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?

Thanks,

Dominique

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.

How Long Should Coaching Last?

The length of a coaching relationship will depend on its purpose.  Coaching interventions can be episodic or developmental.  Each is described below.

Episodic coaching is usually brought on by a specific incident or event.  Episodic coaching involves a specific problem or challenge upon which a coach may work with a coachee for a relatively short period of time until the challenge is met.  This can be as brief as several weeks to a year.  Clarity of expected results and knowing when these results have been realized are important parts of any episodic coaching engagement.

Developmental coaching is a longer-term coaching relationship that is ongoing and without any particular time frame.  Many executives recognize the need for ongoing coaching to help them manage the complexity of their jobs.  They know that situations change, new challenges are always materializing, and ongoing coaching is essential to their success.  This relationship is open-ended and continues as long as there is perceived value.  Some executive coaches have been successfully coaching developmental clients for more than a decade

I will offer examples to illustrate both episodic and developmental coaching engagements.

George is the plant manager of a thriving manufacturing company.  His owner and CEO felt that George was caught up in conflicts between operations and sales, often leading to name calling and finger pointing.  His CEO hired a coach to help George manage this conflict.  Assessments revealed that George was a “pleaser” and avoided conflict.  By doing this, George allowed conflicts to fester and get out of control.  George had many assets; among them was the need for harmony.  Through coaching, George learned to leverage his harmony asset by bringing the conflicting parties together to air out their dispute.  The result was a successful resolution of the conflict and peace in the plant.  Rather than avoiding conflict, George learned to confront it in a non-threatening, harmonious way.  This was accomplished in five coaching sessions.

Peter is the CEO of a high-profile, family-owned-and-operated company created by his father.  The perception that he may have “inherited” his position often clouded his ability to demonstrate his own achievements.  He wanted recognition of his own contributions and often found his father’s domineering style destructive to his attempts to lead.  Over time, this issue abated and new challenges emerged about his team, growth of the business, restructuring sources of financing projects, coaching his executive team, breaking down barriers of departments that acted like silos, competition between executives, and working with siblings in the business.  He also learned how to manage his own liabilities by creating organizational support systems while leveraging his assets of networking and business development.  Today, he is recognized as one of the most powerful businessmen in his community.  Over the 20-year coaching relationship, many challenges were met, and both Peter and the company he leads have flourished.

This post concludes my blogging to amplify my recently published book, Executive Coaching and the Process of Change. But this is not the end of my blogging.  I will continue to post a weekly blog on executive coaching.  My plan is to transform this blog into an interactive dialogue by asking my readers to send me their coaching questions, challenges, and experiences.  I will respond to these requests in the context of my coaching model and process.  Future blog posts will be posted under the new domain name of “askcoachalan.com”.  Please send your thoughts about coaching to my new email address: coachalan@askcoachalan.com.

Thanks for your support. I look forward to hearing from you. I am certain your contributions will provide me with new opportunities for continued clarification and elaboration of the coaching process in this transformed format.

Coaching to Influence the Boss

One lesson I learned in writing is that case studies help to illuminate the point the author is trying to convey. This is why I use case studies as illustrations of the points I want to make about coaching. Each case is a real-life example of a coach, a coachee, and a situation that the coachee is trying to cope with.

This blog post will focus on how to influence the person to whom the coachee reports. I often hear executives ask, “How do I tell my boss something he or she may not want to hear?”  This can be a challenge because many organizations are hierarchical, and the coachee is often torn between giving honest feedback and taking the risk of upsetting the person(s) to whom he or she is accountable.

I will write about two “hired gun” CEOs who tried to influence their boss/business owners. The results were very different, and the reasons why will reveal important lessons to be learned. These lessons also can apply to boards of directors or anyone in the organization that an executive reports to.  From a coaching perspective, the success of the coachee will depend on the cooperation and alignment of the boss/business owner.  It is important to be able to communicate up the hierarchical ladder in order to be in a stronger position to succeed as an individual and as a company.  The two cases you are about to read will illustrate this point.

John is a “hired gun” of a $25 Million construction supply company. He was hired by his company’s owners to turn the company around after several years of financial losses.   John accepted the position with confidence and soon learned the reasons the company was failing; they were related to the ownership structure, heavy debt, and a culture of apathy.  Sales were flat. The company had not invested capital to replace aging equipment. The previous CEO was also an owner but had been ineffective in making the changes needed to turn the company around.  In coaching, it became apparent that John’s success depended on ownership restructuring, debt restructuring, culture change, and weeding out non-performers.  Investments in equipment and supply sources were also critical for success.  Although John was the CEO, he needed owner approval for these changes.

Much of the debt burden was attributable to monthly payments owed to two of the owners. It would not be easy to convince them to restructure this debt.  Many coaching sessions addressed this challenge.  One goal in coaching was to find a way to influence the owners to restructure the debt.  John needed to first demonstrate his ability to turn the sales and bottom line around so the company would be in a position to attract bank financing.  It took a full year, but John was able to show growth in sales and profits.  He established credibility with his company’s owners–enough to raise the challenge of restructuring debt. His coach worked with John to create a case for change with a compelling agenda for the owners.  His coach also helped John develop a plan that demonstrated how restructuring the debt would allow the company to prosper.  Next, his coach helped John to contrast the restructuring plan with what would happen if the company did not restructure the debt.  He demonstrated that the status quo would handicap the company and lead to an erosion of assets just to survive. Faced with these alternatives, the owners accepted John’s plan to restructure the debt.  John found a bank willing to offer long-term financing that would satisfy the owners and the capital needs of the company with terms that would allow the company to manage its debt.   The company is on its way to its most profitable year ever.

John was successful because he was able to lay out to the company’s owners what Jim Campbell in Good to Great called “the brutal facts.”  These facts demonstrated how the status quo would eventually bankrupt the company.  John also laid out a plan of action that would satisfy the owners and allow him to grow the business. The role of the coach was to help John organize his thoughts and present a plan that the owners would accept.  The brutal facts created tension with the goals of the owners; the debt and ownership restructuring plan reduced that tension. In my opinion, this was a major reason for John’s ability to influence his company’s owners.

The second case was not successful. In this case, Don was hired by the two owners who previously had run the company but were unable to grow it beyond its current state. The company manufactured products for the local market.  The products were high in quality, and the company brand was respected.  The owners wanted to grow the products into a regional and, ultimately, a national brand.  Don was well on the way of accomplishing his mission when conflicts arose between him and the owners.  The owners kept interfering with his leadership.  Although irritating, Don was able to manage.  The conflict heated up when the owners became upset with Don over a major change initiative. I believe the owners were threatened by his success and felt displaced by his leadership.  Don’s attempts to influence the owners failed.  In fact, these attempts created even more tension.  Finally, in frustration, Don and the owners reached a mutual agreement to part ways.

Why did I include this case? It is a warning to CEOs who take over entrepreneurial companies, because I have seen similar scenarios unfold many times in different industries.  The newly hired, highly competent CEO replaces the owner who had struggled to grow the company.  The culture the new CEO enters is often controlling and highly influenced by the personality of the entrepreneur/owner.  As much as these owners would like the company to succeed, they are haunted by the fear of losing their influence and the feeling of being displaced by the new CEO.  In reality, they are often more concerned about losing their influence than the success of their company.  I am aware of one owner who accused a CEO of “throwing him under the bus.”

To summarize, it is important to influence upstairs. I would add the warning that company politics can get ugly. Coaches need to be aware of this and help their coachees to navigate the perils of their leadership. A good principle to keep in mind is to create tension for the owner, boss, or board that is meaningful and relevant to their goals. Misreading their goals can spell disaster for the relationship and job security of the new leader.

Coaching Innovation

To gain and maintain a competitive edge in today’s fast-paced business environment, companies need to continuously improve products, services, and processes. Innovation has become an indispensable strategy toward these improvements. An executive coach needs to encourage coachees to engage in innovative thinking to be successful. I will present three cases to illustrate the role of a coach in encouraging innovation.

Company X is a manufacturer of parts for a major industry. They sold a patented product through distributors and directly to original equipment manufacturers. Anticipating their main product coming off patent protection, they were concerned about a flood of knock-off products, particularly from China. The coaching challenge was to help the CEO of this company solve the dilemma of maintaining a culture of innovation within the company while at the same time producing its products in a low-cost manufacturing environment. As a result of several sessions addressing this dilemma, the CEO realized he needed to protect innovation from being perceived as an unnecessary financial burden to manufacturing. He formed a “pioneer” team of his most creative people and protected them with a separate budget. Manufacturing had its own budget with the mandate of creating a low-cost, efficient operation. This strategy of separating the Pioneer team from the Manufacturing team turned out to be successful. The company continued to develop new products, improve its existing products, and remain cost-competitive.

Company Y made an engineered product that was designed to meet new government regulations for its customer. A competitor developed a new product that not only met specifications but had some additional advantages that were missing in Company Y’s product. The competitor’s product was also less expensive. Company Y was given six months to come up with a product to match the competitor’s product or lose the customer’s business. This challenge was raised and processed in coaching. The company already had a well-defined innovation strategy, but the challenge presented by its customer required a different approach. It was determined that this challenge was a top priority. This meant putting other projects on hold and adding more resources to this one. The result was a new product that outperformed the competitor’s product. Company Y kept the business, albeit at a higher cost. It is now dedicating resources to reduce its manufacturing costs and thereby regain its profit margin.

Company Z is a large service company that was trying to reduce its escalating health care costs. The coach introduced the company CEO to an individual who specialized in innovative solutions to reduce health care costs. As a result, the company changed is health care plan to a consumer-driven health plan (CDHP), which combines a high-deductible insurance plan with a health savings account (HSA). The CDHP was just the beginning. The company also wanted to promote a healthier lifestyle for its workforce. Employees were given the opportunity to engage in health-related programs, rewarding participation with additional money placed into their HSA. Programs included a covered annual physical, weight-management classes, exercise classes, and nutritional guidance. These programs helped employees make healthy lifestyle choices that should lead to better health, fewer doctor visits, and a more productive workforce. In fact, Company Z experienced lower health care costs, reduced out-of-pocket costs for employees, and a healthier workforce.

The role of the coach in each of these cases was threefold: first, to maintain innovation as one of the key topics of the coaching dialogue; second, to examine the process of innovation; and, third, to stay focused on results. Given all of the demands made of executives, it is easy for them to lose track of innovation. Many executives will complain about problems rather than innovate for solutions. Keeping the coachee focused on innovation as a critical contributor to the success of the company is central to the role of the coach.