Today I had the privilege of partnering with some of the hardest working leaders in our community: Executive Directors. Experience ranged from less than one year to over 20 years in role, yet all were aligned in highlighting the importance of relationships, trust and psychological safety as the foundation for effective team leadership.
Being an executive leader comes with immense pressure and responsibilities. For many years, those willing and privileged to reach the C-Suite were privy to a certain support mechanism to advance their performance and development. This executive ‘perk’ sparked an entire profession, more commonly known as Executive Coaching.
Today, leadership extends well beyond the executive office, as organizations become more agile in addressing rapidly evolving complexities. Accordingly, the question is:
Why Should Executives Exclusively Benefit From Executive Coaching?
Here are four non-executive leadership profiles ripe for coaching, with example scenarios highlighting how coaches can add value through meaningful partnership.
1. Small Business Owners
In an environment where employee engagement is alarmingly low, small business owners are perhaps the hardest working and most passionate people in the workforce. Small business is critically important for economic growth, accounting for over 70% of the private sector workforce. And while there are advantages to being your own boss, they are balanced by the immense responsibilities that come with owning a business and often feelings of isolation.
Scenario: You’ve built a stable small business over the last six years, employing a team of four and leasing chic office space overlooking a golf course. You’ve got a great team, although this year’s revenue estimates aren’t meeting the sales forecast. You begin working more closely with your employees, accumulating extra tasks that get piled onto an already packed schedule. Looking out your office window one sunny Saturday morning, you see your team on the seventh green, and wonder why you’re stuck in the office doing their work.
Solution: A coach acts as a thinking and accountability partner. If revenue growth is the goal, and you’re struggling to prioritize and balance your time appropriately, a coach can help to identify what is driving your behaviour and more importantly uncover a pathway forward.
A coach can help you achieve your business goals, while also working towards deeper, more fulfilling success.
2. Pre-Executive Leaders
Similar to executives, directors and senior managers typically have large and demanding portfolios. Whether they’re seeking an executive role, or looking to better navigate their responsibilities, it can be challenging to know who and where to turn for confidential conversation and honest feedback.
Scenario: Two years ago, you were promoted to a Director role and have communicated your aspirations to become a Vice-President. The company is supportive of your career goals, especially given your track-record of successfully leading large change initiatives and quickly delivering high quality results.
There’s just one challenge. You have a tendency to show your impatience and frustration when things don’t go as planned or move too slowly, and you suspect this has already resulted in you being passed over for an executive role. You’ve been given some informal feedback, but feel it’s just who you are and what drives your success. That said, you also understand that a shift may be necessary to achieve your career goal.
Solution: By this point in one’s career, leaders have typically developed a certain style and cultivated particular strengths. However, leaders sometimes overuse their strengths, turning their greatest assets into weaknesses in a damaging and often unknowing way, particularly under stress. In this situation, a coach can help to build the leader’s self-awareness and challenge current thinking through confidential and candid feedback and discussion, all in alignment with the leader’s career goals.
An overused strength can instantly become a weakness. A coach can help identify ‘blind spots’ and bring clarity to the line between leveraging and overusing strengths.
3. New Managers
First-level management is arguably the most difficult position in organizations. Sandwiched between front-line staff and higher-ranking leaders, these roles come with the responsibilities to execute with limited or no visibility to strategy, planning and upcoming initiatives. They represent the face and experience of the organization to their staff, and are typically woefully ill-equipped.
Scenario: Excited to start your first Manager job, you knew how easy leading others would be with a title and formal authority. Wow, were you wrong. The pressure is intense, your team’s not following directions, and you’re working more hours, while feeling less in control. Fortunately, you were sent to a training course for new managers, where you gained new knowledge and wrote pages of notes. Returning to work, it now seems impossible to apply the material, as the training binder sits idly on your desk. You want to be a good manager and leader, although you’re questioning if you made the right career choice.
Solution: Training is critically important for leaders (especially new ones), although the challenge often becomes integrating the skills and learning into daily organizational life beyond the classroom. The invested time, money and energy ends up yielding a limited return. While a trainer acts like a teacher, sharing concepts with an entire class, the coach is analogous to a tutor, tailoring and focusing all materials and messaging toward the individual coachee. In this situation, the coach could build on the training concepts, and offer complementary tools and resources, in helping the leader develop the particular skills needed. More importantly, the coach works with the coachee to apply their leadership within their specific context (organization, culture, team, etc.).
Gain greater return on your training investment by using coaching to make formal learning ‘stick’.
Millennials (born 1980-1999) now comprise the largest cohort in the workforce, and are drawn to opportunities where they can learn, grow and contribute. Investing development resources in a group that has been branded as disloyal may seem like a risky proposition, although it’s a critical engagement and retention strategy.
Situation: You’ve identified one-third of your employees are Millennials, and have offered numerous webinars and workshops to promote learning and development. Employee feedback has been positive, although you sense your Millennials can and want to contribute more. There is no shortage of challenges to tackle, and you seek a solution to both drive the business and engage your Millennial workforce.
Solution: Initiating coaching partnerships for high potential Millennials is ideal for driving engagement and expediting learning and growth, however, it may not be a feasible option. A more economical approach is group coaching, where many of the same elements of one-on-one coaching are applied, but in a group context. For instance, if the company is seeking new and innovative ways to interact with customers, a coach could partner with a team of individuals, creating a confidential, trusting setting, helping the group to obtain clarity in the what, why and how, while holding the team accountable for delivering the intended results.
Group coaching offers an economical approach for gaining team results.
In summary, executives will always benefit from a coaching partnership, with tremendous ripple effects emanating from their actions and decisions. But given the dynamic world of business leadership – be it a small business owner growing revenues, a seasoned leader striving for an executive role, a new manager learning to lead, or a Millennial eager to contribute, shouldn’t more leaders have the opportunity to partner with a coach?
What’s holding you back from asking for help?
What weaknesses are you over-investing in, believing they will one day become a strength?
Sometimes in organizational life, we make mistakes. We employ an inadequate business strategy. We act on an uninformed, gut decision. And often, we promote the wrong person to lead a critical team.
Your top account manager becomes the sales manager, only to see overall sales decline and your best people now threatening to leave for the competition. Upon promotion, your most competent accountant manages the finance team to mutiny. Your best engineer becomes so overbearing as a mico-managing team lead, single-handedly killing productivity and putting critical project deadlines in jeopardy.
Sound familiar? Unfortunately this happens all too often.
The National Hockey League’s ultimate superstar, “The Great One”, is a prime example.
Wayne Gretzky is hands-down the greatest hockey superstar to ever play the game. His many untouched records include 2857 career points, 9 MVP awards and an incredible 50 goals in 39 games. Statistics aside, Gretzky also revolutionized the way hockey was played, exclusively from his workplace cubicle behind the net.
Following his successful playing career, Gretzky was “promoted” to NHL hockey coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. Over four seasons he led the team to an unimpressive 143 wins in 328 games, missing the playoffs each year. Not exactly the success he experienced as a player.
Why do we promote the superstar? We are often impressed, as we should be, by the contributions and functional expertise of talented employees. They appear to be obvious choices for promotion, and on the surface, a management position would fuel engagement and mitigate flight risk—arguably a recognized means of acknowledging the skills and talents that make them a “superstar”. However, often they do not have the skills to be successful in management; also, they may not want the stress and responsibility that come with the promotion.
For instance, I was recently speaking with an experienced talent acquisition professional. He had joined a new start-up early on in its life cycle, and as the company grew, so too did the acquisition team. He found himself spending more time managing people, and less time doing what he loved and what he was great at. Fortunately in this case, the company hired someone to manage the team, allowing him to continue finding great people, setting the talent acquisition strategy and shaping the company’s brand.
How do we avoid promoting the superstar? The solution lies in understanding that technical skills and knowledge do not automatically translate into leadership abilities. Just because someone can close a major deal with a key customer, build stellar financial statements or quickly write new code, does not mean they will be successful leading and managing a team.
As an executive, senior manager or HR professional responsible for hiring decisions, we have to look at our talent closely for key competencies, such as strong communication skills, the ability to effectively manage resources, and an understanding of the broader business beyond the particular function. Also, is your superstar performer truly ready to spend their days managing others, while relinquishing what’s afforded them their superstar status?
Talent-focused companies also embrace career progression for individual contributors, and recognize the best management candidates may well not be superstar employees (Scotty Bowman, the NHL’s most successful coach, never played a professional game). This may seem counterintuitive for some, but managing people is a demanding and complex job. Furthermore, a first-level manager is arguably the most challenging role in the workforce, since there are requirements to execute company programs without advanced visibility or input, while also acting as the face of the company to their people. Layer on gaps in training and other well-known complexities seen in today’s diverse workforce, and you can quickly see why Wayne Gretzky is best suited to scoring goals versus assembling the lines or calling the plays.
While not all high-performing individual contributors lack management potential, the next time you are hiring your newest leader for a critical team, don’t automatically promote your Wayne Gretzky. Choose the right leader for the job!
Threats & Intimidation. Lies & Name-Calling. Short-Term Results & Unending Chaos.
Introducing the Abrasive Leader, who may also happen to be your boss. Although your visceral reaction may be to seek greener (or more northerly) pastures, quitting often isn’t a viable option for many invested leaders.
Abrasive boss or not, you’re still being counted on to lead your team and deliver results, so what can you do?
1. Stick To Your Values.
You may feel like yelling back or even getting physical, but competing at this level is like playing a joke on the jokester. While some may see you as a courageous hero, it won’t be worth the damage to your reputation. As difficult as it may be, keep it professional, hold true to who you are and what’s most important to you. You want to look in the mirror each day knowing you took the high road.
2. Forget Managing Up. Focus on Filtering Down.
Influencing one’s superior can be challenging at the best of times, so forget about it with this boss. Any attempt will be received as a threat, with potentially dangerous impacts to your already tenuous relationship. Besides, just because your boss stinks at leading others doesn’t mean you have to. Protect your team like a shelter in the storm by limiting your boss’ interactions and filtering the extreme messages. Be highly aware of what you say and how you say it, while keeping your team focused on the right priorities. Remember that those smart people you hired are watching closely and taking your lead.
3. Seek Support and Self-Care.
Leverage your highly trusted relationships, be it for support, a transfer, or even to make a formal complaint. Never accept this unacceptable behaviour, but also be mindful that organizations are mysterious places. For unknown reasons someone influential continues to support your boss, and making your concerns public could unearth a political landmine. You also need to be at your best each day, and that means boosting your self-care. Visit the gym, your psychologist, and/or the prayer room more frequently for physical, emotional and spiritual rejuvenation. In the very least, forget carrying over vacation days this year and book a trip. Preferably to a destination with no internet or cell service.
4. Say Thank You.
I know what you’re thinking: ‘This guy’s a jerk and you think I should thank him… for what?!’ Sure, you’ll be thankful when your boss is gone, but in the meantime, you’re being taught a valuable lesson about leadership in how to stay true to yourself, how to protect your team, how to be resilient and the incredibly powerful ‘what not to do’. So while a hand-written note to your boss might be pushing it, deep down you can be thankful knowing this experience is helping you grow. Be prepared: it might take getting through the experience first before appreciating it.
Whether you work for an abrasive leader or not, nobody ever said leadership was going to be easy. I call this the responsibility and privilege that comes with leading others. Be yourself, protect your team, leverage your network, and be at your best each day. Your team, your colleagues and your superiors will see you taking the high road. Embrace and be thankful for the challenge and subsequent learning, as you’ll be a better leader because of the experience.
I recently found myself in private conversation with a leader who was so invested in his team that he started crying when speaking about the previous year’s failures. As tears rolled down his cheeks, he instantly said “I’m sorry.” Surprised by this, I asked him why he felt the need to apologize?
Enter the troubling leadership paradox: Leaders often see emotion as a weakness, and yet we want to follow leaders who are authentic.
In the book Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value, former Medtronic CEO Bill George claims that authentic leaders are guided by their values, are more self-aware and lead with heart. Leaders who understand the power of authenticity gain trust from those around them by consistently demonstrating who they are – warts and all. You can understand why this is scary for those who believe leaders should always be strong, flawless and all-knowing. It takes confidence and self-awareness to be comfortable revealing who you truly are versus striving for some mythical gold standard of leadership.
Now like any other overused strength, authenticity has its limits. No one’s interested in following the person who cries uncontrollably at every staff meeting or who says “I have no idea where we’re going and how we’re going to get there!” Furthermore, I can recall a leader whose integrity was questioned when she became uncharacteristically emotional in a large meeting. So if you’re going to show more emotion, be sure to do it consistently. (Barack Obama is known for crying on occasion during his speeches.)
But why is authentic leadership not only important, but also effective? Because we want leaders who are strong and humane. Leaders who are courageous and worried. Leaders who achieve results and have fun doing it. Leaders who are bright but not always the smartest person in the room. Leaders who perform, but not without mistakes – mistakes that are acknowledged and fuel learning. Leaders who are focused and empathetic. Leaders who are passionate, imperfect, emotional people – just like us. In essence, we want human leaders.
Back to the crying, apologizing leader. Are you judging him? Are you perceiving him as a weak or poor leader? Or were you inspired by his passion? By his commitment? I was left wondering how his team might react if they were in the room. Would they see a weak leader? Or would they see a genuine, passionate and invested person. Would they see an authentic leader?
So high-five your team when you’re excited. Pound your fist on the table when something’s really important. Admit it’s a bit scary when you don’t have all the answers. And of course, you can cry if you want to. Because it’s your leadership. And if an authentic leader is someone who is being their true self, then that can’t be wrong. Who would want to work for a leader who’s trying to be someone else?
What are your experiences leading authentically and working for an authentic leader?