Coaching the self-absorbed executive

Do you know any executives that you would describe as self-absorbed and even narcissistic?

My wife and I were at a social event the other night. We met some leading businesspeople in our area, including the former CEO of a $90 million manufacturing company, the former managing director of a major investment bank, a C-level executive in a health system, a millionaire inventor, and many more.

Here is what we discovered: These people love talking about themselves. They never asked a single question about anyone else in their respective groups. One person said something that began with "I" and then another person said something that began with "I." My wife and I were both amused and disgusted by this experience.

Do you get that same sense with the successful people you know?

This leads to a crucial question: If so many executives and leaders are self-absorbed to the point of narcissism, how is it possible to coach them?

Four answers come to mind:

1. I love it when a client is self-absorbed. Coaching is all about understanding their world view, and then helping them have insights to become better. Self-absorbed clients are actually easy to coach, because they can go on and on about themselves. They think they have all the answers, and so it is easy to get them to open up. Then, after they are done and have no more air in their sails, I can come in and suggest an idea or share an insight. They've already exhausted what they have to say, and so now they are much more willing to hear me. As long as my insight compliments and acknowledges them for what they have already said, and then builds on it, they are usually quite grateful and find my contribution to be valuable.

2. Get data. Everyone loves to learn about themselves, especially the self-absorbed. When it makes sense, off-the-shelf assessments — especially ones they haven't seen but that are reliable and valid — give data. Similarly, 360 degree verbal assessments — like the one we teach in our executive coach training program — give the client data about how he or she comes across to others. This kind of "nowhere to hide coaching" gives clients data about what they do well and how they need to adjust to be even more effective, look better, and get better results.

3. Teach them to be more flexible, or else lose ground vs. their colleagues. There is a time to be self-absorbed and a time not to be. Engaging and mobilizing employees requires a diverse set of tools and communication styles. Once an executive sees this, and sees the costs of being a one-trick pony, he is ready to learn new skills — including listening and involving, understanding the other person's aspirations and motivations, and being open to advice and even criticism. Then he can go back to the next social event and tell everyone about how much his coach has helped him learn new ways to get results, and new secrets about human dynamics!

4. Appeal to their self-absorption. The self-absorbed would rather die than look bad or lose status. Therefore, it is easier for the coach to make the case for change and keep these folks coachable.

Yes, we live in a world of self-absorbed leaders. WIth Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn and other forms of social media, it is only getting worse. However, self-absorbed people can still make great clients. It is up to the coach to find ways to keep them coachable and engaged during the process.

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