We cannot help be but who we are.  This hit home recently when I reviewed a 360-degree feedback report with the new president of a high tech company. Catherine’s vice-presidents viewed her as a passionate, brilliant, credible yet compassionate leader – a rare and wonderful person and executive. Yet she was also perceived as a self-righteous, opinionated micro-manager, who communicated emphatically and quickly that she was always right. Maybe not so good…

I thought we were making progress after an hour or so of wrestling around the issues, and finally getting beyond her self-justifications.  All of a sudden one of the verbatim comments from the feedback report caught her eye and she said, “I vehemently disagree with this. How can he say I’m not 100% committed to the company because of my external board participation? It’s important that we are represented in the community, blah blah…”

Her comment stopped me cold, and I re-stated what she said – “you vehemently disagree?” I asked. “Catherine, couldn’t you just disagree regular, without the vehemence?” She stared at me for a moment, and started to crack up laughing, at which point so did I. The moment encapsulated for her more than any other moment in our 3-hour conversation what her impact was on the people she cared about.

It was important for Catherine to understand that our coaching wasn’t about changing the core of who she was as a person, and thank goodness for that, since she is deeply admired as an incredibly authentic and transparent leader. It was about helping her hear more closely what she was saying from the standpoint of the listener rather than from her own perspective.

In other words, for her to understand the impact of her behavior on others, she actually had to try to experience herself as they did.  This is by no means easy at first, but by consciously exercising this ‘muscle, it is certainly doable.

Two action plans emerged from our coaching conversation. The first was a thought experiment that my partner David taught me long ago: whenever Catherine was to meet with one of her direct reports, peers or even her boss, she was to envision how she wanted them to experience themselves at the end of the conversation. Did she want them to feel smart or stupid, educated or admonished, deflated or inspired?

I knew she understood this assignment when she said, “Oh, so when they are driving home from our meeting and their spouse asks them how the meeting with me went, what would they say?” Exactly.

The second, more tactical idea was to improve her sentence starters. Rather than start with, “I completely disagree and here’s why,” she could start with “I have some concerns about this but want to hear more.” Rather than start with “I think we should start the marketing campaign this way,” she could start with “I’d like to explore some ideas about how to start the marketing campaign.”  And rather than answer questions with such declarations as, “it is obvious that we need to…” she could start with, “Good question, I have some perspective on this but I’m sure it’s not the only one.”

A month later Catherine and I spoke by phone. She reported that she was making progress in both areas but at times was falling back into her earlier pattern.  We discussed how hard it is to change entrenched habits, but that a little bit of trying goes a long way. Catherine is now on a positive trajectory, and will end up sacrificing nothing of herself as a person, but will gain a wider repertoire of leadership behaviors.  Overall, a short and successful engagement.

I wonder if other coaches out there have similar situations or ideas on this topic, and if you do, please weigh in…

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