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Solving the Problem of High-Potential, Relationship-Challenged Executives

Problem of High-Potential

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We have all seen executives, regardless of age, who continue to rise in an organization based upon their accomplishments and technical expertise despite being unapproachable, emotionally immature, and overly ambitious. It’s really difficult to enlist others and foster loyalty with these qualities. I had the opportunity to coach one such rising star.

Armed with the understanding that the higher a manager rises, the more important relationship skills become, the first step in my coaching process was to understand this executive’s belief about how he defined success—and in particular how he viewed his influence and engagement of others. The next step was framing a plan that would lead to self-awareness, ownership of growth, and a leadership plan.


3 Tips for Coaching High Potential but Relationship-Challenged Managers

Tip 1: Help leaders take ownership of honest, evidence-based feedback as a step toward self-awareness.

Executives and managers may not only receive little to no honest and helpful feedback; they often do not see value or know how to ask for feedback. They tend not to get feedback because of their high position in the organization, and if they ask for feedback, many times their subordinates are too intimidated to give it. It has been called the "executive's disease.” It is important for executive to understand the value of feedback. Sometimes executives look at “feedback” as negative rather than their lifeblood to effectiveness.

A simple question like “How do you think others view you as a leader?” may be met with a shrug. A first step is making the link from feedback to employee engagement, to the impact on the success of strategy. Leaders want to be more effective in most cases and will see an evidence-based leadership 360-degree assessment as more palatable than a general feedback instrument. Coaching is then structured around the practices and behaviors of effective leadership and the feedback received. The deeper conversations that come from receiving feedback often leads to supporting the coach in interviewing peers and direct reports: interviews with peers and other team members rounds out the picture of how a leader’s specific behaviors impact others.


Although he had some initial trepidation, the leader I coached did agree to invite his manager, a few coworkers, and direct reports into a process of interviews. He found that each person was supportive and excited that he was investing in becoming a better leader. 


Tip 2: Build collaborative relationships for better decision making.

Leadership is about relationships; leaders cannot do it alone. This is especially true with any organizational change. Harnessing attention, motivating, and enabling others are critical behaviors of a leader. In other words, it’s all about building relationships. Coaching for this collaborative process starts with shifting the belief of the leader from star performer or “teller” to that of “guide.” There has to be understanding that leading through change is about connecting with and enlisting others in the vision


It’s a lot of hard work, but it can also be a relief. The leader I coached was joyful at reporting the new connections and collegial spirit that he had not experienced before. He felt less alone in what had become an enormous task. He became skilled at asking for opinions, collaborating on decisions and sharing accountability, all while owning the final decisions. He also found that having a mentor at work boosted his connectedness.


Tip 3: Commit to a continuous process of self-development.

A leadership development engagement is not an event, but is best served as a first course to helping a leader take ownership of a continuous and sustainable leadership journey. Sometimes leaders do hear that their talent is appreciated but their attitude and people skills need to change. It’s rare for them to understand how to actually develop new behaviors. The coach co-creates the practice field of new behaviors with the leader. Coaches are wise to help leaders manage their emotions and build physical resilience through self-care to bring their best to the workplace.


The feeling of success can be very motivating. It’s not unusual that these executives view their “job” as separate from the rest of their life. When I asked the “rising star” leader about how friends and family might characterize him, it led to a very rich discussion about his values, self-care, and schedule. He took ownership of a more “mindful” way of engaging in both his professional and personal life, recognizing that being present to his relationships in both parts of his life increased his feelings of success. To hold himself to a process of further mastery, he committed to a written development plan with accountability markers.

Successful organizations understand the value of social and emotional competence in their leaders. It has been my experience that the coaching relationship provides safe, professional, and important conversations that hard-driving executives may not have with others. Self-knowledge, interpersonal skills, and a thirst for continuous improvement are vital to the effectiveness of key managers. Helping a leader move from a high talent, isolated, alienating position to collaborating, enabling, and mobilizing is the work of the coaching relationship. Leaders who learn to foster positive feelings in others are seen as more credible and garner more employee loyalty and engagement. The result is a bottom line that any organization wants.  

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Holly Seaton

Holly Seaton is an executive coach who appreciates the privilege of helping organizations and individuals build their leadership capacity by moving from intent to action.