Your “Kitchen Cabinet”: Key People CEOs Turn to for Advice

The term “kitchen cabinet” was coined by the press in 1829, when President Andrew Jackson took office; soon after he assumed office the Cabinet became disabled by infighting. He needed help so he turned to a close group of friends and associates, a group the media dubbed his "Kitchen Cabinet".

Since then, kitchen cabinets have played a huge role in politics, but they play just as vital a role in corporations, particularly for CEOs. So who do you turn to when you need advice or have a question? Who is in your kitchen cabinet?

“When CEOs can’t consult their board, or their colleagues, having trusted people they can consult in confidence can make a huge difference.”

Everyone else in the company has someone to look up to but the CEO who—at the top of the corporate food chain—is in an isolated position. There’s no one above to turn to. When CEOs can’t consult their board, or their colleagues, having trusted people they can consult in confidence can make a huge difference. And sometimes an outsider’s opinion is just what’s needed.

It’s a myth that once you attain CEO status you no longer need to develop new skills, or learn new things. The kitchen cabinet will be there to talk about professional development, a career change, dealing with difficult colleagues, employees, investors, customers or vendors. There are some things that you just need to talk about with those who won’t be affected, and won’t spill the beans.

Here are 3 tips for establishing an effective kitchen cabinet.

1. Handpick a small elite group. The fewer the number of people, the stronger the candor and discretion, as well as the swift response. Calling them a group is a bit of a misnomer, though, as you won’t necessarily bring them together as a group, you will call on them one by one when you have a specific need that you feel a certain mentor would be able to advise you on. You may choose to have a regular private meeting with specific individuals.

2. Create a best-of-breed circle to meet your needs. Your kitchen cabinet should be an intimate and eclectic group of confidants—people you would trust with your life, and who have different strengths and experiences, such as a spiritual leader, a consultant, even a doctor. Look for CEOs of other businesses your size in your local area and befriend them. But don’t include members of your board or senior management team in your mentoring group.

3. Talk outside the office, perhaps over dinner. Your meetings should be invisible to everyone else in the company, so get together for dinner, drinks, golf, etc. This keeps the stress out, and keeps things loose.

Separate from your kitchen cabinet, try joining a professional peer group. There are several organizations available today—such as Chief Executive Network, Vistage and CEO Focus—that bring CEOs together behind closed doors with other CEOs of companies their size and in their market to discuss ‘like’ problems and challenges, and how to solve them. These groups offer exceptional opportunities for CEOs to find mentors and bounce ideas off people outside the office who understand exactly what they are going through.

You may have a kitchen cabinet and perhaps don’t call it that. Now might be a good idea to give some thought to the members of your cabinet. Are all your needs being fulfilled? If not, think about how you might get introduced to someone you look up to and bring them into your inner circle. Think strategically about expanding and growing your cabinet, and you will always have someone to look up to, even when there’s no one above you.


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