I have been coaching executives for several years now and am frequently asked by senior executives to come along side a leader who has blown it. They have messed up in some way that has damaged their credibility as a leader. Once in a while the problem will be the leader’s failure to be a strategic business partner. More often than not, it is an interpersonal problem. The problem is often perceived to be a communication breakdown or a personality clash, caused by a recent action or a pattern of behaviors. They may have acted in ways that are inconsistent with the culture and core values of the organization, or they have become controlling and demanding micromanagers undermining their team members. Regardless, of the cause, they have gotten themselves in a deep hole and their task is to get out, or maybe I should say, dig themselves out.
By the time the executive has called me they have already dismissed those leaders who are in denial and resistant to coaching, or those who have damaged relationships or the organization beyond repair. Ordinarily I am working with a leader who is open to coaching (at least they are telling their superior that they are), and who, it is believed, has not done irreparable damage (something that is still to be determined).
Frequently, these executives, even the ones that are open to coaching, have a hard time seeing the damage they have done and do not realize how deep a hole they have dug for themselves. Leaders tend to be optimistic people who believe that anything is achievable with a little effort. They also believe that others will quickly recognize their shift in attitude and behavior, realize their good intentions, and all will be well. I love the optimism, but I can assure you that it is seldom enough to salvage a broken executive. The effort it takes to dig oneself out of the hole is not so different than the effort a leader would dedicate to a business turnaround. Only the extraordinary are up to the challenge.
In addition to the obvious steps of strategy development, goal setting, and plan execution there must be a commitment to three other steps.
1. The first is apologizing and asking for forgiveness from those you have harmed. They must first see that you recognize your failure and are committed to change.
2. Secondly, you must tell them the specific things that you are working on and ask them to watch for the changes that you will be making (shifting their focus from negative to positive). Without this step, it is easy for people to see only what they have grown to expect from you. If their attention is not redirected you will never come out of the hole.
3. Thirdly, follow-up is critical. After you have had an opportunity to work your plan for 60 days or so, it is important to get back with the people that are critical to your success (and that includes many more people than just your superior), and have them rate you on your progress. I suggest that you state the specific goal and ask them to rate you on a 1-10 scale and provide examples of improvement. Not only have you asked them to shift their focus, you are now asking them to start speaking positively of the changes you are making. You will need to repeat this third step after another 60 days of working the plan, and maybe beyond that.
If the people you have offended do not let you out of the hole, you will never get out, no matter how hard you work. These steps are not easy. That is why engaging an executive coach is helpful. By the way, don’t expect to see a turnaround in a few weeks. These changes often take up to a year to achieve, but I am told they are well worth the effort.