John Tucker is a Grant Thornton Fellow in Family Business at the International Centre for Families in Business.
The definition of 'train' in The English Dictionary is "instruct or educate; to submit a person to arduous physical exercise for athletics; to cause plant to grow in certain way; to exercise body or mind to achieve high standard of efficiency; line of cars drawn by locomotive on railway track". Most of the CEOs I have worked with would use the noun version of 'train', seeing themselves as the locomotive: big, strong, noisy and certainly pulling everyone else in the organisation. After all, training is what you take the dog to on a Monday night and locomotives most certainly do not need training – they are fashioned out of steel and designed to do a job.
Most CEOs 'learn from experience' and this is particularly so in the family-owned and run business. Yes, I am sure countless directors attend courses on company direction and strategy and other 'how to' topics. Have you observed how the costs of these courses rise in proportion to the perceived importance of the participants? In my experience, these attendees treat the information received and the training given with the same reverence as they do the latest management fad publication (you know, the one they picked up as part of the fee they paid to attend the programme). It ends up in the bookcase as a must have, to ensure that at least they can talk with some authority on the subject of management training.
So, how do you go about buying a present for someone who has everything? Most likely with great difficulty. And the same answer applies when asked how to train a CEO, as most CEOs that I have worked with over the last ten years are anarchists, with problems in adaptation and conforming to structures. The organisation is the dramatic backdrop to these behaviours, which are accentuated and dramatised within the family business context. Often the CEO has problems with authority, and systems and structures are for everyone else, as is training. The new language of the organisation (conciliatory, teams, empowering, involving) sits easily with the CEO because in the main we are talking about an intelligent being, who enjoys intellectual stimulation. However, when it comes to translating this newfound language into practice there is often a large gap. While the language might change, rarely have I seen real behaviour change. What I am suggesting is that the formal training route – with its disciplines, handouts, overheads and focus groups – is an inappropriate medium for the 'training' of CEOs. Why? On the surface, formal training appears to have an effect and to hit the mark, and even colludes to create the image of real learning. It fits the bill, plays the game and is instrumental in creating respectability in the CEO fraternity. And yet I challenge any CEO to collect evidence from subordinates of real behaviour change brought about by attendance on traditional training programmes. Most CEOs have a preference for a personalised relationship, but have an aversion to structure in so much as it affects them, and are reluctant to accept constructive criticism.This makes growth and real learning very difficult, particularly if the criticism comes from a family member.
I truly believe that a CEO of a family business can change, learn, grow and indeed learn to be trained, but it won't be done successfully in public. The typical family business CEO will not drop the mask, won't risk 'not knowing' and certainly won't admit to needing help. In my experience this can only be done on a one-to-one basis with someone who has established trust and credibility and can prove empathy with experience. Furthermore, it needs a high degree of skill and an analytical ability that transcends the level of strategic planning. It also requires a tremendous leap of faith on the part of the CEO or, as Robert E. Quinn in his book Deep Change suggests, "walking naked into the land of uncertainty". This takes courage and a real commitment to personal change; confronting and experiencing a deep personal or organisational change is a difficult decision. I have been fortunate enough and privileged beyond reasonable expectation to work with a number of CEOs who have made that decision and have been personally the richer.
We should also never forget that the entrepreneurial spirit present in most effective CEOs is one of the strong countervailing forces preventing decay and decline in the economy as a whole. This spirit is the very thing that is often dulled by conventional training and therefore we may need to consider other options for creating fertile learning for CEOs. Being a CEO is a lonely business and there is sometimes an awful emotional price to be paid for 'success'. I believe that CEOs cannot be trained in conventional terms. They can be supported, understood, empathised with, challenged and engaged. They can be faced with their own mortality and helped to see they do not have to be 'superman' or 'superwoman'. In fact, we are dealing with a very fragile human being not far below the hard surface that is the public face of many family business CEOs.