2010 has been an awesome year. I coached approximately 90 people around the world– Vancouver, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. When coaching I focused on leadership development and career fulfillment issues – my sweet spot and passion. Clients ranged from high potential individuals who are almost ready to step into a leadership role, to executives running global operations. In these coaching conversations, there were some wonderful lessons about the challenges leaders face in modern organizations. Here are the top five leadership development lessons that I learned from my coaching practice in 2010. Enjoy!
Leadership Development Lesson 1 – Watch the Arrogance!
Counter to what people may pick up at business school, my first lesson was that when leaders have a reputation for being arrogant, it is a huge derailer. This year I had four clients who have a reputation for being arrogant. All of them were good at managing up. Their boss thought they were awesome, but other people in the organization, particularly people who report to them, or people just outside their sphere of influence, did not enjoy working with them. In all cases, this hurt their career. This was for two reasons: 1) their boss heard stories about their arrogant behaviour and it became too risky to promote them, even if their boss personally liked them; or 2) they got promoted despite the stories. If they got promoted despite their arrogance, it typically backfired. They did not have the relationships in place to influence results once they were in a more senior role. This is why most of them were now working with a coach. They had to crack the arrogance to get ahead.
Leadership Development Lesson 2 – You must talk!
I know this sounds obvious, but if you want to progress in your career, you must talk. I had countless clients who were so quiet that it was difficult for them to speak up in meetings and share their ideas. Or, they were great with their work teams, but they would clam up as soon as an executive was at the table, or a key client was in the room. Both are career limiting! In general I found that overly quiet behaviour was due to a leader’s limiting beliefs about their ability, or limiting beliefs about the value of their contribution compared to their peers, or they preferred to not say anything unless they knew they were saying something brilliant. Either way, it was damaging to their career because other people did not know what they were thinking, they were not adding value to strategic conversations, or others perceived their silence as disinterest or dislike.
Leadership Development Lesson 3 – There really is a generational gap.
One of my projects involved coaching new leaders and then having a coaching call with their direct boss to discuss how they could work more effectively together. Through this exposure to the senior team and the newbie leaders, I heard about their mutual frustrations. In general, the senior team wanted the juniors to know more about the core business issues, and the newbies felt that the executives were not modeling people-centric leadership behaviours. The younger leaders also felt like they could not emulate the senior leader’s style because it was too parental and would not work with the younger staff they are managing. Because the senior leaders had power and set the cultural tone, the younger leaders were stressed out about this disconnect. They felt like their preferred approach was somehow “wrong,” but when they tried the “old school” way, they just knew intuitively that it was taking them down the wrong track. From my experience, this dynamic is not unique to this organization. Leadership development programs need to address core business skills for new leaders and senior leaders need to gain awareness of the impact of their style.
Leadership Development Lesson 4 – Influence is not intuitive
Once leaders have mastered the basics, the stuff that generally hooks them in senior roles is related to navigating organizational dynamics and dealing with opposition to their ideas. I would say that 90% of my senior executive coaching calls are related to building organizational influence. Senior leaders need practical tools for thinking about issues like: “What am I trying to achieve?” “Who are the key stakeholders that need to get on board with this issue?” “Do they trust me?” “Do they agree with my agenda?” “What are the tactics I can use to get key stakeholders on board?” “How do I get my opponents to be a raving fan?” “What are the competing agendas that I need to be aware of?” Most senior leaders just make a basic plan and go for it, and they don’t think deeply enough about these issues when the stakes are high. It’s not because they are not interested, they just don’t have the tools. As a result, things take way longer and they get frustrated when they come against obstacles. In 2010, I learned that influence matters and it is extremely valuable when senior leaders get some basic coaching on how to navigate political and cultural issues and organizational dynamics. These advanced concepts are not intuitive.
Leadership Development Lesson 5– Forcing people to do leadership development is a waste of money.
Succession programs usually involve figuring out who has the potential to progress in the business, and then investing more heavily in these individuals. The Catch 22 is that if a person is tagged as a “high potential” by their boss, but they plan on quitting in a year, it is often difficult for them to decline participation in a leadership program without risking job security and being side-lined in the business. So, if you are spearheading a leadership development program, I would strongly advise you to figure out a way to uncover the high potential leaders who plan on quitting their jobs before you invest in them. If people are honest enough to tell you their long term plans, then partner with them to make it a mutually beneficial relationship for the time you have together, rather than pretending all is well for the long-term. You will save time and money, and a lot of grief.
About the Author
Natalie Michael is an Executive Coach and Succession Management Consultant. She works with leaders to advance their careers and drive business results. Services include executive coaching, leadership assessments, and succession management consulting.