Max was the CEO of a midsize manufacturing company with about 2000 employees at four locations. He had a long and storied career at his company but he failed to adapt to accelerating changes in the business world. He had a strong personality and tenacious focus on measurable results but suffered from significant deficits. Max was abusive to staff when they fell short of his expectations. That behavior traumatized them and undercut their productivity. Also, Max did not recognize the importance of developing increasingly effective capabilities within his leadership team so they could outperform competitors in the global economy.
Additionally, Max’s past successes so paralyzed him that he was way too slow to incorporate new technologies into their operations and to make changes to their business strategies to counter emerging global competition. The company could not prosper going forward without having the ability to make culture change more frequently, and Max had failed to develop the techniques to accomplish these changes.
To be an effective CEO going forward, Max had to change. Sally, the company’s VP of HR, contacted us about coaching him.
Max’s Skepticism about Coaching
When I first approached him, Max was skeptical.
“Sally already persuaded me to try two different coaches. They failed miserably, even though they had fancy initials after their names that were supposed to indicate they had been trained and were experienced,” he said with a snicker. “One tried to mentor me, but that was a joke. I had so much more experience than she did!”
Sally confessed that she had made a mistake by providing Max an advisory coach rather than a professional skilled in behavior transformation, which was what he needed.
Max then continued, “The other coach appeared to have some useful training on behavior-reconstruction coaching, but when I would push back because I found changing my habits difficult, he just wilted.
Max was open to the idea that he needed to do better leading culture changes in the company, but he saw no relationship between this objective and his own behaviors. Also, due to his previous experiences, Max was highly skeptical that coaching would provide the path to achieving this new capability.
Sally’s research led her to us because she realized Max needed a coach with an integrated approach to behavior transformations and culture changes.
Sally lamented Max’s blindness to the importance of leadership development and culture-change required of successful CEOs and other senior leaders in today’s business environment. His career was on the line.
Aversion to “Soft” Success Factors
During my first face-to-face meeting with Max and Sally, Max said he does not understand all of the hoopla about “soft” success factors. “I am a numbers guy. I came up through the manufacturing ranks and we are all about numbers there. When I became a divisional general manager, I still relied on hard data to achieve my successes not only for manufacturing but also for engineering by focusing on product delivery schedules and sales by relying on the metrics of the prospect funnel.
“My approach must be correct because the board promoted me to CEO three years ago. Now Sally and the board are telling me that it’s not just what I get done but how I do it and that I must develop my leadership team much better. They also keep haranguing me that I need to become much better at making culture changes to respond to the growing changes in our environment.”
The Elusive Culture Change
Max had introduced MRP (Material Requirements Planning) software early in his manufacturing-management tenure, and later incorporated ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), which extended the MRP concepts beyond manufacturing. “My software development staff also replaced a cumbersome serial approach with a more efficient iterative agile methodology. That cost time and money, and it worked. I know how to implement continuous improvements.”
I interrupted Max here to tell him that he must also now learn how to focus on periodic transformations, but his blank stare told me that he missed the point.
Max continued, “I also repositioned our business when I first became CEO to accommodate new forms of competition. So why are people complaining that I can’t make culture changes?”
Sally interjected, “Yes, you did make some significant culture changes over a few decades. You used the force of your personality, and they took a very long time to take hold. The business environment has changed, Max, with technologies coming ever faster and global competition rising, so to be successful, you have to make culture changes much more often – even sometimes each year, and to accomplish that, you need to acquire fundamentally new capabilities.”
I focused Sally’s point. “The world has changed around you Max; you are stuck in the past where you achieved your previous successes. You can no longer succeed if you continue to scoff at soft success factors just because they are still mysterious to you. If you want your impressive successes to continue, you will have to undertake a major transformation in your capabilities.
Oh, These Mysterious Success Factors
Max was confused and frustrated. “Aren’t ‘hard’ success factors labeled that way because they are difficult to implement and require expertise?”
“No,” I replied. “They are labeled ‘hard’ because they are solid, visible, and measurable, and the business community has theory-anchored processes to manage them.”
“Then what are these so-called ‘soft’ success factors?” he asked.
Max’s confusion is common for executives, including those with substantial successes behind them, so he missed the essence of the hard vs. soft metaphor.
“So I get from the feedback I received that making culture changes and providing leadership development for my executive staff are examples of soft success factors, but I can’t for the life of me see what those two types of activities have in common.”
I tried to convince Max not to be so hard on himself by telling him that the commonality exists because automatic human activities control both, which very few executives currently understand, to their detriment.
Deer in the Headlights
Max had read many books, including popular ones on best practices and sustainable success, but his numbers were faltering. The board was losing patience, and Max was like a deer in the headlights, scared and without the tools he needed to save his career.
I assured Max that there was a path through the “soft” minefield. “These mysterious success factors are labeled as ‘soft’ because they are elusive – we don’t notice them in ourselves and often not in others, and they are difficult to measure, which is at the center of how you have achieved your successes. To handle changes in the business environment, you must learn to understand and manage automatic human activities explicitly, and so far you have been oblivious to this need. So were the authors of many of those books you read. You must add the empowering capability of periodic transforming to your strength at continuous learning.”
“I still don’t understand what that means,” Max retorted.
“Of course not; it is elusive and that’s why you need to engage in a transformation coaching program to experience what it means rather than try to understand it directly,” I explained. “You will gain new understanding about the nature and importance of automatic human activities, but much more importantly, you will learn how to manage them.”
Max looked skeptical, but listened.
“Traditionally, we have executed the hard success factors with our abilities to think and use explicit processes. Those “hard” problem-solving capabilities have led to the creation of enormously effective technologies and the products they spawn, and you have successfully incorporated some of these.”
“The new business imperative requires that successful leaders must learn to transform automatic human activities, which is a fundamentally different, periodic process.” Max groaned, “I’m beginning to feel insecure in that I may have been more lucky than I ever dreamed because I have apparently been trying to work around my deficiencies by indirectly managing important success factors that I should have learned how to manage directly.
Max now understood he had a problem he could not easily fix. This created an opening.
Max Agrees to Enter a Coaching Program
To give Max a more palpable reality check, I persuaded him to participate in an online multi-rater leadership survey. We received inputs from the board, his direct leadership team, and some customers and suppliers. The graphical results, which were very painful for Max to view, were consistent with the profile Sally had already provided me.
After that feedback, Max agreed to engage in a coaching program with me. My organization then conducted interviews with many people around him and from that detailed feedback, Max selected some specific behaviors and other characteristics he wanted to transform.
Sadly, Too Late
Regrettably, Max delayed too long to respond to Sally’s latest intervention, so at just our fourth coaching session, Max struggled to tell me some bad news. “The board wants to initiate an acquisition of a smaller company, and they don’t feel that I’m up to integrating that business into ours in a way that maximizes the effectiveness of our joint businesses because they believe I can’t manage the necessary culture changes well enough. They have decided to let me go.”
“I’m very disappointed to hear that because I think you are finally starting to understand the value of becoming transformable, and we could have created that empowering capability for you if we had more time to engage in your coaching program. I’m sure you got a good severance package, so we should continue our coaching engagement while you search for your next opportunity in order to empower you to manage automatic human activities to become discontinuously more effective for the rest of your career.”
Unfortunately, Max had lost his confidence. “I now realize that would be required for me to achieve success in my next CEO position, but I have decided the business world may have passed me by, so I am just going to retire even though I’m only 59 and could have several years of great accomplishments ahead of me.”
Max told me he thought he was too old to make the level of changes needed. I tried to assure him that becoming transformable is a very difficult process even for people half his age, but that I had previously accomplished that with people his age and older. However, Max had become too dejected to mount the effort to become a transformable leader who could produce a series of repeated successes in the future.
Sally and I were saddened and very disappointed since we could already see Max’s progress because he had thrown himself into the coaching process with the same passion he had for driving measurable business results throughout his career. Max was on the path to a successful continuation of his leadership career, but alas, the board already soured on him so they didn’t wait to see the transformed Max.
As we abruptly terminated our nascent coaching engagement, Max lamented, “I had no clue about my robot-like automatic mode and that I needed to learn to ‘reprogram’ my own and that of others around me. I feel like I was blindsided, but the clues were there and I just did not understand them or know what to do about them. I indeed heard about a distinction between soft and hard success factors, but I never suspected they implied different modes of mental activities. I knew authors discussed management ‘science’ and some spoke about the ‘art’ of leadership, but I had no clue that the first was primarily a thinking activity and the latter resided primarily in our automatic mode. I of course knew something about paradigms and cultures, but how was I to know how different they were to manage from the explicit, measurable processes I was so good at handling?”
Don’t Get Maxed Out!
The above encounter occurred a few years ago. Now, business leaders must contend with the rippling effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the exploding technologies as best articulated by Prof. Klaus Schwab in his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution.
On other subpages in this coaching section, you will see examples of how leaders succeeded by transforming to meet the needs of the new business realities – they became transformable leaders who could achieve repeated successes in the hyper-changing and increasingly competitive global business world.
The business environment has now reached the point where business leaders who fail to understand and manage automatic human activities will increasingly fail. Don’t get Maxed out – sign up for your free coaching session to learn and start to experience how to become a transformable leader to meet the needs of the new business environment.