Turning an Asset into a Liability

Dear Coach Alan,

I have an executive whom I would rate as an A player.  He may even be my successor.  His name is Tom. Tom has many assets, but there is one area of leadership that concerns me.  He is so good at reasoning through problems that he seems invulnerable to several of his associates.  These associates are reluctant to approach him with concerns because they feel he will turn the approach into a debate, which he will ultimately win. Don’t get me wrong; his associates love and respect him. My concern is that he may be undermining his leadership by sending an unintended message that stifles two-way communication and openness.  How can I help Tom to become aware of this liability and encourage the actions he needs to take that would allow his associates to be more open with him?

Sandra M.

Well Sandra, this is a challenge.  It seems to be a case where an apparent asset may have turned into a liability.  It is likely that Tom has learned that his ability to perceive a problem and solve it has been a positive asset in his success and promotion to a leadership position. Now that he is in a leadership position, his role has changed.  He is no longer the “expert” who is rewarded for solving problems. He is now responsible for developing his associates and listening to their views and challenges and encouraging them to solve problems on their own.  His role has changed into one of a coach and not the expert.

This may seem like an obvious shift, but it is sometimes a difficult one to make. Our behaviors often become habits, and “unlearning” habits that have worked for us in the past requires both insight and the learning and practicing of new behaviors. Developing a clear understanding of his leadership role is the first step in helping your Tom.  What he does not want to do is create a culture that makes people feel vulnerable and incompetent. By adopting behaviors that encourage two-way communication and encouraging associates to do the “heavy lifting” and problem solving, Tom will build their confidence and competence.

One way for Tom to encourage his associates to be more engaged is for him to ask probing questions that lead to deeper thinking.  Good coaches are masters at asking questions that require reflection and consideration of the many factors that go into problem solving and decision making.  As his coach, you may want to have Tom reflect on a specific experience in which he behaved in a way that shut off communication and limited involvement by his associates in resolving a problem.  You should encourage him to analyze this experience by exploring the consequences of his behavior from a leadership/culture perspective.  Once he “gets it,” encourage him to practice asking the kind of questions that will encourage his associates to become more engaged in problem solving.  You may even try to role play with Tom.  You could play the role of one of his associates, and Tom, being the coach, could ask you questions that help to get you more engaged in problem solving.

I would like to make one last point. Very bright people who are looking for short cuts and efficiency often justify their behavior as an effective use of their time and energy. They fail to understand the negative consequences of always being in control and demonstrating their ability to resolve problems quickly.  As his coach, your role is to help him to understand that his need for efficiency can undermine his leadership effectiveness.  To grow as a leader, he needs to stop doing the “heavy lifting” and delegate this skill to his associates.

Dear Coach Alan,

I am the president of a small manufacturing company. How do I keep my executive team from letting day-to-day firefighting interfere with their strategic goals?  Is my company too lean? Do I need to hire more people? Does my team need more training?

Ken B.

Ken, this is a great question.  My first response is that you have a head start in finding the answer to your question just by recognizing the problem. I hear this complaint all the time. I am reminded of Steven Covey’s discussion about how urgent demands often get more attention than important ones.  The urgent tends to demand our immediate attention—even if it shouldn’t.  And, there will be no shortage of these kinds of demands that challenge us throughout a normal business day.  I have often heard executives comment that they had a busy day but accomplished little.

You have several options to consider.  But first, it is important to define a strategic goal for your company.  Most companies use this term to identify a major initiative that will differentiate them from their competitors and give them a competitive advantage. Typically, there are also actions that need to be taken in order to accomplish a strategic goal.  This is not what you are concerned about.  Your concern is how to get your executives to stay focused on strategic initiatives and not be derailed by distractions that may seem urgent but are actually less important.

Before you go out and hire people or second-guess your staffing needs, you may want to get a better understanding of why your executive team members are not staying focused on strategic initiatives. Do strategic goals exist for your company? Did your executives participate in the creation of them? Were the strategic goals well understood?  Is your team aligned with you in pursuit of these goals? Are they aware of how important it is for them to accomplish these goals? Have they shared with you their frustrations and distractions as obstacles in maintaining focus on strategic goals? How committed are they to the company strategy and initiatives?

As their coach, it is important that you create tension between the strategic goal and the current status of where your executives are in reaching this goal.  The difference between the two is the gap that needs to be closed.  If an executive is committed to the strategic goal, the tension will be strong to close the gap.  Through carefully crafted questions, you will need to facilitate a dialogue that will focus your executives on understanding their challenge and creating the action steps needed to accomplish the goal.

If your team is cohesive and buys into the company strategy, one option you might consider is group coaching. In group coaching, each team member can be encouraged to offer examples (reflections) of how he or she gets diverted from working toward a strategic goal.  The group can ask clarifying questions to be sure they understand the situation of the presenting team member.  Then, the group can offer suggestions on how the team member can manage the urgent demands while staying focused on the strategic goal.  Each team member should offer an example of the same dilemma; the group will go through the same process of questioning and offering ideas to help the coachee. This process, which is sometimes referred to as “guided discussion,” is a great opportunity for executives to share their challenges while engaging in problem-solving behavior.  The challenges presented are real, and the support given to each member by the team will be felt and appreciated.

I highly recommend you follow this team learning with individual coaching sessions.  These sessions will reinforce the team learning.  They will also give you the opportunity to reinforce the executive’s commitment to the strategic goal.

If your team members vary in their commitment to a strategic goal, or if there is little alignment of team members, individual coaching is your best option. You can use the same process of inquiry as described in group coaching but without the additional breadth of group feedback and shared learning.

There are many advantages of individual coaching sessions. Some individuals are more comfortable in a one-on-one meeting than in a group meeting.  Individual coaching sessions will also give you and the executive the opportunity to explore challenges that were not part of the group coaching session.  Another important reason for individual coaching sessions is to communicate how important the coachee’s achievements are to the company’s mission and goals.  Giving your executive team members personal time is a way of showing your support for them as individual contributors.

Ken, I hope this answers your question. As a coach, your role is to bring out the best in your team members and provide the resources they need to accomplish strategic goals. This requires full engagement, communication, and commitment. Coaching plays an important role in accomplishing your objective of keeping your executives focused on what is important to their success and the success of your company.

On Becoming an Executive Coach

Dear Coach Alan,

I work in an HR department for a large bank.  I have a master’s degree in communication and am active in local HR organizations. In my work, I have had some experience coaching middle managers. My career goal is to become an executive coach. How do I get started?


Thank you for your question. I will honor your request to remain anonymous. Becoming an executive coach requires two areas of competence.

First, it requires you to be knowledgeable in the areas you will be coaching. Since you are in the banking industry, I will use this as an example of how you can advance your career. In banking, you will need to learn about the issues that your coachees face. This will guide you on how to ask questions to help your coachee structure and resolve the tension that will move him or her to change.  Secondly, other competencies relate to the process of coaching. These include, but not exclusively, an understanding of motivation, leadership, change, and communication. Personal attributes that are important for any coach are emotional intelligence, listening skills, intuition, and the ability to empathize with the coachee.

Working in human resources in a large bank will give you an opportunity to engage with many levels of management. It will serve you well to get to know the challenges of these executives.  These challenges include leadership, business strategies, the legal environment of banking, and the different business models within banking, as well as the organizational structure, internal politics, and financial products and services offered by your bank. This knowledge will provide the background you will need to understand the challenges your coachees face in their quest for goal attainment.

Your academic preparation is a good background for coaching. You probably have the conceptual skills you will need to be a coach. In order to learn the behavioral skills needed in coaching, you should enroll in a coaching program. In my book, Executive Coaching and the Process of Change, I wrote about becoming a coach. In it, I reviewed several programs that you should consider. If you are fortunate enough to live in a community that offers a recognized program in executive coaching, you should think about enrolling. Be sure to examine the program and the success of its graduates before committing to it. There are also a number of online programs, and they vary in effectiveness. There are reviews of these programs that offer insights about their efficacy. Coaching certification programs require many hours of supervised coaching.  This will help you to develop and practice your coaching skills. Dozens of books have been published on executive coaching. You should become a student of coaching and read about the profession you want to enter. Finally, search out a coaching peer group in your community.  If there isn’t one, talk with like-minded colleagues and start one.

Most potential coaching customers/clients want their executive coaches to be experienced. You will need to create a strategy to develop and practice executive coaching. This can be done within your current organization or by looking for opportunities in another organization that offers you the opportunity to coach. With a solid understanding of the coaching process and many hours of organizational experience in coaching, you will be well on your way to launching your career as an executive coach.

Dear Coach Alan,

What wisdom can you share about leading a new geographical satellite operation of an existing, established organization? Is it best to focus on a unified and consistent culture and cross-location collaboration? Or do you recommend the new arm of the organization to develop independently? What needs to be considered when you have team members in multiple locations?

 Dear Mike,

Thank you for sharing your question with Coach Alan. Also, thank you for answering my questions related to your startup.  You will see why it was important to know more about your specific situation in order to identify how coaching can help.

I will answer your question in two parts.  First, I will focus on how you will launch your satellite operation, including the strategy and culture that would support your success.  The second part will explore how aligned you are with your CEO on the goals and strategy for launching a successful satellite operation.  If the two of you are not aligned, I would coach you on how to obtain alignment before proceeding any further.

Before I respond, I would like you to understand that executive coaches work hard not to offer advice or, as you call it, “share wisdom.”  Rather, a coach will work with you by understanding your challenge and, through a process of inquiry, help you to structure your challenge in a way that clarifies what needs to be done to accomplish your goals.

Let me first describe the dilemma you face.  Whenever an established company opens up a new office or launches a new division, a challenging question will be whether to attempt to implement the culture of the established company or to create a new culture that is more likely to fit the customer base that it is selling into.

Since you are the leader of the satellite startup, I would first ask you what your short-term and long-term goals are.  I would also inquire about the strategy you have chosen to realize these goals. The culture you choose is a strategic decision.  Whatever you choose, the culture should serve the strategy and goals of your division.

So, here is your challenge.  You have two contrasting strategies and cultures.  The established company is more deliberate, engages in long-term, higher priced projects and is accustomed to controlling the work schedule.  By contrast, the satellite startup needs to establish its brand, customize its programs, and price its projects to be affordable to its customers. Your coach should be asking you questions about “how” you will achieve your goals.  What needs to happen for you to succeed?  As coaching proceeds, you should bring your experiences, both positive and negative, to your coaching sessions.  By reflecting on these experiences, you will gain insight and become clearer on the actions needed for success.

In my experience, most established companies are aware that satellite divisions need more flexibility to succeed. In your case, the established brand is relatively unknown in your new market, and the customers you plan to serve are different from those of the established company. I suspect if I asked you questions about your market and strategy, you would likely lean toward a more flexible, entrepreneurial approach to launch your business.  This would seem to fit your situation.

It is my understanding that your startup will use many of the expert resources from the established company. This presents you with a dilemma in dealing with personnel from the established culture and embedding them into your customer base. Ideally, you will be able to capture the advantages of both cultures.  I say “ideally,” because it could also be a major challenge for you.

From a coaching perspective, how will you integrate two cultures as they interact with each other?  Do you plan to “prep” the executives from the “mother ship”?  How will you prepare your own personnel to deal with these differences?  You may want to consider a strategy of only bringing in experts who can adapt to your customers’ needs and fit into your culture.   This is not very different from the structure of a matrix organization, in which experts are drawn from established departments and assigned to projects or programs that have a different customer base and culture.

Once you have clarity on these two contrasting strategies and cultures, you will need to share this with the CEO of the established company.  Your CEO will want to know your goals and strategy. Your ability to articulate why a more flexible strategy is likely to succeed will help you gain the commitment you need for a successful launch.  Your CEO will also want to know how you plan to utilize resources from the established company.  All of the thinking that went into your choice of a strategy and culture will be important to share with your CEO.  This is where alignment is crucial.  You will be well served to get a commitment to your goals and strategy.  This will give you the support you will need as you move forward with your new venture.

Dear Coach Alan

How do I coach different personalities?  Employees are independent and do things differently.  I would like to know how to get everyone on the same page and buy into our goals.

Brian N.

Brian, since you asked the question about how you can be more effective, I will respond to your question as if you were the leader/coach.

One of the biggest leadership mistakes executives make is to think they should treat everyone the same.  Their intentions may be good, but they are missing one of the most important facts of human behavior:  we are all unique, and we all respond differently based on our uniqueness. This is why I devoted two chapters to assessments in my book Executive Coaching and the Process of Change.  Assessments reveal each person’s uniqueness and offer a coach insight into how to relate to a coachee.

Having assessment information will greatly enhance the understanding of personal style and personality characteristic of the coachee.  For example, the DiSC, a popular leadership assessment tool, identifies several behavioral styles.  If a coachee is very direct, the coach can be more direct and focus on goals and strategies.  If, on the other hand, the coachee is highly sensitive to feedback and needs to feel appreciated, the coach’s approach may be to acknowledge the coachee’s contributions and approach feedback in a more supportive way. In either case, the coach needs to acknowledge individual differences and incorporate them into the coaching dialogue.

You raise another challenge in leadership.  How does a leader/coach get buy-in to company goals when people are so different?  While individuals are unique, this does not mean they cannot agree on goals.  Each individual has a role to play in the overall plan for reaching organizational goals.  The leader has the responsibility to make sure individuals are doing their part to contribute to the organizational goals.

This may sound complex, but it really isn’t.  The paradigm is straight-forward.  If a leader/coach is clear on the overall goal and all are on board with it, the role of the leader will be to oversee individual goal progress and the integration of individual goals into the overall goal.

In summary, leaders need to be coaches.  Leader/coaches need to understand individual differences. These differences will determine the best way to coach each individual.  This, in turn will help create individual goal attainment.  The result of individual goal attainment should lead to overall goal attainment for the leader/coach’s business unit.

Dear Coach Alan,

 To maximize a team’s performance, does a leader manage a team by leading the group or manage each individual on the team? Can you motivate a team in its entirety? Or does coaching take place on the individual level in order to have a motivated team?

Jim C

Your question goes right to the heart of leadership, Jim.  I will begin by differentiating between two very important leadership interventions.  The first is team building.  The goal of the leader of a team is to find a common purpose and to align team members toward goal accomplishment.  I like to call this an investment in “the 3Cs”: communication, coordination, and collaboration. These are the processes that enable a team to become cohesive–armed and dangerous to the competition. The second intervention is individual coaching.  Coaching is about helping individuals aspire to their highest potential through goal setting, creating constructive tension toward accomplishing the goal, leveraging assets, and managing liabilities.  Many methodologies are available for a coach to use to facilitate positive change in a coachee.

This distinction between team building and individual coaching can become a bit murky, however. This is because effective leaders do both.  I view team building and individual coaching as complimentary. And, although the methodologies may be different, there are many similarities. Team building and coaching share several common elements: establishing trust, managing conflict, gaining commitment, focusing on results, leveraging assets, managing liabilities, and holding the group/coachee accountable for achieving results.

When a team shares a common purpose and is aligned, the communication flows freely, team players are coordinated, and the team works in harmony.  In many ways, a cohesive teams acts as if it were a single unit.  At this point, the team can be coached using coaching principles. A leader will still want to conduct individual coaching sessions with team members to help them recognize their role on the team and to reinforce alignment with the team’s purpose.

A word of caution is in order.  While it may be a leader’s ideal to coach a team, if the team does not share a common purpose and alignment, it cannot be effectively coached.  This is because too many personal agendas will be working against the coach.  Do you remember the highly talented 2004 U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team that lost three games and barely won a bronze medal?  Four years later, with practically the same players and coach, the team went undefeated and won the gold medal.  The difference, I believe, is that the 2008 team learned how to play as a team and not as a group of talented players with their own agendas.

Dear Coach Alan,

I would like to have you comment about women and leadership. I had a woman client, CEO of an international company that was bringing a lot of challenges she had to face at work because she was a woman. Do you have something to say to a young executive about how a woman should behave to have a “voice” in team meetings?



Thank you for your question, Dominique. Without specifics, it is difficult to understand what your CEO is dealing with. Let me answer your question based on my coaching experiences with women CEOs.

The role of a CEO is to lead the organization. This leadership incorporates vision, strategy, financial competency, operational competency, communication skills, and managing growth and change. You will need to assess your client on these leadership dimensions and incorporate them into the coaching dialogue. If she is to succeed, she needs to master these competencies.

Being a CEO does not always go hand in hand with the skill of creating change. If I were coaching your client, the first thing I would do is to reframe her challenge into a form that promotes behavior change of her team members. I am assuming she inherited her team and that there may be skepticism over her ability to lead, partly due to her being an “outsider” and partly due to her being a woman. My approach would be to create tension between her desired goal and the current situation she finds herself in. I will further assume her desired goal is to establish credibility with her team and to execute her leadership role as CEO. Based on my coaching experience, the issues she is experiencing are coming from one or more male executives in her company. This is the current reality of the situation. If this is the gap between the desired goal and the current reality, I would begin exploring your client’s behavior during the times that she was unable to voice her position, or was not taken seriously when she did. By reflecting on these situations, your coachee can analyze her approach and the responses of others in the meeting. By reliving the experience, she will better be able to understand the dynamics of the situation and identify alternative behaviors that could lead to a different result.

I am curious whether her attempts to lead contributed to her negative experience. If so, several scenarios might be examined that would bolster her leadership. If members of her team were resistant because of prejudice or stereotyping, she will want to have one-on-one meetings with them to challenge their responses at team meetings. Fighting negative behavior during a meeting is not likely to yield the result she would like. A private meeting with an individual team member is the place for her to work on this problem.

In these one-on-one meetings, your client will need to determine whether the individual team member is supportive of the company vision and goals. If they are onboard, she may challenge them on how they can support efforts to be constructive and a team player. If they are not onboard, she will need to challenge them–but in a different way. She will need to clarify the behaviors she expects from a team player and contrast them with the behaviors she has observed by this individual. This will set up a gap that will need to close in order for this person to be a team player. Here, she must make it clear that there is no alternative. Being a constructive, team player is essential for team membership. This message needs to be clear, unequivocal, and understood by the individual.

If the team member is reflective and acknowledges negative behavior, this could be an opportunity to relive the situation that created the problem behavior. Allowing the team member to do the “heavy lifting” by acknowledging what they did and how they will behave differently is a powerful way of creating change.

Your client may have an advantage being female. Male executives often approach conflict by exerting their authority and resorting to aggressive behavior. This type of behavior only leads to additional problems and resentment. Women often avoid open conflict and are more likely to confront conflict with less aggressive behavior. Conveying assertiveness and clarity of expectations is the preferred method of confronting team members whose behavior needs to change.

A good book to read for your client is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. It is a quick read with a good model to develop strong teamwork. The CEO in this book just happens to be female.