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Keith McCambridge

Keith McCambridge



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Thought Leadership


Coaching - or should that be boxing?

CEOs and Executive Directors are a formidable lot. They are successful by many of life’s measures and not surprisingly have a self-belief that can prove hard to challenge. Consequently, only the best and most open are able to get clear and unfettered feedback from their people. It takes a brave subordinate to “give the boss the truth” and good friends find it hard too, for fear that they will damage the relationship by confronting vulnerability.

Marcus Berkmann (A Shed of One’s Own) talks about desire for some people to attain “eminence” in an attempt to afford them a form of self-protection. He describes eminence as one who achieves “unchallengeable worldly success.” This then allows the eminent individual to ignore those things they do not wish to engage in, and rise above the need to challenge themselves to improve. They have made it – they are “eminent.”

In our experience, however, despite this outward eminence many of the most capable business leaders have doubts - fears even - and a concern that by accepting fallibility, they will in some way dilute their power and authority, thereby losing this hard fought-for eminence. That said, the boss wants to know, really they do, because deep down inside, they want to be better.

There is something else. When it comes down to it, most of these senior leaders usually know what is wrong. Throughout their lives they have identified the key foibles in their personality and style but have avoided the pain of doing something about them. For example, one individual I have worked with (let’s call him Bert) has always known he takes challenge too personally. His friends have told him, his wife has told him and when brave enough, his reports have told him, albeit sometimes anonymously! It makes Bert grumpy, aggressive and generally quite moody. People start to avoid him and he becomes more directive and distant from his team. The reason for his behaviour is that things really matter to him – he wants to do well, to not let anyone down and be regarded as a good leader. The prospect of imperfection or the doubt that criticism creates in him, makes him fight against it and push people away. It is a form of denial and also a desire to protect his eminence.

So you have a wonderful standoff – a boss who is reluctant to encourage real, honest feedback for fear of what this means to his own self esteem, and a staff who are nervous about the implications of telling the truth. Interestingly, the boss wants the feedback and the subordinates want to give it.

Enter the executive coach. Often, coaches are engaged to support high performers and many times I have received the brief: “She is brilliant, we are very lucky to have her but we just need to polish off the rough edges.” Now a coach has the luxury of no relationship – and therefore the risk of telling the truth is much lower as a result. Indeed, the opportunity to trigger a change in an individual who wants it, but has not had the impetus or know-how to deliver it, is surely what coaches live for. Coaches however, don’t always realise the wonderful liberty this gives them, clearly within some boundaries of grace and good ethics. Sometimes what is required is aggression in words, to cut through the background noise of people politely “trying to give him some feedback.”

Back to Bert. After identifying his propensity to take things too personally and the ensuing change in his behaviour, we were faced with the need to develop an approach or plan to change. We had spoken honestly and freely. Bert could tell I really wanted to help him and as a result he left his eminence at the door. I think he was expecting to hear an elegant psychological model that would provide a blinding light of inspiration in its implementation. Instead, I punched him. Not physically I might add, but certainly verbally:

Coach"So you know that you take criticism personally – it hurts you and you respond defensively then aggressively. This leads to moodiness and distance between you and those around you. You feel vulnerable, a feeling most of us have on occasion by the way.”

Bert“I know, I know. But that is just me. You can’t change how I feel.”

Coach“True, but you are the CEO. People will not always be happy with the decisions you make, but you have to make them. You have no right to punish them with moodiness because you are uncomfortable with their emotions, however misplaced they might be.”

Bert“I get that, but it is difficult. How do I manage it?”

Coach“You need to man up.”

Bert“Er, I don’t follow you?”

Coach“You need to man up. You have a responsibility to control your emotions if they are indulgences that negatively affect your business. Take the hits, that is what you are paid for, and have the maturity to recognise when feedback is valid or not. Emotionally responding to the feedback is an indulgence you have no right to.”

Harsh, I know. It worked. He heard it and took action on it for the first time, even though he knew it for a long time. He is an eminent man in its true sense of the word, but now he doesn’t need to use eminence as a form of protection and he can earn the right to that title every day. Partly because he has been punched by his coach.

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