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Coaching is All About Context

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This happens with coaching, too.

Some years ago, I coached an extremely high-powered corporate vice president. He was an expert in his field, analytics, and his personal style was such that he let everybody know about that expertise. He was demanding, drew much attention to himself, and looked for opportunities to tout the benefits of the formulas and analyses he could provide. The data bubbling up from his organization reflected a team of direct reports that were drained trying to keep up with him, and peers that believed his drive for visibility was overblown. So, would you consider him to be successful or failing?

What I learned in the course of my coaching interviews across the organization, as well as in deep conversation with him, was very important in answering that question. He was establishing a new function within his organization. Many eyes were watching, and frankly were skeptical about the value his small team could add. He was insisting on significant investments in technology that would facilitate the analyses he would provide. He was developing a small team that, although experienced, was not familiar with the approaches he was bringing or the technology being introduced. And there were parts of the organization that felt threatened by his data reliance and technology dependent approach. They felt threatened by it.

So, one could argue, as he did, that he needed to be visible in order to get on the radar of key stakeholders. He needed to push his team in order to help them learn and be prepared to effectively act as ambassadors for their new offerings. He needed to push for his technology budget. He needed to be willing to confront peers in the organization who were dismissing his work.

To be sure, this leader had personal and organizational challenges to manage. But it meant an awful lot to him that as his coach I appreciated the context in which he was operating did not receive the top-level data and make judgments based upon it. I believe this is an important part of our work as coaches.

The leader in this story was practicing a leadership style that was appropriate given the context of his function and his team. I don’t believe that it would have been useful for him to lead in this manner for years to come. But at the time, it was effective. The context played an important role in the style required to be successful.

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