Article: It can be lonely at the top: G. Venkatesh


It can be lonely at the top: G. Venkatesh

G Venkatesh

As leaders move up the hierarchical ladder, they have fewer touch points within the organisation with staff at junior/senior level. They get drawn into a vicious cycle where it is easy to lose touch with reality. In professionally managed organisations, this risk for a CEO or a CMD is somewhat mitigated, because there are people at director levels who report to the CEO or CMD and with whom there are lots of interactions by way of group meetings, leadership workshops, etc. But, what about those firms that are founded by entrepreneurs, where besides the main person who is at the helm of the affairs, there are only 1 or 2 senior persons reporting directly to him and having direct access to him? This is actually a trap and before they realise this, many CEOs end up creating an environment in which, not many employees can freely approach them. Before too long, the CEOs realise that it is lonely at the top.

These types of corporate situations have created a new breed of HR consultants called ‘executive coaches‘, who mentor and train such top level leaders. Generally, executive coaches are senior level leaders who help the CEOs cope with change enabling them to keep their ear on the ground. They try to help the CEOs eschew the normal tendency of insisting on what they want to listen to rather than what they need to listen to. In a corporate environment, many senior level leaders tend to become chary about sharing unpleasant information with the top boss. This means that the CEO does not have a true picture. So, in such a situation, it is only such ‘executive coaches’ who can help the CEO address his shortcomings in a constructive manner and work towards correcting the gaps.

Ironically, years ago, a role that was quite popular in corporate circles was that of an Executive Assistant (EA). Though an EA could not be called a mentor or a coach, he was an important resource for the CEO. Sadly, over the years, many corporates misused such profiles completely obliterating and totally blurring the distinction between an executive assistant and an executive secretary. This eventually made many prospective candidates wary of such type of strategic roles.

Ideally, a real EA has the shadow authority of the CEO and can be a key resource in the organisation having empowerment and authority. However, there were reports of candidates who joined as EA being asked to do travel and hotel bookings, type letters, attend to screening calls and carry out similar secretarial work.

With easy access to people at lower hierarchical levels, the EA would have been in a much better position to keep the CEO/CMD informed about the situation on the ground. He was also someone who acted as the sounding board for the CEO. The EA, to some extent, had roles similar to that of an executive coach, but at a junior level. He was someone who was encouraged to use a creative approach to resolve problems.

Political environment in organisations led to such people appointed as executive assistants to become ‘tale carriers’ instead of ‘information providers’. It takes two to clap and so, one would also equally blame the leader for encouraging such tendencies. There are also ethical issues involved as there can be misuse of authority.

It is so very difficult to locate a candidate to fit in the role of an EA, who has the highest standards of integrity and moral character. It is only references from past employers/bosses/customers that act as a viable tool to make an informed decision while recruiting such candidates. If the EA role had been given the respect it deserved, then CEOs would have had someone who was dependable and resourceful in taking strategic decisions. But like throwing the baby along with the bath tub, by clubbing the executive assistant and executive secretary roles as one, corporates ended up dissuading promising talent to apply for such roles.

It must also be mentioned that the EA role was considered as a spring board for moving onto other business roles and this was the key attraction. Sadly, the strategies changed and today there are very few “real” executive assistant roles in the job market. Even for such job roles, there are not many takers for the simple reason that the job market has not been able to rebuild credibility for such positions.

The demise of the EA role has now led to new concepts in HR consulting. As mentioned before, executive coaches are one such breed. There are management gurus like Robin Sharma, Deepak Chopra, Shiv Khera and spiritual gurus like the Bangalore-based Swami Sukhabodananda who train and mentor senior level leaders at specially organised workshops. There are some others who call themselves ‘thought leaders’ and help the CEO gain a clear business perspective through unconventional means.

I have every reason to believe that this is a healthy trend. For one, as all these consultants are not part of the organisation; you can expect them to be unbiased and constructive in their approach. That apart, people who have retired from HR/strategy function can be gainfully employed by such CEOs for sharing their wisdom that they have gained over the years. But for all these mentoring/coaching efforts to succeed, it is important that CEOs improve their listening skills, give the consultants the respect that they deserve and make informed decisions based on the advice given. Eventually, it is the CEO’s call. There is no compulsion on the CEO to follow each and every advice given by the coaches. But, rejection of an idea suggested by the coach must have a valid reason.

I have observed that this model of individual coaching/mentoring is far better than the other popular model of “strategy consultation”, especially when it relates to coaching the CEO. This is because, the strategy teams who land in an office, start throwing attitude taking advantage of their proximity to the CEO and before long, they alienate the employees within no time. In most organisations, the so-called strategy consultants are perceived as ‘butchers’ – all out to reduce the head count by hook or crook. There may be exceptions to this rule, however, it is an open secret that anything remotely related to strategy is now widely perceived as a decoy to slash jobs.

Last but not the least, the decision to engage such coaches must be taken at early stages and not when the damage is already done. Coaches/mentors can enable the CEO/CMD to look at a situation with the objectivity that is needed. At the end of the day, it is not about business alone. It is also about addressing the social needs of the CEO.

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Topics: Leadership, Learning & Development

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