by Marshall Goldsmith
Joe Smith is CEO of Clarkson Products, a major division (40,000 employees) of Clarkson Enterprises, a Fortune 100 company that employs over 100,000 people. I worked with Joe as an executive coach for over a year. Although I am not sure how much Joe learned from me, I learned a lot from him and from his team.
I hope that the great work done by Joe and his team gives you a few ideas that you can use. This real-life case study shows how an executive can expand a simple coaching assignment to benefit his team and company. The most important factor in executive coaching is not the coach – it is the executive being coached and his or her co-workers.
My coaching mission is to help successful leaders achieve positive change in behavior: for themselves their people and their teams. I work with my clients and their managers to determine: 1) who are my client’s key stakeholders and 2) what are the key behaviors that my client wants to change. The company pays me only after my client has achieved a positive change in key behaviors.
The project began when I met with Bruce Jones, CEO of Clarkson, and Mary Washington, EVP of Human Resources. Bruce told me that Joe was a fantastic leader who had produced consistent results. He felt that Clarkson would benefit if Joe were to build relationships in other divisions. Mary agreed that Joe was a key resource and that the company could benefit from his increased involvement. Clarkson is trying to increase synergy and teamwork across divisions.
When I first met Joe, I was impressed with his enthusiasm and love for his job. He was clearly in a place he wanted to be. Joe was proud of Clarkson Products and of the people who worked with him. Joe is one of the most committed leaders I have ever met. He liked the design of our coaching process, developed a list of key stakeholders, and called Bruce to validate his list.
I interviewed with each of Joe’s key stakeholders. Both colleagues and direct reports agreed that Joe was brilliant, dedicated, hard working, high in integrity, great at achieving results, well-organized, and an amazing leader of people. They felt that the company could benefit if he did a better job of reaching out and forming partnerships with them. Some believed that Joe and his team were so focused on achieving results for the Products division that he hadn’t achieved synergy and teamwork with other divisions. He might even ignore people or ideas that were not on his radar screen.
After I reviewed the report of the interviews with Joe, he agreed to work on “reaching out across the company and building partnerships with colleagues” as a personal goal. He also expanded the goal to include his entire team. Joe also decided to work on “ensuring involvement and inclusion” with his direct reports. Joe checked in with Bruce, and both agreed that these were worthwhile goals.
Involving Team Members
My experience is clear: If leaders get feedback, follow-up, and involve their co-workers in the change process, they get better. If they don’t follow-up and involve their co-workers, they usually are not seen as improving.
As part of the coaching process, Joe had one-on-one discussions with his colleagues and direct reports about what he had learned. He thanked them for their feedback, expressed gratitude for their comments, openly discussed what he wanted to change, and asked them how he could do a great job.
After the initial discussions, Joe made a minor modification in one of his goals. He decided that his direct reports wanted him to do a great job of “inclusion and validation.” The Products Division was going through turbulent times. Several of Joe’s team members wanted to ensure that he was “checking in” with them and validating that they were headed in the right direction. While I always recommend that my clients follow-up with their key stakeholders to get ongoing ideas for improvement, Joe came up with a much better idea. He got his entire team involved!
Not only did Joe pick key colleagues to connect with regularly, so did everyone on this team. This expanded the benefit of “reaching out” far beyond anything that Joe could do by himself. In fact Joe’s team established a matrix with ongoing process checks to ensure that everyone was sticking with the plan. All members of Joe’s team talked about whom they were contacting and what they were learning. They shared information with each other to help improve cross-functional teamwork, synergy, and cooperation.
To ensure inclusion and validation with direct reports, Joe developed an amazing discipline. He would ask, “Are there any more ideas or people that we need to include?” at the end of each meeting. This gave everyone a chance to make a contribution. Not only did Joe reach out to make sure that his team members were included, he also reached out to ensure that everyone in the room was invited to participate. In fact, during the year, each of Joe’s direct reports also picked an area for personal improvement. This way the coaching benefited everyone.
A couple of his direct reports showed great maturity by telling Joe, “When we started on this process, I was critical of you for not being inclusive. But recently, you have included people and asked me for my input regularly. I have to admit. You weren’t the problem in the first place. Sometimes I just wasn’t assertive enough to say what I was thinking. It was easier for me to blame you than to take responsibility myself.”
One Year Later
At the end of the coaching, I interviewed each of Joe’s 15 direct reports and 10 colleagues from across the company. They rated his effectiveness on each item on a -5 to +5 scale. His improvement scores were outstanding: 40 percent of all responses were a +5 and over 85 percent were a +3 or above. Nobody had a negative score on any item.
These scores are exceptional. In “reaching out and building partnerships,” both his direct reports and colleagues were very satisfied with his progress. They commented on his dedication to being a great team player. They noticed how he had gone out of his way in meetings, phone calls, and e-mails to be a good partner.
In “ensuring that his team reaches out and builds partnerships,” his scores were equally positive. Both groups commented on the process that he put in place with his team. In fact, some people noted that their colleagues had also become better team players, proving once again that it is much easier to be helpful and supportive to someone else, if they are trying to be helpful and supportive to you!
In “ensuring validation and inclusion,” his scores were amazing! His 15 direct reports had over 100 positive comments and nothing negative to say. They all talked about the value of his asking for input and including everyone involved in the decision.
This was an extremely hard year for Joe, his team and his company. Many of his team members noted how easy it would have been for Joe to “lose it” and not reach out to others during this tough time. He had every excuse not to put in the time. They were amazed at his ability to involve, inspire, and motivate people when times were so tough.
Learning Points for Coaching
Here are three lessons we can learn from this coaching experience:
1. The key variable in successful coaching is not the coach – it is the person being coached and their co-workers.
Joe faced great challenges and problems. Still, he achieved outstanding results in building relationships with his colleagues and being inclusive with his team. He didn’t get better because I did anything special. In fact, I have put in much more time with people who have achieved much less. Here’s the lesson: only work with people who care!
If you are the person being coached, never put the responsibility for your change on the coach. It is your life. Like a personal trainer, the coach can help you get in shape, but you must do the work. Not only was Joe a model of dedication and commitment, so was his team. Every member had a positive, can-do attitude. Joe’s positive results reflected his efforts and his team’s efforts.
2. True long-term change requires discipline over time and process management.
One great misassumption in leadership is: “If they understand, they will do.” If this were true, everyone who understood that they were supposed to go on a healthy diet and work out would be in shape. Most executives know what they should do. Joe did it! He set a process and discipline and stuck with it. He scheduled follow-up discussions and asked, “Are there any people or ideas that we need to include?” Joe’s executive assistant, Cary, helped keep him and the team on track.
3. By involving team members and key stakeholders, the value of the coaching process increases exponentially.
Not only did Joe get better, everyone around Joe got better! Joe’s entire team was involved. Everyone reached out to build partnerships and increase synergy. Everyone picked personal “areas for improvement” and focused on getting better. Many began to implement the same process with their own teams and began reaching out to Joe’s team in a more collaborative way.
Joe was given a simple challenge to change his behavior. Through his efforts, he ended up benefiting hundreds of people across Clarkson. I invite you to do likewise. LE