Business Category | Media & Entertainment
We were brought on to help a senior leader at a large media company who was consistently getting feedback that her communication skills were holding her back from being as effective as she could be.
“Jen” had risen through the ranks at the company to lead a team of more than 50 that was responsible for implementing a major new technical rollout that touched all aspects of the business at a time when the company was experiencing rapid growth, intense customer demand and strong competitive pressure.
Executive coaching was recommended by Jen’s boss who felt that there was untapped potential in Jen, and that she was limiting herself in her effectiveness and career growth.
We began with a brief survey of Jen’s key colleagues, which identified three interrelated areas of focus:
Listening | Jen needed to learn how to step back and listen better. She had a tendency to speak too much and interrupt other people—subordinates, peers and superiors alike—which was alienating people who she needed as allies.
Facilitation | Jen proved herself to be a strong technology expert, but was not facilitating the expertise of other members of her team.
Concise communication | Jen showed a great command of all the many facets in her purview, but often left her audience overwhelmed by all the specific details without a clear understanding of what was important.
Seeking feedback from other people was very motivating for Jen. She was especially interested to see that one person had given her significantly lower ratings in certain leadership skills than others.
Jen expressed that she thought that she simply didn’t know how to listen. Her Next Step Partner coach suspected that an Immunity to Change was at play because she noted that Jen had tried to change her communication style before (without success), and contrary to what Jen expressed, she was demonstrating good listening skills in her coaching sessions.
Immunity to Change Map
Immunity to Change is the groundbreaking work of Harvard Researchers Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey who discovered that behind our behaviors are strongly held beliefs that not only keep us in our groove, but also fight anything that threatens the status quo. This resistance is so strong, so adaptive, and so systemic that Kegan and Lahey liken it to a finely tuned immune system.
They developed an Immunity to Change methodology that Next Step Partners used to pinpoint and address the beliefs and assumptions that were blocking Jen from the changes that she wanted to make.
In the course of an hour and a half session, Jen’s coach led her through an exercise designed to uncover and map her hidden internal barriers to change. Jen discovered that while she was motivated to listen without interrupting and communicate concisely, she simultaneously had a competing, deeply held commitment to always being seen as adding value by being THE expert in the room.
Her background as a management consultant reinforced the belief that the more she talked, the more value she was demonstrating and the more others would see her expertise. When Jen interrupted someone, it was because she had something important to say that would add value. When she related all the specifics of a project to people, she believed that it showed that she knew her stuff. If she was going to be able to listen better and communicate more concisely, she needed to experiment with new behaviors to test the truth of these assumptions.
Trying New Approaches
With her Immunity to Change map in hand and a new awareness of her competing commitments in mind, Jen met with a Next Step Partners Executive Coach bi-weekly over a period of six months and focused on her listening and communication.
Together they began to test the assumption that Jen’s value lay in her own expertise and explored the idea that her value could also be in facilitating and successfully tapping the expertise of other people. When a peer approached her with questions one day, Jen noted that her reflexive reaction was to start talking. This time, she stopped and suggested that she connect her peer with the person on her team in charge of that part of the project. She was interested to see that the peer was satisfied and didn’t expect Jen to have all the answers.
Little tests led to bigger ones. Having experienced several wins in the role of facilitator rather than “expert,” Jen decided to up the ante and rather than deliver the next project status presentation to an executive at the company on her own, she would have her team deliver it. Under her direction, they prepared and rehearsed the presentation. In the meeting, Jen said very little; comfortable with the team’s preparation, she let them demonstrate their expertise.
Feedback from both the executive and her direct reports was positive. She was gaining new “proof” that she didn’t need to be seen as the ultimate expert to add significant value. She also was experimenting with new behaviors and honing new skills.
Other experiments included (but weren’t limited to): sketching out key talking points before going into executive meetings; enrolling in a short course on how to ask incisive questions that add value; and observing leaders Jen respected on how they balance listening with talking.
After six months of coaching, Jen expressed that she believed that her mind “had expanded.” By challenging core assumptions she was holding and by practicing new behaviors, she made real progress on desired changes in ways she was never able to before. Jen noticed that she was listening more attentively and interrupting less, was more invested in asking the right questions than delivering the perfect answers, was enjoying the role of facilitator, presenting more effectively, and striking a better balance between speaking and listening.
A meeting with Jen’s boss underscored the progress. Both he and Jen felt that significant change had occurred and that Jen was able to continue building on this progress on her own.
We conducted a follow-up survey that polled the same participants who commented at the start of the coaching engagement. Jen not only charted impressive improvement in listening and communication, but the ratings also showed that she had turned around her relationship with the person who had given her low ratings at the beginning.
Note: to protect the confidentiality and privacy of our clients, we have altered some identifying details in this case study.