Many of the individuals I coach are primarily executers who have obtained leadership positions through excelling in their respective disciplines. Professions which fall into this category include investment bankers, traders, lawyers, doctors, scientists and technologists. Often, it is as veterans that they are advanced into leadership roles requiring new responsibilities in areas that they have not had to focus on to date. Now in addition to personal execution, they are tasked with successfully leading a team. These individuals have been called “player-coaches” in other works, for simplicity sake we will refer to them as “executives.”
I am usually brought in to help when these executives are still producing at a high level but have been less successful in their incremental leadership responsibilities. In my experience, there are common areas, which if proactively addressed, can help to ensure a successful transition. They include:
- Developing and motivating the talent on their team
- Increasing capacity of team through process/system improvements
- Building relationships with internal partners
- Developing and communicating a strategy
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but these are the areas I find come up on a frequent basis. Additionally, these are areas that often are not addressed without guidance. Why are these executives not focusing on these important areas?
One reason is that they are not used to handling these areas. For their entire career, these leadership areas were someone else’s “chores” and the executive just never had to deal with them. For example, this is the first time they directly own relationships with staff groups who provide needed support and resources.
A second reason is that the above areas are all non-urgent activities and, as busy folks, these executives can work a long, hard day without having to address them. That is, until one of them surfaces as a crisis e.g. employee announces they will resign, an internal partner reduces support levels etc.
So how do you coach these executives toward a successful transition?
In doing so, I focus on the following two dimensions that cut across all of these areas:
- Shifting allocation of time to be congruent with the demands of the new role.
- Developing needed skills to support executing the demands of the new role.
Both these dimensions are important but I generally focus first on helping the executive shift allocation of time since that is directly under their control. Also, I often find it is hard to determine skill level before the individual starts engaging in the task. Finally, immediate performance gains can be made through the time allocation shift while skill development takes longer.
I approach shifting allocation of time in a very concrete fashion. For a given area of focus, I ask the executive to pick an actual percentage of time they will allocate to the area. For example, a recent executive I coached decided he would devote 5% of his time to developing and motivating his people. Given his 60 hour week this translated to 3 hours, an eternity to these executives. To increase chances of sustainability over time, we cut this in half and decided to break it up as three 30 minute one on one meetings he would schedule with members of his team. On a rotating basis, he was able to cover all of his team after several weeks. The first sessions were spent discussing career goals. Another executive I coached not only increased her allocation of time to process/systems improvement but also ensured each member of her team were doing so as well.
Creation of ongoing routines is the best way to lock-in time allocation shifts. For example, one executive established a monthly routine to meet with his internal support partners. This had the immediate benefit of demonstrating that he placed value on the relationship. A mistake that can be made is only speaking to partners to make a request or when something is wrong. Early meetings with partners should focus on communicating strategy, and committing to joint planning and ongoing dialogue.
Developing skills generally involves some sub set of the common core skills of influencing, coaching, listening, delegating etc. As always, it is important to know the actual skill level needed in order to execute new responsibilities. For example, a technologist I recently coached needed to improve his communication skills. We focused on his ability to deliver messages to groups of people in a concise and coherent fashion. He was able to improve by spending time before meetings identifying key points and structuring them into bulleted messages. He never reached the standard of “inspiring” or even “engaging” but did hit the level of “coherent.” These executives may never excel at certain leadership skills but they can be coached to make realistic improvements to the level required to meet job demands.
Let us review the key points:
- There are a common set of areas new execution oriented executives often fail to address when transitioning to their new roles
- Coaches are first advised to help their clients increase the time allocated to neglected areas
- Coaches should then focus on improving their client’s skill levels to the degree needed to support their expanded leadership responsibilities
I find it extremely rewarding to coach these high performing execution oriented leaders. These executives are those that are directly engaged in the organization’s most important work and helping them improve has tremendous business impact.