Steven Covey made a distinction between the urgent and the important. My experience has been that most executives pay too much attention to the issue of the day and lose focus on what is most important to their company’s success. This is an easy trap to fall into. It is hard for top executives to ignore the many distractions that invade their agenda. As a coach, I feel one of my most important roles is to help keep my coachees focused on the important, often delegating the urgent demands to others on the executive team.
Rather than one case, I offer several brief cases to illustrate how a coach can keep coachees focused on the important. The areas selected are building a strong executive team, building company capacity and infrastructure, and innovation. They were chosen because they offer a variety of important goals and approaches in maintaining focus. Each will demonstrate the role a coach can play to help executives avoid being derailed by distractions while staying focused on the most important goals of the company.
Building a Strong Executive Team
Tom is the president of a fast-growing company, and, yet, he has his fingers in every decision being made by his executive team. His CEO was concerned and asked his coach to work with Tom to help him create an “A-Team” of highly competent and motivated executives. It did not take long for his coach to realize that Tom was risk averse. While Tom liked the idea of delegating, he was fearful that his team members would fail to make the right decisions. One by one, his coach reviewed the balance sheet for each executive team member. There were two executives who were under-producing, and the conversation quickly turned to the decision to tolerate (unacceptable), develop (using coaching and training when appropriate), or terminate them. Tom’s coach helped him to focus on finding a mentor for one executive who was talented but lacked experience for the role envisioned for him. The other executive who was under-performing had his role changed to bring his skills in closer alignment with performance expectations. Other changes were made to elevate one executive to the A-Team and two executives from the A-Team to the level that reported to the top executive team. The result was a streamlined, productive A-Team Tom could trust and delegate to.
Building Company Capacity for Growth
Peter is the owner and CEO of a growing medical products company. It was clear that the company had outgrown several of its managers and executives. Problems were occurring in quality control, chemistry, and operations. The plant was also out on space for both office and operations. Confronted by his coach on how Peter would lead his company through these challenges, the decision was to invest in infrastructure to meet anticipated sales. In the past, the strategy was to build capacity only when sales demanded it. As the leader of a larger company with faster growth and more demanding customers, Peter knew he needed to change. His concern was spending in advance of sales and the disquieting feeling of leveraging the company financially. Coaching helped Peter to focus on his goal of growth and keeping customers happy. He was able to overcome his short-term concerns about the increased cost of overhead and falling profits for the longer term goal of growing the company. As a result, he has a new building, a stronger executive team that can handle day-to-day challenges, higher quality products, and the ability to meet customer demand. Sales have continued to grow, and the company is able to successfully manage its growth.
Most executives view innovation as new product development or improvements to operational processes. Bill is the CEO of a service company with over 250 employees. He was expressing concern about the spiraling costs for health care. Insurance rates were growing annually and becoming a higher percentage of overall operating expenses. He also viewed his workforce as older and less healthy than average. He needed to get a handle on containing these costs. One of the roles of a coach is to expose coachees to information that can enlighten them. In this case, the coach brought in a speaker to a Vistage group that Bill was a member of. The speaker’s talk was about containing medical costs. The speaker was rich in ideas. Bill and his coach discussed these ideas, and, as a result, Bill decided to stop complaining about costs and start creating an innovative program to contain them. With the help of a consulting group, Bill’s company was able to offer many innovative programs, including a lunch and learn program on exercise and nutrition, smoking cessation clinics, a consumer-driven health plan combined with a high-deductible health care savings account option as an alternative to traditional health insurance, support for gym membership, and bonuses to members of the high-deductible health care savings plan for meeting health goals. The results were outstanding. Not only was the company able to contain health care costs, but most of its employees spent less for out-of-pocket health care expenses. The work force was much healthier, with less absenteeism. Although it was an intuitive assumption, Bill believed employees were more productive. The coach’s role here was to refocus Bill from complaining about costs and possibly cutting company contributions to health insurance toward instituting innovative health and insurance programs to contain or reduce health care expenses. This also led to a healthier and improved work force.
The message here should be clear. Executive coaches should play a strong role in keeping top executives focused on what is important to the overall success of their company. Keeping executives from being distracted by events that continually occur in a normal business environment will serve their companies’ most important goals and aspirations.