Sometimes, it’s not the whole – or even part – of a business that needs transforming. It’s just one person. That’s where executive leadership coaches such as Peter Hislop come into play. Having founded the Hislop Group in 1990, he specialises in teaching ASX top 50 CEOs and potential CEOs how to be better leaders.
At the first meeting, Hislop tells the executive three things: success as a leader is going to be very different to their previous success; they’ll have to make deep personal changes; and it will be the hardest thing they’ve ever done.
“You have to move them from the comfort of being a subject-matter expert and knowledge authority to being a leader,” says Hislop, a former lawyer who’s worked as an executive coach for two decades. He notes that careers are often built in silos, such as finance or marketing, and this is the hardest thing to alter. “For the past 15 years, they’ve worked very hard to be at the top of their game in their area. Their neural pathways are wired to be fast, decisive and right. Unless they can switch off the need to be right, they’ll fail as a generalist leader, which is what the CEO has to be.”
The first aspect Hislop works on is listening. Many people only hear what they agree with and wait for a gap in the conversation to jump in. Hislop sends his clients home after the initial session with a specific task: to ask their partner and any children over the age of 11 when they know that he or she has stopped listening to them. “Invariably their partner replies, ‘When I start talking about my day,’” says Hislop. “And kids always know when their parents have gone back to work in their heads.”
Next, he focuses on toning down their need to be right. “Leadership is all about saying, ‘I don’t know. What do you think?’ It’s not like pushing the buzzer on a quiz show – you have to allow discussion and get people to think deeply for themselves.” He has his clients practise asking open questions and listening without judgement and without having a solution. For one CEO, it took four months of him saying, “I don’t know. What do you think?” before his leadership team believed him.
As for the logistics, Hislop says he and the client meet a couple of times a week and also talk on the phone. Sometimes he walks with them to the Sydney Stock Exchange to remind them of their responsibilities. Or he’ll shadow them, attending every meeting they have for three days. Ideally, the process takes about six months but shorter, more intensive programs are possible.
“Coaching these days is all about making a transformational change,” says Hislop, adding that some clients initially reject the idea that they need to change because they feel no-one else is smarter or works harder than they do. “That doesn’t last long.” A typical response at the end? “That was the most difficult six months of my life but the most important.”