Leadership

Sharks smell blood when a leader is in trouble

Ever wonder why a leader who was previously successful suddenly seems to lose it? To help provide insight into an issue that can affect an entire organization, executive leadership coach John M. McKee uses the example of an executive in such a position.
 "Do whatever you can to help "Kathy." She probably isn't going to make it. We've tried to help her move forward, but it looks like she doesn't have the right stuff.

And with that encouraging advice, I engaged with a new client doing "remedial coaching." From a company's perspective, that term often means, “Fix this person. Help them figure out a way to get back on track and do what they're paid to do. Or we’re going to have to change the situation.”

This isn’t my favorite type of coaching work. I prefer to help people build on their own success and then move forward with their heads held high. However, in this tough economy, fewer companies are investing in their stars of tomorrow. One HR boss put it this way, "What little money many of us have now for coaching is often used as a prophylactic: to stop unintended, bad outcomes."

The lady I was engaging with was previously an effective leader. She'd risen quickly because she got things done that others couldn't. But the past year saw her performance go downhill. There'd been two or three discussions with her boss about the need to pick up speed, but at this stage it was apparent that she simply wouldn't be able to change her style without some outside assistance. She and I both knew that if she didn't start delivering, they wouldn’t keep her.

The company had taken the next-to-last step, bringing in an executive coach to see if she could be saved. I had discussions with her and talked to others above and below her in the organization. My first goal was to try to figure out what had changed over the past year or so. And why was it going to get her fired?

Here are wo of the most important things I heard:

"Kathy" gets cranky. Far too often. In group meetings and with individuals, she often blew up. And when she got angry, she didn’t hesitate to let everyone know. She cursed, fumed, slammed doors, and threatened others. Even her e-mails could be ugly.

No one wanted to spend time with her for fear of becoming collateral damage.

She'd lost her confidence and nerve. Once regarded as someone who would lead her team into unknown territory and make success where others had failed, she'd now earned a reputation for missing deadlines. Further, she didn’t hesitate to tell her team that if they didn’t get the job done, she’d get fired.  And she said that if she were let go, there would likely be others following her.

Kathy was not a leader who inspired. Her actions were very clear evidence that something wasn’t right.

I find both of these styles are more commonplace in leaders today. Look around your organization. Then look in the mirror for evidence of them.

Most people won’t be as obvious as my client. But the symptoms are there if you look. Watch and listen to the people in your regular meetings:

  • Anger may show up disguised as sarcasm or jokes.
  • Fear may be manifested with more questions or statements about how much more difficult certain activities are than others.
And sharks smell blood. People above and below those who are showing these characteristics will know that something’s wrong. They’ll distance themselves from the individual who is in trouble, and that will make it harder for the leader to be successful.

So what’s a leader to do if (s)he thinks that (s)he -- or someone else -- is in danger?

1. Stem the bleeding. Be conscious of changes in style. If it’s you or someone else exhibiting behavior change, take an honest look at what’s going on before it gets out of control. In the early stages, both anger and fear can be dealt with fairly easily because those involved can recall what it was like before. 2. If it’s past the bandage stage, thoughtful reflection can help a lot. This doesn’t require getting someone from the outside to help; it can be done between colleagues or with a boss/subordinate.  Someone who's being snippy or expressing too much concern about failure may have an "Aha moment" when someone else plays it back for them. Internal mentors are ideal at this. 3. Triage may be required. Sometimes individuals are literally incapable of dealing with the problem on their own. In that case, invest in them. When you do it, tell them that things are bad, that you believe in them, and that you want to give them some professional help to get back on the rails. Make it clear that this is probably their last chance. Get their attention because at this point they need to focus.

In "Kathy's" case, she made solid progress. Initially she felt like she’d been unfairly cited for a lack of performance, but after a while she figured out what was behind her behavior. Kathy then made a couple of breakthroughs very quickly and is now doing well. However, if those around her had been more conscious of her behavior changes at an earlier stage, the whole issue could have been averted, the emergency room wouldn't have been required, and money spent could have been used to build and not just repair.

Here's to your future.

John

Leadership Coach

About

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

17 comments
ypkonline
ypkonline

A real good article .. the specific point Shark smelss blook is 100% right . People dont want to pul you up but treat it has an oppurtunity for there growth

r_cubed_engineering
r_cubed_engineering

As a manager, I always thought it was my job to support the people who are struggling and help them to learn how to stay on track. If as a boss you can't do that, you have a problem. Am I just being old-fashioned?

web
web

Nice Misogynist view making "Kathy" cranky.

mohdfarid914
mohdfarid914

I think companies who put the effort to get help in order to understand and rectify the employee's issue or problem is rare and a respectable one. In my ten years of working experience, I have seen very little efforts done by the company's management to understand the employees better. Behaviour changes often viewed as a personality problem that the employee him/herself must rectify without the company's intervention. Aid by peers is welcomed and only on voluntary basis. That is why, I think, psychiatric counseling or coaching is a must in many large companies. Otherwise, the issue will be resolved by applying either Peter or Dilbert principle.

ypkonline
ypkonline

A real good article .. the specific point Shark smelss blook is 100% right . People dont want to pul you up but treat it has an oppurtunity for there growth

Danny Graham
Danny Graham

As a line manager, you're absolutely right - you should be looking after your subordinates and working to keep them on track well ahead of time. The problem is - who is doing the same for you? Okay - perhaps your line manager is. But a point comes in where you get sufficiently high up the hierarchy of a business, when rightly or wrongly, you're expected to be sufficiently grown up (managerially) to keep yourself on track. The execs or COO won't do it for you. That's when the Shark scenario occurs.

itadmin
itadmin

What was the wrong word, Kathy or cranky? There's a site, Mr (Mister, a male, I think) Cranky Rates the Movies. Look it up. A male being called, or calling himself, cranky. I suppose as an insensitive, male, pig I just don't get it.

johnr
johnr

Don't just throw and accusation (seen through a gender biased lens) out there and not support it. How is it misogynistic when Kathy was described as previously an effective leader and one who led her team into areas where others (men and women) could not get the job done? I think we all acknowledge that men sometimes need help in the work place and can benefit from coaching and mentoring. Are you saying that women are better and don't ever have problems or need coaching and mentoring so to describe her as "cranky" is somehow demeaning? If the author had described a man's problems, then you probably would have said that it was misogynistic because the article left women out. Look inside for hate and bias first before accusing others of those faults.

pivert
pivert

In case of Kathy: I think she was the new broom, made some "quick wins" and became the new rising star. The ideal way of loosing all support above and below. People below know that those easy goals only last so long and a rising star is a potential threat to upper levels. Seen it, warned people and saw the frustrations when they didn't listen. Sorry dear managers, most of the time the problem lies with upper management, fighting their own battles and using people like Kathy as lieutenants. I've seen it in small and large companies. My only advice: there's no such thing as an easy road up the management ladder. Eat or be eaten (if you play that game).

d.j.elliott
d.j.elliott

I haven't seen much counselling in my industry. For a long time, there were enough jobs that finding another position was the solution to managers/peers exhibiting severe problems. In today's contracted economy that option is not so readily available.

rni302
rni302

Learned some bosses do not have the courage to speak to you directly about issues. They make fun of you to peers at their level, they make sarcastic comments and right away say "just kidding". Learn to pick out words of warning from others who may want to warn but will not directly say anything and address all sarcastic remarks right away with your manager.

tracy.walters
tracy.walters

...I suspect Kathy was being overtasked and (probably) unwilling to delegate tasks she felt were given to her by senior management with the expectation that she would handle them personally. It's a common issue that many of us climbing the ladder have made. I've made it a point now to mentor folks working their way up. If I see a spark of something in them I try to fan the flame and get them motivated, and understand the 'secret handshake' (which isn't so very secret if you take the time to look for it). Executive management is typically interested in success from those on the way up, and are usually ready to help them achieve it, especially if there is gain for everyone along the way. If you sit on your hands and wait for someone to come along and show you the way, you'll still be waiting as others pass you by.

johnr
johnr

Though in a dysfunctional organization the shark scenario can go all the way down to the individual contributor level and in really good organizations the VPs and C-Level execs will help keep each other on track when necessary and will help some with subordinates (if only sometimes to hire coaches or let that individual know it is time to shape up or ship out). In reality everyone needs help sometimes and most of the time teamwork is much more efficient and effective than having to do it on your own. All great leaders have sidekicks and teams from Alexander down to Dwight D. Eisenhower to advise and get them back on track when they are in danger of running off. We are all human and occasionally of often make mistakes so one is never "sufficiently grown up (managerially)" to always keep themselves on track at all times. That is why the sink or swim analogy, while often accurate is indicative of dysfunction when describing organizations today. It just means that no one has any better ideas or how to organize and lead than letting everyone make it all on their own. Competition, while sometimes good, must be managed and directed within organizations for it not to result in destructive behaviors.

johnr
johnr

OK, first a poster accused the author of being misogynistic and I called for that poster to support it with data or logic. Then this thread devolves into calling people (that poster didn't even specify who was being called an idiot) names with nothing to back it up. If none of you are going to argue for why there is misogynism or idiocy then please go somewhere else to post where that is acceptable.

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