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Leadership Coaching Helps Close the Gap—One Leader at a Time

By Bruce Court

I recently coached a senior leader whose future success depends on whether he can bridge the gap between how he is leading now and how he needs to lead in the future. This is a common situation, of course, but in this instance not only has the leader recognized, accepted, and committed to changing his behavior, he also has realized that his colleagues have behaviors and traits similar to his own. Acting on what he saw, he was able to influence his manager and the SVP of HR by letting them know that he wasn’t alone, which has led to a companywide leadership development initiative designed to change leader behavior throughout the organization.

Here’s his story.

Hitting the numbers—but at a cost

Leadership coachingThe leader in question had been very successful over time; he’d led different parts of the business, been on an international assignment in Europe, and had never missed hitting his performance goals, but his manager could see “storm clouds” gathering on the horizon. Half of his direct reports came from an organization that had recently been acquired and they were not used to, nor were they accepting of, his leadership style. Through the company’s engagement survey, they provided feedback indicating that they weren’t engaged (a good lead indicator of storm clouds) and some were leaving—a lag indicator that the storm is overhead! The bottom line: all was not well and something had to change.

The leader’s manager met with the SVP of HR, and they agreed this was an urgent issue. The first step, they recognized, was to see if the leader could change his behavior.

They also agreed that if the leader couldn’t or wouldn’t change, they would have to “help” him find a career outside of the organization. Having reached this conclusion, they jointly met with the leader and told him he had to change. The leader agreed, but he needed help figuring out the root cause of his unacceptable behavior and understanding what options were available as long-term solutions to address his performance “issue.” The SVP, manager, and leader decided that the best way forward was to conduct a rigorous assessment that looked not only at the leader’s behavior but also his personality traits, including those that enable him to succeed and those that may derail him in times of stress or fatigue. By examining these elements together, it became clear that the leader had been very successful over time by focusing almost exclusively on execution; however, he focused little on the engagement of those he worked with or those who reported to him.

Leaders at all levels need to be ambidextrous so they can balance execution and engagement, but like so many senior leaders he had focused too hard on hitting the numbers. This was apparent to those direct reports from the acquired organization who were, for the first time, exposed to this “just do it” leadership style.

In my first conversation with the leader to discuss his assessment data, it was confirmed that he was not expressing any interest in or concern for the people he was interacting with, and he was not aware of how his behavior was impacting those around him; he also wasn’t paying attention to the needs and wants of his peers or direct reports. The bottom line was that he was a leader with a very high IQ but he needed some work on his EQ. The good news was he accepted all the feedback and wanted to change—for himself, his team and the business.

Leadership coaching makes the difference

I worked with the leader to build a development plan that leveraged one of his strengths and one of his development areas, with specific details and measurement metrics built in. In addition, my role became that of a leadership coach, and together we worked through a series of 12 weekly calls designed to discuss specific business situations that would present opportunities for him to apply the specific behaviors he needed to develop.

I provided proactive coaching to encourage him to apply appropriate skills and worked with him on contingency planning, in case there were unexpected reactions to take into consideration. We would reference and draw on the available tools (e.g. the discussion planner) to support these business context-based situations.

After the first call, each subsequent call would begin with a debrief of what had happened since the last call, a self-assessment of how things went, any aha moments or insights the leader had experienced, and what the leader would do differently the next time.

Another valuable step in the process was a meeting at the half way point in the coaching engagement. This was a face-to-face meeting to plan for a call with the leader’s manager and the SVP of HR. The purpose of this call was to update them on the progress the leader had made, but it also provided an opportunity for the manager and SVP to provide feedback based both on what they had observed and what they had heard from others. (For example, the SVP of HR had very specific behavioral feedback from an HR business partner.)

The leader also was to share feedback he had sought and gathered from others. One feedback-generating question he liked to ask was, “How can I enable you to do your best work?”

Slowly but surely, change took place. Instead of telling people how to solve their problems the leader began to ask more open-ended and provocative questions. He started to listen and respond with empathy and to ask for their ideas. As a result, he helped promote engagement. Some team members, providing unsolicited feedback, told him he was a better leader as a result of his “new” approach to leading.

The leader grew to recognize that each member of his team has different motivations, aspirations, skill levels, and degrees of competence, and that his old one-size-fits-all approach to communication was missing the mark with many people. He started to think in advance about his audience and the message he wanted to deliver. He developed an influencing strategy to gain commitment and buy-in where it was needed.

Transforming others

An unexpected consequence of this leader's new awareness and changed behavior was the realization that his colleagues needed to change their behavior, as well.

He had not been alone in this assessment. He mentioned this to the SVP of HR and his manager at the mid-point meeting, and then at the end of the coaching engagement he presented a business case for all leaders learning the skills he had developed and which had now become his preferred leadership style.

Both the SVP of HR and the manager proved receptive to the leader’s business case, as they acknowledged that too many leaders in the organization were concerned with execution at the expense of engagement. What’s more, the leader’s transformation showed them that by creating a supportive environment, behavior can change.

As a result, the organization has developed and is implementing learning journeys for every leadership level, meaning they are on their way closing the gap for many of their leaders—all because one of their star performers had a development need.

Bruce CourtBruce Court works with organizations on all aspects of their leadership strategy and coordinates DDI’s relationship with our alliance partner, EY. He’s experienced in all aspects of strategy development and execution. Outside of work Bruce likes to travel with his wife, Maureen, visiting places on their “bucket list.” He loves eating at great restaurants, and “sampling” good wine and craft beers. Bruce is also a huge fan of smooth jazz.

Learn about DDI’s Executive Focus Coaching to accelerate senior leader performance.

Posted: 06 Jul, 2017,
Talk to an Expert: Leadership Coaching Helps Close the Gap—One Leader at a Time
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