True Confessions

One of the services I frequently provide organizations is a process called “Executive Coaching.” The process consists of me working with, or coaching/counseling, usually a senior person in a company. Most commonly the person coached is perceived by his or her boss as needing to improve in some area of performance. Or, the person has demonstrated difficulty in being effective within the organization.  I typically work with a person for six months, sometimes longer. During this time we meet at least monthly and discuss personal leadership/managerial effectiveness along with other issues that usually surface during the discussions.

I find executive coaching to be a challenge and an incredible training experience, not only for the person I’m coaching, but for me as well. Many techniques and principles I teach in workshops have been learned in coaching sessions.  It’s interesting how the differences in people create such a wide variety of behaviors, feelings and attitudes.  But I guess that’s what makes us human beings and not animals.

I would like to describe two people whom I have coached in recent months. Obviously, I must conceal their identities, but the people and their situations are real. There are leadership principles represented in these cases that are so compelling to me that I welcome this opportunity to share them in this article.

The first person is a store manager of a regional grocery chain. He has been a store manager for over 15 years and from a first impression a person could assume that he is effective.  He has a public persona of charisma and up-tempo happiness.  I’m sure that many customers know who he is and might even believe he is a good manager.  The truth is, however, that his boss is very close to terminating him.  Let me describe why termination is a near possibility, because after we understand why, we can learn from his mistakes.

The district manager and the store employees have a very different opinion of this manager. instead of a charismatic leader, they see a person who procrastinates, doesn’t follow-through on assignments, gets lost in the trees and can’t see the forest, is a poor delegator, and either avoids confrontation at all cost, or is overly dictatorial and sometimes even abusive.

Now remember; this store manager is clearly aware that his continued employment is in serious jeopardy; he has been told by his district manager that if specific issues don’t immediately improve that he could lose his job.  So if you were in this manager’s position, what would you do? How would you behave? What would you do to save your job? Those are questions I think I would ask myself, if I were in that position. Wouldn’t you?

Nonetheless, in a recent coaching session I conducted with the district manager, I watched this store manager say anything he could to please his boss. Rather than taking notes on what he needs to do differently, he spent his time trying to say whatever he could to merely get through the meeting and leave the room. It seemed to me that the prudent thing for him to do would have been to make a list of specific action items that needed to be accomplished in order to improve his job situation; instead, he nodded agreement to everything he heard and did whatever he could to shorten the meeting. Although he had a note pad and pen in front of him, he didn’t use them. When asked for a deadline to complete an assignment, his response was, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” His nervousness was apparent and lie was obviously uncomfortable with the two of us trying to pin him down on specifics. At one point I observed him rocking back and forth in his chair—a clear indication of profound agitation. After the manager left the room the district manager turned to me and said, “He doesn’t get it. And I didn’t get any impression that anything will be different tomorrow than it was yesterday. I’m locked into a course of action that I don’t want to do.”

Why? Why did the manager behave this way? What could be motivating him to be so self-destructive?  Before I give my interpretation of the answer, let me describe the second person. She has 35 employees and is the manager of an important department in a manufacturing company. With a master’s degree in engineering and almost 27 years of experience, she commands an impressive salary and position in her company.

Her problem is that she behaves like she is seven feet tall and bulletproof! She is openly defiant of her boss’s instructions and on occasion says things that approach insubordination. For example, her boss told her a few months ago that she needed to attend an important planning meeting in Mexico. When she concocted an excuse why she couldn’t attend on a specific date, her boss changed the date of the meeting to be more convenient for her schedule. So out of a dozen people to attend the meeting eleven adjusted their calendars to agree with this woman’s wishes.

Then, believe it or not, a week before the meeting in Mexico this massager announced to her boss, “The Mexico meeting is unnecessary and stupid. I’m not going!” Let me repeat the same questions I asked about my first example: Why? Why did she behave this way? What could be motivating her to be so self-destructive?

After her announcement, I had an unfortunate conversation with this second manager’s boss. He said that he is fed up with her lack of cooperation and unprofessional behavior. He concluded by adding, “If you can’t get her back on track, I only have one final option, and she’s not going to like it.”

So why? Why do some people choose to behave in such indescribable ways? What could cause a person with a great job, including future career possibilities, to either fail to act (as in my first example) or openly rebel against all reason (as in my second example)? What do you think? Have you experienced someone similar to either of these managers?

Put yourself in my position for a minute, what would you do if you were coaching either of these managers? How would you approach the situation to effect change? What techniques or tactics might work better than another? Or, what about this question: is either of these managers salvageable? Are they worth saving? Is it best for all parties to merely terminate the person and start over again with a replacement? Think about these answers and in Part No I’ll describe what actually happened.

 


 

Earlier, I described two people whom I have coached in the past year. Both of these individuals have responsible jobs with excellent compensation. The first is a store manager of a large supermarket, and the second is a manager in a large multi-national manufacturing company. They both have the education, experience and opportunity to be successful in their careers. In fact, both of these people have the ability to move up in their respective organizations. The problem is that both of them are about to be terminated due to their failure to perform up to expectations.

The reason I have chosen to discuss these two people is that I come across similar situations fairly regularly where people have everything it ought to take in order to be successful. But for some reason they make a decision to commit “career suicide.” I have every reason to believe that within a year both of these managers could be reading the want ads looking for a new position wondering what went wrong with their last job. They will wonder this in spite of the fact that for over six months I met with, coached, counseled, prodded and even warned them that behavior change was needed immediately. But for the reasons I would like to discuss, these people have decided, “good enough is good enough.” As Larry Hodges, the former President of Mrs. Field’s Cookies, has said, “Good enough is not good enough.”

The reason I selected these people and this topic is that in both of these cases termination does not need to happen. With a little effort and behavior change both of these people could have long and productive careers in their companies. But unfortunately, that may not happen: I think we can learn from their mistakes not only for ourselves, but also for those people who report to us.

Jack Welch, the former Chairman of General Electric Company, once said, “Face reality as it is, not as you think it is, or as you wish it was. Face it head-on as it really is.” That advice is clearly what both of these people need to do, because in both cases they have constructed their perception of reality as they “wish it was,” not, “as it really is.”

First, let me update you on the situation with the store manager. Although his district manager has several complaints, his primary complaint is that the manager is indecisive and procrastinates. This is even true on time-sensitive problems where immediate action is critical. Nonetheless, when given a directive, this store manager nods his head as if he hears what is being said, seems to understand what needs to be done, and even has the ability to do what is needed. However, in too many cases he either can’t make a decision, or waits too long before beginning. Have you ever seen someone like this? These behaviors can drive people crazy!

Procrastination is a complex psychological behavior that affects everyone to some degree or another. With some people it can be a minor problem; with others it can be a source of considerable stress and anxiety. Procrastination is only remotely related to time management, (procrastinators often know exactly what they should do, even if they don’t it), which is why very detailed action plans usually don’t help.

As in the case with the store manager, the procrastinator is often amazingly optimistic about his or her ability to complete a task on a tight deadline. It’s common to hear expressions of reassurance that everything is on schedule. For example, he or she may estimate that a project will take two days to complete. That sounds like a lot of time, so the person delays getting started because there appears to be an abundance of time available.

At some point, the person crosses a point in time where he or she suddenly realizes, “Oh no! I’m not in control. This isn’t working.” And as a result, waits even longer because being out of control is so uncomfortable. Even though it may appear that procrastinators are lazy, actually, one of the most common root causes is a fear of being out of control.

There is no simple solution to procrastination. Improvement takes not only a personal commitment followed by discipline, but it also requires the person realize that the best way to maintain control of situations is through preparation and on-time performance. This isn’t easy, but it can be done.

The second manager has a much different problem. After considerable discussion, she finally admitted to me, “I am a sarcastic person.” Then she quickly added, “But I’m only sarcastic in order to get people to do what I need them to do.” She believes that sarcasm is a valuable motivator and is appropriate in the workplace.

The problem with sarcasm is that it is so potentially dangerous that practically nothing else can destroy a relationship faster. People have long memories and most people don’t soon forget when they are the victim of sarcasm. So this manager has systematically damaged almost every peer relationship she has in her company. In an assessment I conducted asking her peers to rate her effectiveness in interpersonal communications; almost every person gave her the lowest possible rating. Most of them apparently, had been the victim of her sarcasm.

Research indicates that the quickest way to improve organizational effectiveness is to improve interpersonal relationships. And conversely, the quickest way to fail is to erode interpersonal relationships.

This manager’s second problem is arrogance. In the business world arrogance tends to be associated with a person in a position of power. Without organizational power, arrogance can appear misguided or even humorous. When a manager is in a position of power, he or she can be the victim of an over inflated perception of self that results in demonstrated arrogance. That seems to be the problem with this manager. She actually believes that she is indispensable in the organization and couldn’t be reassigned or terminated under any circumstance. She has created in her mind such a false sense of reality that she is unable or unwilling to accept the advice of others, even her boss.

So what’s going to happen to these two managers? Time will tell, but unless they begin to face reality as it is, very fast, they may be on the outside looking in, rather than on the inside watching their careers blossom. These are sad stories that, unfortunately, are repeated all too often.

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About the Author

Richard Williams, Ph.D.

Dr. Richard L. Williams has been a business consultant for over 40 years and has conducted more than 5,000 workshops to more than 350,000 managers and executives. Rick’s interests include maximizing human performance, team building, leadership development, executive coaching, process improvement, and instrumentation research and design. Rick has experience in working with a wide range of industries globally.