How a CEO Can Learn How to Get Better

When a company enrolls in Junto's Apprenticeship Program, we do an on-boarding interview during which we get to know the company's leadership team in more detail, and learn how we can customize the program to their needs.

One part of the interview is focused on the CEO. Before asking him or her any questions, we ask the rest of the leadership team, "How do you want [CEO's name] to get better as a CEO?" We get a variety of answers; sometimes, there's overlap and repetition, other times each person has a very different response.

It's only after that that we ask the CEO how they want to improve. We do this to create the space for the leadership team to provide their own truths and avoid being influenced by the CEO's response. And while the team is answering, someone on our team is periodically glancing at the CEO to read their non-verbals.

Last week, we did one of these interviews, after which I had a debriefing call with the CEO. I asked what his thoughts were on the session and he replied that it felt like group therapy. He appreciated learning how he was perceived and admitted feeling a little discomfort listening to his team talk about him. Their responses didn't surprise him yet it seemed to me that, after nine years, it may have been one of the first times he got such direct input from the team.

This wasn't the first time this happened. In fact, I'd estimate that about two-thirds of these interviews have revealed original, and sometimes unsettling, feedback for the CEO. But in almost all of the cases, it was helpful to them.

One of the struggles I have with conventional performance management is that it's often backward-looking. We share our views on someone's quality of work and how they've the past. It's important but I don't believe it's as helpful as being forward-looking, and talking about how they can improve in the future.

And based on our experience, one question that takes only 10-15 minutes of conversation can shed more light on a CEO's performance - arguably the one person who gets the least amount of feedback - than any other.

"How can she get better as a CEO?"