The Sparring Partner: Why every CEO needs one

CEOs, top executives and business owners face the challenge of high stakes decision-making every day. They weigh the pros and cons and make the call, often working to a tight deadline. Critical feedback is not necessarily encouraged, and their teams do not always dare to speak out. This is especially the case in top-down, strongly hierarchical organizations. 

Yet even for the most visionary leader, running a business without critical feedback doesn’t work in the long term. Making the tough decisions on your own may be necessary at times, but seeking outside perspective is crucial to lasting success. This is where the sparring partner is a highly valuable resource.

The term “sparring partner” originally comes from boxing. It is form of sports coaching similar to a competition, but with specific rules to prevent injuries as far as possible. It’s an exchange of well-placed blows that seek to improve the boxer’s skills. The ideal sparring partner is an experienced fighter who delivers gentle blows, rather than hitting hard, to test how quickly the opponent reacts.

How to choose the right partner to spar with

  1. Choose a sparring partner with experience

The best sparring partners have enough experience to control their shots – to punch gently with a view to testing your reactions and ability to take criticism. Even if they are powerful, they don’t knock you out! Verbal sparring lets you challenge the status quo, express frustrations and receive critical feedback in a safe space.

For people in top positions, it is vital to be able to exchange thoughts openly, to talk about their fears and emotions, to discuss and explore possible solutions. You may not necessarily define a clear goal when working with a sparring partner. Maybe you just need regular conversations of trust with a neutral professional who understands your business and challenges your assumptions, without any personal agenda.

2. Choose a sparring partner who makes you work

If you don’t work, you don’t learn. The ideal sparring partner brings out your best and makes you work your hardest. Having a partner like this can be an enormous help. The sparring partner supports you by enhancing self-awareness, reducing blind spots, and developing your personal strengths in areas that are important to you.

Modern leadership styles require transformational leaders who are self-aware and inquisitive. They encourage and seek out diverging points of view to form their own opinion, resulting in a clearer vision and greater strategic coherence. Today’s bosses are called to create a context in which individuals feel respected and empowered for top performance. They must lead by example and encourage team members to take the initiative, creating a corporate culture where people think for themselves and dare to differ.

What you stand to gain

Challenging questions, unexpected objections and surprising suggestions are excellent ways to clarify the best way forward. Verbal sparring with an experienced partner shakes you out of your comfort zone, shines a light onto potential pathways and sharpens your reactions. Professional coaches play this role by helping you tap into your strengths and identify your blind spots. The coaching approach is firmly anchored in the belief that you know your business best. You alone have the resources to understand your context and how to reach your goals. You will know which insights revealed through the sparring process are feasible, practical, and effective.

Find a sparring partner to challenge yourself, take risks and grow. The ultimate and sublime sparring partner brings out your best and holds you to a higher standard.