Alyson (not her real name) has recently been promoted to Director of Communications at a Boston-based healthcare company. She's been identified by HR as a high potential employee - in other words, a top performer with emerging leadership qualities. She's bright, competent, and works diligently, completing tasks with ease. You might wonder, what's the problem?
Often, high-potential employees are thrust into new situations with the expectation that they will somehow realize their capabilities and display effective leadership on their own. Experts say that it's not only beneficial, but critical, for high potential leaders to have guidance through leadership coaching during this process. An article in the May-June 2017 Harvard Business Review about high potential leaders claims, "[But] often, placement on a fast track doesn't speed up their growth as leaders in the organization as it's meant to do. Instead, it either pushes them out the door or slows them down - thwarting their development, decreasing their engagement, and hurting their performance."
High potential leaders are competent and committed. Yet, being promoted to a new leadership role requires more than hard skills. Embodying leadership combines both the doing and the being, and reflects not only one's accomplishments, but who a person is. Engaging, inspiring, confident, calm under pressure, and clear - these are qualities that my clients say they appreciate about leaders they admire.
The good news is that leadership skills are a muscle we can all build, with practice, attention, and intention. Having an executive coach to keep the focus, re-frame when necessary, and provide accountability for shifting mindsets and patterns is an effective (and enjoyable!) way to build these new muscles.
Specifically, here are three key ways executive coaching can help develop authentic leadership in high potential employees:
1. Coaching helps leaders clarify and build their foundation of values, priorities, and strengths.
Being a leader requires a strong sense of one's self and abilities. Leaders are called upon to take a stand, make a tough call, or attempt to persuade stubborn stakeholders. These activities are not for the timid or those lacking confidence. When I work with clients, I share a three-step decision-making approach and encourage them to ask themselves the following questions:
- What are my choices right now?
- What am I choosing to do?
- Why? How does this reflect my values and priorities?
As a leader, in order to make decisions you are proud of, you need to stand in your values, your vision, and your priorities - in other words, you need to have a strong foundation of your 'why.'
Coaching provides the time and space for deliberate and necessary self reflection. I help my clients connect to their authentic leadership by asking them questions and providing exercises that help them clarify who they are and what they believe. After a foundation is established, we assess how these personal qualities can be better incorporated into their daily leadership. This process builds long-lasting confidence.
2. Coaching helps leaders bounce back more quickly from setbacks.
Although we all have setbacks, effective leaders display a growth mindset and are more easily able to return to center. This allows them to mine the experience for learning, and then re-frame and move on.
Agility at handling setbacks requires a few different steps. First, leaders need to understand what's happening in the brain. The feeling we get when we are triggered and our emotions commandeer our thoughts and actions reflects activation of the amygdala (a part of the brain's center for emotions and emotional behavior). An "amydgala hijack" (a term first put forth by psychologist Daniel Goleman) describes an emotional response that is immediate and overwhelming. When this happens, leaders do not do their best thinking.
Coaching offers an opportunity for leaders to not only understand this pattern of response, but also to recognize when it happens so that they can deliberately shift their thinking and bring the part of the brain responsible for higher-level cognition, the prefrontal cortex, back on-line. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that allows us to make good decisions, do long-term planning, and see things from others' perspectives.
As a coach, I help my clients regain their footing after being psychologically or emotionally knocked down. After explaining the neuroscience of their response, I share a variety of stress-management tools. My clients practice and incorporate these into their lives at work and home.
Here's an example: Rebecca, a biotech VP, recognized that she would get triggered in meetings when asked a critical question that she did not have data for. In these situations, her brain froze, her heart raced, and she would be extremely self critical afterward. During the coaching, we explored the neuroscience and brainstormed possible responses she could use in meetings when the specific situation arose. Lastly, we practiced these responses in a low-stress environment, so that she would be ready to use them in the actual high-stress situation.
The result? Rebecca happily reported that the next time she was asked questions she didn't have data for in a meeting, she didn't panic. She remembered her responses and followed the action plan we created. Because she shifted her mindset and habits, she was much less self-critical afterward and able to more quickly return to the work at hand.
3. Coaching encourages leaders to explore new perspectives and new ideas.
When Alyson came to coaching, she tended to see the people she worked with in fixed, rigid ways. For example, she complained that one colleague was deliberately passive-aggressive when responding to work texts. Not surprisingly, she approached this colleague as an adversary.
Re-framing and viewing the world from other perspectives is one of the most valuable aspects of coaching. After all, we all get caught up in our own perspective and think that our perspective is the truth. But what if there was more than one way to see a person or situation?
My job as coach is to challenge my clients to re-frame a situation. When Alyson brought up her frustration with her colleague, I asked, "What might be going on in your colleague's mind? What might she be wondering? What might she be worried about?" This line of questioning immediately encouraged Alyson's thinking to shift from frustration to curiosity (and even a bit of compassion.) With this shift, brainstorming effective communication strategies with this colleague was easy.
In addition to changing perspectives about colleagues, bosses, and direct reports, coaching allows emerging leaders to explore big-picture, high-level perspectives. High-potential leaders are often analytical and adept left-hemisphere thinkers. However, they haven't always had the opportunity to practice big-picture, high-level right-hemisphere thinking - thinking that is critical for inspiring and engaging one's team. One of my favorite things to say as a coach is, "Let's go big picture here. What's important about this project? What's the impact on the customers/patients/product users affected?" Thinking in a broader way helps a high-potential leader then communicate the impact of the work to the team.
All leaders - both new and experienced - need an objective sounding board and cheerleader. They need space to talk freely, experiment with new ideas and practices, re-frame failures, and reconnect to strengths and confidence. They also benefit from accountability for putting action plans into practice.
Alyson was no exception. At the end of her personal coaching engagement, she was much less triggered by work relationships, clearer about her work/life boundaries, and more confident of her leadership qualities. And she was excited to pay it forward and share her new knowledge and tools as a mentor to a new hire.
Deb Elbaum is a coach, author, and speaker who loves helping professionals create change with confidence. Before becoming a coach, she trained as a physician and worked as a medical writer. She is now in the business of helping people be effective, calm, and confident in all parts of their life as an Executive, Leadership, and Career Coach. She lives in the Boston area with her family, and is an active and enthusiastic Toastmasters member.