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?
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.