Coach's Casebook

The Case of the Inexperienced Executive

The Case of the Inexperienced Executive

Geoff was a newly promoted executive in a medium sized business consultancy.  He had been selected for the role because he had been performing well as a manager and it was perceived by his CEO that he was ready for a more strategic role.  So after 3 months in the job, when Geoff appeared to be struggling the CEO hired a performance coach to help Geoff improve.

The coach monitored Geoff’s working activities for just over a week and identified a number of behaviours that seemed to be causing the shortfall in performance.

Firstly, an executive has a much higher profile than a manager and so Geoff was now receiving attention, requests and criticism from a larger number of employees than ever before.  He was also under a level of scrutiny from his peers, key shareholders, as well as receiving criticism from both customers and competitors. This level of attention was something that Geoff was unprepared for.

Secondly, Geoff’s limited experience at the senior level meant that he was unprepared in many ways for the dealing with some of the ‘fast balls’ that came his way.  Experience prepares you for unpredictable events and allows you to remain cool under pressure.  Geoff was anything but cool under pressure.  He was significantly outside his ‘comfort zone‘ and was failing to build the level of confidence he would need to perform at the executive level.

Geoff’s coach needed to help Geoff achieve 3 key changes:

  • React appropriately to comments and criticisms from peers, customers, competitors and shareholders.
  • Develop strategies to deal with the unpredictable events and ‘fast balls’ that he was likely to encounter.
  • Expand his comfort zone so that the relatively minor issues did not cause him to panic and allowing him to focus on the larger issues in a more relaxed manner.

With the limited time available, Geoff’s coach needed to pick the ‘low hanging fruit’.

Stage 1: React appropriately to overcome the emotional response.

Geoff would react emotionally to every situation.  In a guided conversation, Geoff learned from his coach that there is a ‘gap between any stimulus and response’.  Instead of allowing himself to react instantly and begin to solve the problem as he may have done as a manager, Geoff learned a simple technique.  He would steeple his hands in front of his mouth, take a deep breath and sit back.  This process would allow him time to think, the relaxation gained from breathing deeply and give the impression of being a thoughtful person in control of himself.  In fact, these actions are common in senior manager and executives for the same reasons as Geoff was using them.

Stage 2: Develop Strategies for dealing with unpredictability.

Generally, there are very few fast balls that need a fast response.  And at an executive level, it is more important to do the right thing rather than do something fast.  A considered response also demonstrates the level of control expected of an executive rather than ‘shooting from the hip’.

Stepping through the recent fast balls and crises, Geoff learned to categorize events into keys areas.  Having classified the likely types of events, and exploiting Geoff’s own ideas, the coach helped Geoff build a list a initial actions and responses to typical types of crisis events.  Having created his own responses, Geoff was confident that each would create the thinking space he needed to build a more appropriate and comprehensive action plan for each type of event.

Stage 3: Expand Geoff’s comfort zone.

There is a quotation that typifies this issue. ‘Good judgement comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgement’.  Geoff needed experience in his role to stretch his comfort zone.

Geoff’s coach helped him stretch his comfort zone by recommending:

  • A reading list of biographies of prominent people.
  • A physical fitness regime (created by a personal trainer).
  • A session of rock climbing on an indoor wall to increase Geoff’s confidence in his own abilities.
  • A regular lunch meeting with the CEO to model how a senior executive behaves.

With these new found coping strategies, Geoff soon began to give the appearance and performance of an executive.  A series of additional sessions with his coach allowed Geoff to move from ‘faking it’ to ‘making it’.


Dare to Aspire

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