When time is scarce (when is it not these days) and the to-do list is endless, prioritizing important projects, deciding where to spend your time and maintaining energy are critical skills for the overburdened executive. Everyone today in corporate environments will tell you that time is the scarcest resource while work volume is increasing. With shrinking budgets, an over-abundance of information, twenty-four seven access on multiple devices and increasing business complexity, leaders must use their time wisely.
This is true for all executives, and for those new to C-levels roles especially, where a leader spends his or her time are the most essential skill-sets to build credibility in the first year and beyond. Seasoned executives could benefit from periodic adjustments to their time, energy and resources without apology as well. A key part of this time adjustment is often managing the expectations of others’ about where you will focus your precious time, resources and energy.
Although coaching goals for executives are targeted at outcomes, such as increasing revenues, maintaining or decreasing costs, envisioning new lines of business, leading organizational change or communicating with key stakeholders effectively, our coaching conversations often include managing oneself effectively, monitoring where time is spent and recasting focus areas to use that time well. Understanding where a leader currently spends his or her time might sound onerous, however, a quick calendar scan over a two to four-week time frame will illustrate well enough the big buckets of work and time allocated to them.
The narrative often goes like this, “I can’t believe I spend most of my time on short- term horizon activities, mostly in meetings, presiding over daily operations and initiatives.” CEO’s should be spending the bulk of their time on mid to long horizon strategies that only he or she can do for the company. Another observation that’s common is the frequency of important impromptu conversations that could potentially wait to be addressed in other venues such as staff meetings, scheduled 1:1 update(s) or handled by others (the direct reports of the CEO). It’s not that open-door policies are bad, in fact, they’re great for preserving or building healthy business cultures, however, executives must maintain a focus on the right work to move the business forward and delegate the rest.
As many of the executives I work with are making the transition to C-level jobs for the first time, letting go of the old functional responsibilities is a difficult habit to break. It’s tempting to keep a hand in old functional activities from one’s previous job, instead of fully handing them to other leaders so they can learn. Holding onto perfection expectations can be one reason for holding on to old work or simply that this work is a comfort zone, where one feels competent.
One new C-level executive, Jane, had grown up in the company before becoming CEO. When we reviewed where she was spending her time, as much as 40% of her time was spent in lower value activities that could be handled by her successor. Many leaders wait too long to hand work to other senior leaders, and instead are in some way micro-managing this work that now belongs to others in the organization. The question becomes, how deep should one go into functional work versus adopting a new role as coach to up and coming leaders?
Jane was also spending 25% of her time on a significant organization change project by sitting in long weekly change team meetings and attending satellite office meetings where the operational change work was taking place. After evaluating her time, she moved from doer to sponsor in the change work, keeping an appropriate distance while her very capable senior leaders managed the daily tasks. When she became more of the thinking partner to them, she bought herself significant amounts of time to focus on important external community and legislative outreach.
She made significant changes in her mindset about the value of her contributions across the company and began to control her work, instead of it controlling her. As a result of her new focus on high priority work, Jane found she had more energy to give to her daily responsibilities. She started to feel energized instead of exhausted. For example, she changed how she utilized transition times before and after work and between meetings or conversations.
Jane used to catch up on emails while riding to work on the ferry. Instead of feeling behind on daily communications, she spent her ride time thinking about longer term opportunities for the company. As a result, she would arrive at work feeling more energized and proactive. She made sure that work processes were in place to manage annual planning work streams and delegated this accountability to her head of operations. When leaders would ask her questions about strategic planning deliverable(s) she would refer them to her COO.
Jane created what we called micro-practices during the day that would allow her to assess if she was focused on the right work, such as re-purposing mornings, when she generally felt fresher, for blue sky thinking with her direct reports. She caught up on emails twice a day at specific times that were scheduled on her calendar as uninterrupted desk time. Jane gave herself permission to attend her favorite yoga class every week. She also allowed one late day a week to catch up if needed, otherwise she went home on time to be with her family on a more consistent basis.
One of the biggest improvements was testing her assumptions about meetings that had been on the corporate calendar for years. She asked, “do we still need this meeting or could be re-purpose this time for something else or just getting work done?” Jane asked meeting owners to provide pre-reading materials and agendas in advance of each meeting, so everyone arrived ready to have the conversation they needed to have. This practice was about valuing everyone’s time, not just her own. Some meetings were changed to 50 minutes, instead of one hour, so she had time between conversations to relax, breathe deeply, refocus and prepare for the next conversation. Many of her lunch hour meetings with direct reports were shortened as well, and now included a 30-minute walk when the weather was good. As a result of these small changes she found the transitions between meetings more relaxing and centering, and she gained back another 10-15% of her time on a monthly basis.
It took some time to get there, but eventually, Jane was unapologetic about spending her time on the highest leverage activities for the company. Modeling this approach, gave other senior leaders permission to test assumptions about where they spent their time. Over time, meetings became much more efficient and they had less of them on a weekly basis. Senior leaders took these approaches to their own teams, so the wisdom of valuing how people spent their time was passed along to others. This approach aligned with one of their company values of delivering high-quality work and excellence in company performance. Jane’s focused time, resources and energy approach and her ability to pay herself first, ultimately paid time forward for everyone in the company.
Social awareness skills enable us to manage relationships effectively, and in the workplace, to lead people, projects and teams with greater success. These skills impact the bottom line and hold far greater weight than most leaders realize. Social awareness is defined as the ability to pick up on the emotions of other’s and to understand what is going on for them in any given moment. This in turn, positively or negatively impacts the quality and enduring nature of any (work) relationships. It’s about being able to differentiate what other people are thinking and feeling, even though you may not be feeling the same way or have differing perspectives. As words on paper, it all sounds simple enough, however, it turns out to be harder than it looks.
The good news is these competencies within the emotional intelligence framework, are learnable and leaders can improve them with focus and effort. When leaders demonstrate low social awareness, especially when under pressure, the negative impacts on employee engagement and morale, and company culture can be both far-reaching and detrimental to business success. How leaders respond to situations and people leaves a strong and lasting impression that (when soured) cannot be easily reversed. On the other hand, when social awareness behaviors are strong, leaders can motivate and inspire employees and teams to give discretionary effort that results in positive engagement in the workplace.
Another element in the emotional intelligence framework that supports one’s ability to become more socially aware, are self-awareness as a building block and self-management of emotions. Self- management is the ability to use one’s self-awareness about various emotional responses and address them in the moment, to be able to stay open and flexible with others.
If a leader has an occasional outburst of anger or frustration, or loses his or her composure, temper or patience, relationships can be negatively impacted well after the incident has passed.
Over the last thirty years, I’ve had conversations with many executives who believe they’re supportive, empathetic and curious when interacting with others, and by extension, they believe they’re creating positive cultures or workplace environments. However, getting it right, even ninety-five percent of the time, might not be enough to garner effective work relationships if five percent of the time the same leader loses control of his or her emotions, or fails to understand others. It’s an understatement to say that the proverbial fishbowl in which leaders lead, becomes even more magnified and sets the entire team or organization on alert for heightened emotional interactions from that executive.
In working with leaders, an important question they must sit with is -- are they able to stay present, conscious and awake enough to have their own experiences, while simultaneously reaching out to better understand what might be going on for other people?
A recent survey of 1300 employees in hundreds of companies was highlighted in the Harvard Business Review (12/17/18) by David Maxfield and Justin Hale. In this survey, employees were asked about their leader’s style under stress and about the impact of that behavior on their work. The high percentage of leaders that were described as not responding well under stress were somewhat surprising (or not). Responses ranged from leadership behaviors that demonstrated close-mindedness, the need for control, charged emotional responses, to more benign behaviors such as ignoring, sidestepping, deceiving or lacking any desire to understand the situation or how the people involved were feeling about it.
Negative leadership behaviors that demonstrated little to no social awareness were cited for a large percentage of leaders. Participants stated that a leader’s temperament in crucial moments has indelible negative or positive impact on team performance. Fifty-three percent of leaders were perceived as being close-minded and controlling, versus open and curious. Forty-five percent were upset and emotional, instead of being calm and in control. Forty three percent of leaders were described as angry and heated, rather than being cool and collected. Thirty-seven percent were described as avoidant or side-stepping issues, and thirty percent were perceived as deceitful versus honest.
Patricia (not her real name) was particularly challenged, when under stress or when situations heated up at work, to have effective conversations with others’. She struggled to stay engaged and lean-in when conversations resulted in conflict between other leaders. In these situations, Patricia unconsciously left the room (emotionally and/or mentally) or she disengaged, rather than having a direct conversation. There are many good reasons why she disengaged when conversations became challenging, that had much to do with providing psychological safety during her childhood. However, as an adult and a leader, these behaviors were no longer serving her. When she disengaged in meetings, other leaders were left wondering what she really felt and thought about the issue. Some leaders developed a perception from this behavior that she either lacked confidence or was indifferent about the issues. In fact, neither of these perceptions were further from the truth.
Our work together included building her self-awareness to recognize what might be going on for her in heated situations. As Patricia was more able to recognize the situations that triggered her disengagement response, she could prepare a better, more socially aware response that kept her in conversations in a productive way. She practiced some delaying techniques to allow her nervous system to catch up with her, instead of hijacking her in tough situations. Patricia chose to take a deep breath before leaving metaphorically that gave her time to think about what she would say. This technique, along with putting both feet on the ground, allowed her to remain poised and calm in the moment. From this new centered place and small delay in timing of her responses, she was more able to ask questions from a place of curiosity that changed the flow and direction of the conversation before it became too hot for people to handle.
Having managed her emotions in the moment more effectively, her natural curiosity and analytical thinking powers were being put to good use within conflict conversations and in meetings that erupted negatively or were going sideways. As a result of her calm questioning style, other leaders noticed that she brought a calming influence to heated discussions, versus appearing to be absent. Over time, Patricia received positive feedback from leaders and peers, that she could easily read the room or understand what was going on for others. She was able to call on leaders that had not spoken or contributed to conversations. She could better read their thoughts or feelings, making careful invitations to bring diverse voices and perspectives into the room.
While Patricia is still working on these capabilities, her impact moved from neutral at best to positive, at a time when the company was going through tremendous change. She may still find that these skills do not come naturally to her, however, developing stronger self-management and social awareness capabilities has made her a more well-rounded and effective leader. Patricia claims to be a work in progress and her humility and curiosity fuel her awareness in social situations.
If leaders are unable to read social cues or engage in difficult conversations, their employees are more likely to consider leaving their jobs than employees where leaders can manage conflict or hard conversations with skill. If a minimum of one third of leaders cannot engage in healthy dialogue when the stakes are high (per this survey of 1300 employees) it’s no wonder employee engagement (whether active or passive) is at an all-time low today.
In companies where leaders can determine what they want in the moment, can challenge their stories about what might be going on for them, while simultaneously staying present for the stories of others, employees are more likely to stay motivated, engaged and productive. How a leader responds to and reads the thoughts and feelings of others is defining organizational health far beyond the individual leader’s success.
Last month, we posted a blog about Cultivating Resilience in Leaders. One of the core attributes of resilient leadership is the ability to lean-in to challenging or stressful situations by asking open-ended questions before moving to action. The counter-intuitive nature of bringing a curious approach and holding off on acting, becomes more difficult the bigger and more urgent the problem. Adopting an attitude of “I may not know everything there is to know about this challenge” and “where might I be wrong about this?” are questions that encourage leaders to think in new ways that have far reaching impacts on an organization’s culture.
An article titled, The Business Case for Curiosity, in this month’s Harvard Business Review, cited the high value of curiosity on organizations and the link of this leadership behavior to business success. We wrote about how adaptive leaders bring curiosity to complex challenges, and as such, are more likely to see early warning signs of big problems. Curious leaders are better able to see the causes of complex problems and may be described by others as being able to “see around the corner” or observe patterns before others see them. When a leader solves urgent issues through a quest for new possibilities, he/she expands the potential possibilities for solving them.
One of the many benefits of asking deeper questions as a deliberate practice is it expands the emotional intelligence of the leader and the people working with the leader. Asking questions, creates higher self-awareness in the moment, by allowing a leader to pause, recognize and work with challenging emotions that are triggered by stressful situations. Greater self-awareness leads to an ability to manage negative emotions, to use the space a question provides to breath, ground oneself and choose a different response than one that is prompted by stress or fight, flight or freeze instincts.
Not only can the leader better manage him or herself in the moment when a big problem arises, he or she can also better manage relationships and responses to others in the organization. As the HBR article discusses, there are big benefits to others when a leader asks questions, such as better decision-making, more innovative and positive changes or solutions, reduced group conflict, more open communication and stronger team performance. It appears that the ability to ask open-ended questions also builds up resiliency beyond the leader to others in the organization. One could extrapolate from this, that we can build better cultures that are resilient, flexible, adaptive and curious.
Then why don’t more leaders ask questions in times of extreme challenge or even every day? Leaders often fear that asking more questions, may open more possibilities that may take them down a path they cannot control or to disagreements between co-workers that would be difficult to address. Exploration creates extra work up front and involves challenging the status quo. It’s human nature to not want to rock the boat when things are going smoothly and especially when they’re not. We naturally want to return to a state of stasis. And after all, isn’t it a leader’s role to have the answers and to solve problems? Leaders reach the top because they have deep experience and knowledge, and strong performance records that go with the job.
Solving business problems in a complex world through asking questions seems counter-intuitive to efficiency as well. Most big and hairy problems to be solved by leaders come with an ample sense of urgency and time pressure. The pressure to move fast, intentionally and decisively is a traditional hallmark of leadership and leadership performance. However, the familiar phrase “we should go slow to go fast,” is very true, and questions by their very nature, prompt us to go slow so we can process information, brainstorm alternative solutions, and reflect about what we know and don’t know about a given situation.
Ellen is a new CEO in a non-profit organization, having replaced an experienced and long-tenured CEO before her. In the first six months on the new job, Ellen has had plenty of challenges to solve both internally and externally as the environment in which the organization offers services to the community is changing rapidly. With a high action and thinking orientation, Ellen likes to solve problems swiftly and effectively, which she’s been known for. Some of the problems she’s facing as CEO are new to her and she feels a lot of pressure to gain credibility as a new executive. We’ve been talking about the balance she must strike, when some of the big problems the business is facing have a sense of urgency attached to them, between solving them quickly and searching for new solutions in order to solve them with more sustainable solutions.
The way Ellen must engage in problem solving now must move beyond her past experiences. For example, she must move beyond her former go-to people in the organization, by asking new questions of a wider range of employees that will allow her to see systemically what might be going on. The ability to stand one’s ground in a solid set of questions, instead of moving forward as quickly as possible, is extremely difficult when a leader isn’t on solid ground in the first place. As her coach, I’m looking for ways to support Ellen to create space between the problems and the solutions she seeks.
A series of questions will not only create that space for her, but they allow her to come to better decisions that will stick and endure. Her ability to model inquisitiveness that engages more leaders and employees sets an expectation that learning and solving problems in new ways are valued approaches at the company. Although this cultural shift will take time to land and feel real to employees, it will be worth the extra time that questions take to demonstrate this value in action as a culture changing imperative.
The positive impact on culture through these habitual leadership behaviors, such as curiosity, is more far reaching than most of us would imagine. If the very definition of culture as a compilation of behaviors by the people that work in organizations, then this leadership behavior of asking questions with genuine curiosity, is well worth cultivating within the culture.
In Ellen’s case, she will not only shift how she leads, but she will shift how others lead alongside her. The positive impact to employee engagement by experiencing the generation of possibilities in action, builds trust that allows employees to ask questions themselves. This is where innovation and engagement come together in the mundane every day challenges and opportunities of a leader. The questions that ask “why, what if, what might be and what don’t we know,” go a very long way to creating a culture of empowerment, resilience, innovation and fun.
Many of us report higher levels of stress in the workplace these days, whether due to global challenges, climate change, political turmoil, the constant onslaught of information through social media, email or text, running between work and family responsibilities or the pressure to lead with greater flexibility to reach the bottom line. Many of us look to external fixes to alleviate stress, such as taking on bigger workloads, doing more with less, pushing our employees to work longer hours or perhaps even looking for a new job if conditions become untenable. In relation to complex challenges at work, we might cultivate resilience by looking for and engaging in adaptive solutions that we’ve not considered previously. The solutions to stressful situations or big challenges do not always require external options, however, they may in fact, require us to shift internally to resolve them.
Resilient leaders embody a few consistent traits that come from shifting their internal mindsets and emotional states. A shift in mindset, for example, may require a re-framing of the stressful conditions, moving from a perception of overwhelming odds, to perceiving an opportunity to try something new or to learn from the situation. The ability to make this internal shift, to re-frame the story we choose to tell ourselves about what’s happening, can alleviate the impact of highly stressful conditions. The stories we tell ourselves are often based on our past experiences. In fact, as soon as we perceive similar circumstances taking place with a new challenge, we are more able to travel down the path to despair, fear, anxiety or anger. Our internal perceptions about what’s happening can be powerful enough to hijack our emotional state.
Re-framing the challenge isn’t about being an unrealistic optimist either. A leader may ask for example, “how can I use or work with this challenge or set of challenges to ensure a better or different result now and in the future?” The right amount of risk assessment or negativity, balanced with the potential to imagine positive outcomes, creates a steady state of mind from which to problem solve, think, reflect or learn about the current challenge.
Resilient leaders lean-in to the challenge or stressful situation by asking more questions before moving to action. These are not the type of questions that we already know the answer to or statements of fact disguised as a question. Open-ended questions require us to suspend our judgments or assumptions with the motivation to learn more before solving or acting too early. The more complex and difficult the problem to be solved, the higher the stress experienced, the more a leader must remain in the questions to find a new way forward. In most business cases, the choice to remain curious before solving a problem can feel counter-intuitive to the urgency one experiences to deal with the dilemma. However, adopting an attitude of “I may not know everything there is to know about this challenge or where might I be wrong about this?” are questions that encourage leaders to think differently or in new ways.
Adaptive leaders that bring curiosity to complex challenges are also more likely to see early warning signs of big problems. They are more able to engage differently, bring in perspectives from others, explore more deeply and try new strategies before situations become even more challenging to the business. These curious leaders are better able to see the causes of complex problems and may be described by others as being able to “see around the corner” or observe patterns before others see them.
Another important internal factor to is the ability to maintain emotional balance and fortitude, while dealing with what may appear on the outside as insurmountable issues. Resilient leaders are more able to work with their emotions (both positive and negative emotions), exhibiting a sense of being in control, even-tempered and calm in the eye of the storm. The ability to self-regulate when one is feeling angry, frustrated, afraid or anxious means others may see this leader naming what they’re feeling, or understanding when others are feeling these emotions, without reactivity or emotional displays such as panic, blaming, demanding or yelling. The ability to remain calm in the storm builds trust with others and allows people to focus during times of stress.
The emotional intelligence skills of self-awareness, self-management and social awareness, enable leaders to see themselves more clearly and to understand their default reactions to stress. Self-awareness leads to the ability to self-manage in the moment or regulate emotional reactions. Social awareness, especially during times of stress (or any other time) is about the ability to see how one’s behaviors are impacting others. Noticing for example, that a tendency to rush people with unrealistic expectations during stressful times, only creates more stress for others. Thus, being able to consciously adapt or change one’s reactions, to have a positive or productive impact on others, is important while weathering the storm. As emotions can be contagious to others, leaders that intentionally manage their reactions when under stress, create environments where people are better able to remain optimistic and motivated while working to solve challenges.
A friend recently shared a Wall Street Journal article, dated September 22, 2018, by Sam Walker, titled: The Two Contagious Behaviors of a Great Boss. The author referenced George Washington (1777) as a leader that modeled the way under the most difficult of circumstances by being relentless and exhibiting emotional control. The article went on to say that the ability to be resilient in any situation (especially stressful ones) requires the pursuit of high standards and tenacity or strength of mind, as well as fortitude or the ability to be reasonable or even-tempered.
George Washington was creative, demanded the best from his men and was reported to spend significant amounts of time bringing soldiers along with him or motivating them for battle. Resilient leaders, while being realistic and steady, bring an attitude to complex challenges of “we’re all in this together and we’ll figure out a way forward when we work together in new ways.”
Great leaders then and now, remain relentless in their pursuit of questions and re-framing challenges. They expand possibilities by working in new ways and take risks, and they remain connected to themselves and others along the way, while managing their emotions. These adaptive behaviors build and create resiliency in leaders.
Successful executive coaching engagements are important to all parties – the executive, his or her company and the coach. I’ve been reflecting upon hundreds of executive coaching experiences with leaders and can discern the optimal conditions for coaching success as well as the roadblocks that hamper coaching results. As a former human resources and organization development leader, I was often the decision maker about what executive development investments to make and when to make them. Executive coaching is often requested for one leader or group of leaders to support talent management and leadership development strategies. These requests may support executives in times of transition, role changes or when broadening span of leadership.
My favorite engagements support development during executive transitions, for internal CEO succession or a new executive who is new to the company. Both transitions require integration support, that is developmental for the leader, to be able to shift into a new way of working with a new team and within a foreign culture. The integration or assimilation for new CEO’s or executives can take months, and with pressure for early successes to gain credibility, executive coaching is the perfect enabler on this journey. Coaching for up and coming leaders on a succession plan, ensuring readiness for promotion are ideal business cases for coaching.
Sometimes a leader asks for executive coaching because they’re struggling with certain team members or are not working as they desire with peers or a manager, and coaching can support a leader to connect more effectively with others. In larger corporations, leaders may be part of a high-potential program and executive coaching sessions have been promised through that program. Although, these are good business reasons to invest in executive coaching, there are other factors to consider.
The optimal conditions for success will result in clear results for the leader, the ability of the organization to measure those results and an effective engagement by the executive coach. When three optimal conditions are not met, a coach should walk away from the engagement, suggest that the timing may not be right for coaching or consider negotiating the conditions for success before starting work.
The first two conditions are external forces to the leader, including the organization and the leader’s manager, that elevate accountability for the growth of the leader. The first condition aligns with a strong business case for coaching, mentioned earlier, such as right timing and a sense of urgency by the company, the manager and the leader. The timing of development investments can answer the question, why now, and not some other time in the future? Does the organization have a solid plan for succession or talent management activities to support the investment for coaching? The timing is right if an executive requires development to be ready for an upcoming senior role in the future (12-24 months is optimal timing), or if the executive has just gone through a significant transition to a new role and should have had integration coaching support earlier. It’s not too late to invest in executive coaching within the first year of a major transition, especially if the company or the leader’s manager becomes aware of gaps they did not see until the leader occupied the new role.
Right timing and a sense of urgency can be about the capability gap required to be successful in the new role, with a high chance that if the gap were not addressed, would have a significant adverse effect on the new executive, his or her team and the broader organization. Adults tend to learn when the need or the pain experienced by a development gap is greatest, and as such, the leader’s manager must agree to the importance of closing the development gap. This second condition, the manager’s role to build accountability, includes aligning with the coaching development goals established within the first two meetings. In supporting the development process, the manager provides consistent and clear feedback about progress in the agreed timeframe. The right mix of accountability, compassion and support by the manager or sponsor are essential to leadership growth.
The third and final condition for optimal executive coaching success is the willingness of the executive to change and to focus on this effort over several months. A leader must see him or herself at the center of the change effort or central to the success of the coaching development engagement. This condition has more to do with internal forces at work within the leader such as motivation, openness, humility and self-awareness. I’ve worked with executives that say they want to be coached and are ready to engage in the development process. It’s important, however, to dig a little further into why development coaching, what problem or opportunity is the leader wanting to address through a coaching process and what does the leader expect of an executive coach? I’ve had the experience that some executives will say the right things about why they want development coaching. Even so, the executive coach may want to keep his or her eyes open for potential signals that this leader may be saying the right things but cannot back them up with aligned actions.
The pseudo-ready executive may be looking for a quick fix to his or her development gaps and brings an expectation that the executive coach is going to tell them what to do differently. This can come in the form of statements about not being comfortable with a coaching approach that just asks a lot of questions and expects the leader to figure things out by him or herself. The executive may be looking for processes, tactics or tips for success that require minimal effort, and as such, is essentially asking the coach to be an advisor or consultant, instead of a coach. The most skilled executive coaches will guide executives to find the answers that are right for him or her, that once learned and applied, are repeatable and integrated by the leader in the future.
Other signs that a leader is not ready for executive coaching are patterns of cancelling coaching sessions at the last minute, appearing to be consistently distracted, and/or not completing assignments between coaching sessions with the repeated reason that there just wasn’t enough time. Sometimes the too busy or unfocused executive is being coached for this very reason. In this case, the leader’s constant fire drill behavior or lack of focus show up within the coaching engagement and can provide in-the-moment awareness opportunities. Using the context of the coaching engagement to highlight these issues may or may not results in a change. Regardless, this becomes an ideal moment for the coach to address readiness and willingness of the leader to be engaged in his or her development. This condition not being met, may require intervention from the manager or organization to highlight the importance of making changes with some stated repercussions if the leader doesn’t change.
Another subtle form of resistance to coaching is the executive that insists on blaming others or the company culture for his or her challenges. This executive believes that if the people or circumstances were different, the leader wouldn’t have a problem. If the leader is open to seeing how this frame of reference about others versus oneself is one of the main development opportunities, a coach may be able to make progress. If this condition persists, it’s worth everyone’s time to perhaps cancel the engagement or ask for support from the manager to shift the internal forces within the leader.
As an executive coach, it's important to pay attention to the potential for optimal conditions to be met. The objective conditions of right timing, a sense of urgency and willingness to change are reasonable criteria for leadership growth. I’m in awe of the many executives that bring a genuine sense of curiosity, deep courage, true humility and self-compassion to the development process. If the optimal conditions for executive coaching success are in place, and they often are, or could be, the coaching is beneficial and worth the investment for everyone involved.
As an executive coach, I work with new CEO's to support the transition process to the chief executive role. Transitions can be challenging for everyone at every level and for CEO's the stakes for succession integration are high. Well navigated transitions require a willingness to learn, an openness to new perspectives, an ability to suspend assumptions, ask open-ended questions and demonstrate a learner’s sense of curiosity. Many companies I’ve worked with are intentional about at least on-boarding new CEO's and some go further by integrating them into the new organization.
How well the CEO assimilates is a very public process. A newly hired CEO from outside the company, although she or he may have been a CEO previously, has many things to learn about the new company, including its competitive advantage, business strategies, operational processes, senior leadership team, board members, key stakeholder relationships and many cultural nuances. The new externally hired CEO may be somewhat aware that there are many unknowns within the new company and that first impressions may easily be misinterpreted. Previous experiences can bias the chief executive’s perspectives. A hyper-awareness about the need to learn, observe, reflect and ask questions, while starting to get results, is essential to ensure success. It is truly a developmental process, no matter where a successor has worked previously.
As CEO integration is such a tricky business to do well, one would think that internal CEO transitions would be easier than external ones. For one reason, internal successors already know a lot about the business environment, the many challenges ahead, its key stakeholders, the people and the unique variables of the company culture. However, some recent studies have shown that regardless of succession from outside or inside the company, about 68% of new CEO's report they were not prepared well enough to assume the new role. Chief executives site challenges such as understanding the nuances of the company culture and working adeptly within it, assessing and developing the new senior leadership and managing their expectations of success as some of the toughest challenges. With a bias towards action, many CEO's say there was not enough time (or they didn’t take it) to reflect, interpret and understand what was happening in the first year to adapt, change course, explicitly learn or try something new.
Some of the hardest transitions can be from successors inside the company. New internal incumbents are highly unlikely to see the need to re-frame or change previously held perspectives. He or she may not think to fully evaluate work priorities, refocus his or her time on the strategies that only the CEO can handle, or renegotiate relationships with previous peers who are now direct reports. With a drive to go quickly and with the same impact as in past roles, new CEO's from within the company walls, must in some ways abandon previous ways of working that they were rewarded and known for. In essence, they must assume they’ve arrived in a strange new world as an external candidate might do. The nature of the transition as a developmental process may seem farthest from this new CEO's awareness.
Jill, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, is the new CEO of a non-profit organization. She’s been in her new role for a couple of months after assuming the reigns from a long-standing founder and charismatic former CEO. With almost two decades within the non-profit organization herself, Jill brings a lot of upside in being able to understand key partners, stakeholders, programs and the political ecosystem in which she will operate. Even so, Jill has astutely asked for additional help from an executive coach, external advisers and board members to make this important transition.
In the handful of weeks Jill has been in her new role, she’s been surprised by the complexity and highly charged nature of some of the big decisions she now owns. One of the toughest aspects of her role is being seen as the chief executive to employees who know her well. She has opened her doors for office hours so employees know she is available to listen to what might be on their hearts and minds. She’s wisely listening to her new advisors' to help balance or modify previous perspectives, check her assumptions, and test what she might already know, or thought she knew. One of the hardest early decisions Jill made was to let a newer member of the senior leadership team go, as that leader was unable to provide the operational leadership required in a critical area. If Jill had delayed this decision, she would spend an inordinate amount of her valuable time digging into internal operational issues.
In making this decision quickly and thoughtfully, Jill has been able to turn her attention to vital external priorities such as long term strategic planning, fostering new board relationships, building credibility with board members, engaging with community leaders and directing annual fund-raising efforts to lay the foundations for financial and program success in the coming years. Jill is mastering one of the biggest challenges for an internal successor, that is to manage a group of leaders who were previously her peers. This work with her leadership team will be a central focus area in the coming year, as Jill sees one of her top priorities as building leadership capacity.
Balancing positivity with risk mitigation and learning is the first real job of this CEO successor. In our work, we’re using the wisdom of emotional intelligence to create greater awareness about Jill’s default reactions and relationship management modes, so she can experiment with more effective leadership behaviors required of someone in her position. She knows it will be hard going, for the first year at least, and perhaps for the first three years as a new CEO. There’s a growing awareness within her, that knowing what she already knows about the company and its people, could be as asset or a liability as an internal successor.
What does it mean to be mindful and what does it have to do with reducing stress? I’ve been practicing mindfulness every day for the past few years, after many years of wishing I practiced. To practice mindfulness, I had to separate myself from some of the activities and circumstances that increased my feelings of stress. After a few years of better managing my environment, instead of it managing me, I slowly went back to all activities with a new sense of presence and awareness, with a new ability to notice and respond to my sense of stress throughout the day.
What did I do to separate myself or better manage my environment? In the beginning of my mindfulness practice, I asked myself to simply notice what was causing stress for me? I knew that I hated being late for appointments and that included driving in unpredictable traffic to work every day. I made a simple commitment to not be late for meetings by showing up 10-15 minutes early whenever possible. If I have meetings in the city (an hour away by car) I leave home a half hour earlier than usual. That way, if I’m stuck in traffic I won’t stress about being late and if I’m lucky enough not to be delayed by traffic, I can take a walk, grab a cup of coffee or prepare for meetings before they start. That way, I show up rested, relaxed and ready.
Another way I manage my environment instead of it managing me, is to pay myself the gift of space and time in my mornings and evenings as much as possible. This practice requires me to get out of bed a half hour earlier each day to meditate, write, enjoy that first cup of coffee and be present to what my body is telling me it wants today. Sometimes, that means I need a little more time to drop-in, meditate, reflect, write or take a longer stretch to get into my body before the day starts. The days when I can book-end this time for myself, after work as well as before, are banner mindfulness days, even if it’s only ten minutes of extra time for me. I started to notice, not only am I relatively stress free on those days, but I’m much better at my job, more able to attend to clients, intuit more and be a better listener as a coach.
What little tricks of space and time can you find in your days to practice being mindful? The mindfulness gurus say we can aspire to live without stress at all. That’s an aspiration that might take a lifetime for me or perhaps I will never find it, however I believe it’s worth trying!
Life has felt a whole lot better, with a little mindfulness practice each day, or longer practices that I make time for, so these precious moments are not consumed by other demands. By separating myself from mindless activities that create stress and showing up for myself several times a day, there are some simple tricks that also work for my very busy executive coaching clients.
Simple Mindfulness Practices
When you move, practice being more aware of the pace you’re moving, either in your car, walking to meetings, running to the bathroom or noticing that you’re racing through lunch or not really attending to the needs of others. Conversely, my wrist watch reminds me to move, if I’ve been sitting too long at my desk or in meetings. This helps me to center my attention or take an essential deep breath or stretch, to bring my attention back to the present moment. Again, these reminders are about the pace I’m moving or not moving that allow me to get back to myself and into my body.
I keep a sticky note at my desk to remind myself to slow down, just a little, or a perhaps a lot! This reminder has helped me to notice when I’m holding my breath to get through a few dozen emails before a next meeting, or to regain awareness that I can choose how fast I’m going, knowing that no one else can or will do that for me.
A reminder on my phone every two hours says – what is (actually) here now? This short phrase supports me to stop what I’m doing and be mindful in the moment. The text reminder jars my attention back to my breath, so I can take a few deep ones, to regain a sense of myself that I can so easily throw away when responding or reacting to the world around me. These simple practices may seem remedial or unnecessary, however, in utilizing them to kick-start a mindfulness practice, I’ve extended my ability to be aware and present for many months instead of dropping the habits entirely.
One of my favorite practices is to remember to pause whenever I’m making a transition in time or place, such as entering a room for a meeting, getting out of my car, stopping at a traffic light in my car, preparing for my next conversation or readying my head and heart to give my next activity or person the full attention it (he/she) deserves. These transitions between times or activities are what I call “white spaces” that offer moments to practice, take deep breaths, set intentions for what I’m about to do next. Paying attention to the multiple transitions we make throughout a day can relieve stress or lower anxiety that might be held in your body as you move from one moment to the next. These many invitations in a day have become the barometers for how I’m feeling and what I might need in this moment. They are small gifts of time that are ours for the taking. I think of them as training wheels in my mindfulness practice.
The practice of mindfulness for stress reduction is a way of living and moving throughout our days. The reminder that, “we are what we practice,” is what stress reduction is all about. It’s about being simply present throughout the day for ourselves and no-one else. A selfish act perhaps, but well worth the investment for the payback we and others receive from our deliberate practices. It’s all about feeling and being great!
I’ve been thinking about the critical link to our mind-body awareness, and what an amazing information system it is, should we listen to it. Our body as an information super-highway, can and does signal important information to us about our emotional experiences and as a barometer about our stress levels. So why don’t we listen to the information our body tells us?
There’s no doubt the conditions for leadership have changed in today’s volatile, uncertain, constantly changing and ambiguous (VUCA) world. An essential capability for leadership success is emotional intelligence (EQ) - the capacity to recognize our own feelings and those of others, and the ability to regulate our own emotions and effectively manage relationships with others (Daniel Goleman).
A lot has been written about the power of emotional awareness to impact business results and to create the conditions for employees to be engaged in meaningful work. Goleman’s research shows that EQ has double the impact on business performance, compared to IQ. In fact, 67% of competencies essential for high performance are related to EQ and it is the strongest predictor of performance, explaining 58% of success. In times of constant change, when employees experience even more stress than usual, managing the emotional context of work becomes even more important.
The EQ capability of self-awareness is essential - being able to recognize our own emotions, especially under stress or change, being open to feedback from others and being open to understanding our impact on others. It makes sense then that demonstrating emotional awareness and flexibility when our everyday work environment is ambiguous, allows us to self-regulate or demonstrate higher levels of self-control while remaining open to new ideas and being empathetic to the experiences of others. The resulting ability to manage work relationships effectively makes it possible for everyone to do better work in times of ambiguity.
Managing the turbulence of VUCA business environments, allows a higher range of openness to relationships and new ideas, and the ability to consider multiple perspectives, experiences and possibilities – skills required for continuous improvement and large scale innovation. The very good news is that EQ can be learned through practice, by developing self and other awareness, and learning to self-regulate our own emotions to effectively manage our relationships with others.
In my coaching work with leaders, EQ practices build these capabilities as leaders learn to pay attention to emotional triggers, understand the assumptions they hold and ask for feedback from others about their impact. When under stress our key relationships can be compromised by emotional volatility or reactivity, and our openness to new or alternate perspectives and possibilities becomes limited or shut down as we revert to what we know. Curious leaders that build their EQ capabilities set a higher bar for business performance and innovation, setting the conditions for people to ask questions, test assumptions, create experiments that will inevitably fail and enable the organization to learn, even or especially in VUCA conditions.
Emotional Intelligence is the Essential Fuel for Innovation and perhaps the most important capability for leadership success.
In today’s volatile, uncertain, constantly changing and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment, a consistent theme of “too little time” is emerging for the leaders. It’s the relationship leaders have with the construct of time that most impacts their work, relationships and personal lives. As you’ve noticed, this happens to be the work I’m doing in my own practice and life. It’s probably not a coincidence that the relationship to timetopic is coming up in so many of my client’s lives as well – or not so funny at all, if you ask them!
In my work with leaders, who are responsible for setting visions, executing on them and establishing the environments in which people work, this theme of not enough time, resources or energy is taking a toll on business results - productivity, engagement and innovation – their very survival.
When we think about the concept of time, it’s often described as a precious commodity that we don’t have enough of. Most of us would agree that it’s the most valuable gift we can offer to ourselves, others and our work, and yet many of us don’t guard it as if it were. Time has diminished in the face of longer commutes to work, ever-expanding social media platforms to keep up with, hours of back-to-back meetings without breaks between, multiple time zone spans making days much longer such that we cannot meet the many demands on our time and attention each day.
If time is indeed our most precious resource, how can we expand time and create space, to increase our own satisfaction, the quality of our work and connects with others, inspire more meaningful conversations and higher quality thinking? One of the biggest barriers to increasing effectiveness in relation to time is working in our default patterns of behavior. Not many of the leaders I work with test their own assumptions or relationship to timeassumptions. I often hear statements such as “I’m just out of time”, “there’s nothing I can do about the lack of time” or “time to think and reflect in a luxury.” When we open the dialogue about time in our coaching sessions, there are millions of legitimate reasons that this scarce resource just gets away from us.
In our coaching work, leaders are encouraged to test their assumptions and unconscious biases about time. The examples are varied, such as making the choice to not attend certain weekly meetings by assigning them to less experienced leaders that need to learn. The leaders in turn learn to provide guidance for their participation instead of using their valuable time to sit through every meeting. Another leader started an experiment of “less than one-hour meetings”, leaving fifteen minutes between meetings to arrive at meetings on time or to connect with direct reports on next steps between meetings. One of my favorite tests about time is a leader that has chosen to spend Friday mornings taking her children to school and staying away from her office for a couple of hours for deeper thinking, planning or gaining new insights into the work she’s leading. When she gives herself this gift of time, she reports feeling calmer, being more focused, experiencing greater presence and minimizing her stress response in reacting to the high demands of her job. After several months of her new relationship to time she remains ahead the highest priority demands that week.
Leaders that are willing to test their assumptions about time, or expand time, say they see a direct and exponential positive impact on the quality of their decisions, the tone of their communications, the creativity of their thinking, the value of their relationships, the experience of their team’s engagement, not to mention, their own happiness, energy and health. These leaders report greater levels of energy and resilience by practicing daily - breathing deeply before starting a meeting, slowing down the pace of their responses (verbal or written) to provide a well-thought out solution or idea, practicing presence or greater awareness in the moment when listening to their employees, taking a few moments each day for meditation or exercise to expand time.
Expanding time is a habit of mind to increase leadership impact transforms how we feel, controls our reactivity and focuses our thoughts and feelings at work that offers so much more than just impacting the bottom line.
I’m grateful that I made the radical move to jump out into the unknown as the lessons I had to learn about resilience, creative energy and vitality are similar to what many executives struggle with in our volatile, unpredictable, constantly changing and ambiguous (VUCA) work world.