Category Archives: Executive Coaching

Effective Leadership in a Fast Paced Organization:

While working as a consultant to Wal-Mart I had the opportunity to speak to various groups of senior operations leaders across the company.   I would be asked to speak or train on a variety of topics, including Building High Performance Teams, Balancing Work and Personal Life, Workplace Violence Prevention, Optimizing Stress for Success, Improving Emotional Intelligence, and more.  But around Wal-Mart the one that got the most attention was Time and Priority Management.  As one executive who requested this training put it,

“Working in this organization is like riding a jet engine and holding on with only one hand.”Riding a Jet Engine

That statement reminds me of growing up in East Texas where regional rodeos were weekly events. Bull riders would strap themselves to wild and angry 1,500lb beasts and hold on for dear life while they were pushed, pulled, spun and thrashed in every direction.  I have worked with enough leaders in fast moving organizations to understand that leadership and management can feel much like the dizzying task of the wild 8 seconds riding a rodeo bull or like holding on to that jet engine with one hand.

A few years ago, a division executive requested my help training his team of district managers for whom he was very concerned for both their professional and personal lives.  He knew they were working hard in the fast growing pharmacy division.  Pharmacists were in high demand in the retail sector, and the customer demand at nearly every store was just as challenging, not to mention the stress of ensuring that every prescription had to be filled without error.  He knew that these district managers were under a lot of pressure to build and manage their teams while exceeding their goals.  And while they had a lot of support from the corporate office, it was critical that they figure out how to effectively manage their business and their personal lives if they hoped to survive and thrive in this environment, which was exactly what he wanted them to do.  It was evident that their survival and success was his top priority.  This is when he made a statement I will never forget:

“You’ve got to help them understand that we know there is more on their plate every day than they can possibly ever get done, and it is their job to determine and act on the priorities, those that are important to the business as well as those that are important to their personal well-being.”

 Do you ever feel like the job of leadership has your life spinning out of control?  Have you simply resigned yourself to thinking that these feelings are just part of the job and there is nothing you can do about it?  Those who survive and thrive are those who have figured out how to identify and act on personal and professional priorities.  They have developed the focus and disciplines that keep them on track in both arenas of life.  What are you doing to stay grounded and focused while balancing the tensions of a multitude of demands? Who do you engage when trying to navigate the unique nature of the demands and priorities you face?  While your supervisor may be concerned about your personal well-being, they expect you to manage it effectively while you focus on the business.  Whereas, an executive coach is able to help you take a good look at both aspects of life and work.  Don’t wait until you lose your health or your family to define your focus and develop the essential disciplines for success.   Don’t go it alone.  Ask you supervisor, HR or Organizational Development department about getting a coach to help you be as effective and successful as possible.  You can succeed without burning out and without failing your health or your family.   You can learn to ride this jet engine.

“We are talking out of both sides of our mouths and we mean it.”

Yin-YangI will never forget the time when I first heard the above statement.  I was fairly new to the corporate environment when I was in a session where David Glass, CEO of Wal-Mart Stores (at the time) was speaking to a group of us who were responsible for training managers, district managers and various others in leadership and supervisory positions.   He told us to be sure that we get this message across to them.   As I absorbed this statement, it helped me understand the importance and challenge of leadership.   I understood that leaders are the people who manage the many paradoxes common to highly effective businesses.

I truly believe this is one of the reasons leaders are paid the differential.  They live in the constant tension of determining what is good for the customers, the shareholders, and the stakeholders (and there are lots of stakeholders).  They frequently have to discern which corporate value should take precedence in a particular situation.  For example, companies tend to value customers and customer service, and they also value their employees and hope they feel engaged and a part of a cohesive team.  It is easy to come up with things a leader can do for customers and for team members to help them feel appreciated and valued.  The paradox appears when you place these values along side the value of expense control and profitability.  The leader must determine how to do both of these, because the reality is that one side of this equation cannot exist without the other, and that is the paradox.  Leaders wake up every day facing this dilemma, trying to figure out how to maximize both sides of this equation in order to achieve the best long term and short term results.  They know that their decisions are accompanied by trade-offs.  They face the challenge of having to analyze the trade-offs and determine the best course of action.  Sometime they have to make decisions that will a pay off in the long run.  On the other hand, there are times when they have to think about the short-term in order to achieve what is necessary, knowing full well that they will have to justify the decision and the expense to their supervisors or to the shareholders.

Jim Collins, in his first book, Built to Last, alluded to these types of paradoxes when he pointed out that “gold medal companies” maintain a dynamic tension between people and profits, and work very hard to ensure that the pendulum never swings too far in either direction.

All this says to me that leadership is an awesome job and responsibility!  Leaders wake up every day with the opportunity to keep all these things in balance as they focus on growing their business or achieving their vision.  They have to decide which risks are worth taking and which must be delayed or simply ignored.  They have to decide which capital investment is going to provide the greatest return.  They have to decide which candidate is most likely to add the greatest value.  They have to decide what things they can delegate, to whom they should delegate, and what things they must do themselves.  They have to decide whether and how much to invest in training and developing people.  They have to know when to be demanding and when to be encouraging.   And on and on we could go.  As awesome as it is to be a leader, it is apparent that it is also quite challenging and not for the faint of heart.

How do you handle the paradoxes of your position?  Do you isolate yourself?  Do you rely solely only on your own instinct or experience?  Do you seek out resources you can trust to give you wise counsel?

This is why I love executive coaching.  It is an honor and a privilege to be brought into a leader’s confidence to provide them with feedback and perspective as a trusted coach.  I love helping these men and women work through these paradoxes and come up with the best possible strategies that will help them succeed professionally and personally.

Perceptual Psychology! How’s that for a couple of fifty-cent words?

GLooking Glassrowing up in small town East Texas we used to speak sarcastically of people who used what we called “fifty cent words” in order to show off their education and uppityness, especially when the same thing could have just as easily been said more simply.

This idea of Perceptual Psychology is not a new science or philosophy. In fact, King Solomon wrote about it in Proverbs 23:7, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he”. If you are not familiar with King Solomon, that quote comes from the Bible, and was written some six to seven hundred years before Christ. Then there are the words of the central figure of the Bible, Jesus of Nazareth, who said “The truth will set you free”. That was written over two thousand years ago.

In 1902 James Allen published his book As a Man Thinketh, filled with such statements as “A man is limited only by the thoughts he chooses.”

There is also Zig Ziglar, the speaker and writer who had the greatest influence on me in my early career, who said, “You are who you are and where you are because of the things that have gone into your mind. And you can change who you are and where you are simply by changing what goes into your mind.” I can certainly attest to the truth of this statement, because it was Zig Ziglar who taught me how to challenge my thoughts, belief systems, self-perceptions, and personal paradigms. He taught me to drill down to explore what I had come to believe to be the “truth”, and to find truth that would set me free.

These truths, stated a bit more simply:

“People learn to believe what they hear themselves say”.

From a leadership perspective (whether you are leading as a parent, supervisor, or organizational executive) it is important to understand a core truth about people. They come to you only with the potential for capability, not with all the capabilities themselves. They come to you with a certain set of beliefs about themselves and their own capabilities, beliefs that have been shaped by their various experiences, backgrounds, and by what they have been saying to themselves for years. Some of those beliefs are accurate and some are not.

My question for you is, “What difference would it make if your job of developing capable people was as simple as helping people see themselves differently than they do today?”  What if the manager’s job was as simple as helping people say the things out loud or to themselves that you know they need to hear themselves say? If doing so could make a significant difference in their engagement and performance, how would you approach your job differently than you do today?

It is not as difficult as you may think, but it does require a shift in the way you may see yourself, your role and your people.  And it will definitely require commitment and practice. Helping leaders make these subtle shifts is just one aspect of what I do as an executive coach.  The results of leaders making a few small changes are nothing short of incredible.

Executives Losing Touch

I have written recently about reasons executives derail.  The following story is an illustration of one of the reasons why this happens so frequently.  They simply lose touch.

On one occasion I was called in by a senior executive to help her leadership team.  I had been working with her team on several leadership development programs for her senior leadership team over the years, but this year she said we needed a different approach.  She was concerned that this group of 30-35 high performing executives, from senior directors to vice presidents, had lost touch with the hundreds of employees they were charged with leading.  They had become so concerned about their projects and their goals that they were not taking the time to develop people, were firing people too quickly without giving them much of an opportunity to change or turn things around.  She was concerned that the culture, which was such a big part of their company, would be perceived as a sham if they didn’t turn this around. 

Some of these leaders grew up in fairly good socioeconomic conditions and had never really experienced what it meant to live from paycheck to paycheck as was the case for many of their employees.   Others who grew up through the ranks and remember well what it was like to be at the bottom of the food chain in a company.  But even then, the tendency is for leadership to erode empathy.    And, according to Professor Kelton of Berkley, the more power a leader gets, the more their empathy erodes, confirming Lord Acton’s maxim, Power tends to Corrupt and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.  For more information on this, read my post Exceptional Leaders and The Paradox of Power

So, how do you go about instilling empathy in a group of high energy, goal driven, powerful, high income senior leaders?  I pitched an idea to the senior executive that was a little out of the box, and took it back to our team to develop an experience that would bring these leaders back down to earth where most of the world they manage lived every day.  It was essential that they be capable of reflecting on the lives of the people impacted by their daily decisions. 

We took this group on a full-day field trip, if you will, to a nearby metropolitan area.  They were divided up into small groups, each with particular assignments and a pittance of a budget for their lunch.  In essence all three of them would have to eat on less than what one of them usually spent on their lunch.  They began to gritch and groan at the prospects.   We then brought them back together to hear anonymous recorded testimonies from their employees describing their lives.  They heard employees tell about living from paycheck to paycheck, from single moms who knew exactly how many trips they could make on a tank of gas, and how they budget their money for groceries and bills, from those who were living in situations where domestic violence was an imminent threat, and so on and so on.  These leaders were shocked that these stories were the true life stories of the people who worked for them.  They also heard from people about how important their job was to them, and how they worked hard to stay focused and to prevent these personal issues from interfering with their performance.

These executives ended their day at a local soup kitchen where they were assigned to serve food and have a meal with the guests.  Their assignment was simply to get to know the guests.  This was a very uncomfortable assignment for many of these executives.   Most had never talked to a homeless person.  Many had preconceived ideas about them, all of which were shattered that evening.  I’ll never forget the one executive telling me that what surprised him most is the one guest of the soup kitchen who told him that he too had once been an senior manager in his company, but fell on hard times and had not been able to find his way out.

The leadership session ended with a facilitated discussion about how leadership could look in their area of responsibility.  These leaders went back with a different kind of appreciation for their people, their capabilities and their courage.  They went back with a little more patience than before.  They went back with new perspectives and greater empathy toward people whose livelihoods were in their hands.  They were still charged with making decisions and achieving results.  They just learned that they can get this done in a little different way.