I’ve always been a fan of personal development in the workplace and beyond. As someone who has only ever worked within environments where performance is critical, I’m convinced that skills such as emotional intelligence, managing (our own) behaviour, resilience and sustaining performance are an essential part of the package of skills that everybody needs, and as such should be on the curriculum for everyone.

The idea that you can develop yourself and your career by increasing your emotional intelligence is a potent one, so it’s regrettable that people aren’t coached in this area earlier in life, and that such skills are often overlooked until the need for them becomes critical.

This suggests that businesses think of emotional intelligence as a luxury required only by leaders, and even then, something significant has to happen before the decision is made to invest in personal development coaching – typically a major business transformation project. But today, business transformation is not a project – it’s an ongoing reality.

Change is the only constant

I recently read an article entitled “How to prepare leaders for a VUCA world”* by Dr. Amit Mukherjee, professor of leadership and strategy at IMD Business School in Singapore.

The author reminds us that the average tenure of CEOs has dropped by 50% since 1980, with the tenure for mid-to-senior executives now averaging only 2 – 3 years. He cites the need for senior executives with “experiential understanding of what it takes to sense, respond and learn” and be “responsible for carrying out the transformation” of businesses in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA).

He suggests that Executive Recruitment and Talent Management Systems alike have plenty to learn about this new world and its tendency to “trip up” executives accustomed to “more sedate” conditions. I happen to agree with him, and it’s this kind of thinking that has informed our coaching service at Stonehouse Search and Selection.

It’s lonely at the top

The more senior you are, the lonelier your job can be. The purpose of Executive Coaching is to facilitate the continual development of a person, both as an individual and a leader. For the subject, it can be invaluable to have someone with whom we can share our ideas and fears, but who is independent and able to listen to our thoughts and feelings without prejudice. That is part of the role of an executive coach. It is equally important that we never stop learning, and a coach can help us to understand and learn about ourselves and what drives our behaviour; crucial when our decisions are significant simply by virtue of our seniority.

Hitting the ground running

Coaching sessions can be invaluable for business leaders on garden leave prior to starting a demanding new role. In an ideal scenario, within your first 90 days you’ll be able to hit the ground running, develop your own and your team’s plans and continue to get under the skin of the business (a process many good candidates will have already begun). The first 90 days in a new role are as important as any formative experience. I would go so far as to say this period can set the blueprint for your entire tenure at an organisation. At the very least, mistakes made during this period can have far longer-lasting consequences than the time it took to make them!

Contemporary challenges for leaders

The VUCA world is with us for the foreseeable future. Following the memorable events of 2016, the import/export markets are likely to remain unstable and world markets will continue to fluctuate. It can be difficult to be a leader in such an unstable world. When the people around you need you to be a fixed point, it’s important that you send out the right messages even though you too may be coming to terms with dramatic changes. As leaders are so few (and so highly rewarded) in comparison to the rest of the workforce, there is little recognition of the fact that they are human and could be going through the same processes as everybody else.

A coach can provide stability and balance and help leaders to check their messages, verbal and non-verbal communication, and help them to assimilate rapid change so they can process it and be a step ahead on behalf of those around them. If they’ve made mistakes, a coach can help them to take a vital step back, acknowledge (and take ownership for) those mistakes and learn from them, something that can greatly enhance their adaptability.

I see this within my own business. We continually assess where we are in relation to market conditions and changing demand. We have to adapt to conditions that, even with the best laid plans, are often beyond our control. The challenge for many of our senior candidates is how to deal with these same challenges in a way that results in a motivated workforce who feel included and heard, across extended chains of command that include geographical, functional and cultural boundaries. It is no small task.

How coaching can bridge the gap between fine and great

There are few people who won’t benefit from personal development coaching, but I feel that the more senior a candidate, the greater the reward. You might assume that senior executives should be naturally confident because they happen to be engineering leaders or business leaders. This is a misconception. Forget assumptions about authority – underneath, we’re all the same, we’re just operating at different levels.

I once placed a senior engineer at an organisation with whom he had a long history. He was well thought of by the client who wanted to hire him, but his areas for development were well known to the hiring team. One of our coaches spent some time with the team discussing the expectations of the role and the candidate’s perceived shortcomings. Then, during his garden leave from a previous role, they worked with him to bridge the gap.

As is so often the case, despite his experience and salary, this “gap” was purely one of confidence (in this case due to his having held only a few jobs in a long career and his concerns about the shift in mind set required for a new culture). Not only was he able to make a positive start to his role, but there was a notable difference in performance between him and the rest of his new team. He was considered an excellent and highly successful hire.

There are some truths we need to understand:

  1. People are complex. Seniors entering into a new organisation are expected to have a certain level of capability from day one, yet few candidates embark on a new role with 100% capability to do the job in today’s world.
  2. The leadership challenges faced by most businesses today require such a broad range of technical skill, experience and emotional awareness that few candidates tick all of the boxes anyway.
  3. Human factors such as self-belief and/or resilience have a part to play and can account for a large percentage of the all-important cultural and emotional fit between candidate and role.

Executive Coaching can provide the critical bridge that helps to span the gap between fine and great.

In an uncertain and demanding world, we’re all just human. If coaching can improve the performance and adaptability of individuals at the top of an organisation, it can improve the performance and adaptability of the whole organisation. Our coaching service is something we’re proud and excited to offer, and something that benefits everybody.

There’s so much more to say about coaching that I’m sure the subject will feature in future articles, but in the meantime, if you want to speak to me about executive coaching, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

All the best,
Martin Grady

*How to prepare leaders for a VUCA world, by Dr. Amit Mukherjee, published in HR Examiner, Nov 9th 2016 http://www.hrexaminer.com/how-to-prepare-leaders-for-a-vuca-world/

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