How to coach yourself as a CEO – and how can science help?

  • The Successful CEO

By Sofia Hjort Lönegård Richard Moore Mark Egan

Successful CEOs are often said to have certain traits and to behave in a certain way. However, such assertions do not hold up to real world scrutiny.

In the real world, each CEO succeeds, or not, in a unique context. So, there can be no set of general traits or way of working that will lead to his or her success.

To help you succeed and grow in the CEO role, Sofia Hjort Lönegård from MU interviews Mark Egan, the CEO of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in the UK and Richard Moore, the CEO of MU, discusses strategies you can take to coach yourself effectively in the CEO role.

To read other articles in the series please visit The Successful CEO.


'The Successful CEO' series

Nearly half of CEO appointments fail. For practical advice to succeed as a CEO – Sofia Hjort Lönegård, MU’s Head of Communications,
interviews Mark Egan, the CEO of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in the UK, and MU’s CEO, Richard Moore.

Mark has a rich and varied career having been previously the CEO of Jersey’s Parliament (States Assembly) and had senior roles in the House of Commons (the UK Parliament).

Sofia: What are the basic considerations when it comes to personal professional development for CEOs?

Richard: CEO development should follow three basic principles:

  1. Be precisely tailored: Specific to the unique demands of your CEO role and situation and to your short and longer-term personal development needs.
  2. Be goal-based: Relate to specific fact-based outcomes that you need and want to achieve – and be measured.
  3. Focus on development continuously: Build your development into day-to-day working practices – development is not another task but part of doing and learning on the job.

Even if these three golden rules seem obvious, science tells us they are not often followed in practice. Research often finds that leader development is not meaningful and lacks development impact

With increased demands on CEOs and ever-faster change to understand and lead yourself and others through, the topic of CEO professional development become an essential business priority. Find out more about the science behind leader development by reading other articles in our series: How should you develop yourself and your team, and how can science help?

Sofia: What is special about development for CEOs?

Mark: Being a CEO is an important and immensely rewarding privilege. The opportunity to provide opportunities for others to succeed and to try to help your colleagues prosper is unrivalled. However, in the unique CEO role, you also miss some things.

Of most importance, is that you don’t have a conventional line manager relationship. Reporting lines are often mediated by distance and limited time periods, with a perspective based on organisational results, formal task completion and relationships with Board members. Newly appointed CEOs soon discover that their Board Chair, trustees or oversight committee may not be focussed on their professional personal development. But the science is clear – research from a wide range of professions shows us that organisational outcomes improve when leaders continually develop their professional skills.

As a CEO, it’s important to take direct responsibility for your own professional development – to cope with current challenges and be ready for those lying ahead. Coaching yourself is an important skill that CEOs can develop to help them succeed in whatever challenges they face.

Sofia: What is self-coaching Mark, and what are the most important aspects for a CEO to consider?

Mark: Coaching takes many forms, but in this context, self-coaching is about making sure you focus on your own development – I would say effective self-coaching has four vital elements:

  1. Become ever more self-aware: As a CEO, be aware of your impact on others. How do you affect others’ attention, focus and attitudes? Find people you can trust to give you authentic feedback – colleagues who are confident enough to tell you the things you need to know about yourself and your impact that you don’t know.
  2. Self-reflect often: This is thinking about how you achieve results, what results you should achieve and how you influence others. Ask yourself powerful questions, questions that require introspection and effort to answer.
  3. Accept all forms of help: I always sign up for seminars, webinars, and group discussions when the topic is relevant. Some have not been useful so I have stepped away – but over the years as a CEO, I have got much more out of this activity than I have regretted wasting time.
  4. Find peers, external coaches or mentors to work with: Self-coaching is also about recognising that you need other experts around you. The selection of coaches or mentors is important and your situation and needs will vary over time. At least every six months take a fresh look at what you need to succeed.

Sofia: You spoke about including other coaches or mentors in your selfcoaching. What practical advice would you give to CEOs seeking such help?

Mark: When it comes to coaching I have found that having high-quality, well-prepared but infrequent conversations is best in the long term. A cosy dependency is not helpful. Exchanging with someone who is detached, objective and you can talk with and have no confidentiality concerns is useful. As is talking through problems or difficult decisions with someone who offers no personal opinion or doesn’t try to tell you what to do. For me, it is an hour where you vent, think and scrutinise your own big decisions. The relationship needs the right chemistry and effective time with coaches or mentors needs a high level of preparation to get value out of them. That doesn’t necessarily mean more work in terms of writing something for the coach/mentor to consider before the session – more thinking clearly about what the real challenges are which I need guidance with. I have countless examples where my decisions, my feedback to others and my own sense of well-being have dramatically improved through these discussions. Mentoring is a bit different. Mentors offer advice based on relevant experience – coaches draw the answers out of you. However, stepping away from precise theoretical definitions, the reality is having a coach or mentor is about improving your own decision-making and feeling supported and challenged in confidence. In reality, the boundaries are often blurred between coaching and mentoring, what matters is that you find someone you can trust and who has an approach which works for you in your personal development – both to give you fresh questions and fresh possible answers.

Sofia: And when it comes to coaching yourself, what tips would you give new CEOs?

Mark: It is important to be realistic and to have a good plan to care for yourself. As I started with in this interview, the role is very rewarding and engaging. At the same time the CEO role scope and demand is basically limitless – and sometimes thankless. If you were able to do without sleep, food or other life experiences you would still not have time to do everything you could do. And no matter how many hours you work, If you are like me and many fellow CEOs I know, you will still be disappointed at the end of the week that you missed a task, decision or something else colleagues wanted from you.

An obvious expectation in your first CEO role is that being the boss you will be able to structure your own time. Whilst there is some truth in this, at the same time your new team expects you to be interested and involved in all their issues, and have knowledge and value to add to all topics. You have to learn that what some call ‘vulnerability’ is a superpower – to not know, to ask an expert, to put demands back on others to give their recommendations is key. And you can structure your day as a new CEO – it often takes new CEOs a lot of effort and practice, but it is possible. Even with your work weeks well organised and balanced, on any day as a CEO, you are likely to have at least 4 or 5 meetings per day on very disparate topics – and you are expected to be well prepared, knowledgeable, and behave in a confident, approachable and professional way in each. Many will expect you to remember everything everyone said, and if you appear to be in a rush, struggling to keep up or ‘not present’ colleagues will notice. You mustn’t forget anything, you must show you care and that you can take on others’ problems. The weight of expectation, or self-expectation, can be overwhelming. So I – and many CEOs I know – spend too much time feeling guilty that others are waiting for you or that you have missed something important which a colleague needed help with or to talk to you about.

Faced with this never-ending task list and high expectations, making it clear to colleagues when you are at work and not, and when your day starts and ends, is important. Managing your sense of guilt that you feel you are paid well and should always be at work matters. If you don’t structure your role in a way that suits you, you will get sick or at least become ineffective. Never feel bad about giving yourself a break – whether it’s a later start, an earlier finish, or re-scheduling difficult topics for a few days to provide time to reflect. No one in your personal life or work life benefits if you spend time being sick. And it’s your responsibility to self-manage. After all, if you don’t look after your mental and physical health you and your team will suffer.

Sofia: Richard, in your work coaching leaders and teams, how have you seen CEOs care for themselves, or not?

Richard: An experienced colleague of mine once said – “I can tell you what competencies successful CEOs have. It is just 2: They need less sleep than others and they choose to work when they are awake”. She was joking of course, but such sayings have some roots in real-world
experiences. Pick up any more recent research on the CEO role and you will find that Boards, CEOs themselves and their teams have very high and multifaceted demands on the CEO. Look at what leading MBA schools are educating the next generation of CEOs on and its age-old ‘soft skills’ and the ability to switch between different, unstable and complex tasks and decisions effectively.

So CEOs reading this can probably readily recognise what Mark talks about – the limitless nature of the work. Working with leaders I observe this has become especially difficult for those leading in a hybrid context. Without the natural boundaries to the day – commuting, opening and closing of offices, etc. – you have to manage your workload and your life in a sustainable way and role model reasonable work hours. One of your key tasks is therefore to limit the stretch on yourself, not only on your team.

The best tip I have used over the last years when coaching leaders is the “rolling 100-day plan”. As CEOs we are used to making such plans at the start of a new role, but why not keep it up?

  1. Look back at your calendar for the last month; what % of your time did you actually
    spend on:
    • Which topics?
    • With which people?
  2. And ask yourself: How can I free up some time to think more?
    • What should I stop doing?
    • What are the most important topics and for my attention in the next 100 days?

If you want some pointers on an effective 100-day plan, see our previous article on the topic: What is the most important plan any CEO makes, and how can science help you get it right? – Mercuri Urval. And however you do your planning, creating more structure helps you to navigate a good path for yourself and your team.

Sofia: What other tips on self-coaching as a CEO would you give from your experience Mark?

Mark: My top tips and things that work for me are rather practical:

  • Book time every day to do some exercise – walk, run, do some weights. Don’t feel guilty that it is between 9 and 5, you spend a lot of time before and after 9 and 5 working on other days!
  • Do not take yourself or your work too seriously. Work is important and leadership matters. But most tasks and decisions are not “life and death”. Keeping perspective and helping others keep perspective allows for calmer and more measured responses.
  • Accept your imperfect self. Of course, you have and will make mistakes, that is part of life. As long as try your best and learn from mistakes that is normal – as Nelson Mandela said “I never lose. I either win or learn.” And when you learn, do it well – take the lesson, show others you have developed, and move on.
  • Get help – whether it’s internal trusted advice for feedback, external help, or taking time to do things you need to do – you are not only about tasks. Anything that gives you a chance to reflect, validate your strengths and develop your limitations will improve how you perform. “As a previous leader I had said, you are allowed to spend some time every week doing what you want and what you enjoy”. Doing different and diverse things takes you away from sitting inside the same paradigms and challenges.

What is success at the end of the day? What organisations ask for and what they need to change over time. In the final analysis, you will have succeeded by maintaining energy and performance in many different situations – to keep things in perspective and be in tune with yourself and your own impact is as important as successfully reacting to each event. Success is remaining healthy, remaining in the role, and achieving goals – and from the organisation’s point of view sustainable leadership (consistency and longevity) matters. CEOs have ups and downs, they don’t get everything right and they need to be supported as well as scrutinised. CEOs are not plug-in-and-play robots after all. To be a successful CEO you have to manage and coach yourself and get help.

Sofia: Thanks, Mark for sharing your thoughts on self-coaching for CEOs with Richard and me. Given that the success of organisations relies on effective leadership, and change is all around, it stands to reason that CEOs’ own self-development is a necessity. After all, in a fast-changing context, your organisation needs a CEO that takes care of themselves and that develops continuously.