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How Executive Coaching Can Help Build a Fearless Leader
Laura is the founder and CEO of Transcend, which helps senior leaders overcome barriers to sustainable business growth by getting the most out of their people and teams. Recently, we sat down with Laura to discuss the qualities of a “fearless” leader, and to hear her thoughts on executive coaching, conflict management, and changing organizational culture.
Tell us a bit about your background. Why did you decide to lead Transcend?
Working in Fortune 100 companies and in strategy consulting, I saw first-hand how strategy, people systems, and teams succeed or fail based on culture, leadership, and the integration of strategy. A scientist and businessperson by training, I wanted to create a more effective way for organizations to perform better over time using data-driven and scientifically-proven methods for building people and organizations. When I started Transcend 15 years ago, we began working with senior executive clients to be more strategic in their planning of business, time, and resources; and we now work on developing or supporting high-performing cultures across all levels of the organization – starting at the top.
Since your company talks about “fear-proofing an organization,” how do you go about achieving that goal, given that many people view fear as something beyond their control?
Creating an organization that is “Fear-Proof” involves recognizing the impact that fear has on our lives on a daily basis. We are not talking about cowering in the corner fearing for our lives, but rather the small social and organizational fears that keep us stuck in patterns of behavior that may no longer be working. They keep organizations from developing healthy levels of trust, transparency, conflict, and innovation.
Fear is indeed out of our control. We all experience some level of fear each day, and we may not acknowledge the anger and frustration that develop from a deeper fear. However, as our clients develop a greater level of self-awareness and hone their own thinking skills to better recognize and manage their emotions, they can overcome the habits that inner fear generates, and also be more transparent about their feelings and aware of their impact on the organization.
When an organization is “Fear-Proof,” the individuals and teams support one another in managing the emotional content of interaction and reaction and become more intentional in creating relationships that deliver powerful business results. This allows leaders to be more strategic, more proactive, and more focused on the business.
If someone were to say to you, “It’s easy to talk about being ‘fearless’ when managing a team or company, but that doesn’t do much to reduce the real-world consequences of failure in the corporate world,” how might you respond?
Lately, “failure” has become a favorite word in the business community as a source of learning and growth. We know that there are real consequences for business failure. We also know that the science is clear on how fear impacts our ability to create success, and that fear of failure narrows our ability to think, innovate, and collaborate, and it actually increases our chances of failure at any given task. By overcoming fear, we are able to identify many more ways to generate business success and improve our probability of success.
Fear creates a state of stress and often overwhelms us. The magic level of stress to create focus and a state of intense concentration and productivity called “flow” is generated by excitement and vision for what you could create – and for some people, a little competitive drive. Fear creates an excess of that stress and drives us towards overwhelm, reduced creativity and focus, and more probability of failure. So the best way to improve your success ratio is to remove fear from the equation.
As a leader, what’s the first step in changing the culture of a team or organization into what you want it to be?
For a leader to change the culture of an organization, they have to be able to articulate clearly what they want to see and why it is important to the organization and its future. We work with leaders to identify core values and then describe them in terms of specific behaviors. We think about culture as a set of values supported by artifacts, rituals, and lore that reinforce the values and bring them to life on a daily basis.
The second thing a leader needs to examine is their own personal behaviors and that of their most senior team members. Are they living the culture as they want to see it, or is the culture perceived as something we want from “them” – i.e., other employees? People are excellent detectors of inconsistency, and they will always default to what you do, not to what you say. We believe that “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate,” (Gruenert & Whitaker) and it starts with the most senior team. Talk about culture, identify behaviors, and practice them at the highest management level first.
What are some of the common leadership-related obstacles or challenges that are facing millennials these days?
Some of the most challenging issues facing leaders at any age are the rapid pace of change we are seeing in our economies, industries, and technologies that impact every aspect of our organizations. Most millennials respond somewhat differently to this pace of change because they have lived with a faster pace of change throughout their lives and have lower expectations of stability and consistency than older employees as they watched their parents experience layoffs in spite of loyalty to an employer. Millennials have developed different expectations from organizations, as well as how they can contribute to and what they might expect from these companies.
They are naturally more self-directed and thinking about the course of their careers from their very first job. They are looking for leaders who inspire and motivate – meaning less management and more leadership. This creates a real challenge for older leaders who did not receive this level of mentoring, feedback, and inspiration and are often unsure of how to provide it or even if it is appropriate. We also caution leaders to use these generational generalizations carefully, because there is much more individual variation than a generational stereotype would indicate. Some of the most important values for the millennial generation are also important for older workers, so learning to embrace their desire for purpose, collaboration, and greater involvement in decision-making will have a positive impact beyond the millennials in the workforce.
For millennials working to improve their own leadership, there is a need to focus on developing greater self-awareness and high-level communication skills to ask for and receive feedback, to assimilate into a new work culture, and to have transparent dialogue with their manager about long-term goals and mentorship requests. The organization as a whole can benefit from integrating greater transparency, collaboration, and development for everyone, and the millennial generation can be the catalyst for that shift in awareness and focus.
When it comes to conflict management, what do many corporate leaders and managers tend to do incorrectly?
The most common challenge around conflict that we see is an avoidance of conflict. Leaders are afraid at some level that addressing conflict in a healthy manner will not be possible, and that in bringing it out into the open, the conflict will get worse. Many have even experienced conflict conversations that escalated and were not resolved. Conflict that is ignored or buried is conflict that grows and makes itself known in other ways, contributes to dysfunctional politics and a lack of collaboration and trust, and leads to disengagement by the people impacted by the conflict.
The leader doesn’t know a better way to engage in conflict, so they avoid it and hope that it won’t matter or will work itself out. Conflict can get emotional, and emotions are messy; and most leaders are uncomfortable dealing with emotion and prefer a “rational” approach. By not acknowledging the emotion and giving it a place, the emotions ironically tend to become more intense over time and create more problems for that team.
What can a CEO or high-ranking executive gain from executive coaching?
Senior executives are extremely busy and experience stress from a variety of sources, including their competitors, their colleagues, their shareholders, their boss, the media, and their direct reports. It can be exhausting just to keep up with the work and try to focus on the most important goals. At the same time, those executives often have a limited number of people with whom they can truly share their concerns. Family members get tired of hearing about it, and most of their day is spent with people who have a stake in the outcome and may bring some agenda to the conversation.
Executive coaching gives those leaders a safe place to unload their concerns, fears, and frustrations without judgment or repercussion, and a trusted advisor who can help them sort through priorities and perspectives to continue their own development in the role they hold. Great leaders never stop developing, and an executive coach who can hold a mirror to the CEO and help them see how they might be more strategic, more inspirational, or a better leader is a powerful tool to move the organization forward by giving the leader a boost. It also helps that executive to better manage their own stress and focus on the business and organization.
Looking ahead to the future, what will be the main traits and qualities of a successful and fearless corporate leader?
Successful fearless corporate leaders will be judged increasingly by their ability to deliver results year after year and develop an organization that grows. This comes from a greater level of self-awareness and an ability to develop strong collaborative relationships both inside and outside their organization; as well as to develop others effectively through feedback, mentoring, and coaching skills and to be able to align the organization with the strategy for executional excellence. These skills will allow a leader to develop change resilience in their organizations and help retain and develop the talent that is needed to compete.