Coaching CEOs in Africa’s unique business landscape (III)

Business & Executive Coach Lionel Marumahoko

In an insightful three-part article, Lionel Marumahoko – an Executive Coach, Leadership Speaker and Business Advisor who specialises in complex transformation growth and new market entry in Africa – discusses some essential lessons every CEO can benefit from, through coaching.

Lionel is a former C-Suite executive in a Fortune 500 company with business experience spanning over 30 years across Africa, Europe, the USA and Asia, and who ‘retired’ in 2018 to devote himself to coaching the next generation of business leaders.

In this third and final instalment of the three-part article, he concludes with some specific ‘lessons in action’, focusing on what he has ‘watched and learnt’. He suggests some specific traits a CEO should look for in a coach and offers some proven coaching methodologies that he has used.

Lessons in action: What I have watched and learnt

One of the biggest lessons I have learned from observing CEOs in action is that, above all, their personal character, moral fibre, and insatiable drive, are what separates them from the rest of the pack. In most cases, that’s not learnt behaviour, it’s inherent to their character. Most importantly, they have an extreme belief in themselves that goes beyond what would be considered normal.

“There are a few ‘maverick’ characters that break the mould and succeed; but for the most part, these types of individuals are the instruments of their own undoing.”

This self-belief is definitely a strength, but it also often leads to vulnerability – they are unaware of their blind spots because they are so confident in their ability and don’t think they need help. Whether you’re at the top or the bottom, you must embrace self-improvement as an ongoing mantra to live by.

Another key tenet of a CEO’s character is their tendency to skew toward best practices across a range of situations – both unexpected and commonplace. They are very unlikely to be rogue in character or rash in their actions. They are instinctive and swift to act, but not rash. There are a few ‘maverick’ characters that break the mould and succeed; but for the most part, these types of individuals are the instruments of their own undoing.

Interpersonal skills are the backbone of what make a great CEO. They will be great communicators that command respect, and although there should be a hierarchical degree of apprehension when dealing with the boss, they will also be likeable and approachable. The best CEOs will project a good balance of these two perceptions to their subordinates.

The importance of communicating transparently in all scenarios is also a big part of maintaining integrity within a company. Be straightforward – and even blunt if necessary – but never rude. Beating around the bush and offering vague instructions will certainly not command respect. Whether you are commenting on negatives or giving praise, always be transparent and genuine. In the case of a particular negative scenario, such as blatant insubordination or foul play, the best CEOs have a very low tolerance for actions that are inconsistent with the values of the organisation. They are firm but fair, but ultimately not scared of cutting out any dead wood if it’s weighing down the rest of the team. A great CEO will toe the line between ruthlessness and empathy.

What should a CEO look for in a great coach?

The first thing to look for is someone who has successfully walked the journey, and has a track record of achieving the same aspirations you have for your career and your business. The benefits of being mentored by someone who has ‘been there and done that’ are worth their weight in gold.

A CEO also needs to have good personal chemistry with their coach – this is absolutely essential. They need to be friendly, as that kind of bond brings with it openness, trust, and the ability to confide in each other. It’s even true to say that coaching is quite similar to dating – you need good chemistry to create a relationship that will yield great results.

The level of trust you have in your coach needs to be top-tier. This will allow you to share your deepest fears in a safe environment, and it’s only by confronting these biggest obstacles that you will be able to tackle them and navigate to the solutions most effectively.

Effective coaching a is long-term and not a short-term prospect – which is again comparable to a romantic relationship. It will take time to get the best from it and the benefits will increase progressively.

Some of the best coaching partnerships I have seen have extended to decades, and in some examples, they evolved into genuine friendships that outlived the professional partnership.

The proven methodologies I use in my coaching

My coaching method is based on regular one-on-one engagements in confidence, and each engagement varies based on the CEO’s specific needs. I’m keeping in mind that each CEO goes through a unique and evolving set of circumstances, and this requires a uniquely evolving set of solutions and approaches to navigate correctly.

My method revolves around intense enquiry and questioning to really understand their problems. I often have to do a lot of the digging, rather than expect to have it exhumed for me.

Most of the time, a CEO approaches a coaching session from the perspective of addressing a symptom of a problem they don’t understand or are not conscious of its root. This process of probing questioning is ongoing until the core of the problem is discovered. However, if it’s a personal leadership skill they are trying to enhance, then I would use a variety of proven assessments, such as the Myers Briggs framework. This gives a solid understanding of where you are, where you want to be, and what you need to add in terms of capabilities and experiences to achieve the desired result.

I have also enjoyed and had great results using the ‘5 why’s’ in my analytical approach.

Ultimately, this process of coaching can be construed as an amicable interrogation. It may delve into some uncomfortable truths and admissions of faults, but the end goal is to smash through those roadblocks and get the client to where they want and need to be to progress their success in business.

Even the greatest kings throughout history had advisors that were invaluable in their reign; the same should be thought for business leaders.

Lionel Marumahoko writes in his personal capacity, and can be reached on:


Leave a Reply