Money Matters

Mentoring CEOs

By Sirajuddin Aziz
Mon, 09, 22

This title will be provocative for all CEOs; they will find it repulsive; gods do not need mentoring. Only mortals do. CEOs are a distinct and different breed than all the other workers in any organisation. They are “considered” to possess better skills in the art and science of managing institutions. In reality, many would fail the first test of leadership, which is acceptance of a divergent opinion. Being made to sit at the apex of the organisation structure, does not necessarily indicate an affirmation that the person is a wise- acre, who knows it all.

Mentoring CEOs

This title will be provocative for all CEOs; they will find it repulsive; gods do not need mentoring. Only mortals do. CEOs are a distinct and different breed than all the other workers in any organisation. They are “considered” to possess better skills in the art and science of managing institutions. In reality, many would fail the first test of leadership, which is acceptance of a divergent opinion. Being made to sit at the apex of the organisation structure, does not necessarily indicate an affirmation that the person is a wise- acre, who knows it all.

Today’s fast changing face of the business world requires recognition that to remain relevant and competitive in the marketplace, organisations have to design with precision, a disciplined workforce. Great amount of attention has to be paid on facilitating transfer of knowledge and experience between the constituents. Managers are coached by their supervisors. The compelling question is, who coaches and mentor, the numero uno of the organisation? Who can be the CEO’s mentor?

The reporting line of a CEO is to the chairman and the Board of Directors. Hence the Board can be a mentor. In addition, and possibly more significantly, the other major mentors of a CEO are the regulators, laws, rules, regulations, procedures, policies, etc.

To decide on what type of mentoring a CEO requires, it will first have to do, with what type of CEO has been either hired or elevated from amongst the ranks. In case of internally selected person, the need to provide guidance about institutional strategy, its working style, etc may not be required at all; however, if the hired person is new to the organisation, he will have to be fed with the wherewithal of the organisation.

The decision to mentor a CEO is largely dependent on the type of CEO, the Board desires. If they need a “compliant” CEO, with no spine, then mentoring, will only be to their (Boards) peril. Many organisations in our business culture have CEOs who are supposed to be sitting ducks; hired to fill in the slot, to satisfy the regulatory requirements. Like a pilot, who has to fly the aircraft whose vectors are pre-designed and fully computerised, who is instructed not to touch any buttons on the panel; but he is saddled in the cockpit to keep the passengers calm, that there is a human flying the aircraft! No powers to do anything, nor indulge into thinking, is the type of CEO many entrepreneurs desire for their organisations.

An individual, who joins the production division of say a pharmaceutical company, does very well as an officer--- in recognition, he is promoted to be the manager, later, director, executive director and so which time he is automatically in the run for the CEO’s position… and this achievement is based on mere efficiency in productivity. The Board can get tempted to kick such a person upstairs as the CEO. It is a normal thing in our business and corporate culture for such an event to happen. Now this Simple Simon, who is only good as production director, and no more, is thrust into a position of leadership, for which the skills may not be present in the persona. Incapability is not recognised for running an institution. The expertise in one or two areas doesn’t entitle anyone to be perched up the corporate ladder. Instead, such high achievers must be continuously rotated laterally and horizontally across the hierarchy of the organisation chart. Hoisting an untrained CEO is to invite a Himalayan tragedy. We see this happening in the government too, at Islamabad--- square (deformed) pegs in equally deformed round holes!

Those organisations that stand out, usually would have CEOs who are themselves willing to learn, develop and be well disposed towards being mentored and coached, by all and sundry. There is never from amongst an army of colleagues, a person, from whom something of practical value, cannot be had. There is always one, to look up to.

CEOs who are willing towards self-improvement will demonstrate in their attitude, an openness to be coached, through individual or collective effort, of all colleagues. I personally made conscious decision and effort to be mentored / coached by younger colleagues. Fresh entrants and new on the job officers are more inclined towards giving, without fear or favour, frank and forthright opinion, including offering direct criticism, which in turn can be highly constructive. I believe with unflinching conviction, CEOs must venture towards seeking coaching from the young, fresh and unpolluted minds. It helps.

The Board of Directors, usually approve the strategy of the organisation, which is developed, both by the CEO and his team, on the guidelines provided by itself. The input of the Board is usually directional, with least substantiation of either facts, figures or realities. The CEO can be and should be mentored by the Board, who are responsible for policy making. To bring this around the need is to have a competent Board.

This brings us to review what’s important? It is the constitution of the Board itself. The Board before selecting a new CEO, has to first contextualise its own strategic viewpoint, relating to their market, its participants and the type of their business cycle. The underlying opinion and assumptions to the strategy will provide for what type of CEO, the business needs?

Like in a pack of cards there is always a joker, so is true of the Board, there will at least one, if not more. They will speak about this that and more of the other. A John Falstaff in a board room is not an unheard thing. Those who themselves lack knowledge will not be able to mentor. Some members are brought on to the Board to bring comic relief, when things get serious, more clownish than professional. I have seen many do a good job.

If the Board has an over dosage of family members, it is a recipe for disaster for the management. The agenda of the family Board Members can get into serious conflict with good practices. The related party transactions can become a serious bone of contention. In an environment of distrust between the CEO and the Board, the possibility of mentoring would not work. Only where there is a professional Board with a fair mix of individuals, with unique, diverse and distinct background can bring to the table the concept of mentoring by the Board. A Board must constitute of members, who have knowledge and are aware of accountancy, IT, governance standards, best practices, etc.

In the local corporate climate, the regulators have proactively introduced strict codes of governance relating to the Board members and the CEO. The emphasis on having nonexecutive independent directors and the restriction on the number of family directors has been a major step towards bringing an end to injudicious decision-making by the Boards.

CEOs have to be trained to be adept at making their institutions learning entities, enabling to react with speed to challenges of change in market conditions. I have witnessed CEOs who look like a wrecked vessel on the first sign of change of the status quo. They were mostly those who were either not trained enough for the job or were not cognisant of their own gaps and inadequacies of conducting business on a wholesome basis.

CEOs have to indulge in self-evaluation of their performance. Since they lead the institution, they ought to possess multi-functional expertise, given their vantage of privileged perspective of having oversight over all functions. To assess their work, productivity and performance, CEOs can enlist the help of external evaluators, who can give a 360 degree evaluation / survey from within the institution.

CEOs for their professional growth must encourage themselves to regularly update their reservoir of knowledge, by attending short and long courses. Such approach by the CEO ushers solid support to the learning and development environment within the company. I personally believe that if a CEO can conduct for senior management technical programme relating to their line of business, he is offering himself to be corrected, re- tooled and updated. To teach, one has to learn. The admittance to learning is the first step towards the willingness to be mentored too.

The Board for mentoring the CEO can devise various feedback formats for him to, periodically submit, that can cover areas like, level now of understanding of the business, steps taken for gaining more market space, leadership characteristics and practices displayed on the shop floor; identifying the weak and infirm areas for improvement. The BOD in its evaluation must express confidence in the CEO and his / her team or alternatively record opinion for bringing around improvements.

Founder CEOs can be incorrigible narcissists, who would refuse to be guided by the Board, let alone, become a mentee. This attitude is based upon a false sense of belief that since they are initiators of business, they “know” everything that needs to be known for conducting business. They endeavour to acquire a cult status.

The mantra of all management gurus and scientists is, what gets measured gets done, what gets rewarded gets done repeatedly. If the CEO is not a major disrupter of the status quo, it is a fair indication that he / she is lacking self-motivation or is weak in influencing colleagues, who may be deliberately resisting change.

There is no individual who doesn’t need mentoring. It is all about guidance, good counsel and advice, for both self-improvement and growth of the institution. CEOs have to be courageous to accept being a mentee--- and the first quality to be recognised as first class mentee is to be a good listener--- listening involves attentiveness and the ability to communicate effective feedback. Being a mentee allows for expansion of knowledge base, improvement of skills and it instils the habit to seek valuable advice from all quarters. Showing a visible keenness of possessing a growth mind-set coupled with willingness to take constructive criticism is a sign of a leader, who knows the significance of followership.

If the Board is the “boss” of the CEO; it is only fair that the CEO must also be entitled to evaluate the performance of the Board members; like are they up to date with current market trends, do they understand international best practices, etc.

Any CEO, who thinks, they are “The Boss”; must read this piece again!

The writer is a senior banker and freelance contributor