Archive for August, 2011
Just found out that the latest issue of Fortune has an article about executive coaching for which I was interviewed. It’s also available online. The author, Vickie Elmer, asked me great, insightful questions, and I believe the article will be useful to folks who are thinking about whether or not to retain a coach. (Vickie also has a good blog.)
One thing Vickie doesn’t really talk about much is why coaching has gotten so popular lately. She notes that the 3 most popular reasons for coaching are “leadership development, remedial performance improvement, and optimizing strong contributors.” That certainly lines up with the reasons we get requests for coaching (and in fact, it’s what I told her during the interview). But those needs have always been there – so why are coaches called upon so much more often these days to help address them?
Partly, it’s simply that people think differently about outside help of all kinds than they used to. In previous decades, for instance, it was a hush-hush thing to go to a therapist – now people talk about their therapists on line at Starbucks! And along with that broad societal shift, the reputation of coaching itself has changed. As Vickie points out in the lead sentence of her story, coaching was “once seen as the last step for an executive about to fall off the ladder.” In the twenty-plus years that we’ve been coaching at Proteus, I’ve seen the average prospective coachee go from being primarily angry/worried/demoralized to being primarily hopeful/proud/excited. Of course, coaching can still be a little daunting – focusing on yourself and your development and getting feedback about your performance isn’t something you do every day – but it seems that most people now see it as an investment the company is making in them. Which is accurate: coaching isn’t cheap. Companies definitely have to want to invest in the people to whom they offer coaching.
And that brings me to the main reason I believe coaching has become more popular; I think more and more organizations are realizing that their best and highest-potential people are truly valuable assets, and they want to fully leverage those assets. Companies are starting to recognize how important it is to their success – especially in times of high change and shaky economics – to have executives who manage and lead well, and who are loyal to the organization. And that offering people a competent coach is a great way to help build both loyalty and professional excellence.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with some favorite clients and colleagues. These are folks with whom I had done work in the past, but with whom — for a variety of reasons both personal and professional — I hadn’t been in touch for the past couple of years.
It’s been great to catch up, to hear about what’s happened in their lives, and in a couple of cases to have the opportunity to work together again. And I’ve noticed in every instance that these people have grown. Not they they were un-grown to begin with: each of them was smart, mature and professional when we worked together before. But now they’re more thoughtful and confident, with a better sense of who they are and what they bring to the party. They seem even better than before at playing to their strengths and mitigating or working around their weaknesses — perhaps because they’re more aware of those weaknesses.
It makes me happy partly because I love to see people I care about doing well, and partly because they seem happy. But most pleasing to me, it reaffirms a belief I hold dear: that each of us can continue to grow and evolve and become more of who we want to be throughout our lives.
I’m thrilled that my friends are living examples of Michelangelo’s famous saying: “Ancora Imparo”; I’m still learning.
Over the past month or so, as I’ve been working with various senior executives, the question of “What’s my real job?” has come up a lot. It most often arises in relation to delegation; many CEOs and Presidents seem confused about what to hand off to folks who work for them, and what to keep. As a result, they can stay too far down into the details, which takes up a lot of their time and is demoralizing and and confusing for their staff.
Sometimes it’s because they genuinely want to help. Sometimes it’s because those detailed tasks are fun for them, or make them feel like they’re really accomplishing something. But I’m coming to see that, quite often, it’s simply because they don’t yet know what they’d be doing if they weren’t doing the things they’ve always done!
So here’s a metaphor: if you’re running a company, you’re the captain of a ship. The captain is responsible for setting direction, and making sure the ship stays on course; thinking about what resources will be needed to reach the destination and working with the senior officers to decide how to allocate those resources; making sure the officers are working well together and have what they need to succeed. He or she is also responsible for assuring they’re clear on their responsibilities and able to fulfill them. The captain must also stay aware of all the conditions surrounding the ship and propose changes in course or operation in response to those conditions. Finally, the captain is the representative of the ship to outside entities: the ship owner, the Coast Guard, etc.
The captain is not the person who goes down into the engine room and tinkers with the machinery to make it work better, or figures out how many towels should be bought, or whether to serve the crew ham for breakfast.
When I work with business heads, I often use this ‘captain of the ship’ metaphor, and then offer a sentence to help them decide whether or not to do any particular thing: Only do what only you can do. In other words, only do those things that no one below you is capable of doing. And if you’re doing tasks that someone else less highly paid and skilled than you could do (the equivalent of counting the towels), but there’s no one in the organization to do them…consider hiring someone.
If you’re running a company, you need to focus on making sure that the whole enterprise is successful. And you can only do that if you (metaphorically) get up out of the engine room and spend most of your time on the bridge…
My last Insider List email was about the power of optimism, especially in a time that seems to provide fodder for lots of pessimism. I also noted that since scary/bad/horrifying/shocking news hugely outsells joyful/good/hopeful/reassuring news, we’re pretty much guaranteed to hear lots of the former and not much of the latter from the news media. I invited my Insiders to share their stories of optimism affirmed — situations where they believed something good could happen, worked to make it so, and succeeded.
I got some great stories. One was from a young man who had been looking for a job for a number of months. He was very clear about what he wanted and what he was capable of, and it just wasn’t showing up. Friends and family had counseled him to take what he could get, but he decided to hold out as long as he could for what he really wanted. Just as his funds were running low, an acquaintance told him about a job at her company that sounded very much like what he wanted. He applied, interviewed, and got the job. Two months in, he loves it.
Another favorite was from one of my financial planning consultants. She let me know that she was about to compete in a triathlon, and was working to manage her nervousness about the swimming leg, reminding her herself that she was prepared and in good shape, and had every reason to believe she’d “complete a strong race and be thankful for her ability to do so.”
I checked in with her earlier this week and got this response. “Matched last year in overall placement so I’m pleased. And…the swim leg was much longer (my fear put to the test as I eyeballed the swim course that morning) so overall it was the longest race I’ve ever completed in my life. Not too shabby!”
I love hearing stories like this. As my husband says, it’s the triumph of envision-plan-execute!
I invite you to share and request stories like this from those around you on a daily basis. Success breeds success – inspires it, enables it, catalyzes it. Sharing our triumphs is a wonderful antidote to the prevailing winds of pessimism.
As I went into the admin page to start writing this, I noticed that it’s my 350th post. It’s kind of astonishing to me; if my average post is 200 words long, that means I’ve written 70,000 words here over the past 4 1/2 years. That’s a book!
And I guess it surprises me because it’s been unintentional. I didn’t set out to write a book’s-worth of blog posts; I just started blogging.
It makes me wonder if this isn’t why most people don’t do great things, large things. Maybe they look at the thing they long to do — write the book, start the business, master the musical instrument, become a word-class whatever — and it just seems too huge; too high a mountain to climb. The prospect overwhelms them and they simply turn away; go back to the small daily things that seem doable.
But really, all big things – just like all small things – get done bit by bit, one step at a time. The difference, I think, is that doing something large requires both a belief that the million small steps will add up to your hoped-for outcome, and a belief that you are capable of continuing down that path all the way to the end.
It also requires clarity about the steps to take, and the focus to keep taking them.
And then something truly excellent can happen.