I’ve been thinking a lot lately about MY coaches—those folks I engaged over my 30 years as a CEO to keep me on track and honest.

In 1973, when I took my first job as an Executive Director, there was no profession of executive coaching. Or if it existed, only a few people knew about it.  But there was definitely a need for it—and I realized that within the first month.

When you are the big cheese” regardless of the size of the agency, the vast majority of people in your sphere of leadership defer to you.  While it’s critical to create a climate of trust and safety where people feel free to say what’s on their mind, it is never a totally open situation. Never.  When you are the authority figure, people always defer. That means that you never hear totally honest feedback.  To believe that your direct reports are totally honest with you is to deceive yourself into believing your own press.

In my first job, I was the Executive Director of the Virginia Governor’s Commission for Children and youth. Me, one secretary, and a Governor-appointed Board. The secretary deferred to everyone. The Board deferred to no one but the Governor, and of course, certainly not to me, since I reported to them.

I’m absolutely positive that I needed a good swift kick in the pants frequently, but Board members avoided confronting me. State government colleagues weren’t in a position to critique my work, so essentially, everyone said, yes Judy.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I’d better get some outside input, so I found my first coach. His title was not “executive coach” or business coach” or any kind of coach because that language wasn’t used back then. I believe he had an MBA and was consulting with various public agencies about human resources.

Our first meeting was a parrying back and forth as I tried to determine whether I could trust him. I have a “thing” about confidentiality that is so strong, one violation has often ended an important relationship. When he met whatever test I gave him, we started speaking once a week. Periodically, he would be in a meeting with me at the State Capitol, representing other agencies. In our phone calls, he started asking me whether I was aware of certain behaviors in those meetings. i.e., hostile or abrupt or even seductive.

Of course I was totally unaware and initially very defensive. His skill in giving candid feedback began to reduce my need to defend myself. Eventually, I started to listen and even invite feedback when it wasn’t forthcoming. How refreshing to hear honest opinions even though those opinions were often painful to confront.

As my sounding board, trusted partner, genuine feedback provider and my support when things were tough, this coach without that title helped me survive and succeed in my first encounter with state government, with Governor-related politics, and while I was still incredibly damp behind the ears. I will always be grateful to this man who had the courage and skills to confront me when it was sorely needed.