The Political Dimension of Onboard Coaching

A major consumer products company in the Southeast recently recruited a new marketing director for its North American region. To make sure that the executive's first 90 days were as productive as possible, the company asked Bill Tiffan to provide onboard coaching.

"My job was to help Andrew understand the kind of coalitions he needed to build, the company politics, how power struggles work," says Tiffan, a member of the WJM Associates coaching faculty who advises a broad range of clients, including many in sales and marketing management.

"The concept of new executives having a honeymoon is passé," says Kip Trum, senior vice president and general manager of WJM Associates. "When all is said and done, companies don't want that. They want newly hired managers to hit the ground running, and managers themselves like that as well."

Tiffan started working with Andrew before the marketing director even started his new job. "Andrew put together a one-page description of himself that told me a lot about his personality and management style," says Tiffan. "It actually was quite good, and helped me to understand the kind of person I was dealing with."

Tiffan then conducted individual telephone interviews with Andrew's seven direct reports to understand their expectations of their new boss. Their comments were summarized without attribution and gave Andrew a lot of good knowledge before he ever stepped foot in his office. One factor that emerged from these interviews was the failure of the previous marketing director to stand up to a strong-willed sales director.

"In the past, sales drove everything. That was part of the problem," says Tiffan. "The direct reports felt like sales walked all over them, that the previous marketing director couldn't stand up to sales and wasn't an advocate for them. So Andrew knew early on where the battle lines were drawn and with whom he needed to establish himself. As a result, he was able to set a tone with his counterpart in sales, his boss and other executives."

What was the result? Andrew is viewed in the company as a strong leader. In fact, the pendulum has swung a bit in the other direction and now the sales group feels that they're losing some of their clout, so Tiffan is working on bringing the two departments closer together.

Besides providing new executives with the perspective of an experienced third party who can observe and help interpret actions in a new setting, onboard coaching can yield another benefit. In many cases. the new executive's direct reports and peers approach the coach with candid comments and feedback that they might not want to offer directly to the new executive. "You'd be surprised at how much they welcome having such an avenue to pursue," says Trum.

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