• Mark Thomas

CEOs: Talk to Coaches Before Consultants



As a CEO and business owner, I’ve hired consultants, most of whom were smart and talented, but they didn’t necessarily provide what I needed.


We hire a consultant to bring new thinking beyond what we’ve already considered. But often we end up going over old territory and frankly speaking, we don’t need more ideas.

Typically, we hire a consultant to bring new thinking beyond what we’ve already considered. But often we end up going over old territory and frankly speaking, we don’t need more ideas—most of us have too much to handle already. Adding new ideas to the backlog is stressful, distracting and extremely expensive.


As an executive coach and Vistage Chair, I’ve learned you have to help the CEO build their business…not build it for them.


Coaching vs. Consulting

Consulting is about bringing outside skills to a business, while coaching is about nurturing skills within leadership. A great coach doesn’t come with the right answers—they come with the right questions.


Here are the techniques I use as an executive coach to cultivate successful CEOs:


1. Let clients take the lead

If I’m not talking to the CEO about their top priorities, I’m not serving their best interests. I want to know their biggest concerns and what a successful outcome looks like for them.


2. Experience rules

We talk about the notion; “it can be lonely at the top” and how few people really know what it’s like to be a CEO. Chris Voss, a former FBI negotiator-turned Harvard Professor, explains that rather than getting people to say “yes” you should first get them to say “that’s right” to your understanding of the situation. Having a coach who’s been in your shoes and can bring an empathetic connection is the starting point for collaboration.


3. The CEO, not the coach, has the answers

I’ve found it’s more effective to acknowledge that I don’t know everything. I will never know as much as the CEO about their business. Asking the right questions and staying curious makes for a better experience for clients. Elon Musk said that “a lot of times the question is harder than the answer. If you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part.” Asking the right questions helps CEOs work through issues and gently reveals their blind spots.


4. Be specific

Getting the CEO to be specific about the outcomes, goals and actions creates a more engaging discussion. It’s been said; “in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” Helping the CEO recognize and commit to the desired outcome is my purpose.


5. Curiosity is the opposite of judgement

Questions asked improperly can evoke defensiveness and cause the CEO to feel they are being unfairly judged. If the CEO becomes defensive, my ability to influence them is gone. It’s important for me to remain curious and not jump to quick conclusions.


6. Share experiences, not instructions

I’m not suggesting I have all the answers, but as a seasoned CEO, I’ve had many of the same experiences as my clients and Vistage members. Sharing my mistakes and successes can help the CEO form their own plan. It’s good to know we are not alone or particularly unique when it comes to the challenges and opportunities we face as CEOs and business owners.


7. Give credit where it’s due

As I’ve acknowledged before, it’s lonely at the top. A CEO is surrounded by problems and rarely do they take the time to accept the praise they often deserve. An experienced coach understands the value of recognition and praise for something the CEO is proud of.


8. More talk and more action

CEOs are usually good at holding others accountable, but who’s holding the CEO accountable? After a coaching session, the CEO is back to the chaos they just left. That’s why it’s important to agree on concrete action items with target dates for completion. Following up shows that I care and provides the highest degree of service to my clients and Vistage members.


Finding a great coach can be hard. You want someone you can relate to, who has already been through the growing pains you might be experiencing and can talk about it with confidence. Someone who knows how to work with CEOs, will check their ego and care about you.


Do you have stories to share about working with a coach versus working with a consultant? I’m always looking to expand my network, so let’s connect.


About the Author:

I’m a Vistage Chair and Executive Coach helping leaders make better decisions and achieve their most ambitious definition of success. I can be reached at Mark.Thomas@VistageChair.com.

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Mark Thomas

©2020 Mark Thomas