Of the many roles of a manager, ‘manager as coach’ is probably the one i have always found to be the most important and impactful for a company. I find that the most successful managers are actually the ones that are constantly developing their team members. Firstly this makes the team more productive/successful but as team members can take over more of the management duties, the manager in turn can complete even more high-level work.
This theory works perfectly well throughout most levels of an organisation. But what happens when you reach the top? A company’s senior management (CEO, CFO, CIO etc) are each specialists in their fields, and are, typically, successful managers who have worked their way up. Can a CEO ‘coach’ the executive team?
An article in McKinsey Quarterly explores the role of a CEO as an ‘emotional’ coach to the top management team.
When the economy or other aspects of the business environment change rapidly, senior managers can be thrown off guard. They have reached a level of seniority by delivering results through certain strategies and market assumptions. Suddenly those strategies no longer work. Often, the managers most affected are the ones who have been most successful in the past, as they may have never faced potential failure.
When a senior manager suddenly realises that their strategies are no longer working, at a time when their actions are most under scrutiny and the fate of the company may be at stake, the most automatic reaction is fear. Fear of losing their job, their reputation, and their identity as a senior manager.
“Spiking levels of fear can convert frank, flexible, open, and self-reflective leaders into defensive, close-minded, rigid, and literal ones. These leaders may take things personally, feel persecuted, cease productive self-reflection, and lose the ability to process new information and respond to difficult situations. Others in the organization will notice this, of course, and will let the executive know in subtle ways—reinforcing fear and defensiveness.” (1)
This is the point that a CEO needs to step in with a coaching mentality, not on a technical level, but an emotional one.
The first step is to create an environment where managers will be comfortable in recognising and hopefully verbalising their fears. Often this can be achieved by the CEO personally discussing their own fears, and by reaffirming trust in the manager. The work environment needs to stay positive and upbeat, with real transparency about employee job security and industry prospects.
Step two is to overcome denial. Because they don’t want things to change, managers can ignore or misinterpret the evidence of change. The CEO needs to find ways to force senior managers to look at things from a fresh perspective and abandon the old assumptions that are blocking their thinking.
Step three is to encourage managers to start learning. A new business environment has new risks, challenges and opportunities that all need to be mastered. Customer behaviour can radically change, forcing a rethink of marketing and promotional strategies and budgets.
(1) A CEO’s guide to reenergizing the senior team, Derek Dean, 2009