Be Honest with High-Valued Executives.Their Job May Depend on It.

Contributor: David E. Smith

Companies dedicate countless resources attracting and hiring executives for their high-level positions. But what happens if the hire is a bad fit?

In my work, I've helped many Fortune 500 companies salvage their investment in people who, on paper, appeared to be rising stars. From experience, I've learned how these mismatches can occur and what works to create positive and lasting change, both for an employee and a talent management team.

Let's take Mark. He was hired as vice president of security for a Fortune 50 telecommunications company and seemed like the perfect fit. He was a former CIA agent with proven prowess in intelligence and security procedures for the protection of high-valued information and people. He was highly trained in international and criminal investigations, and served for more than a decade in clandestine assignments in Central America. His new job was in a Spanish-speaking country and he was fluent in multiple languages.

Once hired, Mark established a top-notch team of security specialists and put in place comprehensive security programs. But before long, problems began to surface. As vice president of security, he was part of the executive team, reporting to the president of the subsidiary. Other VPs and SVPs on the executive team began to complain of his rigidity and exclusion. From all reports, Mark was disinterested in teamwork or compromise.

Things got worse over time. Mark prided himself in his specialized knowledge and skills.

Why should he need to listen to people who didn't understand the big picture of his work?

After many months and many attempts to correct this problem, Gail, the corporate senior vice president of operations and Joe, the VP of HR, saw no improvement and contacted me for help. They wanted "emergency" executive coaching. Or Mark would be fired.

Criteria for Success

Inherent in "coaching contracts" is the assumption that the person wants to be coached. This becomes magnified in high-valued, at-risk executive coaching. Executives have reached levels that only a few in most companies can reach. They have achieved a great deal. And they have a great deal to lose, if they fail.

After listening to the situation and determining what they would like to accomplish, I asked Gail and Joe these questions: "Does Mark know that he is at risk of losing his job? Does he acknowledge that he is the problem? Does he want to change?” And finally, "Will you give him the time and support to make a change?" I was told that the answers to all of these questions were "yes."

A False Start

I agreed to have Mark contact me by email to plan our kick-off call. By doing so, I was making sure he took ownership of the fact that he had a problem. Things went smoothly until the call. Mark spent an hour lecturing me on how to be a good coach. There was no indication that he was the problem.

I called Gail and told her to save her money. "This guy doesn't want to change. And no one told him his job was at risk," I said. Gail owned up to the fact that maybe they weren't clear to Mark about the severity of the situation.

After a great deal of persuasion, I agreed to try again – only if Mark would take the full lead in reaching out for help. The right phone calls were made within the company and the severity of the situation was accurately communicated to Mark.

To my surprise, Mark did call me back. And this time he was apologetic and sincere in his request to make improvements to save his career.

Learning Points

Coaching high-valued, at-risk executives brings the same challenges as any coaching assignment. Change will not occur unless these things are in place:

  • Individuals must fully understand how much risk their job, or career, is under.
  • They must accept the fact that they are the source of the problem (or the source of the perception of the problem by key stakeholders).
  • They must want to change and have the energy to do so.
  • The organization must be willing to give the individuals the time and support to make a change.

Counter to expectations, high-valued, at-risk executives can be easier to coach than others. Once you clear the hurdles, motivation to change is typically very high and organizations are more willing to fully provide the resources needed.

Accurate feedback is critical to all coaching engagements, but it is exponentially more important when dealing with an executive who has limited time to demonstrate positive change in his or her approach to work and people.

Unfortunately, the higher one moves in an organization, the less honest, timely and complete feedback he or she receives. As a coach, I can fill in these gaps for a person who is willing to change. Quite often the information the coach is able to acquire from peers, direct reports, bosses and customers is truly surprising to the person being coached. In some cases, it’s as though they’ve never spoken to each other before the onset of coaching.

With Mark, I used personality data (the Hogan Personality Inventory) to help him understand his comfort zones of behavior. He would have to learn how to operate outside of some of the comfort zones that were detrimental to his job success. We collected 360-degree feedback online and in one-on-one meetings with all key stakeholders.

The amount of information obtained in the intervention was surprising to Mark, but also highly effective. He needed to make hard choices but was willing to do so. He experimented with new behaviors and received feedback (often positive) from the executive team members. These were the same people (VPs and SVPs) who had earlier found Mark highly ineffective to collaborate with in the past.

Mark had the drive and determination to change. Like other high valued, at-risk executives, he just needed to hear the truth.

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