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The Transformation of the Bull and the Hermit


September 14th, 2017

- Updated on

March 21, 2018 - 4:07pm

Two true stories of recent leadership coaching engagements demonstrate the power of the partnership between a great leadership coach and leaders who are willing to change.

Charles - the proverbial bull in a china shop

Everybody said Charles was really smart. But, isn’t that what people say when they can’t think of anything nicer to describe someone? Sure, he was smart, but he was also angry and controlling. He had to be the first to talk, the one with all the answers, the head of the herd, the smartest guy in the room. Often, he was just that. He had lots of ideas and his team deferred to him, reluctant to offer thoughts of their own. Especially when faced with a real or imagined grievance, they knew he would bellow louder than any of the others.
The word on the team was “just tell Chuck.” They could count on him to be their voice of dissent and discord to the powers that be. The trouble was that while others kept their heads down, his vociferous outcries of negativity stuck to him, keeping his leaders from valuing his contributions. Charles was known as the righteous angry bull, though no one could really remember exactly what he said. After all, when he went on his rampages, his colleagues shut their ears to avoid the onslaught. They never really heard what he had to say. Instead, they ran the other way.
Smart and arrogant leader depiction

Howard - the Hermit

On the other hand, hermit was an apt description for Howard, the new general manager hired from the outside his organization. If you had an issue to discuss with him, you had to be quick to catch him before he ducked around the corner. Most of the time he labored in the dark, not asking folks with more tenure for any background or history before making critical decisions. He kept his head down, driving hard to get the job done. After all, he was sure he was hired to make a difference, to bring big changes, and by golly, he was going to make it happen even if he had to do so alone - people’s feelings be damned.
It did not seem safe to approach Howard with new ideas, so his team members and other colleagues learned to stay away, keeping ideas to themselves. Everyone wondered, “Where did this guy come from, why was he making things so difficult, and why was he hiding in his office?” 
Photo by Luke Chesser on Unsplash
Photo by Luke Chesser on Unsplash
We’ve all known a Charles or a Howard at one point or another in our careers. We may have worked with or for them in the past, or maybe they are members of our leadership team right now. Charles and Howard have the talent and potential to make valuable contributions; after all, their work histories confirm it. That is why they were hired. Their immediate bosses did not want to lose their contributions. Their co-workers learned coping skills to manage the fallout of their actions, but everyone may have been losing hope that they can change. 
Do we really know what drives the bull and the hermit? According to a McKinsey Quarterly article - "Memo to the CEO: Are you the source of workplace dysfunction", Robert Sutton, professor of management science and engineering at the Stanford School of Engineering suggests:

"Dysfunctional behavior often happens in the moment, against our better nature. Few of us want to be jerks, and most leaders care about the people and institutions in their charge." 

We do know that if leaders don’t learn to change, they risk failure. Meanwhile, the cost of unchecked behavior impacts engagement, retention, and productivity.   

What Role Does a Leadership Coach Play?

The goal of an Executive or Leadership Coach is to accomplish three important objectives, namely to:  
  • Make the leader aware of self-defeating behaviors and their impact
  • Communicate to the leader that change on his/her part is essential to personal and team success
  • Provide a safe harbor for the leader to discuss the situation from his/her personal perspective, enabling a clear look at what motivates these behaviors and the behavioral changes that may be possible. By creating a safe space for the leader to test ideas and try on important changes, he/she is also saving face in the organization
Establishing trust is essential to the coaching process. I recently interviewed Allan Weisberg, AJO Executive Coach and Senior Consultant, to gain his perspective on the coaching process and the best approach to build the trust necessary to effect change. Allan recommends: 
  1. Show positive regard. The Executive Coach’s first job is to exhibit genuine respect and positive regard for the leader in the coaching relationship. Listening to the leader's life story forms the initial connection. Personal change in coaching can only happen when the individual being coached understands that the coach believes in him/her, has an appreciation for all that has been accomplished so far, and that the coach is there to facilitate the development of new thinking and behaviors. This positive regard is coupled with honesty and a belief that the leader has the capacity to hear, deeply understand and then put into practice feedback from the organization and the coach. Without this openness to feedback, progress can stall. 
  2. Facilitate feedback. A coach’s next role is to facilitate the feedback loop. Most often, a coach will hold preliminary conversations with the key stakeholders to determine their perspective on the issues holding the leader back. These conversations can be blunt and brutal, so it is important for the coach to take in the information without coloring his/her perspective on the leader. Also critical is to obtain feedback for the leader from peers and direct reports. This can take the form of 360-degree feedback assessments, or facilitated one-on-one or group dialog directly with the leader. 
  3. Determine focus. From this exercise, the leader and coach will determine critical focus points for the coaching work, generally from one to four impact areas promising the highest positive yield. Not only do the leader and the coach reach agreement on the focus areas, but the leader should also meet with his leaders, sharing with them what he/she has gleaned from the feedback. This serves as a baseline for their future observations while providing a forum for the leader to commit to identified changes. 
  4. Tell important stories that challenge assumptions. Although each leader’s situation is unique, it’s true that there is “nothing new under the sun.” This is when a coach becomes a raconteur. Steeped in experience and gifted with keen observational skills, a coach can convey important lessons from his/her own work history, or from observations of others by recounting what has been learned without ever directly addressing the leader's perceived faults.

    For example, when it comes to listening skills, Allan recalled that many of us are conditioned from our elementary school days to jump in to quickly raise our hand when the teacher asks a question. Remember how the first one with their hand up was praised for knowing the answer? Not so, anymore. Rather than jump right in, true leaders listen to others first. They observe, they allow others to share their thoughts before speaking themselves. This recollection hits home with most of us. 

  5. Encourage the leader to become a storyteller. Learning to tell stories and sharing observations with others on what has worked or fallen short in his/her career helps a leader make connections with the team in memorable ways. It also gives team members an opportunity to ask questions, and to relate to the leader on a much more personal level, thus building trust with the team members. 
  6. Establish a business rhythm, test and cement new behaviors. A coach helps the leader to establish a needed structure for daily interactions, in staff meetings, and to strategic planning and goal setting each year. With regular check-ins, a coach supports the leader to follow through effectively on those plans. 
  7. Close out strongly. Finally, a coach encourages the leader to circle back to his leaders to confirm that he has, indeed, made the required changes, and he has the documented business results to prove it.

Leadership Transformation of the Bull and the Hermit

Both leaders made incredible progress. Charles the Bull recognized his need to work through his team and not through his own sheer effort. He openly confronted the consequences of his anger, talked about triggers and ways to depersonalize those things that bothered him. He used one of his strengths, his genuine sincerity, to build relationships. He learned to plan staff meetings only to address important issues that the group could solve, leaving individual developmental issues to one-on-one discussions.
Charles became a consummate story teller, weaving his successes, his failures and the best of what he observed in others into messages that truly motivated his team. What did his team think? Well, they are blowing out their goals this year and every one of them has bonused for the first time in a long time. And listen to his boss, “The transformation is profound. I feel like I am looking at another person!” What a success!
Howard the Hermit broke out of his shell through his coaching experience. He challenged his own assumptions that he was the only one who could make the necessary important changes; learning to reach out to his direct supervisor to clarify goals, and to his team members, colleagues and customers to listen to their ideas. It took a written plan to get him out of his office on a regular basis, for his introvert tendencies were strong. But by establishing a business rhythm that called for scheduling “walking around time” and deliberate calendared one-on-one meetings with others where business took a back seat to listening and getting to know the other person, he overcame his innate shyness. He learned to ask, “How can I help you do your job?” “What is getting in your way?” and to follow up on these discussions with support for their actions that proved he had heard.
Slowly Howard built a level of trust that enabled him to enlist others in the plans that turned his organization around, making incremental, rather than sweeping changes that his supervisors and his team applauded. He became less guarded, more transparent, and overall a happier person leading a more effective team…and guess what? His Board members are now singing his praises. What more can one ask?
The bull and the hermit will continue to be "works in progress". Their true stories reveal what a willingness and commitment to develop as leaders can accomplish, in combination with a strong coach. Congratulations to Charles, Howard and Allan.

Kathy Flora is a Career and Executive Coach and AJO Blogger who is actively pursuing her life’s passion, helping others find and fulfill theirs. Known as a positive change agent, mentor and guide, she has assisted hundreds of leaders and their teams understand their strengths, collaborate effectively, and drive organizational success. She has a special affinity for working with virtual teams, using webinars, virtual meet-ups, and online collaborative communities to optimize communication and productivity. Her experience spans over 25 years in executive management and leadership, career development, facilitation, and consulting in private firms, state government, and in federal agencies.