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.

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