Scott is a high-level manager who came to a coaching session because he’d received feedback in his annual performance review that he needed to have a more commanding executive presence. Senior management expressed this by saying that they wanted him to be more “aggressive.”
As I talked to him, I quickly learned that his natural personality was quieter and more intellectual. Yet Scott understood his job, knew his market well, and was highly regarded throughout the organization. The executive team simply felt he needed to jump on issues more quickly with his team — to hold people accountable who were not meeting performance standards, and to be more outspoken in executive meetings with his ideas and suggestions.
Coaching Exercises and Insights
It was clear right off the bat that trying to turn Scott into a different person with a more aggressive personality would be neither healthy nor effective. The effort would drain him, he would feel less and less like himself at work, and he’d end up defeating himself and falling back into old patterns. This would happen especially when he felt stressed, and that would happen frequently due to the stress of trying to be something he was not.
Scott clearly had the ability to not only be a great leader, but to be one of the best leaders in the organization. I knew this for two reasons. First, he had a strong understanding of his market. Secondly had a kind nature and his team loved working with him, because they felt genuinely cared about. This loyalty translated into solid productivity, which was in his favor.
In order to leverage these strengths, and to find a path forward that would align more fluidly with his personality, he needed to learn exactly what outcomes management was looking for when they suggested he be more aggressive.
They key to finding a starting place was to realize that people don’t always say literally what they want, so sometimes we have to interpret their language. When management said they wanted Scott to “be more aggressive” and “have a more commanding presence,” this was because they had already jumped to a conclusion in their minds about the kind of character that would accomplish the outcomes they were looking for. Their conclusion was that someone who would handle issues more quickly, speak up more, and hold people more accountable — would also need to be “more aggressive.”
After we clarified this point, I suggested to Scott that his personality would present much more strongly if we allowed his natural power to come through instead of trying to adopt a characteristic that wasn’t as natural. In order to identify what power looked like to Scott, I had him do an exercise where he listed the leaders he looked up to the most – the ones he thought were most effective. On his list we pulled out the characteristics of his top leaders. We found that all the leaders on his list got great results, but they were also kind and had great relationships with the people on the team. Seeing the evidence in front of him, Scott realized that he could get more mileage by becoming a stronger version of himself than trying to adopt the more aggressive stance that he witnessed in some of his peers.
We then decided to focus on the three behaviors management needed to see out of him:
- Jump in to resolve issues quickly
- Hold people accountable to performance standards
- Speak up in meetings
We dove into these areas and identified scenarios where he had opportunities to jump in, speak up, and deal with issues proactively – but had held himself back. We learned that he’d been avoiding conversations where he might create a negative impact on his team, as he valued a high team morale. Also, since he was so busy he didn’t have time to think through things to the degree he wanted to in the moment.
Instead, he procrastinated, which resulted in a lost opportunity for him to provide important feedback to his team.
Once he saw this pattern, we then got really clear on the negative impact of NOT addressing issues and NOT speaking up. Since he was so compassionate, we had him imagine himself in the situation of not getting immediate feedback and information from others in the organization. We had him visualize the negative impact on him and how much it would limit his ability to perform at his best. We talked about how hard it is to get optimal outcomes when you don’t have clear direction – and as an executive team, how hard it is to make decisions when you don’t have input and information from each part of the organization.
What Scott Did
This new thinking motivated Scott to speak up sooner, as he had underestimated the negative impact of remaining silent and letting opportunities to address issues slip by. But he still struggled about how to best present his thoughts.
In order to do this we developed several strategies that were based around desired outcomes:
Find time each week to get very clear on three things:
- What the goals were for his team and how they were tracking to them
- What his expectations were for each team member
- Relevant information that could help upper management make better decisions
Now when a situation came up, his own opinion came to him quickly and he was more able to jump in because he had developed a clear set of goals and desired outcomes. It also helped him more clearly and consistently communicate expectations to his team and ideas in executive meetings.
Create scripts to help him present sensitive information in effective ways: For instance, by using the “owning your own perspective” approach. This approach uses different language like saying, “This is what I’m observing and here are my thoughts about…” instead of, “This is what is going on and this is what we need to do about it…”) This allowed his messages to come through loud and clear, but also more naturally and in line with his gentler, less imposing style.
Scott found that he was able to make a huge difference within a few short months and he got a promotion he’d been hoping for. With this new level of responsibility, he realized it was even more essential to keep using the strategies we had outlined. At first this shift in thinking was a bit challenging. Every time he rationalized that he didn’t have time to sit down and clarify this thought, he started slipping back into his old patterns.
Yet over time, Scott was able to make the permanent changes needed for him to be successful in his new role. He ultimately chose to continue to work on his self-development in a steady pace over the long term, and over the next two years, he did in fact become one of the strongest and most beloved leaders in his organization. Equally important, was the fact that he was able to lead his team to outstanding results, as well!
Sometimes managers can have expectations that are nearly impossible to meet because they would require us to twist ourselves into a person who we are not. The effort we expend attempting this change is so taxing that it often backfires in the long run. The lesson in this truth is that when feedback from your management doesn’t resonate with your approach, it’s important to probe more deeply into the expectations. This is especially true if they are expressed as characteristics such as “be more aggressive” or “be more kind.” One way to do this is to ask, “If I were more aggressive (kind/etc.), what behaviors would I be exhibiting that I’m not exhibiting now?” It is always the behaviors that are important to identify. Then we can find a more viable and authentic path to move forward with.
In Scott’s case, aggression felt inauthentic to him, so he was much more effective in to finding a stronger voice that suited his gentler personality better.
If you find yourself in a situation like Scott’s, contact Nahid for a coaching session to explore the ways to meet the underlying goals while staying true to yourself.