Schachter Consulting

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Helping Leaders and Their Teams

A Good Place to Start

November 11th, 2015

“I have a cohort of senior leaders who are top professionals but not particularly conscious leaders; I’m a bit overwhelmed with the possibilities . . . where do I begin with them?”  More than a few heads of HR – irrespective of how robust their executive development efforts – have asked me some variation of this same question.  I tell them I know a good place to start.

Teach your leaders about the value of frequently delivering candid positive and constructive feedback to their direct reports – and provide them with the necessary skills to deliver it.

What?  Feedback?  You’re kidding.  That’s interpersonal skills training.  Soft stuff.   Shouldn’t I dive into a needs assessment, build a competency model and construct a coherent leadership development architecture with linkages to talent management, performance management, comp, etc.?

Okay, do that, too, at some point soon.  But start with constructive and timely feedback-giving skills.

Here’s my rationale.

The aim of a highly functioning Executive Development function, broadly speaking, is to build execs’ leadership chops so that they apply their skills deliberately and with consistency at work.  After all, these senior leaders set the behavioral standard for the organization.  Whether your execs are conscious of this or not, earnest middle managers are already watching them for cues and then guessing about which behaviors they ought to emulate or avoid.

Why keep them guessing?  Why not direct your execs to provide better timely and actionable feedback to their subordinates?

Okay, here are a couple of  the familiar barriers.  First – and I know I’m not telling tales out of school – most leaders presently lack the skills.  Second, some see limited advantage in being more attentive to subordinates’; worse yet, they may experience a feedback-seeking subordinate as needy or whiny.

I know.  I get it. There’s some resistance.  On the other hand, consider what may enable and even promote senior leader feedback to subordinates.  To begin with, research suggests that employees desire better timely and actionable feedback from their senior leaders, good and bad.  Hence, it’s likely that subordinates will be openly appreciative of the attention and guidance.  Moreover, there is a natural tendency of achievement-driven execs to aspire to excel at tasks they undertake.  Challenge them to excel at giving quality feedback.  Teach them how.

Start here.


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Your Character’s Showing

August 13th, 2012

There’s a hand-wringing ritual every four years during the second week of November.  News personalities self-flagellate over their shallow coverage of the presidential election campaign. “Perhaps, we should have spent more time analyzing the candidates’ stances on the issues rather than the horse race?” they ponder out loud.  Will it be different this time?  Maybe the sharp ideological contrast between the Obama-Biden and Romney-Ryan tickets will finally set the stage for issues-based coverage.  Tune in now; there are only 12 weeks until Election Day.

It’s About Trust

I’m skeptical.  Ideologues and party loyalists already know where they stand on the issues.  To the majority of people not committed to one party’s platform or the other’s (independents, centrists, apolitical types), though, the race isn’t about the issues.  It’s about something much more intuitive and gut-based.  It’s about trust.  Whom do I trust to lead?

This, of course, plays out differently in the corporate world.  The idea of a new CEO selected by a popular vote is something for a late night comedy sketch.  That said, I am seeing a movement across industries and organizations engaged in talent management and succession planning to incorporate the voices of internal constituents in promotional decisions.  Trust matters.

The Building Blocks

It’s long been said that trust is comprised of competence and character.  For someone to trust you, they will need faith that you have the talents and abilities to perform the work in question.  Second, they will need to see you as someone of integrity who’ll do the right thing.  Think of this as task trust and personal trust.

This duality is playing out right in front of us in the presidential race.  Undecided voters express the view that as a financially successful businessman, Governor Mitt Romney is well positioned to help the troubled U.S. economy.  These same Undecideds also believe President Barack Obama has stronger values and convictions.  In other words they attribute competence to Romney and character to Obama.  They’re torn.

Which attribute is more important to people, competence or character?  It doesn’t matter.  Deficiency in either undermines trust.  Having said that, I do see one come up more frequently in the corporate workplace.

The Character Deficiency

As I alluded above, I hear from clients who have completed their yearly nine-box “performance x potential” talent review requesting help for some established star surprisingly dinged as not yet promotable to the C-Suite.  Typically, this achiever has demonstrated profound competence (usually technical) over a 20-30 year career. There are occasional exceptions, e.g., when one is seen as too risk-averse or operational.

The majority of pleas come when the shortcoming is one of character.  Frequent profiles include leaders with low empathy who come off intimidating and unapproachable, push their own agenda, are disengaged from their team, behave too politically, and/or are uninspiring.  I am observing an increasing squeamishness among organizational leaders to promote these candidates, despite their impressive track records.  Senior execs seem to be realizing that to foster competitive workplaces, they will need leaders who know how to inspire followership.  Leaders of character.  The good news is that some organizations provide character-deficient candidates with this tough but honest feedback and subsequently support their professional development.  The bad news is that others don’t, relegating these high achievers to languish and/or leave.

The Character Reboot

If you’ve recently been passed over for a key promotion having met all or most of your performance targets, chances are it’s due to a perception of character, not competence.  Consider following the five-step formula I laid out last year in How to MORPH Your Leadership Brand.

Another – less invasive, but more difficult – option is to ask your HR business partner for the competencies you will need to develop and jointly craft a list of associated behaviors.  For example, if one of the competencies is to be more “supportive,” associated behaviors might include: (a) making time for each direct report; (b) investing in their professional development; and (c) allowing more autonomy.  Once you’ve done so, assemble a checklist and monitor the frequency with which you’re engaging in these new behaviors.  Track your progress.

While you’re probably not going to need to be elected to your next promotion, you do want to engineer it so that you are the easy choice.

Remember, your character’s showing.


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Really, a Support Group?

July 8th, 2012

In The Perfected Self, Atlantic Monthly contributor David H. Freedman shows how some new smartphone apps are helping people change seemingly intractable habits in order to, for example, lose and keep off weight.  The piece is mainly about two things: (1) the tacit vindication over time of B.F. Skinner’s once controversial (and poorly understood) behavior modification principles, and (2) the successful harnessing of those principles into some pretty cool high-tech data collection and feedback tools.

My Question:

While the part about the apps is compelling in its own right, it’s the Skinnerian approach to behavior change that I’m pondering here.  Could a simple element – the support group – help senior leaders adopt new behaviors?

A Skinner Refresher:

Skinner sought to change behavior through positive reinforcement, mostly with animals.  As applied to people, we act to earn a reward.  When prompted to exhibit a behavior and it is reinforced, we’re apt to repeat it.  Repeated enough times it becomes a habit, occasionally needing reinforcement.

Weight Watchers and some of the new smartphone apps Freedman tells us about follow, more or less, the same formula. The person setting out to change behavior, i.e., the dieter:

1.  Sets modest goals;

2.  Rigorously tracks behavior;

3.  Obtains counseling or coaching; and

4.  Turns to fellow participants for support.

These basic, straightforward components, whether face-to-face or administered remotely, have been delivering consistent, lasting results.  I wonder if more consistent and more lasting than executive coaching.

The Recidivism Dilemma:

Executive coaching’s limitations are evident in the rate of backsliding after engagements close.  Simply put, some senior leaders, with their coach’s visits fading in the rearview mirror, revert to their older, less effective behaviors.  Moreover, the shorter the engagement, the surer the reversion. Ten years ago six to twelve-month engagements were the norm.  Today, many clients tell you to get it done in four to six.  I feel for them; internal Executive Resources professionals are in a difficult spot.  On the one hand, they need to demonstrate expense control and protect engagements from mission creep.  On the other hand, most senior level coaching gigs tackle issues that may be as tricky and fraught as real, lasting weight loss.  Here are a few common behavior patterns an exec may exhibit:

  • Influences through intimidation;
  • Jumps into solution too quickly and digs in;
  • Too high level and struggles to implement;
  • Too into the weeds and not strategic enough;
  • Doesn’t set clear expectations; and/or
  • Doesn’t develop or performance manage the team

These behaviors take time to unpack and rewire.  It’s not like flipping a switch.

While approaches to coaching are varied, most begin with some type of baseline assessment (e.g., a “360”) and then track the first three Skinner steps.  Coach and coachee set development objectives, monitor the coachee’s behavior and meet regularly for coaching support.  It’s the fourth step – turning to fellow participants for support – that is not found in the typical coaching gig.  Yet, in reading Freedman, it might just be that a support group is the pivotal mechanism of reinforcement responsible for lasting behavior change.

A Crazy Idea?

The idea of submitting a C-Suite exec to a support group seems, at first blush, almost absurd.  First, it’s distinctly possible the exec is tackling issues difficult to speak about publicly, like those I mentioned earlier.  It’s one thing to disclose you feel badly for indulging in a rich dessert.  It’s quite another to sit around with others and admit to publicly berating a colleague.   Second, it’s probably tough to find others similarly situated with precisely the same presenting issues.  Lots of people want to lose weight.  How many, for example, are EVP Pharmaceutical execs working on being more risk-embracing?

A Comparable Precedent?

The multitude of affinity groups serving business people here and globally suggests there may be an opening for the support group I’m describing.  UK author and coach Rosie Miller runs peer groups of senior high-caliber women from different organizations who meet to discuss business challenges they share.  Sweden’s Dag Roslund convenes “power groups” to share managerial, relationship-building and work/life balance goals.  In Austria, Claudia von der Linden assembles women at key steps of their careers to consider phase-relevant issues.

These popular programs address the intersection of professional development and network-building, as opposed to the behavioral support group I’m proposing here.  And yet, their success evinces a predisposition among business people to seek a group setting in which to accomplish individual objectives.  Right?

A Promising Sign:

The other day, I ran the idea of a behavior-specific support group by an exec I began to coach after she received some pretty tough feedback.  I expected her to glare at me with incredulity.  Instead, she said she loved the idea.

Let’s see where this goes.


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Avoiding the Defection Anxiety Trap

January 26th, 2012

If you have a talented direct report with a history of success who’s now struggling, chances are it’s the role.

High performers tend to be consistent. They’ve risen through their organizations demonstrating competence in successive roles. Sometimes it’s technical expertise. Even more often, it’s their tendency to work hard and demonstrate agility navigating unfamiliar terrains. The common disclaimer, “past performance may not be an indicator of future results” is truer of investment vehicles than people. Past performance actually serves as a pretty reliable predictor.

Inadvertently Setting the Trap

For many senior leaders, experience had demonstrated that highly motivated, highly able performers (let’s call them “stars”) are hard to come by. Worse yet, they’re harder to keep. The good news is stars are independent. The bad news is . . . well, they’re independent. I’ve observed numerous execs – itching to ward off a dreaded, imagined defection – preemptively try to “promote” a star. Two well-worn maneuvers: (a) creating a brand new role; or (b) cobbling new accountabilities to the star’s existing job. Each is intended to project an aura of ascendency and warrant more generous comp and perks. Good intentions. Bad ideas.

In one case, the Office of the CEO had a star business unit head it wanted to warehouse for a few years in readiness to replace an EVP that was due to retire. The in-between role they created for the star was meant to serve as a clearinghouse for information between levels. Instead, it merely added another review layer and wound up a bottleneck for decisions and action.

In another instance, a COO handed his star Chief Marketing Officer responsibilities in Decision Support. It was a discipline in which she lacked grounding and the painstaking learning curve interfered with her making a serious contribution while still performing her marketing day job.

In both of these cases, the role changes destabilized the organizations by confusing expectations, boundary management, and accountability for multiple stakeholders.

Both were seen for what they were: interim gigs to support career aspirations instead of helping workflow and results. Both stars underperformed and their reputations suffered.

 Avoiding the Trap

Before you inadvertently set this trap for your unwitting stars, test your “promotion” against each of the following criteria:

1. There are Clear Lines of Authority and decision rights for all work;

2. The role is Value Added to the existing structure; and

3. The job is easily Describable in a few sentences.

If your new-and-improved role can’t pass this test, let it go. Consider, instead, tapping into your star’s set of drivers. Typically, this includes some combination of interesting work, autonomy, and professional development. You, raise the topic.  Disclose your defection anxiety right to them. Jointly work out a plan. There’s no need to blow up anything to keep your talented direct reports onboard.


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To Better the Best

October 25th, 2011

Is there a point in your career when it’s no longer wise to seek professional development?

About ten months ago, a new employer recruited “Brian,” a senior executive. By their own account, it was a long, expensive search for a tough-to-fill, key role. In place for a month, Brian approached the head of HR to request an executive coach for support as he assimilated into the complex, matrixed multinational. The HR head rebuffed, “I thought you were qualified when we hired you.” Three weeks ago, Brian called me. He had just accepted a job offer from a higher tier competitor, which included one year of executive coaching in addition to other generous terms.

We’re accustomed to professionally developing High Potentials.  Progressive organizations dangle it as a perk for which up-and-comers vie.  Yet, it’s hard to deny there’s a point where we view this differently. At a certain career stage or role, we expect the incumbent to have already “arrived.” What would you think of your CFO wanting to learn more finance?  Your General Counsel seeking confirmation about the law?  How about the CEO requesting leadership coaching.

In a recent piece for The New Yorker, physician and bestselling author Atul Gawande challenges the successful and accomplished to engage a coach to improve some area of professional performance. Already deeply experienced and highly skilled, Gawande describes how he engaged a retired surgeon from his residency to further hone his specialized technical skills in endocrine surgery. In the comprehensive and nuanced article, he admirably and unflinchingly self-discloses some cases where he underperformed. He goes on to describe how the coaching led him to performance improvements.

When it comes to supporting senior executives with their leadership and team effectiveness skills, I can vouch for two consistent success predictors. The first is whether the “coachee” will be – like Gawande – unsentimentally open about his or her performance. The second is whether the coachee’s key constituencies can handle it. Gawande describes the awkwardness of explaining a coach’s presence to his surgical team and to a patient awaiting anesthesia.  Wait, you mean my expert isn’t the expert?

Gawande cites Tennis superstar Rafael Nadal to point out the inherent irony. There’s no surprise when the world’s elite athletes work closely with a coach. We’d be shocked to hear otherwise. Yet, some institutions – like Brian’s former employer – expect their top performers fully baked. I find this as unrealistic on Mahogany Row as it is on the 50-yard line at Giants Stadium. That’s because we all benefit from some scrutiny to adhere to form, prevent bad outcomes and prepare for future challenges.

Maybe it’s time for organizations to take material steps to destigmatize executive-level performance improvement mechanisms. Build a rigorous program, announce it to the world, measure the results and publish for all to see.  Create pull by providing the support first to the highest achieving, most widely acclaimed performers.  Brand it as a perquisite; not remediation.  Let’s encourage unselfconscious lifelong learning in our institutions.


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