Webinar Wrap-Up: Coaching Leaders to Go to the Next Level

We are in a moment of unprecedented upheaval in the job market. In many organizations, there’s pressure to pay extra attention to retain and develop current staff – particularly those promising high potentials – to ensure that there’s a sufficient pool of talent prepared to step up when senior positions open.

It’s a smart plan – but MRG studies have revealed something that can make it just a little tricky: the behaviors associated with effective leadership vary at each level – sometimes by a lot. In fact, the higher a leader rises in an organization, the bigger those behavior changes become.

In last week’s webinar, Stepping Up: Coaching Leaders to Go to the Next Level, MRG President Tricia Naddaff explained these findings and shared some key tactics coaches can use to help leaders with these tricky transitions. Read on for highlights from the webinar and Q&A with Tricia, or watch it on-demand in full here.

The changing definition of effectiveness

Whether you’re just entering a managerial position or you’re at the top of the organization, good leadership is good leadership… right? Well, if you’ve encountered MRG before, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that it’s just not that simple. When it comes to effective leadership, context matters. And as our research consistently demonstrates, it matters a lot.

When we consider the context of level within an organization (Individual Contributor, First Line Manager, Middle Manager, or Senior Leader) the data show that the definition of effectiveness changes at each level. That is, the behaviors associated with effective leadership are different at each level. So as a leader ascends in an organization, to stay effective they will need to make some critical behavior shifts. These shifts could catch many leaders off guard – after all, if they were effective enough to get promoted in their last job, they may assume that if they “keep up the good work,” success will naturally follow.

Take a look at some of the shifts leaders may have to make as they rise through the ranks:

From Individual Contributor to First Line Supervisor

Do more:

  • Delegating
  • Thinking cautiously/managing risk
  • Deferring to authority
  • Organizing
  • Ask for and using input from others
  • Behaving with reserve

Do less:

  • Driving hard for ambitious results
  • Being independent in thinking and action
  • Pushing for innovation

From First Line Supervisor to Middle Manager

Do more:

  • Ask for and using input from others
  • Communicating thoroughly and clearly
  • Convincing people through persuasion
  • Demonstrating care and concern
  • Delegating
  • Thinking and planning more strategically

Do less:

  • Being forceful
  • Being independent in thinking and action
  • Organizing
  • Pushing for ambitious results
  • Deferring to authority

From Middle Manager to Senior Leader

Do more:

  • Demonstrating care and concern
  • Convincing people through persuasion
  • Delegating
  • Demonstrating emotions/enthusiasm
  • Ask for and using input from others
  • Taking full responsibility for leadership
  • Being friendly and sociable
  • Providing clear feedback
  • Thinking cautiously/managing risk
  • Pushing for innovation

Do less:

  • Organizing
  • Deferring to authority
  • Being hands on/in the weeds
  • Tracking and monitoring the work

You may have noticed that as the levels get higher, the list of changes gets longer. While the shift from individual contributor to first line manager requires nine behavior shifts, the shift from middle manager to senior requires fourteen.

That may seem overwhelming. But it’s important to think of these changes as a dial, not an on/off switch. While leaders should be conscious of making some mindful adjustments, they don’t need to make an about-face overnight to be successful.

The biggest challenge: from middle to senior. What do executives need to succeed?

Our study tells us that the leap into a senior leadership role is the largest. And not everyone makes it – research from Corporate Executive Board indicates that 50-70% of executives fail withing the first 18 months. So as a coach, where should you focus your support to give leaders the best shot at success?

We found there are three areas you may want to emphasize in your coaching:

Thinking and Communicating

Leaders at this level need to dedicate more time to thinking, and in a broader context. This includes asking good questions (and really listening to the answers), and soliciting feedback. And at this level, what you say carries significant weight, which means it’s critical to think before you speak.

Meeting Executive Floor Expectations

Whether or not there is literally an executive floor, the expectations are different at the senior level. Leaders need to display confidence and executive presence, while also ensuring they solicit regular feedback to ensure that people are also seeing the performance to backup the presence. They must be conscious of the culture they are creating. There is also a tricky balancing act required: at the executive level, they need to expand their organizational focus (not limit themselves to their own department), and carefully prioritize their growing list of responsibilities.

Relationships

Peer relationships at the senior level are more critical than at any other point. This is not a time when a few close relationships will do; it’s essential to build strong working relationships with peers across the leader’s professional community. At this level, the leader is also responsible for creating an environment of psychological safety where people are comfortable speaking up. In addition to self-development, being a good developer of others needs to come into focus. At the high-stakes senior level, the relationship with oneself is also critical – depending on your coaching practice, you may choose to incorporate or encourage some type of centering practice to support a leader’s ability to act with wisdom and intention.

Tools to help leaders successfully transition to the next level

Increase self-awareness through assessments

Using a multi-rater behavioral assessment like the LEA 360™ helps leaders identify their blind spots. Be sure to incorporate a motivational assessment like the Individual Directions Inventory™ as well. Understanding motivation not only helps leaders effectively align their work with their own energy patterns, but can also reveal hidden bias that could be impacting working relationships.

Coaching

One-to-one coaching offers leaders a critical level of accountability, essential opportunities to pause and reflect, along with insights and support that they cannot gain on their own or from peers. A strong relationship with a coach is one of the most valuable assets a leader can have.

Ongoing Feedback

We have established that the step into senior leadership is not a small one. Training leaders to frequently solicit candid, constructive feedback will help them get the just-in-time insights that they need to make this challenging transition a successful one. Asking for and accepting feedback from people at all levels also models a healthy culture that will deliver benefits throughout the organization.

This is not an easy journey, but with the right support, leaders can navigate it successfully. Read on for attendee questions and answers from Tricia Naddaff. For more tools to support leaders on their developmental journey, visit the MRG Research Library (or, if you’re an MRG Client, log into the Knowledge Base for hundreds of searchable tools and resources).

 


Q&A with the Experts

Q: How does the infamous “holy trinity” [a trio of behaviors that are consistently associated with effective leadership] change by level, if at all?

A: What we are now calling the “Key Three” (see below) show up as distinguishing highly effective leaders from other leaders at every level. That said, a reminder that what this means is that the highly effective leaders are using these behaviors more than the other leaders but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are high on these behaviors. Another way to think about this is that leaders who are average in effective and below tend to under-utilize these behaviors.

  • Strategic: Planning for the future; thinking ahead; assessing and seeking to fully understand the long-term implications of decisions; objectively analyzing options and opportunities
  • Communication: Explaining things clearly and thoroughly; expressing thoughts and ideas readily; keeping others well informed; clearly stating viewpoints; being explicit about what is needed or wanted
  • Management Focus: Making things happen, being influential; willing to take command; providing guidance to others; taking over a group; acting as a facilitator

Q: What about “vulnerability”?

A: We don’t measure vulnerability. We do measure the degree to which the individual is seen as being self-aware which gives some insight into how connected leaders are to themselves.

Displays self-awareness and accurately recognizes personal strengths and limitations (i.e., self-reflective; understands own motivations and behaviors, sees self accurately)

From a coaching standpoint when we recommend leaders be active in asking for feedback, we coach them on holding the vulnerable space with both courage and compassion for themselves and for those giving them feedback.

In Brene Brown’s book Dare to Lead, she shares some interesting insights on the links between vulnerability and leadership in particular the link between vulnerability and courage. For those of you who would like to digest this through a short video – she does a nice job explaining her premise here.

Q: In the transition to first line manager, leaders are asked to be “less innovative,” but as a senior leader they are asked for “more innovation.” How is that balanced with the innovative culture the senior leader is trying to create?

A: This is one of those “boomerang” requirements I mentioned. High potential individual contributors tend to use the behavior of innovation more than other individual contributors. As we discussed, they act much like “free agents” skirting the rules a bit, being very flexible and trying out new things. When they move into a management position they now have a “system” of work to manage through their teams and they need to pull back a bit on the pace and innovation to do this (again not stopping either completely, but slowing it down and bringing on other skills). Once the leader gets to that senior management level, because of the complexity of the issues at that level, they are required to be both more innovative and to pass ideas through a lens that assesses for risk more carefully than they did at the middle management level. This combination is a challenging combination to pull off. However, because they have to do both, doesn’t mean they have to do both at the same level. Based on the sector they are in and the potential consequences of various courses of action – these senior leaders can often be more innovative than cautious if their intention is to build a more innovative culture. The trick with moving it down the organization is to be clear about where the guardrails are for folks lower in the organization so innovation can work through the culture in a somewhat controlled way.

Q: How do you define each level of management? Is a division General Manager a senior manager or a middle manager in the larger organization? Do they need to transition back and forth between the two leadership behaviors depending on whether they are managing up or down?

A: We define it for this study based on position title. And, of course, like all research, it describes the patterns of differences across a broad cross section of the leadership population. As a result, all of the specific outcomes from this research may not be completely applicable at the individual leader level. Another reason we highly recommend assessments, coaching, and ongoing feedback for leaders transitioning up a level to ensure they are getting both insights and guidance that are very specifically relevant to their situation.

Q: If presenting to a group of middle managers about leadership and career development, I would find it really useful to explain the transition they have gone through moving up from first line, as well as what they should be aware of, if looking for promotion to Senior Management. It would be great if they had a cost-effective personal baseline to refer to. Do you think LEA Self-only prior to the presentation would be a good idea?

A: Absolutely. We use the LEA self-only assessment in several instances – for selection, for leaders new to a role or organization who are too early in their tenure to get good observer data, for leaders very early in their career to just give them an idea of the range of behaviors that are part of being a leader and for assessment weary organizations where there is no appetite to ask observers to fill out another questionnaire. I think what you are suggesting would work well. It won’t be so much data that the leaders will feel the need to do the deep dive that a 360 requires but it will still give them enough insight about themselves to think about where they’ve come from, where they may want to go to and also to relate some personal data to the research data.

Q: What is the difference in varied industries? Is healthcare different than other industries?

A: There are differences by sector. It is interesting to note that when you are just looking at patterns of leadership regardless of effectiveness, we will see larger differences between sectors relative to approaches to leadership. However, when we just look at leadership effectiveness, while we still see differences by sector – when comparing effective leaders in one sector to effective leaders in a different sector, the differences are much smaller. That said, in sectors such as the humanitarian sector, the healthcare sector and social service oriented not for profits, we tend to see leaders who are more empathic, who prefer more harmony, who are less likely to be very assertive or to use much in the way of personal power. While this can make for a kind workplace, it brings the challenge of creating a culture that is somewhat conflict averse and also may have challenges when it comes to giving feedback. You can take a look at the Best Leadership Practices in healthcare here.

Q: How often does the competency of the newly promoted person’s boss play a role in the person’s success? For example, if the boss isn’t good at managing and developing people themselves?

A: Of course the competency of a newly promoted person’s manager can play a big role in the success of an individual’s transition. However, we have found that more often than not an “ineffective” boss is not a “bad” boss but rather someone who is not skilled at helping the leader transition. This is where individual initiative can make a big difference. Coaching the transitioning leader to ask for clarification on expectations, to ask for feedback and to ask for developmental resources (which they can also seek by connecting with HR) can go a long way in helping the transitioning leader get the information and some of the support they need. This is also a perfect situation to take advantage of the shared leadership practices we recommend: check out our recent webinar on this topic or download the coaching crib sheet here.

Q: How would you rate the importance of patience in the leader transitions? And how is that compatible with the drive that is needed?

A: Probably not surprising to you, I would rate it high. In fact, the higher leaders go in the managerial hierarchy, the more they have to deal with paradoxes like this. Thinking conservatively and thinking innovatively; being empathetic and also focusing on performance; being collaborative and being assertive about key issues/needs, are just a few examples of the paradoxes leaders are confronted with. This is why I find it helpful to teach leaders something about the brain (so they can understand both their own brains and those of those around them) and to help leaders find and/or maintain centering practices that allow them to pause and be wiser and more intentional about how they manage these paradoxes.

Q: I have not had much luck using LEA at the front line supervisor level. How do you make that info relevant for them?

A: I can understand this challenge because the LEA reflects the wide range of leadership behaviors that can (and are) employed in the leadership role. For front line supervisors who are in organizations where the LEA is widely used, it is easier because the language of the LEA is familiar to them already and they have likely already completed one or more LEA observer questionnaires. For organizations where it is less widely used, we recommend using the LEA self only (rather than the 360) and using the LEA as a teaching tool to illustrate to these new leaders a more comprehensive view of what leadership entails. With this group, it can also be helpful to use the MRG research on the LEA behavior patterns associated with certain competencies. For example, if one of the priority focus areas for these folks is seeing the bigger picture, by looking at the LEA best practices research for this, the first line supervisors can focus on a narrower subset of the LEA profile when thinking about their own development.

 


About the author

Lucy is the Head of Marketing at MRG. She's a passionate people person who talks with her hands even when she's on the phone. She will not rest until everyone on earth has taken their IDI.

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