Executive Coaching: A Prescription During Crisis

How many times have you heard the word “unprecedented” in the last month? I’m going to step way out on a limb here and say probably … an unprecedented number of times!

But the hard truth associated with its ongoing overuse as a descriptor for the current state of the world is that there are very few substitutes. None of us knows for certain what to do right now, and we are all finding out just how difficult it truly is to strike the much-needed balance between optimism and reality. Another formidable challenge is time. In some form or fashion those that occupy positions of visible formal authority in organizations need to be able to say and do the right thingsNOW!

Good news! (Because it certainly feels like we could use some!) There is a long and well-documented history of key leaders in organizations that have been energized by the unprecedented. For comparison’s sake, it’s what has always distinguished them from managers:

  • Management: What you do when you have an identifiable endpoint and personal familiarity with how to get there … and what it looks like when you arrive
  • Leadership: What you do when you (and pretty much everybody around you) have no idea

Without question, this is a time for leadership! Right now! There is no time for training in a traditional sense for all the obvious reasons, but coaching from a qualified executive steward is a strategy we would suggest is worth active consideration in the here and now! In general, and based on the collective experience of The Center for Leadership Studies’ team of Executive Coaches, these are the kinds of things visible leaders within organizations need to be doing (and not doing) and how a qualified coach can add value in that regard.

Align on Your Reality

If you are a leader in the middle of a crisis and you have answers, by all means, provide them! If you do not (much higher probability if your world has suddenly been turned upside down by a global pandemic), facilitate agreement on the prioritized specifics of your present circumstances as a first step. What are the challenges (in practical language that everybody can understand at their lowest common denominator)? What are the sequenced steps that need to be taken to mitigate the threats posed by those challenges? Who is best qualified to take those steps and why?

How a Coach Can Help: In times of crisis, leaders may well be able to identify and articulate actions that need to be avoided but be less clear themselves regarding the particulars of what needs to happen next. A qualified coach can help leaders drive the time-critical alignment of priorities with their teams in a manner that both instills confidence and produces incremental progress. If nothing else, the leader can share his/her plan to attain alignment and listen to objective feedback from the coach before “going live.”

It’s All About Trust

Crisis provides leaders with golden opportunities to establish or enhance their foundations of trust with others. Unfortunately, the flip side of that coin is also very much in play! In general terms, and unless they know exactly how the team should move forward to answer the questions posed in the previous section, leaders should deemphasize the power associated with their position, and shine a spotlight on the members of their team to design the tactics of forward progress. Far too often in crisis, and with the absolute best of intentions, leaders offer uninformed “suggestions” that are perceived as “directives,” which wind up producing additional challenges and undermining leader credibility. Placing trust in others dramatically increases the probability that others will place trust in the leader.

How a Coach Can Help: The knee-jerk reaction of many leaders when crisis hits is to exercise control (”I’m in charge here!”). A qualified coach can help a leader think through the short-term benefits and potential long-term consequences of that approach (especially if the leader really does not know exactly what the members of his/her team need to be doing). Perhaps, paradoxically, one of the most effective strategies for leaders to build trust with others is to trust them to figure out (and execute) a plan in a time of sincere need.

Measure Relentlessly

During times of crisis, people pay closer attention. Even those that generally distance themselves from standard performance data and productivity updates are more inclined to get a sense for what just happened and how things are trending. Leaders need to take advantage of that tendency. Analytics provide an opportunity for increased communication, celebration and, if need be, goal adjustment and recalibration. The larger the team the more complex this task becomes, but it can be accomplished!

How a Coach Can Help: When Alan Mullaly was CEO at Ford during a company/car industry crisis, over 100,000 Ford employees were provided with progress updates and opportunities to provide feedback or suggestions on a weekly basis. In crisis, metrics enhance communication—and communication is everything! A qualified coach can help leaders identify and effectively execute measurement-driven, results-focused communication that enhances collective trust and ensures ongoing reality-based alignment.

Technology guru Elliott Masie said a very smart thing on one of his COVID-19-specific podcasts recently:

Right now, people want simple strategies they can effectively execute to take one step forward.”

Above all else, that’s what senior leaders need to be providing to those around them into the foreseeable future.

Having an experienced coach in active collaboration with a key senior leader can accelerate the pace and enhance the quality of that process.