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Coaching Technology Leaders
by Michael Maccoby
Printed in: Research Technology Management; Volume 41. No. 1. January-February, 1998. pp 57-58.
Pressure for fast results, friction with co-workers and demands for
continual change produce stress in executives particularly in the high-tech
world where a CEO like Intel's Andrew Grove aptly titles his management book
Only the Paranoid Survive.
Unfortunately, paranoid worries also cause some executives to crash. These
people may seek coaching to alleviate the stress and develop themselves to better
cope with their challenges.
Over the past 25 years, I have been called upon to help people like the CEO
who asked for help in controlling his anger in dealing with subordinates, and the
vice president who became so depressed that he was unable to read reports, much
less lead people.
The executives I have counselled have usually recognized they needed help,
but some managers are urged to find coaches because superiors, colleagues or
subordinates have asked the HR department to intervene. Here are four reasons
How should a counsellor or coach help a manager with one of these
problems? The first task is to be as precise as possible about the situation. What is
really going on? How does the manager see the problem? How do others see the
- The manager is seen as autocratic or bullying, provoking fear and
stressing other people.
- The manager is seen as uncooperative, defending turf or trying to grab
- The manager is seen as not strong enough, unassertive and avoiding
- The manager is seen as inconsistent and ineffectual.
Unlike traditional psychotherapy and psychoanalysis where all of the
interaction takes place in a consulting room, an executive coach should be an
applied anthropologist with knowledge of business management, particularly
when others have complained about a manager. Too often a psychotherapist
assumes the manager has a personality problem which can be helped by gaining
self-knowledge, or new skills; when in fact, the cause of dysfunctional behavior
may require that others also become more aware and more skilled. In some cases,
organizational changes may be indicated. The coach should also be able to judge
when to refer an employee for expert psychological or psychiatric treatment.
I find seven common causes of managerial dysfunction of which personality
problems is the one to explore only when the others have been eliminated. To
illustrate, I describe some brief examples from my experience.
- A manager lacks a clear role or mandate. Project team members accuse
this manager of being a power grabber. I find that his role description overlaps
those of his colleagues. He sees them as trying to limit his authority and reacts by
asserting what he considers his mandate. Once this misunderstanding has been
cleared up, he is seen as a cooperative teammember.
- A manager receives mixed messages from the boss. This manager is
accused of being overly harsh and uncaring. Her boss has given her instructions
to get tough with technical staff who have been doing research without connecting
to market requirements. She is told to get rid of those who cannot change. Her
stress is increased when she is evaluated by this same boss as insufficiently caring
about subordinates. In fact, the boss is privately sympathizing with the complaints
of the researchers. He becomes the good guy and she gets the blame for the new
policy. Coaching helps her to confront the boss and demand full support for the
- A manager is the victim of destructive politics. This executive seems
ineffectual and unsure of himself. In fact, some of his colleagues are plotting to
limit his power. They withhold information from him and leave him out of key
meetings. Once he understands his situation, he decides he would be better off
finding another job. He does so and proves to be extremely effective as the CEO
of another company.
- A manager feels resentful. This manager sometimes acts negatively in
meetings. He opposes ideas without good reason. He tells me that he is aware that
he is acting like "an adolescent," but he feels unrecognized and unappreciated for
his contribution. His problem is a combination of his boss's inattention to his
needs and his personality which turns resentment into negativism. With his
agreement, I talk to his boss who recognizes his accomplishments and gives him a
new position that particularly fits his abilities. He, in turn, takes responsibility for
- A manager has problems at home. This includes a wide range of
problems: marriage, children, aging parents, illness. Psychotherapy can often
help a person better understand and cope with these problems so they are not
brought to the workplace.
- A manager is faced with a changed environment. This is so common as a
cause for behavior problems that no single example is descriptive enough.
Typically, a manager keeps on doing what worked in the past and refuses to
learn. He becomes negativistic and uncooperative as others waste energy trying to
convince him that his views are outdated and his skills need upgrading.
The problem for the manager and his colleagues becomes acute when the
company is just starting a change process, and the pay-off promised is not yet
measurable. Is the manager's resistance to change a response to incentives which
still reward traditional behavior? Is it caused by honest disagreement? Or does it
result from insecurity or arrogance? Each of these causes indicates a different
treatment. Honest disagreement requires engagement with data and logic. An
insecure manager may benefit from a consultant's help in working out the
implications of change for his organization. An arrogant or narcissistic manager
may respond to tough talk from the boss, but usually this fails and this type of
resister must be separated from the team before he infects others with negativism
and criticism of leadership.
- A manager has personality problems. While change can provoke or
uncover these problems, dysfunctional behavior can also be caused by chemical
imbalances. I sent the depressed executive to a psychiatrist whose treatment with
anti-depressants resulted in a complete cure. Another executive whose grandiose
projects and abrasive behavior alarmed his colleagues was also cured of manic
mood swings by a psychiatrist who prescribed lithium.
Understanding Troubled Leaders
Differentiating purely reactive problems from those rooted in personality
disorders requires both clinical knowledge and understanding organizational
dynamics. The two factors can be interrelated. An executive may be promoted
beyond his capability. Instead of rising to new responsibilities, his insecurity
brings out an obsessive controlling tendency that results in micromanaging
subordinates. A CEO's narcissism is fed by flattering subordinates with the result
that he loses touch with his organization and is unable to learn from people who
To fully understand troubled executives and managers, we need to compare
them to those who are psychologically the most healthy. These are executives
with strong egos, able to be self-critical without losing self confidence. Their
confidence is rooted in their recognition that change is constant and one never
finishes the task of learning and personal development. They seek others' views
including critical assessment of their leadership behavior. They understand that
the role of leadership requires not only intellectual knowledge but also a heart
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Tuesday, 10-Nov-1998 17:38:27 EST.