The CEO as Constant Learner

Books maze images courtesy of Flickr user Groume

Books maze images courtesy of Flickr user Groume

The one thing I love about business is that every day you are confronted with new situations that require constantly innovative approaches. Best practice today becomes the price of admission in a few years. The rapid pace of change and lack of good CEO training in the U.S. (the premise of this blog) make it imperative that each CEO be personally responsible for seeking out and committing to professional development. Fortunately, great CEOs are great learners. They are constantly looking for ways to improve their performance by learning about new technologies, new market opportunities and new talented employees. The question for busy CEOs, then, is how to learn in the most time efficient manner possible.

The answer to this question depends not only on the individual but also their career stage and experience level in the CEO job. I think new CEOs and those preparing for the CEO role are often best served by finding a mentor or coach that they can work closely with, as David Brookmire recently discussed at length in a article: Are Leaders Born or Made? Similar to learning a new sport or other skill, a coach or mentor can get you started with a good foundation from which to build.

As the CEO gets more proficient, he or she may reach a point of diminishing returns with a particular coach and want to gain the perspective of specialists in particular areas by reading books and visiting with peers who are in similar companies. Eventually, as the CEO becomes more experienced, the opportunity to give back through writing and mentoring provides a way to continue to learn and refine his or her skills. I can tell you from personal experience that there is nothing better for pushing your limits than writing and sharing your thoughts with the CEO community.

A recent Forbes article addresses “The #1 Reason Leadership Development Fails” and does an excellent job of distinguishing between the drawbacks of subpar training and the benefits of development. However – like much advice to executives – the articles does not address how to take advantage of more development opportunities. While I wish there were better training opportunities out there for CEOs, at least training is a known quantity that people understand how to make use of today. Development is more nebulous, but you reap what you sow. Again, to be successful, CEOs must ensure their own continual on-the-job development.


  1. Great post. It’s interesting to see how much attention that Forbes article has attracted. I agree with just about everything you’ve written. The one thing I’d add is that “development” without a strategy is rather nebulous… but if there’s an intentional, strategic focus on professional development (that includes the formal training classes and the less formal coaching or peer group conversations or reflection or what have you), then it is decidedly not nebulous… of course, this might be what you were intending with your comment: you reap what you sow.

    Thanks for the informative and thought-provoking post!

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment Brian! I am glad you enjoyed the post. You make an excellent point about needing to have a strategy behind any professional development plan to help make it successful.

  2. Great article Joel. How do you recommend one go about finding a mentor?

    • Darran,

      Thanks for the excellent question. The first place to start when looking for a mentor is someone who has had direct experience with your work. A previous CEO or executive who will know you and your work style. Second, you can look for networking groups to join where you can make contacts with other CEOs with similar stage companies. Finally, search out retired executives from your industry. Often, retired CEOs would like the chance to share their experiences with new entrepreneurs. I hope this helps, and good luck!

  3. Interesting post, Joel. To substitute for the lack of bespoke CEO training and a good continuum of coaches, have you seen effective local CEO professional networks, especially in an area like Austin or Silicon Valley where an industry is concentrated? For example, can a CEO in one of these networks expect useful review and feedback of an idea for strategic direction, help with a business plan, or best initial steps to turn around a struggling business? Also, can you comment on the ability of boards to help the CEO succeed?

    • I am big believer in CEO peer networks if you are careful about finding the right fit. Look for networks in the same industry or companies that are in a similar stage as yours. In Austin, the Austin Technology Council provides great forums to meet and interact with other CEOs in the tech industry. Nationwide the CEO Project is highly recommended for really fast growing companies across industry groups.



  1. What should CEOs study to prepare for the role? | The American CEO - […] The CEO as Constant Learner […]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Blogs