Executive Coaching Case Study: Coaching a manager to become a senior leader

If you are thinking about getting executive coaching certification, you might want to review an example of an executive coaching engagement. Following is a case study that shows you the breadth of topics you might discuss when you coach a client.

If you feel like this type of work would be a great next step in your career — whether as an internal or external coach, or to help you be an even better leader — please join any of our executive coaching certification programs. Join our next 3-day seminar (it’s virtual so that you don’t have to endure the hassles of travel!), or join our online learning program anytime to learn at your own pace via live and/or recorded sessions. Yes, we are accredited with the International Coaching Federation, and you can join the full ACTP training program to get your ICF designation.

Background

The client was a Director in a multi-billion dollar privately owned technology company. His unit had grown from 50 people when he started to 1,000 people when we began coaching. (Note that when we talk about executive coaching, that encompasses the full spectrum of leadership positions, from first-time managers to up-and-coming talent, senior leaders, and the C-suite. It includes clients in all types and sizes of organizations — from solo professionals to startups, rapidly growing companies, Fortune 500 companies, non-profit, government, and education.)

The company sponsored the client for coaching in order to develop what they called “leadership presence” so that he could get promoted to senior leadership.

Assessment

“Leadership presence” is a vague term. The coaching began with some assessment work to understand what leadership presence meant to this organization and for this client. Using a 360-verbal assessment along with some highly reliable and validated assessments, we discovered the following:

  • The client focused a bit too much on the success of his unit, often without considering the larger picture and what would be best for the overall company. To rise to senior leadership, he needed to think more systemically, and more like an owner.
  • He got into frequent conflicts with senior leaders at other business units in the company, even though he needed these senior leaders to be advocates for him and his unit. To him, these senior leaders and their units moved too slowly and were inefficient compared to his group. This frustrated him and caused him to take a condescending, impatient tone with people in other units, including his superiors. While his perception about the pace of these units was accurate, he failed to understand that there were very good reasons why these senior leaders acted the way they did. At the same time, the client lacked some skills in negotiating and influencing, as well as some of the core emotional intelligence competencies, which sometimes created unnecessary conflicts.
  • While his direct reports loved him, the relationship was based a bit more on friendship and popularity than on respect. He had challenges providing tough feedback to his direct reports, and removing poor performers when needed.
  • As his business unit grew, he spent too much of his time in the weeds, getting involved in decisions and activities that he could delegate. While this use of time might have made sense when he had only 50 people in his unit, he now had an opportunity to spend his time more strategically.
  • Finally, a number of people reported that sometimes the client exhibited behaviors that were inappropriate. He came from a military background, and was used to informal banter and crude language with his brothers and sisters in arms. This behavior was unacceptable in his current company, which was much more formal. While he had improved in this area, sometimes he still faced complaints made to Human Resources about inappropriate comments.

Despite all of the above, the client had done an extraordinary job growing his unit, providing great value to the company and its customers, and injecting a refreshingly entrepreneurial style and mindset into a company that wanted to change its culture to be more agile and innovative. He was well-liked and seen as a potential key player and member of senior leadership, if he could address the above issues.

Coaching

We met weekly for one hour, over a year (starting with a six-month term and renewing for a second six-month term).

The coaching conversations focused on three areas:

  1. Relationships. Each session, we focused on one relationship that mattered to the client’s success, and discussed ways to strengthen the relationship while still getting results. Each discussion led to new insights about the client’s strengths, development opportunities, and perceptions. For instance, we discovered that his direct manager barely interacted with him at all. He was essentially abdicating his role, waiting for retirement. This meant that my client didn’t have a direct advocate for him, something that was essential in this company and especially for his aspirations to get promoted to senior leadership. We spent time in our coaching developing a plan to spend more time with his direct manager, build the relationship, and gain his support. Similarly, we worked through each key relationship across the organization, focused especially on the conflicts that he had been experiencing. We role played key influence conversations, and the client had massive insights about how he could better influence his colleagues without damaging the relationship or causing bad feelings. We also developed plans for each direct report, including how to set clear expectations, give informal feedback, and develop his employees to take on more. Finally, we identified key relationships in leadership that he could cultivate in order to have more presence at the leadership level, of course with his direct manager’s blessing.
  2. New behaviors. The client chose a key leadership behavior — demonstrating that he was considering the entire company’s perspective, as if he were an owner — and committed to make it a habit. He asked for feedback every month from leaders and colleagues about how often they saw this behavior, and asked for advice to get even better. After just a couple of months, senior leaders were noticing improvement and a positive shift in how they perceived his leadership. Secondly, we worked together to assure that he stopped any behaviors that could be perceived as even slightly inappropriate by others.
  3. Time and priorities management. The client tracked his time for two weeks. We evaluated his use of time to uncover activities he was doing that he could delegate, that weren’t strategic, and that weren’t as efficient as they could be. Then we worked to create his ideal use of time every day and week. This led to big changes in how he led his unit. It caused him to work with his direct reports to develop systems and processes so that his unit became much more consistent and efficient. It also caused him to spend more time developing his direct reports so that he could groom a successor when it was time to move up.

Results

The client made enormous strides in the way he led his unit, interacted with senior leadership, and strengthened relationships throughout the organization. He turned around a number of relationships, while his unit continued to be a top performer in the organization while doing a better job supporting other units in their goals, too. He seems to be well-positioned when the next round of decisions are made about promotions (Important Note: being promoted is outside of the client’s or coach’s control; as coaches, we can only focus on creating the behaviors, results, and environment that maximizes the changes of things like a promotion). Importantly, the client reported that the coaching was one of his most significant and rewarding development experiences as a leader — and this is from someone that had completed numerous leadership development programs while in the military.

The Coach’s Experience

While most of my coaching work is at a more senior level, this engagement was fantastic. It is enormously fulfilling to see a client grow towards the leader they can be, and do what is needed to realize more of their potential in an organization. We focused on the most important and strategic issues for the success of his unit, his company, and his career. To me, there’s nothing better than spending one’s days involved in critical issues, while helping people get better and better. It’s a great way to bring value, serve, and still make a very good living.

If the past year has taught us anything it is that life is short. You should be doing something you love. If you would like to be doing the kind of work described about — at whatever level and in whatever type of organization you enjoy most — please review our programs, especially our upcoming seminars and our anytime-enrollment online learning program and contact me to discuss mutual fit. My email is andrewneitlich@centerforexecutivecoaching.com.

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