John, a newly promoted Vice President at a Financial Services company, was alienating coworkers with a verbose and overbearing communication style. He was persistently “talking over people”, over-complicating his messaging and confusing and frustrating his listeners. John had spent his entire career at the bank and was considered “the best” in his functional role as a policy specialist. However, over the past several years, the bank around him had transitioned into a highly matrixed organization, requiring a more politically-sensitive style in order to influence others into action. John’s apparent inability to sense the frustration he was causing others had become a stumbling block in his new role as unit leader. John’s manager Maria was baffled by John’s shortage of self-awareness and his inability to pick up on obvious social cues.
The organization decided to invest in executive coaching for John. His WJM Executive Coach, Phil interviewed John’s manager Maria and 8 other colleagues about John’s strengths and developmental opportunities. The feedback regarding John’s long-windedness was universal. Some executives had been working with John for a long time, and because of his formidable functional strengths, continued to champion him in spite of his stylistic shortcomings. However, Phil found that even these patient supporters were finally tiring of John’s conversational habits.
When Phil provided this feedback to John, he fully agreed with the comments. And offered explanations for each criticism. The more Phil pressed John to acknowledge the raters’ observations, the more John “explained away” the concerns.
“John is my ‘yes, but…’ client.” Phil told Alison Eydenberg, WJM’s VP of Coaching Services. “He agrees with all the feedback I give him, but then says things like ‘well that just happened that one time’ or ‘let me tell you a story about that’ in an attempt to explain it all away. It always ends with a long and ultimately irrelevant story and I feel my eyes glaze over and my resolve weaken. I am experiencing the same frustration as his co-workers, and like them I am unable to make any progress!”
What is taking so long?
Meanwhile, halfway through the coaching engagement, Alison reached out to Maria, the boss, to get her reactions to John’s coaching so far. Maria expressed concern that they were three months into a six month program and she had not so much as even seen a developmental plan for John. She was disappointed in how long this process seemed to take in comparison to other coaching assignments. “I was about to call our talent management department about this. I mean what are we paying for? I don’t see any change in John at all!”
Alison and Maria spent some time talking about how coaching does have a process but each assignment is customized to the needs of the coachee and in this case John needed more time to process the feedback. Alison, carefully keeping within the confidentiality guidelines of her role as a coach supervisor, explained to Maria the difficulty Phil was having in getting John to hear and truly recognize how colleagues were experiencing him. Alison indicated that until John did this, there was no point in trying to execute his development plan, especially not when it required changes in such habitual thought patterns and social behavior. No stranger to John’s habits, Maria acknowledged the challenge and offered her support of Phil’s continued efforts.
Alison and Phil continued to brainstorm over approaches to the seemingly intractable coaching challenge. Finally they agreed that Phil take an even stronger stand against John’s evasions. As a company “outsider”, Phil could afford to be very blunt with John, with no fear of offending or stepping on his ego. Only this way could Phil compel John to see that these pervasive perceptions were damaging his career - and that nothing mattered more than fixing this problem.
At their next coaching session, Phil once again brought up the feedback. Only this time, he stopped John from responding. It took effort to quiet the executive, but Phil stood firmly as he directed John to stop talking and to acknowledge what the raters and his manager were saying about him. Phil then asked John to replay back what they had said, with no excuses or rationalizing. After some back and forth, John finally acknowledged the severity of the problem. The rest of the session, and the next, were spent formulating “deliberate practice” activities that would allow John to begin changing his behaviors, to become a truly active listener.
WJM’s VP of Coaching Services, Alison, called Maria, the manager, soon after to report on John’s breakthrough. Maria expressed relief that he seemed to be taking the feedback to heart, but she was concerned that there was so little time left in the coaching engagement for Phil to work with John on modifying his behavior. Alison assured Maria that John would be provided with tactical illustrations of the desired behaviors, with related activities to practice. Maria and Alison further discussed the challenges for John going forward, especially regarding key colleagues who might not be willing to acknowledge or even see change from John. Maria agreed to meet with these stakeholders one-on-one and ask them to provide John a window for change, and to acknowledge his new improved behavior, no matter the magnitude of the adjustment. Maria, Phil and John had a “triad meeting” which Maria felt helped solidify a mutual understanding of what success looks like regarding John’s development.
Maria reported later to Alison that she considered the coaching a great investment, saying that even if John doesn’t stay with the bank, that this has been crucial to his success in general - he needed to hear this feedback and get coaching around his behaviors. Maria was very complementary about WJM’s approach and was pleased that Alison had reached out and included her in the process. She asked for suggestions regarding how she could further support John’s development going beyond the coaching. Phil soon followed up with her to discuss ways she could carve out “organizational space” and provide reinforcement for John’s continued practice of new behaviors.
WJM’s VP of Coaching played a vital role by: