Can Executives Be Coached?


Among the feedback from my last column on AOL CEO Tim Armstrong’s much ballyhooed public firing of a staff member was an interview request from a Michigan radio newsman about coaching executives.

“How do you moderate a tough leader?” he posed. “How do you take the edge off?”

My response was a four-letter word: D-A-T-A.

Those at the top of organizations, whether a small firm like mine or big companies like my clients, are data focused. They ravenously devour daily operational performance stats about sales, orders, overhead costs, inventory, compensation, sick days, and so on.

Aptly coined: “The Language of Leaders,” data gets executives’ attention and causes them to pause. And that’s precisely the response that you want for matters on the “softer side” of business, such as leadership style and communication skills. You want leaders to stop, look and listen to the data — and then move ahead with corrective actions that will help them improve what they say and what they do.

These five tips will help you produce compelling data that will get the attention of leaders and open the door to coaching them.

1. Define meaningful metrics. Target a few areas that will align with the goals and culture of the organization. In my firm’s measurement work, we closely examine what the top leader communicates — his or her actual messages, whether spoken or written. Equally important is to assess how the leader communicates — his or her outreach through various practices, from face-to-face meetings to social media. And we study the nature of the direct connections between a leader and employees — evaluating the effectiveness of two-way interactions that are both informal and formal.

2. Know what to ask. Create questions that measure the connectivity of a leader with the workforce. For example, if your company advocates a “learning culture,” probe about the effectiveness of your leader’s skills in listening and recalling others’ ideas. My firm develops questions around a 3V™ model for leader communications that evaluates visuals (body language) and vocals (speaking style), as well as the actual verbiage (message clarity). 

You’ll want to gauge the impact of words and actions. For example, do they convey authenticity? Genuine interest? Approachability? All three are vital for motivating a workforce and earning trust.

3. Use rating scales. Quantitative data packs a powerful punch. Most polls that I use have multiple-choice questions with four-point and two-point rating scales. Response selections—such as excellent, good, fair and poor—work well for evaluating style and communication dynamics. Simple yes and no response choices also deliver clean, hard data that can be easily converted into bar graphs and pie charts that quickly grab attention. 

I’m also a fan of creating visual scoreboards that compare a leader’s current performance ratings with past stats — making it easy to cite gaps and gains, areas of priority and progress. By showing a gap, you can trigger a leader’s desire to go from good to great.

4. Get everyone in the game. Ensure diversity in the audience of those you poll. Ask employees at different levels, locations and job responsibilities to provide their feedback, candidly and anonymously. Varied perspectives add richness to results. For Rory, a senior leader whom I coached, demographic breakouts in his manufacturing plant helped him to fine tune his communication skills, as well as identify where to find the straight shooters in the organization. 

Ironically, the reality zone wasn’t his direct reports. These managers padded his ratings near perfection. Reality struck in the responses of front-line workers, whose poll ratings registered significantly lower marks for the leader’s story-telling and listening skills. “I’ve learned where my go-to people are if I need an honest calibration,” he remarked.

5. Provide improvements. There’s a lot to be learned from the data. Help your leader devour rather than dismiss the data by accompanying results with new approaches. Don’t leave change to chance. 

Raj, a former aerospace client, clearly needed style redirection based on low-trending poll results. The data showed that this president couldn’t rally his troops during a difficult downturn in business. A finance guru by background, Raj resorted to lecture-mode during town hall meetings, reviewing dozens of number-laced powerpoint charts with type too small to see and a message too complex to grasp. Poll data helped Raj see what he couldn’t during the actual meetings — people tuned him out and the 90-minute meetings were wasting precious overhead dollars. 

With the help of coaching, Raj converted his professorial communication style into a less formal, conversational tone to talk about changes in the industry, customer expectations and company performance. His quarterly meeting practice — now pared to 45-minute sessions — helped him to learn more from his workforce with the introduction of a direct question-and-answer exchange.  After several quarters of polling, trends showed an uptick in favorable ratings for Raj’s approachability, credibility and connectivity with workers. He had become a part of this workforce rather than apart from it. And his new working relationship with employees became a key factor contributing to improvements in productivity and innovation.

Can leaders really be coached?  Sure they can. Consider elite athletes at any level.  A good coach knows even the best pre-game motivational speech isn’t enough. Assemble the statistics, make the case for change with numbers, map out a game plan and execute. Learn to speak the language of leaders.

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