Being a VP of Data Analysis for an international insurance company thrilled Carolyn! At 32, she had 9 direct reports and 60 junior analysts under her. She she was the pride of her whole family.
Carolyn was an actuary, one of the most in-demand professions in the job market anywhere. With a rock solid education, full of straight A’s and an MBA from a top university, she was extremely talented and was seen as a high potential “rising star” in her company. In fact, her phone buzzed weekly with recruiters trying to poach her to other companies.
The Perfect Coach
Carolyn was nominated by her manager and endorsed by two other Senior VP’s for the company’s Leadership Development Program. She relished the attention and the validation of her many years of efforts. As part of the program Carolyn was provided a list of three potential executive coaches to help her with her leadership development. Carolyn carefully researched each potential coach and selected the one who seemed to have the right credentials and experience to help her get to the next level.
Carolyn showed up to the first coaching session 15 minutes early. She had completed all of her pre-work two days early and had sent it to her coach. She was, as they say, “rip-roaring-and-ready-to-go.”
The first session went beautifully. Carolyn took fastidious notes, she asked insightful questions, she answered questions thoughtfully. Notably, she also asked for permission to check her emails every 30 minutes to stay alongside developments at work.
At the end of the first session Carolyn’s coach asked her what she wanted to get out of the coaching relationship. She quickly asserted that she wanted to be the best leader possible and welcomed all insights into becoming exactly that.
Despite all our preparation, however, the next question her coach asked completely stumped her: What would you say your team would want you to get out of this relationship? Carolyn sat in awkward silence considering the question – feeling ill-prepared and wondering if she had selected the right coach or not. Her coach left her to ponder the question and asked her to come back next session with a response and a description of how she delegates.
Back On Track
Carolyn came to the next session 15 minutes early again and was delighted to go over a spreadsheet she had created for tracking the delegation of tasks to her direct reports and their delegation of tasks to their teams. At any given moment, she could pull up the spreadsheet and see the status of all assignments, due dates and completions. Her coach marveled at the efficiency.
He also inquired what happens when deadlines are missed. Carolyn responded that she took pride in personally anticipating such situations and that she would personally take over any lagging matters and complete them herself. This was expedient, efficient and guaranteed accurate and “on-time” results.
The Problem Surfaces
The coach sat in silence for a few long seconds and then asked again what her team might want her to get out of coaching. Carolyn earnestly replied that her manager wanted her to learn how to become more of a leader and less of a ‘super’ manager. Sensing an opening the coach noted out loud that the question was directed to her team not her manager’s desire.
That is when the coach learned that Carolyn had a bit of a temper about her team’s expectations of her – Carolyn you see was a VP because of her ability to deliver results … not to cater to the wants or wishes of her team. Their job was to deliver and when they came up short she “protected” them by completing the work herself. Carolyn had a “three-strikes” rule — fail to deliver three times and one was “out”. She had no more time or use for them.
The coach made the slightest pivot wondering aloud whether her success to this point might have anything to do with her manager’s stated desire for her to lead more and manage less?
Follow the Data
The next several sessions were very uncomfortable, to say the least. Carolyn saw little reason to alter what had gotten her to the VP level. In fact, she could articulate many, many reasons why she should not alter a working approach. At the suggestion of her coach, and much to her discomfort, Carolyn eventually agreed to a comprehensive set of interviews of 5 of her direct reports, 5 analysts and her manager.
Carolyn’s career was built on data and she couldn’t argue with the results, in fact she was humbled. It seems that her “three strikes rule” resulted in her team knowing that if the assignment was difficult they could “use” a strike and she would complete it for them. Her team jockeyed assignments in order to spread out the strikes. Whenever someone got to two strikes they either began looking for a new job or a transfer to another department. What’s more, her manager felt she was not ‘developing’ her team – only managing it to a point that made her look good.
Not Out of the Woods
It took several more sessions for Carolyn to see that commitment and accountability were necessary not only for herself personally but for the development of every employee on her team. Her team had unwittingly “gamed” her three strike rule and had learned that she would “rescue” them if they could not produce.
Over the course of the next several sessions she and her coach designed a way for her to delegate clearly, obtain actual commitments and hold people accountable. This scared Carolyn because she had always done it herself and now she was going to have to inspire her team to deliver – the first time. Yet with the support of her coach she learned to manage her discomfort and, instead, work on the professional development of her team.
Carolyn took quite a journey, and realized her top-down, micro-managed system was actually preventing her from developing her team and her own leadership ability. While uncomfortable at first Carolyn learned how to effectively delegate and how to hold her team, individually and collectively, accountable without rescuing them or writing them off. As a result, her team become more engaged in each other’s individual success and the success of the team at large! Inspiring? Yes! That’s leadership.
By the way, Carolyn is now Chief Actuary at an international re-insurance company and is a model for how she inspires commitment and accountability on her teams – she delivers results and she earns exceptional reviews from her team on her Leadership style.