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Leadership Lessons Part 1: What Executive Coaches Really Think You Need to Succeed

Executive Coaches Charles Story and Richard A. Smith have more than a half-century of combined experience working with, and serving as, executive leaders. They met in 1995 at INROADS, the organization dedicated to cultivating diverse managerial talent, where Charles was CEO and Richard was a regional director. As each continues to develop and improve leadership through the clients and organizations they touch, they are acutely attuned to the challenges of management. They recently connected to talk about the current state of leadership and define what today’s leaders need to succeed, whether they are ascending within their organization, or already at its top.

In today’s culture, how do we define a leader?

Charles Story (CS): A leader sets the vision and direction for an organization. They get things done through others and inspire them to action. Leaders provide the “why” for the vision by providing context around strategy and direction. The old-fashioned leadership approach that involved just giving orders and expecting others to follow them doesn’t exist anymore. Team members today want more.

Richard A. Smith (RAS): A true leader knows how to get the best out of their people. They are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses and can assemble a team that complements them well.

While we often think that leaders just have something inherently that makes them worthy of leadership. But leadership is something that can develop over time with conscious effort, and feedback about one’s behavior and how it impacts others.

CS: You mentioned self-awareness, Richard. I talk to leaders a lot about this concept. Self-awareness is having a keen sense regarding how you impact people and situations. It’s the intentionality in how you show up for each team member in the way they need most. You can’t be an effective leader acting in one way at all times. You have to be a chameleon to fit different situations and circumstances.

Not only do leaders give good feedback, but they need to be great at receiving feedback and “reading the room.”

What traits are essential to success in leadership?

RAS: Leaders need to manage themselves in all ways, including their time, energy, focus, and stress levels, especially under ambiguity. Leaders build great relationships with colleagues at all levels; they manage conflict; they behave in ways that engender trust. Not only do leaders give good feedback, but they need to be great at receiving feedback and “reading the room.” Before you can say something valuable to others, you need to listen to understand.

CS: A high degree of self-awareness is essential. So, too, is consistency, a discipline of intentionality, and managerial courage. That means having the ability to decide when you should speak up, when you should listen, and when you should act. Be intentional about asking yourself the question: “How do I need to show up in this situation?” Whether it’s a presentation in person or a conference call, prepare to meet that moment. If you don’t ask yourself that question, you may revert to habits that may be not what the situation requires. This is a perfect example of how coaching comes in. This is the kind of work we do: drilling down with a leader to explore ways in which they could/should show up in a given situation and choosing the best one.

Another essential trait is the ability to be forward-looking. I call it the meerkat effect. A leader can’t remain head down at all times. Just like a meerkat looks in all directions intently to ensure survival, so should a leader look out six months, nine months, and a year in the future to identify what is coming in the form of opportunities or threats.  

When I complete 360-degree evaluations for leaders, I find that they often receive the lowest score from their peers. Why is that? If you’re only interacting with your superior and direct reports, you’re missing the ability to build mutually beneficial relationships at the peer level, and that’s dangerous. If you don’t share what you’re doing, the absence of information leads to speculation. If you don’t support your peer’s efforts, you could be seen as a threat to their success. A gap in peer relations can lead to gossip and innuendo, leaving you vulnerable. ONE negative relationship can destroy a career.

RAS: This is very true. Peer relationships are an important factor in strategic problem-solving.  Leaders need to be able to gather and assess different kinds of information and make good decisions. When you seek this information out, peers can provide insights that help to fill in knowledge gaps.

Self-awareness seems like one of the most important traits. Is it easy to gain self-awareness?

RAS: Actually, self-awareness is the hardest trait to develop. Those who are most self-aware have humility. Low self-awareness shows itself as a lack of humility and feeling infallible. Those who have low self-awareness don’t necessarily realize it and don’t see the need to achieve it.

Starting to develop self-awareness involves getting feedback from multiple sources: your executive coach, a direct manager, HR business partner, and others who are key stakeholders.

An individual I’m coaching currently illustrates this beautifully. He is up for a promotion at the presidential level. He performs well on tactical aspects but tends to withdraw into himself when confronted with something that he needs to process. He gets information by himself, tries something, fails, then revamps his approach. At a presidential level, this will not work. He’s on a timeline for this promotion and is starting to realize that his lack of self-awareness will hinder his ability to be viable in that role. We see this a lot: what got him to his current level will not make him successful at a higher level.

In management, it’s now the Platinum Rule rather than the Golden Rule. Treat others as they wish to be treated, not how you want to be treated.

CS: Yes, absolutely. Technical expertise may get you so far, but out of many leadership competencies, self-awareness is the most important exponentially. Without it, you don’t know how to look at people or situations. You can’t thrive with an inside/out orientation. You must have an outside/in orientation – always looking at the people and environment around you. Leading with only my beliefs is old style. Working outside/in, I consider how I need to show up and/or communicate based upon the needs of my team members. This way, there is a better chance that they can truly hear what I’m trying to convey. To the extent possible, I want to meet them where they are. I want them motivated to participate in whatever initiative we’re talking about because I’m listening to them and considering their perspectives.  

It’s really the Amazon effect: people want what they want when and how they want it. Our brains have been conditioned to expect customization to fit our individual needs. As leaders, we have to take that note and understand that I need to understand Sue in order for Sue to be effective. John is different than Sue, with different expectations. I need to find out what motivates him. Treating people as individuals is even more important to the younger demographic now in the workforce.

RAS: Let’s just do away with group perceptions and focus on individuals. In order to motivate and retain our increasingly younger workforce members, leaders need to respond differently. In management, it’s now the Platinum Rule rather than the Golden Rule. Treat others as they wish to be treated, not how you want to be treated. That requires awareness of how you interact with others and requires a leader to listen with the intent to understand before acting in a given situation.

How does a leader build trust?

RAS: Congruence between what they say and what they do builds trust in leaders. They need to demonstrate consistent behavior over time. This entails no volatile explosions; no shooting the messenger; getting clarity by asking questions rather than making assumptions.  Leaders who hold people accountable for violating a behavioral norm or value – and holding everyone to the same standards regardless of status or popularity – garner a great deal of trust.

CS: Yes, 1000%.  In addition, a leader giving people responsibility that enables them to stretch and grow engenders trust. That makes individuals feel good and helps them feel valued and trusted.

And, of course, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk. If you are a leader who expects others to meet or beat deadlines, you have to do the same. It’s not rocket science. Everything you do, say, or write is being evaluated and parsed. I don’t mean just official communications; I mean all of it.

When I was in the CEO role at a former organization, I held a gathering of the management team. Prior to the meeting, we decided that everyone would wear our logoed shirt. I had come from another meeting and forgot to wear my shirt. Within five minutes, a colleague asked to have a private word with me. She shared that those at the meeting were wondering if I was sending a signal because I wasn’t wearing the shirt everyone else was.  Well, I ran to my office to change my shirt immediately. Then I went around the room and shook hands with everyone so that they knew I was present and fully engaged. This small incident taught me a huge lesson. Somebody is evaluating everything you do.

Owning your mistake is a behavioral signal that can really open up culture in a multitude of ways.

RAS: Absolutely, everything a leader does and says is magnified. Team members believe you hold the keys to their careers, and therefore they’re always watching movements and moments.  

If a leader makes a mistake, he or she should be the first person to recognize it and own it. Don’t hide it. That sends a signal that it’s ok to fail forward, fail fast, own it, correct it, and move forward. That is how you create a lot of trust and build a great culture.

I was coaching someone a few years ago who believed in tough love. It showed up in his assessments clearly. In a session with me, he mentioned that he felt he had been too hard on someone. I asked him if he’d thought about apologizing. He said, no, that would show weakness. I pushed further, asking “If you don’t admit a mistake, how do you think your direct reports are going to treat their people?” Owning your mistake is a behavioral signal that can really open up culture in a multitude of ways. However, he decided not to apologize; he couldn’t make that leap from what he perceived to be a weakness rather than viewing it as a strength. With continued negative feedback to his management approach, the organization redirected his career away from leadership.

How can a leader build a vision larger than themselves?

RAS: The vision needs to connect to a purpose larger than generating money or hitting operational goals. It must tap into purpose. Disney World is a great example of a vision that every team member can connect with. To paraphrase, it is “family entertainment suitable for all.”  Everyone knows what they do in a park enhances a family experience. A COO for a park would often eat lunch in his car so that we could watch families enter or exit, seeing them delighted, full of joy and wonder. He could clearly connect what he does to why he does it.

A current coaching client works for a company that has as its purpose to manufacture homes that are energy efficient and meet the needs of any family that purchases their home.  This is a home builder that understands a house is the largest purchase someone makes. It should be done right the first time knowing that the customer has placed a tremendous amount of trust in this company to keep their brand promise. That is clear purpose that leadership conveys to the entire team.

CS: Be aspirational. A leader has to help the organization realize what it would look like at its best and articulate that. As you work to create a vision, you’ve got to bring people along with you – don’t just drop it on them. When you bring team members in to help build the vision and provide feedback, they are investing in it and motivated to actualize it. This is a fatal mistake many companies make: handing out a vision without incorporating feedback.

When you bring team members in to help build the vision and provide feedback, they are investing in it and motivated to actualize it.

What lessons have leadership clients taught the coaches over the years?

CS: Core leadership competencies can be applied across organizations of any kind –leadership is leadership. If you can be a successful manufacturing leader, you can be a successful leader in another industry as well. Transparency and vulnerability are key to moving forward in any role. If you’re willing to grow, your development will be like taking a chainsaw through butter. That takes self-awareness and the ability to acknowledge what you have to work on.

Also, as we have mentioned, leadership is performance art. Everything you do, say, and write will be parsed by those around you. If you’re not willing to intentionally focus on that every moment of every day, you likely need to try another profession.

RAS: I’ve learned that trust is built over years and destroyed in seconds. It’s the foundation from which all productive work takes place. Establish it and nurture it. And have the courage to pursue your dreams and goals. Courage is the one virtue that without, all others are meaningless. Coupled with trust, that’s a powerful duo.

If you know your purpose personally and why you’re doing what you’re doing, that steadfastness will ground you in moments of ambiguity.

Do leaders really need help?

CS: When you look at the complications and unknowns, it’s better to have someone external to take that leadership walk with you. Whether that’s a mentor, an external peer, or a coach, there are too many variables to go it alone. Your growth will be stunted if you try to do everything by yourself.

RAS: Even the greatest athletes at the highest level of performance have coaches. They’re always getting feedback on performance. You need that external eye and the humility to know that you need input and guidance about what to work on. That’s how leaders go from average to performing at peak level.

For more insights from Story and Smith, check out Part 2 of their discussion.

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