Like great athletes, entertainers and musicians, many leaders I’ve worked with are in constant pursuit of perfection. They often look to outside sources for perspective and advice. That’s what leadership coaches do.
Two of the most important aspects of coaching leaders involves technique and self-awareness.
Technique is about the best ways to approach various challenges. Best practices at GE might be appropriate to IBM but wouldn’t work at Whole Foods. A coach’s job is to understand those best practices and introduce them where they’ll work best.
For example, 34 year-old Larry needed help turning around a 1,200 employee operation that was in serious trouble and asked me to advise him. Although Larry is a born leader who balances his (soft side) respect for people with his (hard side) knowledge that numbers need to improve, he recognized in this situation that one of his weaknesses was his lack of experience in a leadership role.
He’d never been around leaders who had successfully addressed a failing organization, created a vision for the organization, managed a difficult labor relations environment, created and communicated a consistent strategic story, or shared financial information with his employees in a way that linked each of them and their work to the financials. As his leadership coach, I was able to help him with techniques that other successful leaders have used in similar situations.
Larry was able to turn the organization around and went on to increasingly larger roles in the company.
People who’ve recently assumed significant leadership positions often express surprise that they’ve suddenly entered a fishbowl in which even personal habits act as messages about what’s important.
The young leader of a pharmaceutical business unit told me she couldn’t believe how everybody hung on to everything she said. “They notice everything. They read meaning into things I didn’t intend. It’s very uncomfortable, but I guess it comes with the territory.” It does!
Ben, president of a health care insurance company, spent a lot of time telling his people how important the customers were to the future of the company, but his employees didn’t think he was serious. We suggested he conduct a calendar review of his past 30 days. He was shocked.
“I’m embarrassed at what my calendar says about me,” he told me. “I’m spending a lot of time on administrative minutiae rather than with customers. I’m undermining my credibility.” He shifted his calendar to better reflect the importance of customers.
In both cases, we held a mirror up to these two leaders, permitting them to discover the problem and create a workable solution on their own.
I’m from the leaders are born and made school–not either/or. Becoming a musical virtuoso requires leveraging innate talent with practice and experience. Same, too, with leaders. Some display leadership skills on the grade school playground, then those skills are honed over time and they wind up running a business or leading a major league team.
Helping organizations significantly improve performance involves coaching their leaders. I’ve personally coached CEO’s of large and small companies, line leaders in their first “supervisory” jobs, a major market TV anchor and a dozen brilliant scientist/physicians who epitomized the phrase, “like herding cats.”
Improving self-awareness and technique with coaching can provide huge differences for athletes, entertainers, musicians, first line leaders, CEOs and everyone in between.