Why do so many of us find it hard to ask for help? Could it be that as we grow up self-sufficiency and independence seem to be what we aspire to as part of being grown up? If so, is this a blind spot that keeps us from unlocking our full potential?

As leaders in a business environment, perhaps less omnicompetent and omniscient than we would like to be or admit to, what do we need to enable us to be the best we can be and make good decisions?

  • Advice that is informed, objective/neutral, in our best interests.
  • Encouragement for the risky decisions and to get us through hard times.
  • Challenge for when we think we’ve got everything sorted and we’re setting off down the wrong road!

There are also some crucial moments when we might recognise this need. Many of the CEOs I work with fall into three camps:

  • The new CEO who suddenly realises what a lonely business it is being a CEO and doesn’t know who to talk to as everyone in the company has a vested interest in the outcome of any decision. Come to that, lots of CEOs are lonely.
  • A successful entrepreneur who has grown their business successfully wakes up one day, looks around at the 50 – 60 people in the company and wonders what on earth to do next.
  • An experienced CEO who has also been successful but has been doing the same things for a while, got a bit jaded and needs some new ideas and inspiration. As one said the other day, “I hadn’t realised I’d been running on empty for so long.”

There’s an answer to all of this – the critical friend. Critical in this context definitely doesn’t mean judgmental, but important, challenging, honest, someone who can get you to reflect and interacts as a peer. These friends can come in many guises: we may have real friends who can act as critical friends when we need them to, but all too often our ‘best mates’ are very good at colluding with us and telling us what we want to hear.

Critical friends can offer us the kind of advice we need – objective and in our best interests. However, what is often of most value in this process is the time given to reflection, honest questioning without a hidden agenda, taking the time to really understand the situation from our point of view, offering a different perspective.

In the Academy for Chief Executives group I run, this is exactly what happens. Time is set aside for a type of facilitated consultancy process involving listening and questioning in order to really understand. The discussion takes place in a completely confidential environment where group members really trust each other and therefore are very open. There is recognition that personal and business issues bisect and impact each other. Advice, when it is given, is offered in such a way that leaves the issue holder with space and time to decide what they want to act on. However, they are also likely to be questioned at the next meeting about what they actually did next! In short, this is not just one critical friend, but a number.

As the definition goes: A critical friend is someone who is encouraging and supportive, but who also provides honest and often candid feedback that may be uncomfortable or difficult to hear. In short, a critical friend is someone who agrees to speak truthfully, but constructively, about weaknesses, problems, and emotionally charged issues.

Do you have one? If not – why not? Time to do something about it?

Hilary Rowland co-Chairs an Academy for Chief Executives group in the City of London. 
The Academy for Chief Executives works with CEOs and Managing Directors of small to medium sized businesses with the aim of helping them unlock their potential and that of their businesses.


Twitter: @CEOLondonCity
LinkedIn: uk.linkedin.com/in/hilaryrowland/

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