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by KELLY GRIFFIN | March 10, 2009


This article is sponsored by TheSquare, the online network for students and alumni of the world's most selective colleges and universities.

Coaching senior management when their leadership styles or management skills could use some tweaking presents a challenge for many HR executives. It's difficult enough to tell middle managers that they must attend educational sessions to strengthen their management skills. What happens when the person you report to could use some constructive feedback?

How do you broach such a delicate subject with a CEO, COO, or CFO? How do you tell your CEO that he might be more effective if he spent some time listening instead of barking out orders, or that he needs to make himself more visible to the employee ranks instead of staying entrenched in his office?

Gary Wolford, Ph.D., a partner in Bridge Avenue Partners of Chicago, Illinois, and a former human resources executive, acknowledges that these situations are difficult and can often be made easier when an outside objective resource is brought in to diagnose the situation and assist in skills development. His firm offers consulting services regarding executive resources, enterprise performance, and executive development.

Regardless of whether a resource outside the organization is used or your HR function has the capability to handle coaching, you need to determine the best way to approach defining the problem with senior management. Wolford suggests that creating a dataset of some real examples of problem areas is a good approach.

Let employees speak for themselves. An organizational survey of the entire operationevery dimension of itcould be developed, says Wolford. Focus groups or individual interviews covering such areas as determining how employees view the company, how they view relationships with supervisors, and how they view their performance feedback, their benefits, etc., create important discussion points. Other subjects may also be broached to find out where there might be problem areas within leadership styles, behaviors, etc., he adds. It's important to solicit feedback from all directions including other senior management and employees at different levels who interface with the executive(s).

One challenge for HR is developing the trust factor with employees so that they will share their thoughts, according to Wolford. It's critical to keep your pledge to employees that you are holding the sources of the information confidential and making it clear to senior executives that the information is important, not its specific source.

After a dataset of information has been developed and analyzed, delivering the messages to senior management is another delicate process. "If I approach an executive, I try to keep the messages balanced [and] acknowledge some things that they're good at and some areas that could use strengthening," explains Wolford. "It's even more effective when you can use real-life examples. Until an executive owns a problem, coaching will not work."

Wolford offers the example of a client who was concerned that his team was not working well together. This senior marketing executive brought Wolford in to assist. After conducting interviews with everyone on the team, Wolford noted that all had played college athletics. While this was not a negative characteristic in itself, when the shared background was coupled with the way the marketing executive conducted meetings, Wolford noticed that the team members were interacting in a way that made for one-upmanshipcompeting among themselves instead of working together.

The executive would hold meetings where he talked for 50 minutes of the hour-long meeting. "He was good at giving orders, but not [at] asking questions; [he] would put out his own answers so team members would follow his opinion," Wolford explains. Team members would vie to jump in first to support the executive's opinion, perhaps adding on to it with another related thought, but wouldn't provide their own ideas for solutions or discuss together the best way to approach the problem. The executive had to be coached in developing listening skills and learning how to ask questions that would engage team members into creating solutions together so that everyone would win.

Citing another example of an executive who used a significant amount of foul language much of the time, Wolford says he convinced the executive to let him tape an entire staff meeting so the executive could listen to it. "He was astounded at how many foul words he used and their effect on his team," says Wolford. Just listening to his own meeting, the executive recognized that he needed to make changes in his communication style. He became receptive to incorporating new communication delivery skills into his leadership style.

A process, not a solution. Wolford points out that coaching and leadership skill-building are ongoing processes that should be used at all levels of the organization, including senior management. The initial organizational survey or diagnosis of the problems is critical, and periodic survey updates will measure progress in the strengthening of leadership performance.

For more information regarding coaching or Bridge Avenue Partners, visit or call (312) 751-2700.


Filed Under: Workplace Issues