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The Difference Between a CEO Coach and a CEO Mentor and Why Every CEO Needs Both

(This is the first in a series of three posts on this topic.)

Harry Potter was lucky. He had, in Albus Dumbledore, the ultimate wise elder, in his corner. Someone who could teach him how to be a better human being (er, wizard), how to be more proficient with his wand and spells, how to think strategically and defeat the bad guys.

All of us would benefit from having an Albus Dumbledore in our lives. But most of us don’t – and most of the people we’d call on to be that wise elder in our corner aren’t capable of the full range of advice and counsel that Dumbledore is.

Why work with a Coach or a Mentor? I’ll start this post with a quick argument in favor of CEO Coaches and Mentors (sometimes called Advisors). Even as a 20-something first-time CEO years ago, I was deeply skeptical of the value of a Coach, but that was in 1999 or 2000 when coaches weren’t so commonplace. Now that their value seems much more obvious, and there are so many amazing Mentors and Coaches available, I’m surprised by how many CEOs I speak to still seem skeptical about their value. Just think – the world’s greatest athletes, the ones who get paid zillions of dollars because they are the best in the world at something, use MULTIPLE coaches DAILY to perfect their craft and keep them focused. Why should Rafael Nadal or Serena Williams have a trainer and a coach, but not you?

I’ve benefited over the years from the advice of more people than I can ever count or thank. But when it comes to being a CEO, I have leveraged the counsel of a CEO Coach or Mentor principally in three different areas:

  1. Functional topics on the craft of being a CEO from the lofty “how to run a board meeting” to the nitty gritty details of “how to do a layoff”
  2. Developmental/behavioral topics like “how I show up as a leader in the organization,” or “how to be a better listener”
  3. Team Effectiveness topics like “how do I get the most out of my leadership team,” or “why doesn’t Person X trust Person Y and how does that impact team performance?”

In some unusual circumstances, you can find a person who does all three of these things for you and can scale as you and your company grow. But for the most part, getting all three of these things requires engaging two different people, and maybe even more mentors.

What’s the difference between a CEO Mentor and a CEO Coach? Counsel on item 1 above – what I would call CEO Mentorship – almost certainly requires someone to have been a CEO – preferably multiple times, or for a long period of time, or through multiple stages of company growth, or two or three of those qualifiers. This is the kind of person who can literally teach you how to do CEO things. These people are super busy, they won’t have open ended amounts of time for you, but you should expect sage wisdom and answers when you need them. And you can have more than one of them at a time, or change them out as your company evolves and your needs change.

Counsel on items 2 and 3 – what I would call CEO Coaching – frequently come together in a professional who is and has been for a while, a coach. The person might have had a significant career in business before becoming a coach but wasn’t necessarily a CEO. The person probably has some kind of academic grounding, like a Master’s degree in Organizational Development or Industrial Psychology, or a Certificate in Coaching. This is the kind of person who can do things for you and your team like facilitate meetings, run assessments like Myers-Briggs or DISC, and coach other leaders on your team. This person is dedicated to helping you be the best leader, professional, and CEO that you can be and must be both empathetic and comfortable pushing you hard.

Sometimes you get mentorship and coaching in the same person, but almost only with CEO Coaches who are also CEO Mentors by my definition above.

Five signs you need a CEO Mentor and/or Coach:

  • You are playing ‘whack-a-mole’ – running from crisis to crisis in your organization and are not able to make time to think, be current with email, or make time for important things like hiring senior executives
  • Your board is getting frustrated with you, your team and/or the lack of progress in the business
  • The company isn’t scaling as fast as it should
  • Your leadership team is not a cohesive team and you are in the middle of all decisions
  • The company has high employee turnover and/or poor reviews on Glassdoor

Do yourself and your company a favor and invest in a CEO Coach and Mentor(s). It’s an investment in accelerating your own and your company’s success. In later posts, I’ll talk about how to hire and best leverage both Coaches and Mentors.

Next post in the series coming soon: How to Select a CEO Mentor or CEO Coach

- Matt Blumberg, March 18, 2021