“It’s lonely at the top” appears to resonate more than ever with top executives, according to the results of the Stanford University 2013 Executive Coaching Survey. And while nearly two-thirds of CEOs do not receive coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants or coaches, nearly all of them would like to.

“What’s interesting is that nearly 100 percent of CEOs in the survey responded that they actually enjoy the process of receiving coaching and leadership advice, so there is real opportunity for companies to fill in that gap,” says David F. Larcker, who led the research team and is the James Irvin Miller Professor of Accounting and Morgan Stanley director of the Center for Leadership Development and Research at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

“Given how vitally important it is for the CEO to be getting the best possible counsel, independent of their board, in order to maintain the health of the corporation, it’s concerning that so many of them are ‘going it alone,’” adds Stephen Miles, CEO of The Miles Group. “Even the best-of-the-best CEOs have their blind spots and can dramatically improve their performance with an outside perspective weighing in.”

More than 200 CEOs, board directors and senior executives of North American public and private companies were polled in the 2013 Executive Coaching Survey conducted by Stanford University and The Miles Group. The research studied what kind of leadership advice CEOs and their top executives are — and aren’t — receiving as well as the skills that are being targeted for improvement.

Key findings from the survey include:

— Shortage of advice at the top. Nearly 66 percent of CEOs do not receive coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants or coaches, while 100 percent of them stated that they are receptive to making changes based on feedback. Nearly 80 percent of directors said that their CEO is receptive to coaching. “If CEOs are willing to be coached and make changes based on coaching, it stands to reason that companies and boards should make this happen,” says Larcker.

— CEOs are actively looking to be coached. When asked “Whose decision was it for you to receive coaching?,” 78 percent of CEOs said it was their own idea. Twenty-one percent said that coaching was the board chairman’s idea. Miles sees this as a positive trend. “Becoming CEO doesn’t mean that you suddenly have all the answers, and these top executives realize that there is room for growth for everyone. We are moving away from coaching being perceived as ‘remedial’ to where it should be: something that improves performance, similar to how elite athletes use a coach.” 

— Coaching “progress” is largely kept private. More than 60 percent of CEOs responded that the progress they are making in their coaching sessions is kept between themselves and their coach; only a third said that this information is shared with the board of directors. “As coaching is starting to lose its ‘stigma,’ more of this secrecy is being removed,” says Miles. Larcker makes the case for keeping much of the coaching discussions private, but notes that “keeping the board informed of progress can improve CEO/board relations.” 

— How to handle conflict ranks as highest area of concern for CEOs. When asked which is the biggest area for their own personal development, nearly 43 percent of CEOs rated “conflict management skills” highest. “How to manage effectively through conflict is clearly one of the top priorities for CEOs, as they are juggling multiple constituencies every day,” says Miles. “When you are in the CEO role, most things that come to your desk only get there because there is a difficult decision to be made — which often has some level of conflict associated with it. ‘Stakeholder overload’ is a real burden for today’s CEO, who must deftly learn how to negotiate often conflicting agendas.” 

— Boards eager for CEOs to improve talent development. The top two areas board directors say their CEOs need to work on are “mentoring skills/developing internal talent” and “sharing leadership/delegation skills.” “The high ranking of these areas among board respondents shows a real recognition of the importance of the talent bench,” says Larcker. “Boards are placing a keener focus on succession planning and development, and are challenging their CEOs to keep this front and center. However, there is still a long way to go in the area of succession planning for most companies, especially as you get further down the reporting structure.” 

— Top areas that CEOs use coaching to improve: sharing leadership/delegation, conflict management, team building and mentoring. Bottom of the list: motivational skills, compassion/empathy and persuasion skills. “A lot of people steer away from coaching some of the less tangible skills because they are uncomfortable with touching on these areas or really don’t have the capability to do it,” says Miles. “These skills are more nuanced and actually more difficult to coach because many people are more sensitive about these areas. However, when combined with the ‘harder’ skills, improving a CEO’s ability to motivate and inspire can really make a difference in his or her overall effectiveness.”