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Background: This client was a Director at an insurance firm, a role in which she was recently confirmed. Among other duties, she is responsible for creating and maintaining strategic initiatives and alliances with a wide variety of external partners to the organization. She oversaw a staff of over 450 who interface directly with members and partners. She was a highly competent contributor who strongly valued effectiveness, efficiency, and providing concrete results to her organization. Historically, she had shown low tolerance and perceptible frustration in working with colleagues who did not demonstrate, to her perception, these same values. Her frustration would then lead to “blow ups” and other types of interpersonal tension and negative interactions. Negative perceptions of her resulted in impaired working relationships, and ultimately, impeded job performance, especially as her job successes increasingly depended upon excellent relationship-building skills.
Assessment and Goal Setting: The engagement began with various assessments. Based on the summary report, the Director, her manager and her Abrams & Associates coach agreed on three key competency areas for focus during her’s coaching, tailored to her needs: Managing her style with others effectively, enhancing her leadership image, and maximizing others’ contributions. Assessment was followed by regular coaching sessions.
Learning and Development: During each coaching session, the Director discussed her successes and challenges in her leadership competency areas. In coaching sessions, she identified new behavioral strategies to try between sessions. These resulted from a combination of in-depth discussion with her coach about her actual on-the-job interactions and incidents, mutually developed suggestions of new approaches to take in these situations, and the coach's contributions of additional observations, relevant leadership development material, and role-playing of possible new strategies to implement. With repeated, in-depth exploration of the ways her values and beliefs were affecting her behavioral choices, as well as practical, concrete new beliefs and strategies to try, she was able to choose more effective approaches that better promoted effective collaboration teamwork and teamwork, as well as her overall contributions as a leader to the organization. She came to understand that relationships were as important as a task-orientation as a leader, and she developed various maxims and strategies to help her maintain this focus in actual interactions.
Evaluation, Results, and Reinforcement: As a result of her efforts over time, her working relationships with both internal colleagues and external strategic partners improved, as did favorable perceptions of her leadership contributions by senior leaders, including the CEO, as noted by her manager during her most recent performance evaluation. Notable results included maintaining positive working relationships with two difficult internal peers, while avoiding creating the kinds of negative situations that used to “derail” her in the past, and creating new, positive, teaming relationships with others which has enhanced the organization’s contracting with a variety of new external partners. As just one case in point, this Director created and maintained a positive working relationship with one difficult, resistant, external alliance partner, and then successfully re-negotiated a contract with that partner which resulted in over $2 million savings to her organization.
Background: The new Director at a major child welfare organization was viewed as highly creative and brilliant but “out of touch” with the realties faced by her staff. She was an expert in the subject of child welfare and had extensive experience monitoring and assessing the performance of agencies throughout the area. Her high intelligence and passion for children made her appear to be a perfect fit to turn around the troubled branch office. Unfortunately, her impatience with the long-term staff who were slow to adapt to her computerized case tracking processes and her insistence on becoming personally involved in the client family issues created a situation in which she was perceived as untrusting and disrespectful of the social workers, many of whom had worked at the agency for over 20 years.
Assessment and Goal-Setting: The Executive Director of the agency was concerned about the Director. The office she was poised to take over was in dire need of a turnaround. The Executive Director knew that the Director had the intelligence, organizational skills and strategic focus needed. He quickly began to hear complaints from her staff, however, about her lack of sensitivity and overly-emotional reactions to even minor problems that arose in the office. It was decided that one-on-one coaching over a six-month period would accelerate this Director’s development. Post-assessment, the Abrams & Associates coach helped the Director develop specific behavior changes to make her more approachable to both her staff and colleagues, as well as build a strong, high-functioning team.
Learning and Development: Over the course of the coaching sessions, the Abrams & Associates coach and the Director reviewed difficult interpersonal situations that had occurred on the job, and devised strategies to handle similar situations more effectively when they arose. For example, she learned to elicit staff’s ideas and suggestions before making decisions that affected them. She also practiced viewing these situations from the perspectives of the others involved, to better empathize with her staff.
Evaluation, Results, and Reinforcement: As a result of her own hard work and the encouragement of the Executive Director, the Director was able to improve her working relationships with staff. She developed a more collaborative working style and became less likely to insert herself in her staff’s cases or lose her temper. The Executive Director was impressed with the feedback he received from her staff, to the point that this Director was given added responsibility. She now oversees an innovative elementary school as well as the agency's ongoing foster care, adoption and residential services.
Background: The client was an Associate Vice President in administrative services at a large university. She had recently been hired into her position from another university, and her new department of 95 people is four times larger than other departments she had managed. Her strengths lay in building relationships, strategic thinking, and customer service management. Her initial challenges were to improve her department’s performance and reputation, and to build a collaborative team among the five separate units that comprised her department, while seamlessly implementing two large systems/operational changes mandated by new legislation and the university.
Assessment and Goal Setting: The client soon realized that her department had a reputation for poor service delivery. Through her own observations and 360-degree input, she saw that the five work units functioned in isolation from one another, and that her direct reports sometimes worked against one another. With this knowledge, she determined her vision would be to create collaborative, high performing and motivated team. With her Abrams & Associates coach's assistance, she realized that she would need to use some new leadership skills in order to achieve this goal. She would need to set clear expectations about better coordination and teamwork, and more importantly to confront her direct reports on their non-collaborative behavior. Her development plan focused on giving constructive feedback and conducting difficult conversations.
Learning and Development: The AVP and her Abrams & Associates coach began the behavior change process by clarifying that difficult conversations were central to achieving her personal goal of transforming the group into a collaborative, high-functioning, and highly motivated department. In order to develop this ability to confront, they reexamined her assumption that empathy and harmony were the only keys to success, a change in her mind-set which set the stage for a change in her behavior. She identified situations which called for her to confront non-collaborative behavior. The coach then isolated the specific skills required to conduct difficult conversations into discrete learnable components. These included citing the non-collaborative behavior and its impact, describing the desired behaviors, and asking for an explicit commitment to those new behaviors.
The coach first modeled the new behaviors, and the client then practiced the skills in role-play scenarios with her coach. Over a few sessions, they practiced several different scenarios, until the AVP was skilled and comfortable with giving constructive feedback and having difficult conversations. She then transferred her new skills to actual workplace situations. As she had one successful conversation after another, she debriefed each one during coaching sessions with her coach. Drawing on her ongoing practice and rigorous debriefing, this new skill became a normal part of her repertoire of leadership behaviors. To address her team’s teamwork needs, the AVP and her coach next developed descriptions of collaborative behavior. They identified several ways to introduce and reinforce these behaviors. She recognized that the behaviors would best be embraced if her team developed them, rather than simply being told them. She and her coach designed an exercise in which her team described desirable and undesirable actions, which became their “Ten Commandments of Collaboration.”
Evaluation, Results, and Reinforcement: After 6 months, her team is working much more collaboratively, with one organizational result being the successful implementation of the two new system changes. Her team will meet to continue actively defining the teamwork behaviors they exhibit with each other, as well as explicit commitments for their implementation. The AVP’s increased leadership effectiveness was clearly noted by her manager, the Executive Vice President, who gave her the highest performance rating and salary increase among her peers at her next evaluation.
Background: The client was a Research and Development Director at a pharmaceutical company. He had been recently promoted to a role that placed him on the senior leadership team, where he was required to lead innovation and develop long-range strategic initiatives. His primary development needs were to create and lead innovation in his department, develop strategic plans for his own function, and contribute to the organization’s strategic planning.
Assessment and Goal-Setting: This Director had a strong track record at managing efficient operations. He excelled at execution for tasks and initiatives, as well as providing excellent service to internal customers. His industry was changing, however, and his management recognized that his function would need to invent and implement new services in order to stay competitive. Assessments confirmed that while he was very strong operationally, he needed to develop innovation and strategic thinking skills to be a better leader overall.
Learning and Development: The Director worked with his Abrams & Associates coach to identify specific actions he could take to foster innovation. They focused specifically on thinking of alternative ways to perform their department’s functions, and helping the client-leader engage in conversations that stimulated and reinforced creative thinking among his staff. With the coach’s help, he challenged his own assumption that he needed to have an immediate answer to all questions, and that uncertainty was “unprofessional”. His Abrams & Associates coach introduced him to innovative thinking patterns, including analogies, altering structures and sequences, and changing perspectives. He practiced using these innovative thinking patterns to address the strategic opportunities in his workplace. As he became comfortable with the innovative thinking skills, he rehearsed conversations in which he asked his staff members to employ these techniques also. The client practiced these new behaviors first with the coach, then in the workplace.
Evaluation, Results, and Reinforcement: During and after coaching, this Director successfully lead his department in implementing several innovations in their work processes, with the result of shortening process time from an average of six weeks to four weeks. He also led a collaborative innovation project with the department’s global counterparts, shortening drug development time by 20%. He was also noted for actively and visibly contributing to the strategic thinking process of the senior leadership team.
Background: The Executive Director (ED) of this NYC performing arts organization had a number of critical issues to address in order for the organization to survive and grow. Over a short span of years, the organization grew from a grass-roots cooperative into a formal not-for-profit organization. The ED was now faced with multiple problems simultaneously: financial, real estate, Board, and staff/management issues. However, the organization continued to operate as though it was a grass-roots cooperative, disregarding the activities required for organizational survival: Board members and staff were more focused on internal relationships than on addressing the financial needs of the organization. Staff members did not understand priorities and were not aligned with the ED’s vision for the organization. Earned income from arts instruction was a significant source of revenue, yet staff members were setting schedules to please specific teachers rather than to fill classrooms. Board members were doing little to attract funders and, instead, were overstepping their roles with respect to staff management, undermining the ED’s ability to lead and effect change. The ED needed to better utilize the resources at her disposal so that she could focus her attention on Board development, fundraising, and strategic partnerships. She needed to clearly communicate the organization’s direction, and what was needed from staff to get there. Also, with so many important issues competing for her attention, she needed to set immediate, mid-term, and longer-term priorities for herself and define clear roles and responsibilities that others would take to assist her.
Approach: Through working with her Abrams & Associates coach, the ED developed a clear message about the vision for the organization, as well as clarified each of her current challenges and their relative priority. The coach assisted her in identifying resources she would access for support, including defining the key jobs needed to establish an effective management team. This allowed the Executive Director to communicate her priorities for action more effectively to Board members and staff, placing priorities in the context of the strategy. She then used this framework to prioritize the issues facing her and develop near-term and longer-term plans, including clarifying what needed her attention versus being able to leverage other resources to address specific issues. The coach worked with the ED to utilize change management tools and concepts, such as identifying and communicating a burning platform for change, defining the future state and what it would take to get there from the current state. The ED gained clarity and direction, effectively communicated key information about current and upcoming changes and the reasons for them, and was better able to make good decisions about resource allocations.
Evaluation, Results, and Reinforcement: The ED has expanded the Board to include members with needed legal and financial skills and tapped voluntary and short-term resources to address operating needs that could not be met by the existing staff. The working environment improved tremendously: Staff members understood their roles and responsibilities, and additional resources were brought in to take on assignments the existing staff were not capable of doing on their own. The financial health of the organization has improved by the ED recruiting new Board members who are capable of meeting the “give/get” requirements, obtaining significant grants and building partnerships with a local university to enhance earned income. Furthermore, she engaged a recalcitrant landlord in negotiations to resolve her leasing issues, avoiding eviction. While the challenges faced by this Executive Director initially seemed insurmountable to her, she persevered and made significant progress in sustaining and building the organization.