Imagine your favorite football team drafts a great quarterback out of college. All summer long, and through the preseason, he is coached on how to beat the first opponent in the regular season, and is prepared for whatever challenges he might face. Right after the first game, the coach turns to him and says, “Kid, now you’re on your own,” and never gives him any more advice. You’d be horrified. No matter how well-trained someone is, the field changes through the years, and they will need to be steered, helped, and coached throughout their career, or they won’t live up to their fullest potential.
It’s the same thing in business. When it comes to executive coaching for leadership, many company philosophies revolve around the need to coach new leaders. This is a mistake. Good leadership coaching isn’t just for new leaders, but is instead designed to follow a leader through the life of their career. Most executives will transition a lot through their careers, moving into positions that should come with different milestones and evolving goal scopes. The right coaching plan will change as their career changes, allowing them to face new challenges and opportunities along the way.
Practical Mentorship – Not Instruction – for Early Leaders
New leaders often come from high performing employees, but the transition can be difficult. Oftentimes, that high performing employee can go from being at the top of the food chain among non-management staff, to the bottom of the food chain in leadership. This can be especially difficult when dealing with newer MBAs and graduates, who might not have much practical experience in managing employees, and only have the experience they learned in the classroom. Younger leaders have a heavy focus on education, with 54% of millennials having college degrees, compared to their baby boomer counterparts at only 36%.[1. “Leadership’s New Direction,” Nov. 11, 2011, https://hbr.org/2011/11/leaderships-new-direction] As a result, these newer leaders, while eager to put their theoretical classroom knowledge to use in the real world, often come into it inexperienced in navigating the subtle practicalities of management and leadership.
That is where being an advocate, as opposed to a teacher, comes in. Many mentors might assume that their job is to teach their new mentee everything. That is not the case. Instead, they need to guide them to make the right decisions on their own, and help them understand the mistakes they’ll inevitably make along the way.
I once worked with a mentor at a social work agency who was having a bit of trouble helping a newer manger get her caseload under control. It was this manager’s job to assign cases to individual social workers, but she wasn’t sure how to do it. The mentor, in response, was simply telling her which cases to assign, without really going into why. He’d been at the agency for 20 years and knew the strengths and weaknesses of every worker in his head, so he was simply expecting her to learn by watching him do it. It wasn’t working. So one day, when she asked about case assignments, he simply said, “Do whatever you think is best.”
It was a disaster. While she used her education to assign skill sets to the right cases, she was getting complaint calls about late workers, or from people who just didn’t like the assigned caseworker. She went to her mentor with no idea of what she’d done wrong.
That’s when her mentor told her that “skillset matters less than personality when assigning cases.” He pointed out how one of the men she’d assigned to a home 20 miles away was notorious for his terrible sense of direction. Another’s aggressive personality made her a bad match for the soft-spoken mother of a child with cerebral palsy. Her problem wasn’t not knowing enough about the technical parts of social work, but not spending time getting to know her employees.
Realizing that, the new manager took the initiative and began having daily lunches with the people under her, getting to know them on a personal level. As a result, she was better able to match those employees to the proper case without the help of her mentor.
Reignite the Fire and Get Big Ideas from Mid-Career Executives
By the time an executive makes it to the middle of their career, they should be well versed in all the basic leadership skills they need to manage people. The last thing companies want, however, is to train their managers to the point where they’re ready to be independent, and then have them leave the company for a different job. Unfortunately, this isn’t an unusual occurrence, with senior level workers changing jobs an average of 11 times over the course of a lifetime.[2. “A Longitudinal Survey,” http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/nlsoy.pdf] So why does this happen?
Since mid-career executives already have the hard skills of leadership, their potential for growth and improvement lies in the scope of the vision within which they execute those hard leadership skills. They should aim to move away from small picture goals, and develop goals that encompass a bigger and bigger picture progressively throughout their career. This is an ever-evolving, continually expanding effort, as this stage usually encompasses the bulk of their working years. The problem that many of these mid-career individuals are running into along the way, though, is boredom.
Take the case of a mid-level exec at a security firm I worked with. He’d worked his way through the company, as part of their surveillance team that did field work, gaining video of subjects under investigation. Initially, he was invested. He started as a junior field worker, made his way up to senior field worker, and then they brought him to the management team as the director of the surveillance department, answering only to the company president and board of directors. He went from an exciting and fulfilling hands-on job to filling out status reports, and within 3 months, he was ready to resign.
What could have prevented this? Proper executive coaching. The key to coaching a mid-career executive is making sure they’re always facing new challenges.
This means showing them how to shift their focus from small picture to big picture thinking. Mid-level executives have already proven they have what it takes to manage people and deliver results. When it comes to coaching to improve their careers, it’s about focusing on how they can amp up those abilities and start some big picture thinking. In the case of the security firm executive, it meant reigniting his passion for the job by asking him to take his years of field knowledge and come up with ideas to make the department more efficient for the employees who held the positions he once held, interviewing employees and going for ride-alongs to try to piece together larger trends from the day-to-day and what they could mean for the company.
Mid-career executives should have a coaching plan that encourages these managers to think big, rather than focus on day to day tasks. When it comes to coaching, their schedule should be focused on their next idea and the stages they’ll need to go through to implement it.
Create a Vision for the Future with Late Career Leadership
Upper-level leaders obviously fill an important role; they’re the ones who are responsible for the big picture of the company and planning its continued success. A significant part of that planning is choosing who will take over for them after they leave the business. Even in smaller organizations where this should be clear, like a family-owned business, it often isn’t accomplished.
That’s why, at this point, the best late-career executives ensure they take part in planning out not just their own futures, but the future of the company after they leave, and this includes having a hand in planning the line of succession. Those on their way out of the company after years of service can benefit from coaching as much as anyone else, but at this point, it should be transitional coaching. The focus should be on developing their plan for the company after they leave. This includes which of their ideas they want carried out and who they feel are the best people to take their place.
These coaching plans should start as soon as a person reaches a level of leadership where if they left suddenly, the company would not easily be able to continue on with regular business. If someone is the head of a major department, like the Chief Financial Officer or the Marketing Director, there should be a plan in place to replace them. The plan should include mentoring a replacement, in order to ensure the business of the company continues seamlessly after they leave.
The only constant in life is change. Leaders have to be ready to evolve, and as a leader grows in their career, their coaching plan will need to grow and change with them. Coaching plans that support an executive throughout their career, adapting to their needs, will lead to a well-rounded individual who is able to learn the basic skills of leadership, gain independence, keep innovating and growing, and choose the right person to replace them when the time comes.
At Applied Vision Works, we’ve developed 35 principles of leadership that you can integrate into your executive coaching plan, regardless of what career stage your leaders are in. Check out our Leadership Development Plan for more info.