Two big impediments to successful leadership

A while ago I was brought into a company to work with a vice president-level executive who, I was told, "may not make it." 

This isn't my favorite type of coaching work.  In my business it's termed "remedial coaching."  I think the Human Resource field coined that term; having never come across it in coaching circles before about 1997.  Regardless of where it started, in less gentle words it means "Fix this person.  Help them find a remedy for what's ailing them management-wise.  Or else we're going to have to change the situation."

The guy I was to work with was pretty typical of those who get remedial coaching.  He had previously been a very effective individual but over the past year his performance had gone downhill.  He'd had several discussions about his results with his bosses and the HR folks, but it seemed that he simply wasn't going to be able to change his style.  And if he didn't; they couldn't keep him around.   So they took the next-to-last step and brought in a management coach to see if he could be saved.

What was he doing?  And why was it going to get him fired? 

1.  He was cranky too often.  In group meetings and with individuals one-on-one he often blew up.  When he got angry he didn't hesitate to let everyone know.  He fumed, cursed, slammed doors, pounded his fist, threatened people, turned red. He would get up in the middle of a meeting and leave.  Even his e-mails were ugly.

No one wanted to be near him for fear of becoming the next object of his outbursts.  Which made it really hard to get things done.

2. He had become fearful.  He often said that the tasks or projects his group was working on were in danger of missing deadlines.  Worse, he didn't hesitate to tell his team that if they didn't get the job done as expected he'd get fired.  He said that if he was let go there would likely be others shown the Exit door.

Not exactly a leader who inspired.  My client's actions and displays were very clear that something wasn't right.  I'm telling you about both him because I find these two issues to be pretty commonplace in a lot of managers today.  And you can prevent it.

Most people won't be as obvious as my client.  But the symptoms are there if you look for them. Watch the person next to you in those weekly meetings.  Anger may show up as sarcasm or little 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 they or someone around them is in danger of losing their balance? 

Try to nip it in the bud.  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 early stages, both anger and fear can be dealt with fairly easily because we can remember what it was like before.

If it's past the budding stage - thoughtful refection can help a lot.  This doesn't require hring someone from the outside, it can be done between colleagues or with a boss/subordinate meeting.  If someone is being snippy or expressing too much concern about failure, often all that's required is having someone else play it back for them so they can see what they're doing.  I also encourage the use internal mentors for this type of activity.

And if it's full blown? When the person can't even remember their past style and is incapable of dealing with it on their own; invest in them.  Tell them that things are bad,  that you believe in them, and want to give them some professional help to get back on the rails.  Make it clear that this is probably their last chance.  You must get their attention because at this point they need to focus.

In the case of my client, we made solid progress together.  Initially he felt like he'd been spanked and put in a penalty box.  But after a while we figured out what was hassling him and made a couple of breakthroughs very quickly.  He's doing well.  But if those around him had been more aware of his changing behavior, the whole issue could have been averted. 

                                                                           - john