Why Every Fortune 1000 CEO "Needs a Therapist"

I recently conducted a series of interviews of futurists in which I asked them about the reinvention of an industry sector facing considerable disruption. These interviews covered aspects of the innovation and change these futurists predict, to the timeline and ever-accelerating pace of this change, to suggestions about how the industry could cope with the change to come. The leading futurist in this field concluded his recommendations by saying, “I believe that every CEO should be assigned a therapist when they take the job.”

Shocking advice? Perhaps, but stepping back a moment, is it all that crazy of a proposition? Change in general is already unsettling, but couple trying to change with the responsibility of decision-making for an entire organization – which at large companies includes its employees, its investors, its partners, and its customers – and the idea of reinventing can be downright terrifying. Seasoned CEOs, hired for their industry experience and leadership abilities, may never actually have had to pivot and innovate in the way that today’s world requires:  agile, fast, and iterative.

In fact, the opposite may happen:  the CEO could be the roadblock to the whole transformative process. This person could have issues letting go of control, understanding unfamiliar ways of doing business, entrusting others to make major decisions that will affect the complete future of the business. There are a whole lot of reasons why not to be comfortable with the idea of change when you’re sitting on the top.

I encountered this kind of resistance in the early days of the Internet when I founded my last company, an online marketing agency, in 1998. I had to confront a wide range of reactions to the services I was offering including general ignorance and disbelief in the Internet’s staying power (“Oh that Internet thing is going to be a flash in the pan”), to downright hostility. At one conference I attended (the Direct Marketing Association, no less!) I had one business owner tell me in no uncertain terms to leave because there was no place for me and my company at such a conference. I’ve often wondered if that company survived and still thrives today.

Reinvention Requirements

The ability to enter reinvention – be it a personal or a business one – requires a preparedness of mindset and a conjuring of capabilities. Someone with the right capabilities might still be crippled by their mindset. Some mindset requirements of reinvention include:

  • Overcoming longstanding fears
  • Reducing or eliminating the negative self-talk in one’s mind
  • Accepting responsibility for the present situation while simultaneously recognizing it needs to change
  • Being driven by the right sense of purpose (which means the purpose needs to also be defined or sought)
  • Mustering confidence and courage without letting arrogance get in the way
  • Taking the long-range view (while also acting in the short-term) and convincing those around you that you all have to persevere in the face of short-term challenges
  • Being open-minded to all possibilities…even ones that don’t present themselves obviously
  • Having high risk tolerance

This is a pretty heavy list. If we found someone in our personal lives with all these attributes, they’d handily make an ideal mate. So it may not be reasonable to expect a CEO to come ready-made with all of these attitudinal skills.

Whether exhibiting hostility, fear, or denial, the true reality is that in today’s age, we all have to learn how to be ever more adaptable. If we can’t do so on our own, we need to get help. Fortune 1000 CEOs should be no different. In fact, since more rides on these people and since many of these companies are publicly traded, perhaps the assignment of a therapist, coach, or trained confidante should be mandatory. After all, how can anyone believe in an organization’s ability to transform if their CEO is incapable of transformation himself?

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