The Lonely CEO

Where Do CEOs Turn for Feedback? Boards aren’t high on the list

By Eve Tahmincioglu

Whether it’s racial tensions in a coffee shop or testimony before Congress about privacy, CEOs face a lot of pressure to make things right.

But where do CEOs typically turn to when they need honest feedback?

Not the boardroom.

A new study of 400 CEOs around the globe found that 38% turn to the board chairman of their companies for honest feedback, and only 28% turn to the board.

The report, titled The CEO: A Personal Reflection and put out by advisory firm Egon Zehnder’s global, also found that:

  • Just over half—51%—of respondents rely on their senior leadership team for that feedback, which implies that nearly half of them can't or don't.
  • Almost one-quarter (24%) said “You have to rely on your own judgment.”

“A significant conclusion from our survey is that many boards are not sufficiently supporting CEOs,” says Dick Patton, Leader of Egon Zehnder’s global CEO Practice.

“While boards of directors’ primary roles are CEO succession and governance, their responsibility to advise and support their CEO on his or her own development is crucial, yet often missed,” he adds.

Boards, he continued, “ must support the CEO’s personal growth through the leader’s entire tenure versus exclusively focusing on CEO requirements and feedback during succession, treating this process as a moment in time. Boards and executives must improve their relationship, because they have a fiduciary duty to provide honest and constructive feedback to CEOs, if CEOs cannot get honest feedback from a critical stakeholder, it is hard for them to succeed.”

Here are some additional findings:

A majority of CEOs feel they have the hard skills and professional experience to step up to the role, but found certain personal aspects of the role more challenging than expected:

  • 74% of CEOs said their prior achievements and experience prepared them to be CEOs, however:
  • 47% of respondents said that developing their senior leadership team was more difficult than anticipated.
  • 50% of respondents said driving culture change was more difficult than they’d thought.
  • 48% of respondents said that finding time for themselves and for self-reflection was more difficult than expected.
  • With hindsight, only 32% felt fully prepared.

Recognizing the importance of these soft skills and their need to adapt and change, today’s CEO is moving toward a more reflective and collaborative approach to leadership.

  • 54% of CEOs agreed that transitioning into the role required an intense period of personal reflection.
  • 79% of CEOs recognized they needed the capacity to transform themselves as well as their business.
  • Only 57% of CEOs said they were comfortable showing emotions.
  • 78% of CEOs said they were comfortable admitting mistakes.

Many CEOs felt they lacked some necessary supports before making the step up. Some believe that the succession process needs work. In particular, CEOs appointed from within a company tend to feel less prepared compared with those hired from outside.

  • 44% of the CEOs surveyed said that their appointment was not part of a planned and formal succession process.
  • For externally promoted CEOs that was 54%
  • For internally promoted CEOs that was 36%
  • Only 28% of internally-selected CEOs said they felt fully prepared vs 38% of external hires.
  • 65% of respondents said there was some succession planning underway for their own successors, but only 32% of them said that there was currently a clear process in place.