Last week I had a first coaching session with the Managing Director of a medium-sized company. Although he had a long and successful track record as Operations Director, and had a wealth of experience and an MBA under his belt, he was fairly new in the MD role, and had doubts about his ability to lead.
In the course of our conversation he described various examples of how he had made a difference to staff at more junior levels. I was impressed by how neatly he had created the conditions where staff could come up with necessary adaptations to changes in the marketplace themselves, ending up where the business needed them to be with far less resistance than if he had tried to impose the same changes from above.
Leading people at a more senior level was a different story. Specifically, his doubts were around how he could lead his fellow directors – the guys who not long before had been his colleagues. “How can I tell the Sales Director what to do?” he asked. “I don’t know anything about sales.”
I asked him one of my favourite coaching questions, the ‘Miracle Question‘. “Supposing you go to sleep tonight and a miracle happens, and all your problems are solved. You don’t realise this yet, because you’re still asleep, so when you wake up tomorrow, how will you know that this miracle has happened?”
“The sales director would come to me and ask my advice about something – but (he goes back into problem mode now) I wouldn’t feel comfortable advising him.”
“How is he performing at the moment?”
“Really well – he’s good at his job.”
“So what would happen if you just let him get on with it?”
“I wouldn’t be a good leader.”
So it seems like we had a belief emerging that “you’re only a leader if you are directing or advising your people all the time” – whether or not they need it. I decided to test my guess about his belief.
“Imagine two MDs. One is running himself ragged advising, directing, and telling his people what to do, while the other has developed his people and set up systems so he can just get out of the way while they get on with it. Both companies are equally profitable. Who’s the better leader?”
“The first one.”
“OK – now the first one stops putting the effort in, and profits go right down. Who’s the better leader now?”
“There’s nothing in it – neither of them are doing anything.”
“Remember the second one is still really profitable.”
“OK (grudgingly) – the second one I suppose.”
“Now the MD of the first company is reapplying himself and working all hours – profits rise again to here.” (indicating with my hand a point that’s about half the profits of the second company) “Who’s the better leader now?”
“The first one.”
“So it’s OK to be getting poor results as a leader, as long as you’re working your butt off?”
“Er…” (starting to laugh)
And just like that, the belief started to shift. I had a nice email from him the next day thanking me for the breakthrough on both work and personal levels. I now fully expect this very experienced and capable guy to be much more effective as a leader – not from going on a leadership course, but just by changing one deep-rooted and almost transparent limiting belief.
Todays exercise: Think of a leader – the first person who comes into your mind when you think of leadership. Now think of a few more. These can be people you know, people you have worked for, famous leaders from history, or even yourself.
Now complete one, some or all of these statements in a way that feels true to you. You can complete each statement several different ways if you need to.
The completed statements express some of your beliefs about leadership. Take a close look at each one. Imagine it playing out in different situations. What are the consequences?
Some of these beliefs may be empowering, sustaining you in leadership. But some of them, some of the time, may be limiting you or holding you back. Maybe one or more of the beliefs will leap out at you as limiting.
Often, just becoming aware of a belief as limiting is enough to dissolve it. We may have formed that belief years ago, in a situation where we didn’t have the full picture, or even (if we go back far enough) adult powers of reasoning. We may not have consciously tested that belief against the evidence of our experience for years – and yet, it will have formed the foundation for a superstructure of other limiting beliefs. Sometimes, just comparing an old resurfaced belief with our current experience is enough to see through it and make it vanish.
If not, how can we change it? Some ideas about that in the next newsletter…