Operational CEO Coaching, an alternative to Changing a CEO.

Could Operational CEO Coaching transform your existing CEO?


The decision to change a company’s CEO is a critical juncture that can significantly impact an organisation’s trajectory. Often, this decision arises from perceived leadership deficiencies, market challenges, or the need for fresh perspectives. However, an alternative approach gaining traction in the business world is the addition of Operational CEO Coaching to augment the management team’s capabilities. This article explores the significance of Operational CEO coaching as an alternative to CEO replacement and its potential to bring about positive organisational transformation.

Operational CEO Coaching

To clarify, when I refer to Operational CEO Coaching, I’m not referring to the typical “how does that make you feel” style of coaching. Instead, I’m talking about Operational Coaching, akin to what you’d experience in a sports team where seasoned advice rooted in extensive operational experience is readily shared and ideas are openly discussed.

The Traditional Approach to CEO Replacement:

In many organisations, the decision to replace a CEO is often made under duress. Whether due to declining financial performance, internal conflicts, or an inability to adapt to market dynamics, the incumbent CEO’s shortcomings can prompt the board to seek a new leader. However, this approach, while sometimes necessary, comes with inherent risks and challenges that can disrupt the organisation’s stability and growth.

One major challenge is the disruption caused by CEO turnover. 

Transitioning to a new CEO can lead to uncertainty, affecting employee morale, investor confidence, and stakeholder relationships. Moreover, finding a suitable replacement takes work and can be time-consuming and costly. Even with an extensive search process, there’s no guarantee that the new CEO will perfectly fit the organisation’s needs and culture.

The Emergence of Operational CEO Coaching:

Amidst the challenges of CEO turnover, many organisations are turning to Operational CEO coaching as an alternative or complementary approach. Operational CEO coaching involves the engagement of an experienced executive coach to work closely with the CEO, providing guidance, support, and feedback to enhance leadership effectiveness.

The rationale behind Operational CEO coaching lies in its ability to address the root causes of operational leadership deficiencies while allowing the incumbent CEO to remain in their role. Rather than immediately seeking a replacement, organisations invest in developing the existing leadership talent, recognising that leadership effectiveness can often be improved through targeted operational coaching and development.

Who makes a good Operational CEO Coach

In an Operational style of coaching, the coach plays a pivotal role. You need an operationally experienced coach who has walked the walk, someone who has a proven track record of success in operational roles, preferably at the executive level, an experienced Interim CEO, or Interim CRO would be a great option. This type of coach brings not just theoretical knowledge but practical insights gained from real-world experience. They understand the intricacies of running a business, navigating challenges, and driving operational excellence. A coach with this background can offer valuable guidance tailored to your specific industry and organisational context.

Conversely, you wouldn’t want a coach who lacks operational experience or who relies solely on textbook knowledge. While traditional coaching methods may have their place in certain scenarios, they might not be as effective when it comes to addressing the day-to-day operational challenges faced by CEOs. A coach who focuses primarily on emotional intelligence and introspection, without a solid grounding in operational know-how, may struggle to provide actionable advice that directly impacts business performance.

Benefits of Operational CEO Coaching:

Operational CEO coaching offers several benefits that make it an attractive option for organisations facing leadership challenges:

  • Personalised Development: Operational CEO coaching offers a unique personal growth and development opportunity. It provides tailored support to address the specific needs and challenges of the individual leader. Through one-on-one sessions, the Operational coach helps the leader identify blind spots, leverage strengths, and develop strategies for growth, inspiring them to reach their full potential. 
  • Enhanced Leadership Skills: Operational Coaching enables CEOs to develop various operational leadership skills, including specific operationally oriented skills, communication, strategic thinking, decision-making, and emotional intelligence. By honing these skills, CEOs can effectively lead their organisations through complex challenges.
  • Objective Feedback: One key benefit of CEO coaching is the provision of objective feedback. Unlike internal stakeholders with biases or vested interests, CEO coaches offer an impartial perspective, enabling CEOs to gain valuable insights into their leadership style and its impact on others.
  • Improved Performance: Through regular operational coaching sessions, CEOs can track their progress and measure the impact of their efforts. As they implement new strategies and behaviours, they can see tangible improvements in their performance and the performance of their organisations.
  • Sustainable Change: Unlike quick-fix solutions such as CEO replacement, CEO coaching focuses on sustainable, long-term change. By investing in the development of the existing leadership team, organisations build a strong foundation for continued success.

Case Studies:

Several high-profile companies have successfully leveraged CEO coaching to drive organisational change and improve performance:

  1. Google: Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, famously hired Bill Campbell, the “Coach of Silicon Valley,” to provide coaching and mentorship. Schmidt credited Campbell with helping him navigate the challenges of leading a rapidly growing tech company.
  2. Microsoft: Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, has spoken openly about the impact of coaching on his leadership journey. Nadella attributes much of his success to the guidance he received from his coach, helping him transform Microsoft’s culture and drive innovation.
  3. General Electric: When Jack Welch took the helm at General Electric, he sought the guidance of a leadership coach to help him navigate the complexities of leading a large multinational corporation. Welch’s coach played a crucial role in shaping his leadership style and strategic vision.

Operational CEO Coaching isn’t the answer to every situation

It’s important to acknowledge that not every incumbent executive is open to being coached. Some may even be hostile to the idea, viewing it as a challenge to their authority or expertise. Additionally, there are those who might appear open to coaching initially, but when it comes down to it, they are equally closed off. Therefore, I’m not suggesting for one minute that an operational coach is a panacea for all leadership challenges. It’s possible that coaching may be a non-starter or ultimately fail to produce the desired results. However, by at least considering the option, making it available, and doing our best to provide support, the board demonstrates its commitment to doing the right thing for the executive and the organisation as a whole.

How might you approach Operational coaching with the Management Team?

When broaching the subject of operational coaching with your executive team, it’s crucial to approach it thoughtfully and positively, especially considering that not all executives are initially open to the idea. One effective approach is to start with a short operational review, commissioned independently. This review can be conducted by an executive who might potentially serve as the coach. Its purpose is to identify coaching opportunities, assess operational competence and structures, and determine whether coaching is a viable option.

By starting with this operational review, the topic of coaching is introduced in a non-threatening manner, focusing on the organisation’s objectives and the potential benefits for both the executives and the company as a whole. This approach allows for a more organic and constructive discussion around the role of coaching in achieving operational excellence and fostering leadership development within the executive team.

If the potential coach has performed the job well, they will have built credibility and established sound professional relationships with the executive team and the wider business, making an extension to the initial brief a natural next step. This extension could involve a deeper, ongoing coaching relationship aimed at addressing specific challenges and fostering continuous growth and improvement within the organisation.

And what if the Operational Coaching doesnt have the desired effect

Of course, if the coaching doesn’t work out and you ultimately decide to change the CEO, there are several upsides. Firstly, you have done the right thing by providing the CEO with support and the best chance of success. Secondly, the coach will have established solid relationships across the business, allowing them to effectively hold the fort until a new CEO is found. Additionally, the coach will have identified potential internal talent which might serve as a natural replacement for the CEO. Moreover, the coach will be in a better position to identify the skills and qualities the new CEO requires, helping to streamline the recruitment process and ensure a smoother transition.


The decision to change a company’s CEO is undoubtedly significant, with far-reaching consequences for the organisation. However, before embarking on the CEO replacement path, it’s essential to consider alternative approaches such as operational CEO coaching. By investing in developing existing leadership talent, organisations not only mitigate the risks associated with CEO turnover but also foster a culture of continuous learning and improvement, instilling a sense of optimism and hope for the future.

Operational CEO coaching offers a personalised and sustainable solution to address leadership deficiencies, enhance performance, and drive organisational success. It is a proven method that can empower CEOs to unlock their full potential, lead confidently, and navigate the complexities of today’s business environment. In a world where effective leadership is more critical than ever, CEO coaching represents a valuable tool for organisations seeking to thrive in a rapidly evolving landscape.

Navigating turbulent Waters – The CEO Coach in Action

About the Author

Trevor is a fellow of the Institute of the Motor Industry and a member of the Institute of Interim Management, is a respected C-Suite leader and professional Interim Leader. For over a decade, he has provided interim leadership solutions to private equity, venture capital, and asset-backed firms. Whether it’s to stabilise a business during a turbulent trading period, fill a temporary skills gap or support a management team to navigate challenging situations, Trevor’s wealth of experience and proven track record in delivering value creation and retention plans demonstrate his ability to lead and support operational management teams effectively. Explore his LinkedIn profile and read what others say about Trevor.



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