Ali is a wonderful coaching client of mine, who is very strong in many respects. He is highly strategic, thoughtful, analytical, hard-working, results-oriented, respectful, warm, friendly, polite, and very well-liked by colleagues at all levels. He is strong in both performing the substance of his work as well as in leading his people.
In fact, the only thing that Ali didn’t do as much of as he could was offer his valuable, forward-thinking opinion readily, to benefit his organization. He tended to hang back, out of respect for more senior organizational leaders, assuming that they knew more and better than he did about the topic areas on which he presented. With the encouragement of his direct managers, this became one of the focus areas for our coaching.
Coaching With Ali
During the course of our coaching, Ali was asked to join a top-secret, short-term task force at his organization. The task force was comprised of the CEO, the CHRO, the CFO… and Ali, who is three or four levels down from the C-team. Even his own direct managers didn’t know that he was participating in this effort.
The goal of this small group was to envision the company’s needed holistic changes in strategic direction. Everyone at the senior levels of the organization already knew that these changes were needed. They also knew these changes would likely require making the very tough call to restructure the organization in ways that might lead to long-term people no longer having a seat on this particular bus. Since the C-level had known many of those who would be negatively affected well, and for a long time, this was a very uncomfortable, difficult topic to address, the C-level was already known to be avoiding it.
Ali told me that 6 months ago when we started coaching, he would never have offered his own point of view on the direction in which he clearly saw that the organization would need to go. Now, given our conversations and the support he felt from our coaching work together, he said that he handled the team report-out meeting very differently than he would have previously. Instead of his old way, in which he would simply describe the situation and then hang back, silently, to let the more senior leaders make a decision, now he boldly stated the conclusion, pointing out to the CEO and team that a decision needed to be made. Once he did this, he said that there was a very uncomfortable silence in the room, which lasted about a minute, and that it was very hard for him to stand. As he tells it, the CEO then stated, “Ali, I don’t know whether to throw you out of the room, or keep you here!” — and then laughed.
Ali Speaks Up
In our next meeting, the week after, Ali told me that he walked out of that meeting very proud of himself. He behaved like a leader, by stepping up and saying what he needed to be said, in the right way, so that his senior-level audience could hear it, and him, clearly. Despite the elevated status of his audience, through coaching, he learned to give himself permission to become one of them — which is what they wanted. His already-demonstrated skills, abilities, and relationship abilities were the reason that they had requested his presence on the team in the first place. By giving himself permission to speak up, and not ask or wait for permission to do so, he acted as the leader the organization and its leadership wanted and needed him to be.