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.

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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.

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