The Power of A Great CEO Coach

Our Foundry Group CEO list lit up this morning with a question about CEO coaches and whether they were helpful.

My quick response was:

I think a great CEO coach can be awesome and not-great CEO coach can be very detrimental. Jerry Colonna is the best CEO coach I’ve ever met or worked with. There are others that I’m sure will emerge from this discussion but make sure you know what you are getting / looking for.

Like many of our CEO threads this one filled up quickly with great thoughts and suggestions. Then one just nailed it.

“The key for me is that it was a cross between coaching and therapy. You can talk about business issues *in the context* of how you feel about them. This is a crucial benefit, because no matter how good your relationship with board members, expressing those feelings necessarily affects the business conversation; and no matter how astute your spouse, he or she is likely not to put enough weight on the business considerations. Consequently, the normal mode for a CEO is to have all of it in your head; and sometimes it just rolls around in there and makes you crazy.

I suspect this is true no matter how “transparent” you are.

Consequently, the key for a CEO coach is that they be able to quickly understand the business issues AND the emotional issues, and tie them together.”

CEO coaches aren’t for everyone, but I’ve seen amazing impact when a CEO gets a match with a coach that fits well with what he/she needs. And I’ve also seen the opposite – total mismatches between coach and CEO that drove the CEO over a cliff. Make sure you know what you are looking for, and assess regularly what you are getting from the relationship. But don’t be afraid to try.

  • “a cross between coaching and therapy”… bingo.

  • Shameless plug to go see our interview with Jerry –


  • Jeffrey Hartmann

    I will have to say working with a CEO coach has been great for me, being in a situation where I am juggling what provides my working capital and having something in my head that is begging at every moment to be “printed” is challenging. I have been helped greatly by my interactions with my coach, the people around me just don’t completely get how my thoughts about my business permeate everything even when I don’t mean for them to.

    A good coach knows how someone responsible for a business will typically think through things, common problems they tend to have, and they tend to have great pattern recognition that they can draw on to suggest helpful approaches and techniques to suggest to help you solve the problem. I would highly suggest that both people newly taking on the CEO mantle and those in the job for years look into finding the right coach for them.

  • I had a great CEO coach when I was a new start-up CEO, but I was pretty clear with him about what I needed specifically, someone to help me work with my board. He was great at helping me understand what my board needed in terms of a dashboard of metrics and how to tell them bad news early, how much of their input to solicit, how much to take into account when making decisions, other times, how much to just ignore.

  • Curious about the coach that drives them over the cliff- did that CEO hire that coach?

  • What’s the equivalent of a CEO coach for an early stage founder? I’ve generally found that the people who’ve freely offered themselves up as “mentors” have been more interested in hearing themselves talk than they are in the minutia of my business. I wonder how many other founder types have been disappointed by the level of genuine advice that they’ve received from people they respected (former bosses, colleagues, etc.). I’ve solicited advice from a lot of people I respected prior to starting the business, and (with just a few exceptions) heard a lot of generalities and input that shows very little critical thought. I’ve also heard a lot of negative feedback (not critical, just negative, and irrelevant) that made some of these people sound like they were almost hopeful that what I was trying to do was impossible. Maybe I’m just a poor judge of who my most valuable contacts really were.

    • Knowing how to help someone is a distinct skill. Most people don’t have it.

      Even if a prospective advisor has tons of knowledge or experience, that doesn’t mean they know how to listen, understand what would help the other person, ask useful questions, and develop the listener’s problem-solving capacity.

  • Marilyn Walker

    “Oh, it’s lonely at the top.” I suspect most CEOs can benefit from the right coach, and new ones in particular. A very difficult job and one that can be very isolating.

  • Great article.

    The criteria for a great coach?

    In my book it would be

    1) Business Experience
    2) Asks more questions and gives fewer answers (lets the mentee develop their own answers)
    3) Non judgmental
    4) Asks touch questions and doesn’t back off
    5) Non-conflicted – has no conflicting agenda, isn’t an investor, customer, family member, or vendor.

    Mind if I repost this article on my blog?

  • We all have blind spots. As a CEO or founder, the cost of an unexamined blind spot is multiplied. A great book on this is “What got you here won’t get you there” by Marshall Goldsmith.

    As a coach for the last 15 years, I agree that “fit” is everything. I don’t know as much about my clients’ businesses as they do, and never will. But I can tell within one or two conversations whether we can be productive and whether I can help. If you’re looking for a coach, trust your gut and tell the prospect point blank if you think the fit isn’t there. If nothing else, it’s good practice for direct conversations.

  • I once heard it phrased as you need a coach that understands both physics (forces at work, including emotional) and engineering (the components that make up the structure of a company and how they fit together)

  • Appreciate the lively discussion. I’m a coach who sometimes coaches CEOs and other human beings. Coaching isn’t for everyone. For those it benefits, it can really move the needle. There needs to be the right fit between client and coach. There needs to be clarity about goals and relationship. I would say there needs to be a certain level of playfulness to offset all the serious discussion but that really begins to define one coach’s style. The coaching process really is in the service of “thee not me.” Doesn’t mean the coach doesn’t get paid but Clients’ needs do come first. One other thing: coaching experiencing should inspirational, and in best cases, personally transformational to the coaching Client.

  • Thanks for the link to Jerry. He is doing some very important work.

  • I’ve personally had a good experience and a great experience and the difference was, as this CEO says, understanding that it is a mix between coaching and therapy. That couldn’t be more true for me.

    In general, I think the rewards far outweigh the risks if – and this is a big if – you are fully committed.

  • Toby Reid

    Is it possible for a peer (another trusted CEO(s) in a similar position) to provide similar support by understanding both the ‘business issues’ and ‘how you feel about them’ and being the neutral, independent sounding board or is the ‘coaching’ element crucial?

    • I think the coaching element is very different then a CEO peer. They are both valuable, but very different.