In all my years of coaching executives, I’ve come across some consistent development themes and behavior patterns. Some of these challenges are easy to identify and craft development plans for, such as communications, developing talent, public speaking, conflict resolution, presentation skills, and listening more effectively. All of these opportunities have one thing in common: there exists a fairly broad understanding of what these deficiencies look like, and how to improve them. When my executive clients get this feedback, we roll up our sleeves and go to work.
Unfortunately, sometimes the opportunities are clear, but the feedback and the definition of the issues are vague. In particular, there are four very common development themes that it seems no one does a good job of describing: strategic thinking, executive presence, learning the business, and judgment. If my clients and I encounter these challenges, we know we have our work cut out for us.
I call these four the “Mt. Rushmore” of amorphous development opportunities. Every time I hear a CEO say: “I think so and so could be more strategic” I always ask: “what exactly do you mean by that?” It’s really important for me to pin down the CEO on specifics, so we know what to work on. Likewise, many leaders get the feedback that they “lack executive presence” – which has many different variants, and has to be carefully probed (is it posture, clothing, gravitas, charisma?). Sometimes, leaders are given feedback that they need to “learn the business” – but it’s never clear when they’ve “arrived” and learned it sufficiently, so that’s a tough one, too. Finally, my clients and I really have to explore the depth of this feedback: “I’m not sure about their judgment.” If we get this input, we have to really look for examples and dive into the nuances of what this might mean.
None of these development challenges are insurmountable, but they all require careful examination to get the feedback providers (or manager) to be clear about what needs work. If you leave it to others to define for themselves what presence or judgment looks like, you might make significant progress and still miss the mark of what they consider improvement.
The lesson that I’ve learned is this – all development opportunities are not created equal in terms of simple and consensus definition. Some of this feedback needs to be challenged, and carefully scrutinized. The lesson that I hope you take away from this? When giving feedback or offering an assessment, be very clear about what you mean, be prepared to share examples, and don’t rely on trite statements that can be hard to interpret or defend. If you feel someone needs to “learn the business” better – bring specifics and your own clear definition of what this will look like. It’s hard enough to find ways to improve in these four areas – the least we can do is help each other get a clear sense of how to improve.