The other day I got a call out of the blue from a CEO I coached about 10 years ago. He was on the verge of retirement and was doing a kind of Tuesdays With Morrie round of recognition for the people who made a difference in his career. I remembered his voice and, more surprisingly, remembered his Top 5 strengths -- Competition, Activator, Significance, Focus, and Self-Assurance. I had to look up the next five, but I knew Command was in there somewhere … and there it was, No. 9. Formidable. These are the themes many people assume are correlated with strong leadership, and while we don't have any statistics to support this, he was as good as they get. But did I mention formidable?
I remember the day I was to first meet with him. The vice president of HR told me with a cautionary whisper that he would likely dismiss me after about 15 minutes, and that he would do so by getting up from the sofa, walking over to his desk, and busying himself with emails. This was supposedly my cue to leave. That first day I lasted two hours, and we had a rollicking good time: equally challenging, growth provoking, with breakthrough moments of self-insight. When I asked him why he didn't give me the subtle "disappear behind the desk" signal, he said, "Well … because you're talking about me, and I find me incredibly interesting!" Lesson No. 1: Executives don't get to talk about themselves much. I hear this all the time in my coaching. The rarity of candor and vulnerability at the top is prevalent. These men and women are not often given the kind of straightforward feedback we can provide through the CliftonStrengths assessment. Never underestimate the power you have to captivate an executive's intellect and emotions; to expose them to themselves, to challenge them to grow and evolve authentically, and to aim their strengths at meaningful outcomes.
With that CEO, it was the start of a five-year relationship. He probably doesn't remember that first day, or many of the meetings we had over the subsequent years of our coaching arrangement. In fact, he eventually moved on and hired the famous Marshall Goldsmith as his coach. I didn't want to ask if he called Marshall, too. But, he did share the exact reason he called -- the trigger moment in our coaching which stuck with him and ended up in his lecture series at a university. Here it is -- hold onto your chair -- yes, it is that good. Well, not really, but here is what I want to point out -- lesson No. 2: We might just utter something in a coaching session that is not at all brilliant or unique, but somehow it provokes something deep inside someone that changes the tape in their head. It might even serve as one of those life-altering moments that matter. And this little observation, comment, or question you pose might go on and impact how the person runs their business, how they treat their team, or how they live their life. As coaches, we rarely get to see what plays out on the field of life and how it translates into action and transforms others. But thanks to this CEO, 10 years into the game, I got to see my moment with him so many years ago translated into action.
And what was that little nugget that made a difference for him? Well, take a look again at his top strengths. Think about how he can move full speed ahead when he has a vision of the future and he wants to make it reality; when he's sure of the direction he's taking and is in a race to transform his business. He's living the future before others have even dared to dream. Formidable.
So what did I say to him? I simply reminded him that just because he is change-ready and already living out the future in his mind, it's likely not everybody is as clear about nor as excited about it as he is. And if that's the case, then he might want to let the people in his organization know what's not going to change.
I asked him to identify the anchors they can hold onto when everything around them is changing. He is so brilliant at creating hope for the future, but what gives them stability? This very small thing became a very big thing in his mind. And as he transformed his company over the years of his leadership, he always made it a point to give people a bit of stability to keep them steady. Balancing hope with stability became his way forward. In Strengths Based Leadership, you'll find Gallup's research on the four needs of followers, identified as: stability, hope, compassion, and trust. A simple framework in a complex world. It's a framework I often use when coaching executives, as it gives them a way to consider how their strengths can meet these four needs, or even derail them if they're not careful.
And the CEO I coached so many years ago remembered another thing -- compassion. He shared it with me that day by honoring me with that little phone call. A small act from him that became a big thing for me. Thank you, George.
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