Abrasive Leadership: Was the Coach Coachable?

This article was first published by HR Executive Online on April 10, 2013. 

Mike Rice, the former men’s basketball coach for Rutgers University, has been plastered and chastised in the media for exhibiting abusive behavior toward his players that included homophobic slurs. After a fine and three-game suspension four months ago, he was fired when a video of his actions surfaced. No one can argue that his stunning behavior was acceptable. Yet the question remains: would addressing his behavior early on have made the difference? Was the coach coachable? Bullying Coach

Workplace bullying is rampant. According to a Workplace Bullying Institute survey, “more than a third of adult Americans report being bullied at work, and 15 percent witness it and are made miserable.”

Sadly, most of us don’t know how to counter the bully’s bad behavior. Oftentimes, the bully is a star performer, making it even harder for both management and human resource executives to confront the looming problem.  Employers frequently don’t act, even though keeping an abusive leader onboard is often more risky and costly than pursuing solutions.

But something needs to be done when abusive behaviors frighten others and create a toxic work environment. Wounds inflicted on others can linger and produce intense emotional distress.

The first thing human resource executives can do is to understand what makes a bully tick, and know when calling in an executive coach is a viable course of action.

In the case of Rice, he had two distinct problems, one of which is coachable and the other is not. The homophobic slurs are a telltale sign that certain aspects of his thinking are past the point of executive coaching. When I read about this, I immediately thought he needs to see a therapist. Coaching cannot help — coaching is not therapy.

But if the deep-seated prejudices are absent from the behavioral equation, there is a process executive coaches can apply to improve abrasive leader behavior.

We are all born with the Threat –> Anxiety –> Defense mechanism, which is the core of the problem. Bullies — whom executive coaches label “abrasive leaders” — are hyper-alert to any and all challenges to their position, success, self-perception and authority — we could say they see each threat as equivalent to being attacked by a lion in the jungle. Second, because they have misdiagnosed the threat, their anxiety levels are out of sync with the threat itself. “There’s a lion about to attack me — I should be anxious, my heart is racing for a good reason, and I had better do something quickly, or else I’ll be dead.”

From past experience, abrasive leaders learned to survive by deploying these same behaviors and will defend against any threats to the way they are accustomed to achieving success. Surely, the evidence shows their behaviors have worked — winning records, high share prices, one promotion after another, respect — so why should they change? Abrasive leaders are oblivious to the impact of their behavior on others. Usually they are not bad people. They act inappropriately in pursuit of a goal or a reaction to a threat. For them, survival and winning are everything, and they will get there through dominance.

Abrasive leaders can change once they realize what is leading to their inappropriate behaviors.

How I address these inappropriate behaviors is quite straightforward — I speak with the manager’s manager, co-workers, staff, clients and sometimes even the spouse or another family member — and ask a simple question about the subject’s behavior. As a coach, I ask: “Would you please share with me your perception of the strengths and weaknesses of Joe’s management style and the way he interacts with others?” Once I’ve completed this task, I construct themes to depict the essence of the misbehaviors. I read the edited comments to my clients (you want to edit carefully to avoid any possibility of attribution, but not so much as to lose the essential point) and gauge their reactions. For most abrasive leaders, this will be the first time they have heard what others think of them. And while the client might disavow what they hear, they cannot deny that perceptions are reality, and this is how others view them.

Once they see the damage they cause, many abrasive leaders will want to change because it was never their intention to harm anyone in their quest to achieve their goals. At this point, they are willing to engage in role-playing exercises to reshape their behavior.

An investment in coaching can help companies restore civility, avoid costly turnover and possibly even prevent litigation. Perhaps Rice is not the right candidate for coaching, but some abrasive leaders are. If an employee is instrumental to the business, executive coaching can help HR executives retain valuable talent while avoiding costly lawsuits and the loss of valuable personnel who suffer under abrasive leaders.



Leading the Way in Building Talent

iStock_000006792437XSmallManagement has always professed that people are a company’s most valuable asset.  However, demonstrations of that belief are hard to find.  A leader who wants to grow human capital needs to apply approaches identified in a University of North Carolina Executive Development ideas@work article.

Based on their research, here are the straightforward approaches the three authors suggest are essential to identifying, growing and promoting the best talent available.  “Talent builders identify the organizational capabilities and talent that they need to have in their organization to perform at a high level in today’s environment.  In addition, they also look ahead and identify the organizational capabilities and talent that they will need to win in the marketplace in 36 – 48 months.”

Drive and Expect World Class Performance at All Levels:  talent building organizations demand performance that is at a ‘higher standard’ and drive that mindset into their organization.  The status quo is never sufficient, not acceptable.  Beyond top performance, ‘nothing else much matters.’

Become Students of How to Build Better Leaders Faster:  leading organizations stay current on talent management best practices and ‘invite experts to audit their talent building practices and are open’ to new innovations that fit their business and talent development needs.  Teachable moments are not dismissed; rather, they are discussed for purposes of learning and what would be done differently next time.

Ensure that Talent is on the Agenda:  “Great talent builders communicate…that leadership and talent matter.”  They produce leaders better than themselves and inquire of their staff questions like:

  • Whom in your organization is as good or better than you?
  • Who could replace you in 1 – 2 years?
  • Whom do you know outside our organization who could replace you in 1 – 2 years?
  • Whom do you know within the company who could replace you in 1 – 2 years?

These are tough and intimidating questions for managers unless you provide them with an open and trusted forum that is inclusive of them.  You need to be sure that they too see opportunities for growth and identification.

Continually Assess and Develop their Team to Ensure World-Class Talent:  Great talent building organizations keep a list of leaders who are great performers and have ‘the greatest potential for the future.’  They constantly discuss the strengths and development needs of their direct reports, focusing not just on the top 20% but also others who are coachable to reach the top tier, and those who are blocking high performers from any opportunity to grow.  Active review and evaluation are ongoing and systematic.

Continually Recruit and Export Internal Talent:   Talent builders ‘ask peers to identify their top 3 most talent people and ask for an introduction.’  Then they schedule time to meet with each to get to know them and offer their services to mentor and guide.  ‘In addition, they continually export their high potential talent to other units because they have an obligation to develop talent and know that good talent wants to go to leaders interested in their long-term development.”

Continually Recruit External Talent:    By speaking to outsiders and external recruiters, they have a method for ‘calibrating’ their talent against world class alternatives.  In fact, some are ‘willing to cold call these individuals to get to know them and establish relationships’ which could possibly result in future recruiting efforts.  Most importantly, talent builders seek non-natural sources of talent.  They peer around many corners for new and fresh perspectives.

Accelerate the Development of Talent: Leaders in talent building organizations get to personally and professionally know their direct reports and two levels down.  They demand their managers identify assignments and moves for all their high potentials to ensure ‘development plans accelerate the likelihood of these individuals advancing to their next jobs.’  Techniques used in this process include multi-rater feedback, action learning, transparent performance reviews and stretch assignments..

Doing all the above well and consistently takes a significant amount of effort.  But if you want to build the best talent possible, the energy and time required will yield payoffs for your leaders and your organization.


Leadership Traits

Every Sunday the New York Times interviews executives who have a special message about or insight into leadership and their personal techniques for success.

In this blog, I’d like to cover the essential points about leadership as described by James P. Hackett, president and CEO of Steelcase, the office furniture company based in Grand Rapids, Mich. The article was entitled “Leadership Never Looks Prepackaged.”

Mr. Hackett was open about how he’s learned from others and applied those teachings to his everyday management.  Likewise, we’ll learn from him.

While speaking to Bill Marriott, he was impressed by the look and feel of a CEO, which he was questioning about himself at the time.  The image he came back with was ‘…that you have to be who you are.’  Since then, whenever he meets a CEO who leaves something behind it is because ‘…they have a sense of peace, this self-awareness, that say ‘I understand who I am.”  Thus, being true to yourself is an aspect of strong leadership.

Because Mr. Hackett came into a tumultuous situation, he needed to figure out what the family who ran the company wanted him to be.  Understanding that trying to make ‘sense of what everybody wants in a difficult situation’ can exhaust you, he came to realize that he needed to be ‘comfortable with setting the point of view.’  If you can — and when you do — ‘people [will] want to work for you.’  Despite the environment he entered, he set the path — and made it known to the employees — that they would take, following him.  He stood out, recalling the lesson of Bill Marriott about being himself.

Describing his first management decision in more detail, he said ‘It’s this notion of authenticity — that’s what people look for and want to follow.’  You need the trust of those you are going to lead, and you ‘can’t have trust without integrity,’  which itself has to be practiced for those moments when you will be tested.  One way to measure your integrity is to ensure you act morally and ethically under the most extreme pressure, many of which are presented in every day life.

Leadership lessons were learned as well while he played football under a famous coach.  “What I got from him was this drive to compete.  If a CEO doesn’t want to win, then you don’t want them in the job.’  Average is not okay — you need to want something very badly, though ‘not win at any cost.’

A leader is also open to new ideas and being critiqued.  Mr. Hackett learned from his managers that he had to think more abstractly, to think in terms which are less concrete.  His initial reaction was a selfish one, considering only the work he himself had been putting into solving the hard problems.  After a bit, he sensed that his reaction was selfish, and ‘that the point was, what do they [his managers] need to be more successful and how do I make things more concrete for them.’  What a wonderful example of showing respect and fortitude to your staff.   He now starts a lot of discussions saying that he’s ‘gone more abstract on this because I need to get this out, and I need your help in making it more concrete.’  He has demonstrated adaptability, listening to his staff and changing his behavior.  Being a tad humble is not a bad thing.

A good leader balances ‘now’ with ‘near’ and ‘far’ and decides the right amount of time to spend on each.  Relating this to leadership is the point that as a leader you want to be known as a great one because you ‘actually reached out and imagined the state of things in the future.’

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Avoid Committee Hell and Still Be Successful

Jonathan Alter, a well-known author, recently wrote an article in August for Business Week entitled “A Checklist for Change.”  While Mr. Alter most often writes about politics, what could be more appropriate than his writing about management?  Politics and management are inextricably linked.  Committees are inescapable in both arenas.

The premise of the article — and tips to be recalled by even the most experienced and successful managers — is that committees are hell.  People in meetings talk in circles for hours and feel ‘they’ve managed to accomplish something when they manage to schedule the next meeting.’  At that point, we all sigh collectively and bolt for the door, praying there’s no followup.

Every so often, a special leader can break the mold and make things happen, and will reach out to other ‘committed change-makers willing to help.’  From here, the manager creates ad hoc teams aimed at ‘narrow, specific change, beginning with like-minded’ individuals at a small meeting.

How do we use the meeting and gathering process to actually get stuff done?  “Here are a few do’s and don’ts that might help separate change-makers from time-servers.”

Call Yourself a Team, Not a Committee  Words really matter.  The key difference is that while you’re a member of a team, you and your team members ‘have to take initiative, stay relentlessly focused, and, in certain situations, lead.’  If you’re a committee the end game is usually difficult to define, and if it’s not reached, the consequences are rarely dire.  But if a team fails, everyone has lost.  Teams have group commitment; committees do not.

Build the Team with Volunteers  If you want committed team participants, you can’t appoint them — then it’s just another assignment.  Rather, ask people who you think have a vested interest in the outcome and will be ‘present for the right reasons.’  And don’t worry about titles — ‘passion must trump position to get things cracking.’

Create Competition People like to compete — we like to know we’re really good at something and have done our best, especially against a peer.  Such behavior might seem infantile, but we can’t avoid it — it’s who we are.  You might create sub-teams to build a friendly rivalry to extract the most from everyone in the shortest possible time.  Friendly competition can ‘leverage change quickly.’

Don’t Tolerate Debbie Downers Should you come upon any team member who ‘introduces obstacles to moving forward,’ meet them head on by asking that they ‘couple the description of the obstacles with a plan for overcoming them.’  Either their motivation will kick-up a notch or they’ll think better the next time when identifying obstacles instead of solutions.  Or maybe they’ll just leave the team.

Don’t Reorganize How much effort have we all put into either a reorganization or talking about a potential reorganization? Or the non-effects of the most recently and highly touted one?  What Mr. Alter says on this topic is so clear and obvious that I wonder why management doesn’t follow this advice: “The stovepiping that hampers so many bureaucracies can’t be busted on paper, only in practice.  Organization charts only matter in organizations that aren’t nimble and effective in the first place.”  No reorganization I’ve ever been part of has led to greater efficiency or employee satisfaction.

Don’t Make the Xerox Mistake   We all know the failure made by Xerox’s PARC research lab to transform brilliant ideas into world class marketable technology.  However, Xerox’s problem was not merely not seeing the opportunity; rather, it was management’s error in not knowing what they had because their focus was too simple.  “They weren’t receptive enough to the change underway all around them.”  By focusing solely on the technical product, they weren’t able to see the world was moving and changing.  Thus, an organization needs to ‘design for change’ in order to adapt and thrive.

I suggest we all consider new ways of working together, not seeking structure or the organization to solve problems for us.  Each of us needs to be an adaptable member of a team, helping each other and being as resourceful as we can possibly be.

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Leadership Lessons

I came upon a new blog entirely by accident.  Normally I scan blogs and never view them again.  But this one was different.  It’s entitled Treasury Cafe and is written by David Waltz.  He has many important things to say and his style is simple and straightforward, which I think all lessons should be.

His latest is on “A Life’s Worth of Leadership Lessons,” in which he uses quotes, some well-known, to introduce leadership lessons.  Let me give you the essence of what he’s written about.  Each of these is a great lesson for both coaches and coaching clients.  And good lessons for life.

Know Thyself:  Emotional intelligence is not a fad.  Before we interact with others, before we expect people to follow us, ‘we need to understand ourselves with clarity.’  By not acknowledging our strengths, style and weaknesses, ‘we lose the ability to understand how we can impact our teams.’  While our colleagues remain fully aware of what we do well or not, if we don’t, we’ll just go about doing what we’ve always done, hoping it will work, and dismayed that it’s not.

Embrace Challenges:   Hard choices are often the wisest choice.  Rather spell out the truth, regardless of how difficult, than to disappoint later with an apology or restatement.  “In school, if we choose easy we learn little, if we choose hard we learn a lot.”  Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ is worth re-reading if this lesson doesn’t ring true.

Accomplish the Mission and Care for Your People:   Apollo 13 was about the commander caring for his crew and accomplishing the mission, in that order.  These two lessons are true for leadership, under any conditions.  Just think how more engaged our workforce would be when they know that what they worked on was going to be seen through to the end and that they were cared for by colleagues and managers – indeed, a 360 degree of caring.

It’s Sergeants Who Win the Wars:  It’s the truck drivers, the people who man the manufacturing plant, the engineers who design products and processes, and the accountants who balance the books each month that exemplify what it takes to make a business run.  While we’d all like to believe that it’s the firm’s leaders (aka ‘us’) ‘whose actions and initiatives are what impact the company the most,’ that’s not really true.  Without every worker, without people figuring out how to do their jobs better each day, we wouldn’t have a business.  Do you recall the famous picture of General Eisenhower greeting the troops prior to their departure for Normandy shores?  His message to them was clear:  it’s the troops that matter, not the generals.

Keep it Simple:  “The principle is pretty simple [said the head of a large city’s police department] to find who will make the best sergeant.  You find out what top performers do.  You train others to do what they do, and they become top performers, as well.”  Despite a stunning amount of research and analysis on leadership and training, often the best work is a result of good people doing everyday tasks extremely well, making constant minute adjustments.  “Sometimes it is wise to Keep it Simple.  There is a lot less to distract, deter and derail your efforts.”

Explore New Territory and Embrace Change:  Simply, doing the same thing over and over again (as Marshall Goldsmith writes, ‘what got you’re here won’t get you there’) is a path to obsolescence.   To find untapped opportunities that excite you, ‘explore new territories to move your team.’  Being satisfied with the status quo leads to boredom, little room for growth, and passivity.

The author sums his blog by saying that we need to seek stories, helping us understand the paths others have taken, and seeing what they’ve learned from their lessons, which can be wisdom or affirmation of our direction.


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Building Talent is a Leader's Responsibility

The University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School publishes straightforward and practical research articles across a broad spectrum of management topics.  In their latest, entitled Talent Builders: Lead the Way in Developing Your People, the three authors describe why ‘developing talent is a long-term investment that must be executed by line leaders in an organization.’

Corporations often talk about developing leadership, create programs to support this objective, and try all sorts of machinations to find the right brew.  I felt the UNC article would give us all a head start on what is really and truly required.

The authors state that: “Even if a company’s practices are robust and up to date, talent management will fail without serious commitment and execution from line leaders.  We have found that there are eleven critical actions that all talent builders must take to ensure the development of their people.  Most of these actions are not dependent upon anyone but the leader him or herself.”  Leaders get paid to develop more leaders.

Here is a summary of their findings:

Win Today and in the Future — don’t just consider the talent needs of the current environment; think to the future in all your HR, development and hiring policies and practices.  Ask the big question:  “Am I recruiting and developing against tomorrow’s standards?”

Drive and Expect World-Class Performance at All Levels — just like a manufacturing process, you must seek constant improvement and be a top performer.  As a leader your goal is to not be satisfied with status quo performance; rather, you must accept nothing less than a person’s best performance, which also means exhibiting that yourself.

Become Students of How to Build Better Leaders, Faster — leaders who build talent are always learning themselves, either from their own behaviors or that of others.  Learning for them is an active process and a life-long practice.  Based on what they learn, they’ll change their behaviors and let others know.

Ensure that Talent Is on the Agenda — leadership and identifying leaders is always on their agendas, and they expect talent management to be vigilantly managed by their subordinates, to the point of it being part of an individual’s personal objectives.  They ask tough questions like ‘are you producing leaders better than yourselves?’

Continually Assess and Develop Their Team to Ensure World-Class Talent  — by constantly keeping track of the highest performers, they know the ‘personal inventory’ that can ascend in the organization and they know where to direct the financial rewards.  “Talent builders can articulate the strengths and development needs of their direct reports in an insightful and multi-layered manner in clear language, reflecting a deep knowledge of the individual.”

Continually Recruit and Export Internal Talent  — top talent managers not only recruit the best talent, they ensure they get the experiences to advance their careers (and test them) and receive mentoring of the highest caliber.

Continually Recruit External Talent — “Talent builders meet with external recruiters to better understand what the ‘gold standard’ is for talent in their space and to ensure that their ‘calibration of talent’ is world class. They continually recruit external talent even when they have no current openings and identify source of talent from sources outside their industry who bring a ‘different and fresh perspective into their mix of talent.’

Accelerate the Development of Talent  — these leaders reach down into the organization to locate talent that can be accelerated and who might otherwise move to other companies.  Their assessments lead to a portfolio of knowledge about the human resources on which the company depends today and into the future.

Create a Global Mindset in Their Organization — “They require development plans for everyone in their organization but pay special attention to those of leaders from different country cultures.  Being open with everyone about the rewards for talent embeds leadership identification practices into the organization on a worldwide basis.”

Stay connected with “Regrettable Losses” — losing great talent is unavoidable.  These leaders, however, ‘find a way to stay connected to those people.  They reach out at least a couple times a year to high potentials who have left the organization to see how they are doing, inquire if they want to come back, and have them identify other great talent who may want to join the organization.’

Require Their Directs to Do the Same — whatever the leader does, his or her direct reports are expected to do the same.  To fully manage talent takes an organization, not just a single person.

Managers espouse the saying that people are the company’s most valuable assets.  If so, then they need to make up for  a large deficit, as people are normally seen as replaceable commodities.  The authors note that “Any leader who wants to grow a business globally must apply these approaches or have little hope of truly building an effective talent pipeline.  Becoming a talent builder takes energy and time but the payoff for yourself and the organization is well worth the investment.”  It also means placing constant attention on leadership development, the right control processes, and reminders about why people are so important, which shouldn’t be difficult at all.


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Leadership is About Vision, Communication and Wondering

In this Sunday’s New York Times, I feel an exceptional leader was interviewed.  Laurel Richie is the president of the W.N.B.A.  During her interview, she cited numerous examples of how all leaders can do better, proving that a leader need not be a CEO or COO.

The article was entitled “Tell Me Your Idea (and Don’t Mind the Silly Putty)“.  While this might seem a childish activity, there’s great elasticity (pun intended!) in Silly Putty in the world of management and leadership.

To her great surprise early in her career, when she left for a vacation while running an ‘incredibly successful’ advertising account at Ogilvy & Mather, her staff had gone to Human Resources, complaining that working for her ‘was all about her and not about us.’

Naturally her first reaction was to be shocked and defensive — we’d all feel this way.  Yet, she had the maturity to listen to what her staff had to say and to carry those lessons forward.  The number one managerial behavior she learned was ‘that if there is not shared ownership of the work, both successes and failures, people aren’t going to have a satisfying experience.’  In this one phrase she’s captured the essence of leadership — it must be shared and it must generate satisfaction in the participants.

In response to this potentially tumultuous homecoming, Ms. Richie redefined her job as a ‘leader to create an environment where good things happen, and where people feel good about their role on the team, and they feel acknowledged, they feel empowered, and they feel visible.’  Instead of protecting her staff from the bad things, she now told them everything because they had to experience all types of outcomes to grow themselves.  Leadership is not about protecting; it is about enabling and creating the right environment for people to achieve results, rather than act on tasks from the boss.

Being very action-oriented, Ms. Richie went right to work, asking her staff to give her examples where they felt they weren’t part of the mix.  She told them to let her know when she was behaving in a way that didn’t bring out their best.

Where does the Silly Putty come in?  By stretching it between her hands during meetings, she gave herself time to be patient — by elongating the Silly Putty, it allowed her to give ‘people time to think and create and develop, even though…I know how to do this.’  Many of us need a tool to prevent us from jumping in while someone else is thinking.

The other big lesson she mentioned was what can be gained from diversity.  As one of the few African-Americans at Ogilvy or her client, she had the fortunate experience of working for someone who ‘celebrated the differences,’ demonstrating the importance of ‘true diversity of thought, of style, of background, of experience.’  She was able to be exactly who she is.

The primary leadership lesson she learned is how ‘important it is as a leader to have a clear vision and communicate it often.’  Over-communication is simply not possible.  Even if it bores the leader to repeat the message, a mantra holds value to everyone else because it is memorable.  I’ve often thought of repetitive messages as anchors that allow us to remain stable in rough waters.

Wonderment was another type of behavior Ms. Richie engenders in her staff.  She accomplishes this by creating environments where they ‘can bring their best selves, and good things will happen as a result.’  By cutting off conversation through words or non-verbal cues, a less effective leader sends a message that someone’s idea isn’t an option.  Done often enough and pretty soon you’ll have a staff that won’t tell you you’re walking in the wrong direction.

A well-balanced leader, Ms. Richie knows that getting the best from her staff means letting them talk, fail, succeed, ponder, and feel comfortable.  Thus, as the leader, she has to have the strength to listen to differences and make decisions even if they are opposite to what the group thought was right.

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