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What does a CEO need to be successful? Some would argue that CEOs need to have certain attributes, like courage, vision and flexibility. Others might argue that CEOs need essential resources, like funding, infrastructure and talented employees.

However, according to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, what CEOs actually need to be successful is a mentor who can help them deal with the loneliness, doubt and confusion that are an inherent part of the job.

The corner office is a lonely place. Yes, CEOs are surrounded by people but they tend to fall into three groups:

  1. Employees who look to the CEO for leadership and inspiration. While they provide the CEO advice on their own areas of expertise and control, they generally do so without direct knowledge of what it's like to be a CEO.
  2. Investors and boards of directors inter good governance. While members of this group may have experience being CEOs and be willing to provide advice, they're likely to interpret a CEO's personal struggles as a sign of weakness.
  3. Consultants who are of questionable objectivity. While CEOs can hire management gurus, few are likely to have direct experience as a CEO and even fewer are likely to risk a paid engagement by offering honest criticisms.

According to the HBR article, CEOs are more productive (and certainly happier) when they can share their doubts and ideas with somebody who's done the job but has no personal stake in the outcome, other than the satisfaction of mentoring.

Unfortunately, it can quite difficult for CEOs to find mentors. Best case, a CEO will have a personal friend who's already been successful as a CEO. Barring that, a CEO can hire a consultants to broker an appropriate match-up.

Another option is for a CEO to join a networking group consisting of CEO, such as The Executive Committee, The Alternative Board or Renaissance Executive Forums. Such organizations typically maintain confidentiality, thereby encouraging candor.

Does CEO mentoring work? The authors of the HBR article surveyed 45 CEOs who have formal mentoring arrangements and discovered that:

  • 71% are certain their company performance has improved.
  • 69% say that they're making better decisions as a result.
  • 76% believe they are more capably fulfilling stakeholder expectations.
  • 84% credited mentors with helping them avoid costly mistakes.

If those numbers are valid (and there's no reason to believe they're not), it's pretty clear that the #1 job of a CEO once a company scales beyond startup, is to find a mentor.