Monday, June 9, 2008

Moles Are Good For Your Career

I’m not referring to the kind Cindy Crawford made famous … but the type that Jonathan Pollard made infamous. Dare I suggest that it’s good to have spies?

Countries have them ... as well as many of the most successful leaders in companies worldwide.

Why? Because they know that how others see them is critical to their success and that it’s advantageous to have people in the organization who will forthrightly and candidly tell them how they are perceived … all the time.

Not long ago, I was contacted by the COO of a packaged goods company to provide executive coaching to one of her direct reports, the VP of Strategic Planning. “He is a brilliant executive who is important to the Company’s success,” the COO said. “His work product is great, but he has people problems.” She went on, “There’s been high turnover in his department, grumblings about the way he treats staff and some of his colleagues find him gruff and difficult to deal with.”

As the conversation moved to a close, she added, “This is the second time we’re providing him executive coaching. The last time was two years ago … I hope this one sticks.”

That was a show stopper. Why the repeat engagement?

Only one of two reasons: Either the first experience was a failure or he fell off the wagon.

In this case, it was the latter. His first coaching experience was seen as a great success, but gradually, he reverted to his old habits. Staff began exiting, complaints mounted, and in spite of the quality of his work, the COO was now considering his departure. This was the Company’s last-ditch effort and final intervention.

What went wrong? Why did our VP go from reclaimed to relapse?

Simple, he stopped asking for and receiving feedback. He thought his issues were permanently resolved. That’s rarely the case. Changing negative behavior in the short run is relatively easy … sustaining that change long-term is very difficult.

It requires ongoing, honest feedback and a willingness to do something with it.

Two years ago when he first received coaching, feedback about his behavior was culled from the people working with him – superiors, subordinates and peers. It was then presented to him in anonymous format, ensuring he understood how others saw him. A plan was drawn up, he subsequently changed his behaviors and everyone recognized the improvement.

The coaching was deemed a success, the COO beamed, the VP was proud of himself and all those around him marveled at the transformation. Kudos to everyone!

Until … pressures mounted, time became scarce, demands increased and the VP, without realizing, reverted to his old ways. He stopped requesting and getting what had helped him in the first place … candid and straightforward feedback.

And now, his job was squarely on the line.

Unfortunately this is a story repeated all too often. If you stop asking for feedback, few will offer it. You have to encourage it and create an environment where people feel comfortable telling you when you’re doing well and, just as importantly, when you’re not.

In short, you need people up, down and sideways willing to keep you abreast of your own actions and others’ reactions … those are the kind of moles that are good for your career.

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