Example 1 - Only You and Your Boss Have Defined the Situation as Requiring a "Turnaround"
Examples of the Change Agent Executive / Independent Coach Partnership
When I was first selected by Leslie* to serve as her executive coach in Chicago, the point-of-contact HR executive described the precipitating events for seeking help as a series of incidents where Leslie was being too "forceful," "heavy handed," and "throwing sharp elbows." Leslie had been recruited from the outside from another large corporation to turn around a key component of this service business' IT organization. In essence, the organization she inherited was bloated and suffered from lapses in the quality of the information and services it provided to outside clients.
* All identifying information for each individual and their business in these examples has been changed to assure anonymity. Any similarity between these examples and someone you may know is an indication that these experiences and situations are not that uncommon.
Leslie made a number of decisions that created necessary surgical disruptions in the organization, displaced people by "high-grading" the group, and acquired many of the resources that she needed to begin to realize the desired business results. Leslie was focused on her part of the organization, protected it, and was moderately successful in consolidating, integrating, and improving the performance of her sub-teams. In the process, however, she also developed a widely-held reputation for being difficult to work with. As a result, she alienated important horizontal stakeholder groups who were now less inclined to cooperate with her change initiatives that interfaced with their organizations and required their collaboration.
Situational Analysis and Executive Development Assessment
1. No commonly-perceived need for change or proper sense of urgency for change had been established.
Only Leslie, her immediate boss, and top management understood the business case and need for change. (This was a surprising finding more me as an independent outsider.) No one else perceived the situation as requiring a turnaround, so Leslie's aggressive and forceful behavior seemed bizarre to them. Outside of upper management and her immediate leadership team, Leslie had not communicated a compelling case defining the uncompetitive cost structure and identifying client dissatisfaction with quality. This absence of an important lever of change also was associated with another missing lever:
2. No development of a critical mass of sponsors for the change.
Leslie had been quite successful in the past as an external IT consultant where she took great pride in quickly diagnosing client problems and then having less experienced consultants "clean up the mess." She had been rewarded for using a pace-setter leadership style, leading by example but never learning to bring others along. Her major source of influence was the use of logical and analytical skills, where the power of the right technical answer would hopefully carry the day. She never learned to engage others and make it possible for them to take ownership for the diagnosis and the creation of the solution. So it was "her baby," but in the current business circumstances, no one else felt any ownership for the care and feeding of this child. From her consulting experience, she had learned that resisters were to be brushed aside. The client was paying her to fix the technical problem, and she was "on the clock."
3. No effort to develop a shared vision of the more desirable future state.
Only Leslie's direct reports had been engaged in defining what the desired future state looked like and why it was in the business' (and their personal) best interest to get there. Without this, there was no tension created in the mind and hearts of all involved stakeholders between a vision of an inadequate current state and a more desirable future state. There was, however, an elevated sense of anxiety about what would happen if they did not change. Without this clear, shared vision of the future and understanding of their valued role in it, there was no hope for building any momentum in an organization that was currently clinging to the past security of the status quo.
The Individual Development Plan
Once Leslie had intellectually and emotionally accepted the feedback, we focused on changing her leadership style to enable her to use the previously missing levers of change. The coaching focused on having Leslie privately conduct a number of "mea cupla's" about her overly forceful leadership style, explaining the business case for change, and using the influence tactic of asking others for their insights and involvement to further roll out the necessary changes and develop local ownership. This also required more non-task-related relationship building efforts which was not natural or comfortable for Leslie. Building trust in these relationships and having other key stakeholders perceive that Leslie understood their circumstances and would attempt to take their goals and needs into consideration in managing the change were key to future success. Helping Leslie shift from only coming to these executives when she needed something from them and advocating for her own point of view to investing first in understanding what challenges these other executives were facing and how she might help them required Leslie's constant focus.
As a result of building more collaborative relationships, taking the time to bring others along, and making space for other stakeholders to have their ideas and fingerprints on the changes, the necessary process and organizational changes proceeded more smoothly.
A mini-360° progress evaluation using a publically-appropriate version of Leslie's development plan as a baseline, six key stakeholders reported largely positive progress on most fronts. She made progress in engaging others to share ownership for the changes and the outcomes of the initiatives. She got mixed reviews on coaching her direct reports (always a challenge for a pace-setting, "follow me" style). Her biggest challenge continued to be in letting go of control to others horizontally and trusting in their abilities to deliver on their commitments, especially if it wasn't exactly how she would have done it.
Once the organization became more stabilized, Leslie realized that she was probably not a good fit for leading a business now focused on integrating and refining incremental quality improvements. Her pace-setting style was largely driven from her basic exceedingly strong motives for achievement. Combined with her strong conceptual and analytical skills, she often found herself impatient with others while waiting for them to arrive at what seemed to her to be an obvious set of alternative solutions to a problem instead of taking delight in having led them there.
As a final stage in Leslie's coaching, she decided to return to external IT consulting as a better fit for her personality. Rather than try to stay in the corporate environment feeling like she was driving with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake at the same time, she found a role in a consulting firm where she could be a constant subject matter expert and the smartest kid in the room. Both she and her corporate boss concluded that when the changes were largely implemented and the organization stabilized, it was probably better if she moved on to a role that was a better fit for her personality.
Leslie is now a happy and successful external IT senior consultant.
Wiznami Corp. is an a senior executive coaching service based in Naples, Florida.