How do you coach your CEO to take action? Asking for a friend.

Dear Asking For a Friend:

A great question - and you are not alone. Below are a few situations we’ve been working through with folks who called us in the last few months. What do you see in common?

  • Some great people just left the company due to two very poor C-level leaders. The CEO knows about the poor leadership yet is trying to get someone else to solve it and says he’s too busy to deal with the problem. The rest of the talent is considering or readying to leave, leaving the future of the company at risk.

  • A C-suite leader with decades at a company is dragging his feet around needed change to the point where it’s hurting the company’s profitability and growth. Morale is in the toilet yet no one is doing anything. Why can’t the CEO help this other leader step up or step out?

  • A senior leadership team isn’t working together and people are retreating to their silos. The CEO is  thinking about new products and partnerships while everyone else is trying to hold the business together.

So what commonality did you notice?

Yep! We see a lot of CEO inaction - which we believe is something of an epidemic across the country. Pretty frustrating, huh?


Asking For a Friend, this isn’t about CEOs being bad people. Every senior leader has literally hundreds of reasons not to take action. Here are a few common ones:

  • They are overwhelmed by busyness

  • They feel they addressed the problem once

  • It’s difficult to have hard conversations with people they are friends with, used to work for, or they brought into the company in the first place.

The key here is not to blame, excuse, or demonize the CEO - which provides temporary relief at best and at worst contributes to organizational dysfunction.

Instead, if you really want the situation to change, you need to change the situation. Start with summoning both courage and objective information about the situation.

Here is a short process to give “your friend” to use with their CEO to surface and work through difficult organizational issues.

First, ask yourself: “What does the CEO really care about?”

Many people assume others are motivated by what motivates them. What does the CEO do in their spare time? What do they get excited or irritated about? Typical motivators are: return on effort, caring about people, and leaving a legacy. Try to picture the current situation with the CEO’s values in mind. Ask yourself: Why would he or she care? How would the current challenges negatively impact the CEO’s desired future?

Next, find out how in tune the CEO is with reality.

How does the CEO perceive the current state of the company? Is the company as good as it can get, or is there a gap between what is and what could be?

Most people in organizations - with the best of intentions - prevent less-than-great news from reaching the CEO. The results is many senior leaders operate in a reality vacuum. If your leader isn’t getting feedback on the negative effects of their decision making or how they’re showing up as a leader, why would they do anything different?

A good way to uncover inconsistency is to sift through communication and messaging from the CEO and look for common threads. You can also ask people near the CEO or even the CEO directly about their perceptions. Doing this demonstrates you care about the company’s success AND the CEO’s perspective.

Answers to these questions help you determine how much of a gap there is between what’s happening and what the CEO knows.

If they don’t see a gap, they won’t see a problem.

Take notes on the gaps and then…

Ready your information about how the company could change with his or her action – and what will happen if inaction continues.

Asking For a Friend, you may be tempted to frame the current challenge through the lens of your needs, like “I can’t do my job” or “Unless this changes, I’ll have to leave.” While “your friend’s” needs are important, unless the change makes a difference to what the CEO cares about and understands is happening, no change will occur.

“Your friend” can use the Cascade of Needs question process to structure the conversation – focus first on the shared [business] need, then on the other person’s [CEO’s] needs, and finally “your friend’s” own needs.

Finally, bravely raise the issue - without getting fired.

Some clients have sparked a conversation with the CEO by passing along information from a third-party perspective - an article, podcast, or blog post - that have the potential to help the CEO realize: a) the challenges they face are normal, b) the challenges can be overcome, and c) taking action is vital to success. Usually the copied article or forwarded link included a subtle note - “Would love to talk further if you think it could be helpful” or something similar.

Ask for a conversation and focus on the genuine, positive possibilities for the business first, the leader’s real needs second, and “your friend’s” needs last. This process helps “your friend” be seen as someone bringing a solution instead of being a problem themselves.

Once “your friend” and their CEO are working toward the same goal together, they are much more likely to get to a win-win solution for the business, the CEO, and the team.

If “your friend” has further questions about how to approach these steps, tell them we’d love to chat.

Tune in next month for our follow-on post – “I’m a CEO. How do I get people to really tell me the problems around here?”