C-Suite Leadership Development: The Biggest Obstacle To Change

C-Suite Leadership Development

Oftentimes, the most challenging leadership development projects are the ones earmarked for c-suite personnel.

Why is this so?

True, the stakes are higher in the c-suite. A leader’s behavior and decisions have the greatest influence and impact on the largest number of people, relative to anyone else in the organization… but this isn’t necessarily why c-suite leadership development is uniquely challenging.

True, c-suite leaders are increasingly required to network and productively collaborate with their c-suite peers, working to get results through teams, instead of using teams as tools to achieve results themselves (the command and control strategy)… but this is also not the biggest obstacle to c-suite leadership development.

The greatest obstacle to effective leadership development in the c-suite is, often, the individual executive. Sometimes, the very executive who engaged the leadership development coach or trainer in the first place.


“It’s Everyone Else’s Fault”


Sometimes, a coach receives a call from a c-suite executive whose organization is in need of support. The executive has a problem or a challenge. Often, that executive has many problems – but appears willing to work with the coach to prioritize those problems and get down to the root issue.

Frequently, the executive appears to be very clear about the root issue, stating that the issue lies within another person on that executive’s team.

On the initial call, a CEO’s request to the coach can sound something like this: “I need you to come in and fix this person… their communication is terrible!!”

Sometimes, the CEO has discovered himself or herself at the center of a total catastrophe. In this case, they don’t point to just one person… it’s multiple people… it’s the entire team… it’s everyone that needs additional oversight and management, punishments and rewards. And if people would just grow up and stop being so mediocre, that executive could finally get some peace of mind and not have to bring bad news to the board at next month’s shareholders’ meeting!

On such a phone call, the coach is staring down the barrel at the great c-suite leadership development challenge: the executive is 100% externally-focused. Instead of taking responsibility for himself or herself, they’re focused instead on fixing the people around them… so that things can finally “get better.”

In this scenario, the coach may initiate some coaching with the team.  However, to truly bring the greatest value to the organization, the coach’s task is to invite the c-suite executive to be at least 1% open. Open to the possibility there is something they haven’t considered yet in their assessment of the “problem.”



Being (Actually) Open To Change


C-suite leaders have a stronger reason for being less open to change than junior executives: their habitual ways of doing things have gotten them certain results – and those results have usually been important factors to reaching the c-suite in the first place.

However, no matter how high we advance relative to other people, everyone reaches a stage where yesterday’s strategies and behaviors no longer work well for today’s challenges. C-suite executives are no exception to this principle.

If an executive wants to improve, to be better, and achieve better outcomes through his or her teams, then he or she must be willing to let go of what worked in the past. He or she must be willing to be open enough to get off their position, to get an objective perspective on what is working, and what’s not working – including where their own behavior and conduct is concerned.

Receiving feedback from all channels is absolutely key to an executive’s increased development as a leader.

Therefore, a c-suite executive is invited to begin the leadership development process by suspending their judgment and assessment of others, and begin with their own self – and embracing a genuine openness to feedback from all directions.



Growing In Self-Awareness… and Authenticity 


In order to overcome the barrier to growth and improvement – the assumption that they are doing, and have been doing, everything right – the executive must be truly open and willing to examine his or her own behavior and automatic settings.

If he or she is willing to do this, the door to genuine growth and development opens, and the possibility emerges of developing further into the qualities of high performance leadership.

Two such high performance leadership qualities are self-awareness and authenticity.

The self-aware executive is open to feedback and fresh ideas, and is skilled at utilizing his or her emotional intelligence to adjust their own style and influence to behavior of others. Virtuous growth cycles and incremental, continuous improvement tend to hang out in the vicinity of the self-aware executive.

Vulnerability is not the willingness to be “weak,” but rather the courage to be realand to be authentic around other people – instead of presenting the image of a flawless, type-A superhuman.

The vulnerable executive can choose humility over bluster, neutral observation over judgment, and kindness over aloofness. He or she can also risk speaking candidly about issues people are ignoring out of fear.

The outcome of an executive leaning into vulnerability is likely to be greater levels of trust and openness among members of the team, and by members of the board.


Concluding Thoughts


There’s a genuinely challenging and important call to action at the outset of the leadership development journey for c-suite executives:


Wake up and look at yourself.


Many are not willing to take up the invitation to look inside, because what they have done in the past has gotten them to where they are today.

But without openness to change, and the willingness to first look within, the executive will remain a victim of their environment.


…”The company is wrong. So-and-so is messing up. The economy is wrecking us.
The people on the board are out of touch and unreasonable in their expectations…”


The upside of victimhood is the deferment of responsibility away from the self onto others. The downside is that the path to becoming a better leader remains inaccessible.

The upside of embracing a new level of personal responsibility for everything that happens at the company is the possibility of increased growth and thriving.

The downside is personal discomfort in response to a brief passage through unknown territory.

So, if you have been considering hiring a coach to fix someone, or if you have been avoiding reading that training and development proposal placed on your desk months ago by a co-worker… you may be hearing the call to begin a journey into the next stage of your development as a leader.

If answering that call feels uncomfortable, you may be pointing in the right direction…


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