an organization — especially those with more than 15 years of management experience who are responsible for at least 500 employees — can spend five days attending simulations and workshops focused on business operations, talent management, strategic issues and individual impact, according to CCL’s website.
The LAP program ends with two hour-long phone sessions with a CCL coach, and participants must fill out an assessment three months after completing the program to measure their skills and behavior progress, the website states.
Leadership at the Peak is intentionally an open enrollment program, meaning senior-level executives from different industries and companies can connect and share their experiences in a psychologically safe way, Jones said.
“Executives have developmental needs that are different than the needs of employees in other parts of the organization,” Jones said. “A common experience of people, especially in that CEO role, is they don’t often have an immediate cohort to turn to, to bounce ideas off, because when you’re the CEO and you make a statement at your work, people think it’s a directive.”
Once employees reach the executive level, their growth is much less contingent on skill development and more about what CCL calls “direction alignment and commitment — the result of a coordinated effort of aligning the beliefs and practices at that senior level and then ensuring people buy into it, understand it and can speak about it throughout the entire organization,” Jones said.
“It’s more working on the business than in the business,” he said. “We’re not doing a lot of skill development there. We’re talking about, how do you get comfortable being decisive when you don’t have 100 percent of the data? How do you get comfortable with engaging stakeholders from an outside-in view, rather than an inside-out view?”
Senior teams, and most often CEOs, are in the unique position of having to view a business from an outside perspective while simultaneously operating inside the company, something not often taught at lower management levels, Jones said.
“It’s not a skill set,” he said. “It happens through perspective-taking. How do you make sure you’re understanding multiple perspectives, and not necessarily just what the business tells you?”
“[Senior-level executives] are the ones who are connecting with the board or stakeholders. They’re the bridge between how the outside looks at the business and how the inside looks at the business,” he added. “They haven’t had that experience until they get to that level.”
Viewing the business through a broader lens can mean holding multiple priorities in place at the same time, which is also not something upper-level executives typically experience prior to taking on the top role, Jones said.
“For example, they have to balance their functional expertise from the enterprise accountabilities,” he said. “There might be times on a senior team where they have to make decisions that sub-optimize their function, but are the best for the enterprise.”
Although it may run counter to conventional wisdom, Jones said, the most successful companies have CEOs who avoid becoming too deeply embedded in the business.
“People are hungry to be trusted to be able to do work to free time up for those folks to do more strategic thinking,” Jones said. “Trust that you hired good people. You need to focus on the future.”
Due to the nature of their positions, senior-level executives may have grown unaccustomed to hearing colleagues speak candidly about their own performance. Fortunately, LAP participants can expect robust feedback on several levels, Jones said.
“As strange as it might sound, especially for senior teams and CEOs, they don’t get a lot of feedback, and the feedback that they get is often not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” Jones said. “It is watered down to what people think the CEO might want to hear. People tend to put it through a filter.”
Through anonymous sources, LAP provides senior-level executives with direct feedback about their behavior in their roles, Jones said.
“It might have been years since a CEO had that unfiltered feedback about their behavior and the effects on a business,” he said. “We provide an opportunity for them to get that through a structured means because it typically doesn’t happen in the course of business.”