How much change could a leader change … if a leader could really change?

mountainopAs a leadership coach, I frequently work with executives who don’t match the current vision of the ideal fit for the role. Often – but not always – the gap is one that can be bridged by developing new sustainable behaviors with the support of a good behavioral coach and authentic upper management.

Before we talk about how much change is possible, let’s first explore a few reasons why the gap occurs in the first place.

Just as in marriage, if you enter into the relationship with the idea that you can change the other person [typically in an effort to imbue them with ‘superior’ qualities much like your own], much frustration and increasing dysfunction is bound to follow…on both sides.

How do we end up with the right person in the wrong job?

Hired the wrong person to begin with.
  • This is often due to lack of clarity about what the role requires – from both a competency and emotional intelligence perspective or because the decision maker was so impressed with certain aspects of the person’s personality or background that they ignored or minimized gaps. Typically, at least one person involved in the hiring process recognized the gaps but either didn’t bring them up – or more typically – ignored them.
Promoted the person without adequate and objective assessment.
  • This is relative to what the new role requires and what the internal candidate brings to the party – both in terms of competencies and emotional intelligence. This is a common practice that is responsible for demoralizing many a competent person and tanking many a critical project. Promoting people to their ‘level of incompetence’.
Hired or promoted the right person, but…
  • Leadership doesn’t communicate the vision and expectations well – and/or throws up significant barriers to achieving them. If you examine the reasons an executive is struggling and failing to meet expectations, there is typically a contribution from leadership and/or culture. This is the reason ‘plug ‘n play’ coaching is not a solution. Performance is part of a system.

Any change that is authentic and sustainable happens within the framework of WHO the person is – how they are behaviorally wired.


Many are hired on the basis of what they’ve done, and then fired for who they are.

Example 1
Sally is a bright, action-oriented top performer; a high intensity leader with low self-control when stressed or frustrated.

A good behavioral coach can successfully guide Sally in developing more self-awareness, and practicing specific behaviors that will increase her level of emotional intelligence. Some of those new behaviors might include becoming more patient, giving more thought to what other people need from her to achieve the desired business outcomes, building authentic relationships with her colleagues, and controlling her intensity so that she doesn’t burn people out. Sally will still be the same person. The primary difference will be in her self-awareness and her behaviors when people don’t meet her expectations.

However, if you expect Sally to become the manager of a unit in maintenance stage, to manage details and not to rock the boat, not grow business or recommend improvements… are very likely to be disappointed – because:

Any change that is authentic and sustainable happens within the framework of WHO the person is

Example 2
Todd is an affable, easy-going, reliable [as long as he’s in his comfort zone] socially warm and well-liked-by-most director. He gets the job done for the most part, but is not an assertive go-getter and strongly prefers the status quo.

A good behavioral coach can successfully guide Todd in practicing new skills and accessing additional resources to become more outcome-oriented, prioritize and manage time well, and even to become more comfortable providing feedback and redirecting his reports.

On the other hand – if you expect Todd to become an assertive leader of [for example] a struggling, start-up or high growth organization….. you are very likely to be disappointed, again because:

Any change that is authentic and sustainable must happen within the framework of who the person is.

Investment in objective assessment and expectations-setting [alignment] upfront is a tiny fraction of the investment in cleaning up the inevitable radiating mess when you don’t.
Feel free to comment regarding your experiences – successes or horror stories in the comments below.

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