The 70% – Part 2

EngagementHierarchyIn the Executive Coaching Workshop I co-lead with John Vercelli for Coaches Training Institute, we discuss early in the curriculum the pervasive epidemic of Bad Boss Syndrome.  It is jaw-dropping how many employees reflect on the lack of leadership and vision they receive from those who manage them, how starved they are for inspiration, and how little it takes to turn a bad day into a good day.  When you think about the study published recently by Gallup noting that 70% of employees are disengaged — and that too many of them hate their jobs — boss improvement is a good place to start.

Another good place to start is the Dead Brand Graveyard, where we also focus in the workshop.  Surely some brands die purposefully in mergers and consolidations, but my observation is that many more die because they break their promise to their customers, who simply move on.  In a world of virtually unlimited customer choice, when a company fails to innovate or repeatedly breaks a brand promise, the Dead Brand Graveyard is soon to cement a new tombstone.  For the employees who are part of the letdown, the lost promise, and ultimately the job loss that follows, demoralization is readily understood.  Remember, a lot of these employees came to their companies with hope and passion and energy and ideas.  They may have had the solutions to their company’s death sentence on their desktops.  Perhaps no one was listening.  That takes us right back to Bad Boss Land.  It’s an infinite loop.

Let’s pull these two concepts together — bad bosses and dying brands — and then think about the twelve Gallup questions which you can find in last week’s post, Part 1 of this inquiry.  None of the questions involve compensation.  They ask things like whether individuals have the opportunity to do what they do best, whether their supervisor cares about them or their advancement, whether the mission or purpose of their company is understood and they are part of something that matters, whether there is a commitment to quality in the workplace, and whether there are peers or leaders in the environment who are supportive.

Human stuff, huh?  HR mush?  Not the stuff of hard-won profit and loss?  Garbage!  If companies have it so right, why are brands evaporating from the landscape in record time?  Why are fully capitalized companies lasting half as long as the average human lifespan?  Creative destruction, you say, the natural course of things business?  Well, sure, I’ll give you that.  So is top management willing to say the whole Circle of Life is out of their hands and the survival of the enterprise is entirely up to market forces, to fate rather than strategy, to a competitor’s campaign rather than a driven response to galvanizing the single most important asset in the company’s inventory, the intellectual capital that is allowed to rest idle and fester?

That’s not very optimistic.  And yet, optimism is the spirit that drives opportunity, and opportunity is the backbone of capitalist enterprise.

Why do we so often get this so completely wrong?  Why would we let 70% of employees churn in the ranks, angry and sad and defeated?  Why would anyone allow a brand to go stale, to break a promise to a customer, to fail to reinvent itself when invention is the lifeblood of all revenue and profit growth?  Borders, Circuit City, Kodak, Polaroid, Palm — all once admired companies, all with revered brands — what do you suspect the internal opinions were of management as repositioning opportunities were missed and tired product performance spiraled downward?

Much has been written about short-term versus long-term financial incentives as value destroying tactics, particularly among senior management at the top of the compensation bell curve.  That is only part of the problem.  Certainly if you set a sales target for a commission based or stocky savvy executive, she or he will chase that goal aggressively, often with widespread collateral damage.  Yet is it the incentive that is the time bomb, or the misperception on the individual’s part of the fundamental rewards that may or may not be at hand?  To that end, I mentioned that the Gallup poll does not reference compensation.  I would be willing to bet Big Money that the disengagement factor cuts across every salary band in the spectrum.  It is my own observation that once you get past basic human needs being met — housing, food, safety, decent educational opportunities for the kids and maybe a family vacation now and again — there is no guarantee whatsoever that financial reward brings vast job satisfaction.  I have met as many or more unhappy wealthy people as I have in the middle class.  The tendency to focus on the wrong motivation is not exclusive to the underpaid or overpaid, and the failure to align truly rewarding incentives with human performance is almost always the difference between long brand life and flash in pan cash register rings.

When I hear that 70% of employees are disengaged, and when I see brands and companies dying in record time, I experience one story.  We try hard to focus the executive coaching mission on revitalizing the human potential in an organization, to bring the executive’s focus back to the brand promise, and to evangelize that set of values broadly among the members of a team as a rallying cry.

I see three major factors that matter in a job — what you do, who you do it for and with, and the compensation you receive for what you give.  If the first two mandates of that string aren’t met, it seems ludicrous to believe that compensation is going to make up for the loss.  And if the only thing that people are focusing on is compensation, what real chance does that company have at longevity?  A brand will not be reinvented because it needs to be more profitable; it will be the magnet of innovation because people care about it and bond together to transform it into something it currently is not because it matters.  From that investment of idealism will flow vast improvements in continuing profitability.

Short-term harvesting of any cash cow is possible — if you want to squeeze profits, go ahead and squeeze the people who are producing them.  At the moment 70% of those people are telling you they don’t like what they are doing or who they are doing it for.  Want to make the Big Money that lasts the long run?  The Gallup survey tells you in the questions alone where we’re leaving the Big Money on the table.  Start Thinking Different!

Bosses must learn to listen.  Employees need to teach their bosses to listen so they can be heard and emerge.  Coaching can be implicit or explicit, but it has to be obvious that letting ideas flow not only improves morale, it is vital to sustaining the enterprise.  Companies that last do so because they apply long-term strategies, both in terms of bolstering their brands and employee engagement.  Everyone can win — especially customers — if that’s the walk that leadership walks, leadership by example.  It does not happen accidentally, but by commitment, and constant reminder of core values that can be shared.

For me, it will always be People, Products, Profits — In That Order.

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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.

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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The Art and Science of Coaching

Most great athletes wouldn’t think of stepping into competition without a coach, both in practice running skill drills and on the sidelines during an event for strategy and encouragement.  Where you find a great business leader, there is often a similar proxy — a mentor helping guide them, either a current boss, a past boss, or a colleague who just cares enough to help.  When you want a coach and aren’t lucky enough to have a mentor, where can you turn?  Some have tried executive coaches, paid professionals hired to fill the role, sometimes successful, sometimes not.  Because I find the role of being a mentor the most satisfying aspect of my career, I have taken up an interest in coaching over the past few years and learned through experience some stuff worth sharing.

John Vercelli, with whom I teach the Executive Coaching Workshop at Coaches Training Institute, recently sent me an article from Human Resources Executive that largely captures why we created our new program.  The article, by Andrew R. McIlvaine, pretty much says everything I was intending to write in a post here, not the least of which is:

Too many executive coaches lack the business experience necessary to help clients.  But others say such experience isn’t necessary to effect real change — and in some cases, it may even be a hindrance.

John and I are somewhere in the middle (surprised, huh?).  We believe it is virtually impossible to be an executive coach if someone hasn’t developed empathy for the job of the executive.  Yet we also believe that just because someone has significant executive experience, that may not qualify them to be a world-class executive coach.

That’s why we decided to lead the Executive Coaching Workshop together, and are having a blast doing so.  John is a longtime member of the faculty at CTI and now serves as Director of Corporate Programs.  I have taken courses at CTI, but I am not a certified coach.   I have immense respect for the work of the coach, but that’s really John’s expertise as one of the senior curriculum designers for CTI.  My role in this program is to help prepare a new wave of coaches to step into the corporate arena by placing them in real world simulations that illustrate the weight of walking in an executive’s shoes.

We can no more substitute a lifetime of making business decisions in a few intense days of training than we can alter the personality of someone who doesn’t appreciate empathy to exhibit it.  What we can do is paint a picture of what high level business decision-making is like day-to-day as well as year to year, and how a good coach can add value to that decision-making by helping frame the context of situations as a resource and sounding board rather than an “answer machine.”  The combination of John’s co-active creativity and my goal oriented pragmatism — both tempered by true commitment to human potential and respect for the individual as well as the team — seems to be working.  Here are a few things we have learned in the initial trials:

1. Role-Playing Creates Memorable Models: When we take prospective executive coaches and load them up in exercises with the burdens of time bound goals, intense competition, market forces, unforgiving shareholders, management hierarchies, and corporate politics, they start to understand the client by becoming the client.  Of course this is no substitute for the reality of the client’s struggles, but it’s a good start down a path toward empathy.  If you have a little high-octane improv you want to try out, there’s nothing quite like giving your material a no-fault test run.

2. Intellectual Curiosity Can’t Be Faked: If you want to cheer people on, you need to be interested in what they do.  As obvious as it may sound, an expressed interest in business is prerequisite to being a recommended executive coach.  Reading the Wall Street Journal regularly, digging into corporate annual reports, subscribing to industry email newsletters, participating in webinars — all of these help to build a shared vocabulary around profit and loss, return on investment, and growth opportunities.  Where prospective executive coaches don’t find the subject matter naturally interesting, easy flowing dialogue is not easy.

3. It Takes a Toolkit: There is no single path to success for the executive, and there is surely no single connect-the-dots methodology for successful executive coaching.  The dynamics of today’s business environment are fierce and opaque, creating a landscape of ambiguity that has to be constantly reevaluated and balanced.  There is no reward without risk, and helping the executive to consider risk requires an establishment of trust and credibility that constantly has to be reinforced.  We believe empathy is possible through extrapolation of life experience, but thin analogies will only get you so far.  Experience and knowledge compound over time to broaden the context of dialogue, convincing us that process is your friend to the extent you have the personal resources to chart new paths under immense pressure.

How deep can organizations go with coaching?  A recent post in Psychology Today suggests that even a CEO can benefit strong from an executive coach, although building that level of trust and empathy is no small task.  The point is that everyone can benefit from a sounding board, and in a perfect world everyone would have one that embodies a level playing field of shared knowledge.  Since that business utopia is unlikely to emerge anytime soon, we think great executive coaches will be increasingly in demand, but like anything worth the money, the difference between good and great can be considerable.

The science of coaching is most likely to be revealed through improved business results, the scoreboard of performance upon which the client’s metrics will be formally evaluated.  The art of coaching may seem more abstract, as each coach will undoubtedly develop his or her own style for working with the client to achieve the anticipated metrics, but without concrete improvements in financials, style won’t much matter.  John and I believe you can’t have one without the other, and it is the integration of this vision that motivates us to help fill that toolkit.