3/28/2016 | Charles V. Firlotte


When President Andrew Jackson assumed office in 1829 as the seventh President of the United States, the Cabinet that he had appointed was ruptured by dispute, largely the result of an ongoing battle between Vice President John C. Calhoun and Secretary of State Martin Van Buren. The fierce infighting disabled the Cabinet to the point that Jackson stopped holding cabinet meetings. Still in need of advice on running the young nation, Jackson turned to a group of friends and associates that the press dubbed the “Kitchen Cabinet.” Since then, the term has been used to describe any group of unofficial advisors to whom a political leader looks to for guidance. Ronald Reagan famously and openly made use of his kitchen cabinet while Governor of California; the same group of old pals assisted him in selecting his official Cabinet appointments when he became President in 1980.

Kitchen cabinets can be as important for the corner office as they are to the Oval Office; a vital resource for when you can’t or shouldn’t go to your top team or your board of directors. You may want to discuss your career, and whether it is time for a change. You may want to talk about professional development. (It is one of the great corporate fallacies that CEO’s cease to require learning and development). You may need advice on dealing with an ever-so-talented but difficult subordinate, or on managing the board chair. Or perhaps your board as a whole needs a lesson on governing by “noses in – fingers out.” These are just some of the subjects you might want to take up with a few trusted folks whom you can consult in confidence.  

While any senior executive can benefit from having trusted advisers, it’s especially important for the CEO because there are unique pressures that go with having the top job. Despite companies’ best efforts to prepare people for the corner office, the truth is a significant slice of what you must deal with as chief executive is stuff you cannot really be prepared for. In October 2013 the London-based School for CEOs published a report titled Stepping up to CEO – Preparing for the role of Chief Executive, noting that in addition to the unique nature of the role, chief executives have an incredible amount to learn, and a short period in which to deliver. Said one of the chief executives interviewed for the study, “The lack of someone above you in the pecking order to get a final bounce-off for an idea was the biggest single thing that struck me. Suddenly you’re sitting in an office and you’re very lonely.” 

Indeed there is a world of difference between being the chief executive and a vice president. It is a very long mile of lonely road between the vice president’s office and the corner one. The day you become the top gun is the day you become responsible for company culture, the mission, the strategy, the effectiveness of the senior team, the pace of change and the company’s technological prowess.  

Furthermore, chief executives who are terminated by the very boards that hired them often aren’t fired for failing to meet financial targets, but for “softer issues” involving leadership style. A survey by leadership training company Leadership IQ of some 1087 board members from 286 organizations that had given the chief executive the heave-ho reported that the top five reasons for termination were failure in change management, failure to pay sufficient attention to customers, tolerating poor performers, ignoring business realities, and too much talk and insufficient action. Any one of those terminated chief executives could have likely benefited from and possibly even salvaged their jobs through the sage counsel of a kitchen cabinet.

I speak from experience. Some 15 years ago, I was recruited to a job in England as head of a significant business unit for a major utility, and in the first few months everything seemed to go wrong. The executive who recruited me was fired; there was a bloodless coup at the board level, and the chief executive left amidst a period of significant churn. The promises that had been made were not materializing. Every day I asked myself “what have I done?” I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had made a terrible mistake, both personally and professionally.  

What saved me during this period was the advice and counsel of my own kitchen cabinet, two trusted advisers, friends, and business associates who talked me off the proverbial ledge. Neither of the two had anything to do with the organization I was working for and knew little about it. But they were able to coach me through a period of turbulence and self-doubt. The UK experience, while difficult for the first year, proved to be one of my better career opportunities. However, without the guidance of my kitchen cabinet I may have made a decision that would have had a less favorable outcome.

How can you establish an effective kitchen cabinet?  

  1. Keep it nimble: The kitchen cabinet should be small, say three or four people. Anything larger becomes unwieldy, and loses effectiveness.
  2. Look to outsiders: Your kitchen cabinet shouldn’t include any members of your senior management team or your board.
  3. Have clarity of purpose: Do not confuse the role of your kitchen cabinet with the role of your executive team or your board of directors. Your kitchen cabinet should not be second guessing your executive team, or opining on issues that are within the purview of your board of directors.
  4. Informality is the order of the day: You may conduct business with this small, select group of advisers on the telephone, over dinner or by having a drink, and you may deal with one individual on one specific issue. 
  5. Choose carefully: While the individual members of your kitchen cabinet may have little in common, the one thing they need to share is having your best interests at heart.

The role of the chief executive is increasingly demanding. A kitchen cabinet is one way to ensure you get sound advice on critical matters from people who aren’t beholden to you and whose disinterest gives them a different perspective. While the kitchen cabinet can be especially helpful in a crisis or during a period of transition, it would be a mistake to engage these advisers only in “emergency” situations. Your cabinet can be equally effective when you use it to help you think things through before a crisis erupts; as a resource that can be both preventive as well as prescriptive.