She told me that the reason she chose me over the three other coaches (all females) that she had interviewed was because I had asked her, “Who do you say that you are?” It was an important question because, as the groomed heir-apparent of her company, she needed to differentiate herself from the huge shadow of the founder and company namesake. In the year that I had the great fortune of coaching this young woman, I learned what had differentiated her. She was a great listener and absolutely everything we discussed in one session had been applied by the time our next meeting rolled around.
She was smart and yet willing to learn as much as she could. Many smart people suffer from the affliction of “not invented here.” Dorothy was different. She knew she was young and she knew she was green so she wanted to learn anything she could about how to lead. She realized that simply knowing the business and how to sell it was not sufficient to maintain leadership. That, she knew, was something completely out of her world of experience.
So over our time together she learned how to give power away and how to ask, not tell. She pulled together a senior leadership team some of whom had twice her years of experience – and she learned how to pull them in. Together we facilitated a team process that got her top leaders understanding and relying on each other’s differing styles. And in many ways it was Leadership 101 though in actuality it was an advanced graduate course at the highest level.
You know coaching is working when the client makes you feel like the best coach in the world! When we started I asked Dorothy about the sign hanging on her wall that read, “I’m kind of a big deal!” She said that a friend had given it to her when she was selected to run the company and that she put it up to remind herself of what she wanted to be. I’d have to say that when we finished two six-month periods of coaching, she really was a big deal!
Living and working around Boston and Cambridge, I have met some terrifically bright people, but perhaps the most brilliant of the batch was Phil (not his real name), the Chief Technical Officer of a research and development firm in biotechnology. Phil was what I call a “double-doc” – a PhD in physics and an MD – but probably could have taken the final exam for any other science degree and passed with colors. He was just that smart.
But his intellect came at a price. He was rude, abrasive and condescending to others who did not know what he (obviously) knew. Furthermore he had a bad habit of doing things like seeing someone struggling with a nasty bit of coding, he’d reach over the employee, key in the correct sequence, and walk away shaking his head at what must have been obvious incompetence on the employee’s part. Once the senior management team was off-site working on some algorithm for their optical scanner and by lunch had reached an impasse. As the others left for lunch, Phil stayed behind and by the time the others had returned, he had not only solved the problem, he had put together a PowerPoint on the process!
But giving him a set of personality tests as part of the assessment when we started really revealed what I was dealing with. He willingly submitted to my “exercise” but when I returned the next week to do the feedback session he surprised me. After I had pointed out all of the interconnecting themes, he said, “You’re pretty good.” And as he pulled them out of his desk drawer he added, “I went on line and researched these tests and that’s exactly how I predicted I would score.” He had produced mock-ups of the test output with his scores, quite accurately, plotted on each graph. Phil had to be the smartest guy in the room – always – but it was costing the company talent and money because the answer either had to come from Phil or people would give up trying to get something figured out, knowing that he would find the flaw in their reasoning anyway.
We started working right away on this heavily overused and abusive skill of his. But you don’t tell someone that smart, “Hey, dumb it down a bit so that the others don’t feel stupid.” After all, being smart was his success formula. Instead, we began working on some complementary skills to balance the power.
After only four weeks, the President stopped me on the way in and asked, “What have you done with Phil? He is a completely different person.” I said, “Nothing really, I just gave him a different job title. Instead of being the Chief Technical Officer, which he took to mean the top thinker in the company, I told him he needed to be the Professor and teach the company how to be smarter. I actually told him, ‘If you are so smart, you should be able to figure out how to teach these guys how to work smarter and think better.’ And that’s all he’s been doing.”
In typical fashion, Phil had gone on line and researched adult learning theory and applied it to how he interacted with the other researchers. He began asking the question, the answer to which was the thing he would have wanted to tell them before. In very little time, people began seeking him out instead of avoiding him. They wanted to ask for his help because he’d turn the question around and help them figure it out. He took on the role of the Professor and it fit exceedingly well.
Kelly had over 15 years experience in the finance department of the organization and for the last 8 was serving as the site controller. She had outlived four different Site Managers (her boss) as the overseas HQ continued to make changes. But all those long days and quarter after quarter of pushing the leadership team to get the numbers right had taken a toll. She loved the company but wanted to serve in a different way.
Kelly was bright, fast and well-known in the company. The Senior Leadership Team both loved and somewhat feared her. So when she asked to be coached on her transition to a project leader (which would mean stepping down from the SLT) most people questioned whether she could do it. It was decided that she would take a special transition project on building corporate excellence and report into the Site HR Director. It meant a change not only in work and pace but in the style and content of the job. Controllership is very tactical and numbers-driven; this project was anything but that. She would have to enroll others in the project and no longer had the command authority of her old title.
We began working with communication styles and influencing. Her old roles were all about the numbers but now she had to find a different lever, and at first it did not come easily. The break point came when she asked for help on a fund raising campaign for an outside charity for which she was a volunteer. She was to make a speech that she hoped would increase donor rates and numbers. It was a somewhat compelling speech to begin with but I convinced her to make it more of a personal story. The next few days community leaders who had been at the fundraiser kept calling the plant manager to tell him what an incredibly motivating speaker she had been. For her the evidence was a key turning point in how she led the project.