CXO

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...

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