Mentoring and coaching CEOs

A recent article in Harvard Business Review[1] proposes six dimensions that define how CEOs exert influence. All of these also seem highly relevant to other leaders – indeed to anyone, who has a large span of control and authority. For coaches and mentors, the dimensions provide a useful framework for reviewing with leaders how they manage their time. As the article’s authors – both well-known authorities at Harvard — say: “Any leader’s schedule… is a manifestation of how the leader leads and sends powerful message to the rest of the organization”.

The six dimensions of influence are:

  • Direct v indirect: the leader makes or is involved in making decisions and setting agendas and priorities; or integrates how other people make decisions
  • Internal v external: working within internal constituencies or external stakeholders
  • Proactive v reactive: focused on vision and purpose; or responding to events as they occur
  • Leverage v constraints: while the leader’s position and access to resources gives them a lot of clout, they must also bring other people along with them
  • Tangible v symbolic: leaders must make key decisions on people, resources, structure and strategy, but they also influence by setting the tone and role modelling values
  • Power v legitimacy: power comes from position, authority and results (track record), but needs to be balanced with trust from below that they are fair and committed to the organization.

In the coaching or mentoring conversation with leaders, these issues are fundamental to how they perceive themselves and their role. Amongst the critical questions to pose are:

  • How do you balance the tension between each of these dualities?
  • Are any of the balances strongly tipped one way or another? If so, what’s the real or potential impact of that?
  • How important do you perceive each of the opposites to be?
  • Which do you find most and least energising? Most and least energy-sapping?
  • How do other people perceive the balance you create?
  • What needs to change in what you do?
  • What needs to change in how you think about yourself and your role?
  • What help do you need to make those changes happen?

Given that CEOs and other leaders are frequently too busy to think about such topics, it may be necessary for them to gather data that confirms what they actually do, as opposed to what they like to think they do. The Harvard research enlisted leaders’ PAs to record what the leaders did, every 15 minutes. While this may seem onerous, any data is better than none. Confidential feedback from the leader’s direct reports and others can also be helpful. As always, however, the principal benefit of focusing a leader’s attention on these issues is that their raised awareness enables them to make better decisions about how they influence and how they use their precious time.


© David Clutterbuck, 2018

[1] Porter, ME and Nohria, N (2018) How CEOs Manage Time, Harvard Business Review, July-August 42-51. The study was based on detailed analysis of the time allocation of 27 CEOs over three months each.

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