Can They Hear You Listening?

Consultant?  Mentor?  Coach?  However you might be trying to encourage someone who is already an outstanding professional do what they do better, what is most likely to get in your way?  It is quite possible that professional is not accustomed to being on the receiving end of good coaching.  Any leader who spends most of their time getting things done promptly, inspiring a team with excellence, may have forgotten or never have learned how to be open to quality feedback.  That may seem like the executive’s problem, but it is clearly a challenge any great coach should be excited to accept.

One of the key problems many executives face is the impossibility of getting honest, useful feedback, often until it is too late.  A study last fall from the Kellogg School of Management identified the Icarus Paradox as a particularly pernicious factor in the continuing success of accomplished CEOs.  Where top executives are often most in need of quality feedback, they are often at the disadvantage of their own nervous circles.  Exaggerated levels of flattery and opinion conformity are too often the norm within organizations, leaving the already exposed leader even more exposed than necessary, too often in the spirit of being well-meaning.  “My advice would be to remember that the higher you are, the more likely you are to be ingratiated, and therefore you should make sure you get advice from people who do not depend on you,” wrote Northwestern professor Ithai Stern, one of the authors of the study.

There’s some interesting advice — seek input from someone who has no reason to flatter you, but rather is 100% aligned with you objectively for success.  Sounds like opportunity with huge upside for the right person ready to provide that challenge in a manner where it is unfiltered, constructive, and uncompromised.  The goal is not so much self-enhancement of the individual as it is strategic enhancement of the individual’s mission, upon which so many are depending.

CTI Executive CoachingSounds like an ideal place to be, but how do you get there?  Surely it’s possible for someone like Baseball Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax to return to his Dodger roots and offer a pointer or two to Cy Young Award Winner Clayton Kershaw, who is still early in his career and confident enough in his own pitching to know how to listen to a legend.  What if your experience is different from that of the person you are coaching — can you still be of high value?   Because I do this every day with world-class individuals who do things I could never do, I promise you that you can — but you do have some immensely hard work ahead of you.

Imagine you could help anyone in the world get better at what they do in a professional context, regardless of his or her area of expertise or your own.  Hey, this is for fun, pick anyone you want — an artist, an athlete, a headline corporate leader.  Great, keep that person in mind, and presume you are not renowned for the same things they are.  How are you going to get past the barrier of getting them to accept your insight?  That perhaps is a much bigger challenge than getting the fantasy assignment in the first place.

You might be saying to yourself your initial goal has to be to establish rapport, and that would be a good place to start, but what does it mean?  In the Executive Coaching Workshop I lead with John Vercelli at Coaches Training institute, we talk less about the notion of rapport, and more about the notion of empathy.  In the many exercises and role-playing scenarios we run, we have yet to find two individuals so disparate in life experience that they cannot find a path to empathy.  In this context, empathy is the basis of common understanding, an appreciation of shared aspirations and motivating factors, an interlinking of common goals outside the specifics of a work-oriented task.  No matter how far apart people begin, if they make the effort and commit themselves to finding reciprocal empathy, they can find common ground to break down a set of complex problems quickly and consistently.  The outreach that constitutes the task of discovering empathy leads to the bond of trust that is essential in any coaching relationship.  Find empathy, establish trust, and the process of being open to outside support is not nearly as hard as it seems.

Is it any wonder that this kind of trust is difficult for an executive to exhibit in the hyper competitive workplace?  Anyone in a position of leadership is constantly faced with endless conflicts of interest, mixed messages, hidden agendas, and far too much flattery.  When a coach can break through all that noise through the powerful act of focused listening, the next person likely to listen might be the executive.  That could constitute an unequaled breakthrough and the beginning of a powerful business friendship.

If Professor Stern and his colleagues are right about the Icarus Paradox, and senior business leaders can be set up for a fall by unrealistic levels of strategic confidence fostered by too many piled up compliments, then the smartest ones are going to look outward for the right kind of listening and more useful forms of feedback.  That’s a field day for the executive coach willing to step up and be honest, empathetic, and a confidential source of creative exchange.  With that kind of listening, flattery can be replaced with progress.

I’ll Get Back To You

Here’s an observation—the busiest, most successful people in business are the ones who follow-up when they say they will follow-up.

Those who tell you they will get back to you and don’t are not at the top of the food chain, no matter what they think. They are insecure, weak, or hiding something. These are people who are there when they need you, invisible when you have nothing to offer them. They are not just disingenuous, they are deceived.

AA009737I’m not talking about the person who won’t return your cold call. That happens, although the best executives I have ever met are the ones who will give anyone at least a single chance with a cold call. I’m talking about the person who asks to see your business plan and then never gives you feedback. I’m talking about the company that posts a job online, and then ignores the applicants who pour out their hearts in their submissions. I’m talking about the person in your network who knows you well, whom you ask to read your proposal, and then when you follow-up ignores you. That’s not just bad manners—it’s bad business.

I can’t tell you how many of the people I mentor relate utter frustration at being ignored by former colleagues they once counted among their contacts. Many of these same people are still out of work from the recession, apply for an open position, hear nothing back, and when they call or email, still hear nothing back.

The sound of silence is not a sign of importance or strength. It’s not a sign of how busy you are. It’s a sign that you did not have a good boss on your way up who taught you how to play the long game. All of the great bosses I’ve had—and some were very big bosses—return their calls and their emails on a regular basis. The others were arrogant, lazy, or both—and that’s how they are likely to be remembered at tribute time, silently or spoken.

I’m not sure when this sort of behavior became acceptable. It probably had something to do with email, to the people who are facing 200 or 300 entries in their inbox every day. Often those people have an assistant to help them manage the flow, but it is up to each person to decide whether the words “I’ll get back to you” mean something or are hollow.

If you don’t want to read someone’s business plan, say so. I do it all the time. Say “that’s not in my wheelhouse” or “my plate is too full at the moment” or” I don’t think we’d make good partners.” That’s honest and takes you off the hook. Anyone would rather hear that than the sound of silence.

If you agree to get back to someone, or you solicit candidates for an open position, you should follow through. That is the right thing to do, and guess what, someday you too will be on the sending end of that interchange, and you’ll wonder why the other person has decided not to let you know the truth. People I know right now who never returned phone calls aren’t getting their phone calls returned. How about that!

I have seen this work both ways at every company I have worked, partnered, or consulted. All of the great CEOs and Board Members for whom I worked returned their outside calls and emails, especially if they asked to see something. The best VCs I know let you know if they want to proceed or not—they don’t all do this, but the best ones with the best names do. Realtors who want a relationship with you call back whether you are a seller or a buyer, whether you have a listing or are even in the market. Most of the mayors of great cities respond to the feedback they solicit. So do the Senators, House Representatives, County Supervisors, and Assembly Members.

You know who doesn’t return your call? The guy who sat in the cube next to you when you were 25 and now is a VP at the ZYX company, the guy you later bump into at Starbucks and says give me a call sometime, and when you do, doesn’t acknowledge your call. Rent his office now, he’s toast. You know who else? The person who fashions herself a boutique investment banker, whom you meet at a networking event, who asks if you know any great start-up entrepreneurs, and when you send one her way, ignores them. Wouldn’t give her my business. Anyone else? The op-ed executive at the dying newspaper who doesn’t tell you why you didn’t make the masthead. Also that fellow in your LinkedIn Level 1 contacts who says in his news feed he has an open position, and when you forward him a friend’s profile, never clicks on it.

Here’s the cool part, where the winners really win. The truly resilient never hear the sound of silence. If you ignore them, they go to the next person, and the next person after that. Who loses? You do, my former friend, because the individual who is that resilient, who does not care that you did not respect him, that is the person who probably has the best idea in town. Know what? You could have had it first. You asked or agreed to review it, but then you dropped the ball. When that resilient person finds the right partner, she has won, you have lost. Every single time.

You are always better off being honest with bad news than silent with none. If you only respond when there is good news—something you want or need—you’re opportunistic, not in it for the long haul, surely not someone who cares about the people in your circles, only what they can do for you. When you open a door, open it all the way, or your true intentions will be impossible to hide.

Your network is only valuable if you nurture it constantly. Your word is all you have.

Surviving the Limelight

When is an Executive Coach most valued by a client?  Not surprisingly, often when a client is most surprised!  Getting blindsided by the unexpected is part of the job for executives, but how they handle an awakened dragon is what really matters.  As an Executive Coach, your role in this rebound cannot be underestimated.

Consider as an example Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who recently attracted more visibility than usual when she set a reasonably straightforward human resources policy for her company to limit telecommuting.  Regardless of whether you agree with her on the necessity of employees being present at an office every day, it is hard not to be surprised by the public outcry in response to her internal company announcement.  She is the company’s Chief Executive Officer, she is in the midst of a tough turnaround, and she has the board assigned authority to run the company day-to-day.  The fact that her decision attracted so much public attention – headline news around the world – likely surprised even her.

Was the reaction of non-Yahoos likely to cause her to change her mind?  Pretty unlikely.  Was the media sensation that found reason to demonize her an easy punch to deflect?  That seems equally unlikely.  Had you been her Executive Coach, what would you have said to her?  More importantly, would you have been ready to say anything at all?

I would presume that Ms. Mayer has a well-established support system including personal and professional mentors to help dust her off after a fall, but what about those executives a notch or two down from the top job at companies like hers?  Surely the loud reaction to her memo represents an extreme, but as a former CEO myself, I assure you the spotlight can shine unfavorably without warning.  Senior executives are almost always operating at a high level of visibility, both within their companies and to the outside world.  Say the wrong thing or implement an otherwise innocuous tactic in any compromising manner and the wallop that follows can be bone crushing.

There are unlimited roles an Executive Coach can play in serving a client, but perhaps none is more vital than the quiet sanctuary of crisis management.  Wherever the Executive Coach might be weighing in on the spectrum of support – from consultant to mentor – the sounding board an Executive Coach provides to an executive under fire can ensure continuity over severance.  A seasoned Executive Coach might be the only individual qualified, prepared, and able to help an executive repel hyperbole and steady the ship.  How much the executive can depend on a coach in times of unwanted celebrity may mean the difference between getting through the interrupt or falling prey to demoralization.

To be clear, it may not be the surprise act causing an unusual uproar that delivers material damage to the executive’s business agenda.  It may be the executive’s immediate and unformed response.  There is an extraordinary distance to navigate between thoughtful, timely reaction and analysis paralysis.  An Executive Coach remains in the executive’s corner with 100% objectivity, without conflict of interest, and without intellectual or emotional compromise to help the executive sort through all available options in near real-time.

Remember, an executive is a champion, just like a star athlete.  The executive has signed onto the team roster to win.  All executives know they will be surprised by the response to one of their decisions sooner or later, but that does not mean they want to dig themselves out of the muck alone, especially when they never saw the sinkhole coming.  Where an executive has a trusted Executive Coach accessible for counsel, that Executive Coach can guide the executive toward accessing empowered resilience to any potentially catastrophic attack.  Responding to attack will always be part of an executive’s job, but incorporating the focused perspective of an Executive Coach to respond with inspiration can make for a brilliant recovery.

When John Vercelli and I run our simulations and role-plays for Coaches Training Institute to help ready a CTI Executive Coach for the highest levels of client service, we are not just thinking about how to help an Executive Coach win a client.  We are deeply concerned how an Executive Coach retains a client, adds tremendous value to the critical work of a client, and is always available to help that client keep winning no matter the obstacles they encounter.  Because an executive must be nimble and responsive in today’s 24 x 7 x 365 competitive environment, an Executive Coach must be equally if not more nimble and responsive.  Anticipating the unexpected is of course impossible in the specific, but necessary in the abstract.  You never get an extra beat when the spotlight shines.  You sing when the light comes on.  Being ready is what makes you great, and being present is what makes you forever dependable.

No one can ever tell you when a fire is going to ignite.  The only thing you know for sure is there will be a fire.  Being an Executive Coach means you are a vital part of your client’s response team, often where the team is just you and the executive.  Are you ready for that level of responsibility?  Are you ready to help your executive win when the odds are at their lowest?  If so, the difference you make can mean everything.  For that you will always be cherished.

CTI Global

The Parable of the Cold Burrito

George Carlin - A Place for My Stuff“Do people do that with you? Offer you some food that, if you don’t eat it, they’re only going to ‘throw it away.’ Well, doesn’t that make you feel dandy? Here’s something to eat, Dave, hurry up, it’s spoiling… something for you, Angela, eat quickly, that green pod is moving… here, Bob, eat this before I give it to an animal.'” — George Carlin

No one can describe the unusual color and shape of discarded food left for transformation into yuck quite like my hero, George Carlin. And yet, often when I think of his incomparable Ice Box Man routine, I can’t help but associate the bit with business opportunity waiting to be discovered.

No, I’m not talking about mold morphing into penicillin, which isn’t a bad analogy. I’m talking about something I like to call the Parable of the Cold Burrito.

You know, the Cold Burrito—that really great burrito you picked up at your favorite burrito place about a week ago. The one with all the things you like in it— eggs, cheese, potatoes, salsa, the incredibly fresh tortilla— the one you couldn’t wait to gobble down, only it was so filling you only ate half, then put the other half in the refrigerator. Then you forgot about your leftovers, and like the Ice Box man, rediscovered it in less glory.

Perhaps it’s not as dire as Carlin might describe it. There could be life in it. That’s up to you to decide.

You have two choices—toss it in the garbage and be done with it, or see if a little creativity can bring it back to life. I guess there is a third option, leave it in the back of the refrigerator to continue full metamorphosis, but I’m going to take a leap of faith and say you know better than that (or maybe you have been warned about ‘selective obscurity’ by your spouse).

Let’s say you pick choice #2. You remember how good it was when it wasn’t a Cold Burrito—it was a warm, wonderful burrito, but you aren’t at the place where you bought it. You unwrap it, add some other ingredients you like, some onion, a different kind of cheese, a few spices from the pantry. You carefully wrap it in foil, put it in the oven for a while around 350 degrees (not a quick soggy fix in the microwave), then retrieve it and add some shredded lettuce and chopped tomato, a little avocado. What do you have now? Something that no one else wanted, something you weren’t even sure you wanted, something that is not the same as it was, but something that is really quite good in the way you have helped it change.

Okay, it’s not a perfect parable, but you get the idea. The Cold Burrito is something you want that no one else wanted—something in which you saw potential, that easily could have been scrapped— something that began with someone else’s creativity, was forgotten for a while, then became something you reinvented. That’s a story I have told a lot of people asking me how to find hidden opportunity.

The Cold Burrito is the opportunity you see in a company asset that no one else does. It’s the dog project no one wants, so you do. It’s the nasty problem no one is willing to tackle, so you are.

Everyone wants the fresh burrito! How hard is that to bring to market? It’s already new! It’s already fresh! It’s hot out of the oven. It sells itself. Do you think you are going to make your mark doing what everyone else wants to do? And can do? No, you want the opportunity no one else wants, no one else sees, something that takes courage and vision.

Sometimes the Cold Burrito is an abandoned brand that was once popular, but suffered neglect following mass harvest. Sometimes it can be the shelved initiative that was once loved, but now the research says it’s not going to work, but you know the research is wrong. Sometimes it’s the blank page, the blue sky initiative that terrifies everyone, so they run to the latest brand extension of what’s working now—but not you! You know trying to put something where there is nothing is hugely risky, but with risk comes reward, so you put up your hand and say give me that Cold Burrito, even though it’s invisible and I can’t see it. I’m joining a team that is willing to invent it. If I fail I can live with that, but I would rather succeed trying the untried than live under the radar with tiny fragments of credit for the ordinary and easy.

When Steve Jobs came back to Apple, the company was moribund, the once great products were ordinary, the stock was in the toilet— but what he saw was the Cold Burrito, the goodwill in the Apple brand that needed an infusion of passion, detail, and excellence. When Michael Eisner came to Disney, the company was in the gun sights of arbitrage, long without a hit, the animators on pause—but what he saw was the Cold Burrito, the creative legacy of Walt ready to be introduced to a new generation of families with music, characters, and stories. The Variety Show on network TV was dead, then there was Dancing with the Stars and American Idol. Friendster stalled, then there was Facebook. A lot of music executives thought guitar bands were a passing fad, then came The Beatles.

Okay, those were ice-cold burritos in the hands of master chefs, but smaller examples are probably sitting on your desk right now. Or your neighbor’s desk. Can you see them? Are you looking? They may be old ideas made new, or new ideas unproven, but they are the opportunities conventional wisdom tells you to avoid at all costs. I say embrace them.

Carlin made us laugh because he saw what we all saw, but he observed something else, that when revealed, offered stark reflection within its silliness. Try the same thing in business, perhaps absent the silliness, though without taking yourself too seriously. We can all see the Cold Burrito for what it is, but only a few of us can see it for what it can be. Try risking that, and the results might be career changing, even life changing.

You want the Cold Burrito. It can be your ticket to the big time.