Executive Coaching: Case-study 3

The Finance Director of a large pharmaceutical company sought coaching after receiving some very negative feedback via an internal 360 degree feedback process. While his intellect and his technical skills were greatly respected, his interpersonal behaviour had come in for criticism from several colleagues. In particular, he was perceived as handling stress badly and becoming abrasive - even aggressive - with his team members and other more junior staff, when under pressure. His PA had recently requested a transfer after he had shouted at her in front of other support staff.

The coach experienced the FD as a highly-intelligent and fundamentally decent individual who struggled with a low level of self-awareness and poor self-control when stressed. In the first coaching sessions, the client expressed a strong mixture of emotions, including shame, embarrassment and anger. He recognised that his behaviour was unacceptable yet still tended to place the blame on external factors and other people.

The coach concentrated initially on building rapport and trust with this client, making it clear that she understood the good intentions that lay beneath his negative behaviour while consistently reminding him that his behaviour had to change. An early 3-way meeting with the CEO helped furnish the coach with clear instances of the FD's problematic conduct as well as examples of his very real strengths.

The coach used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® as a rapid and affirming route to increasing this individual's self-awareness. She also looked for possible links between his aggressive behaviour and past situations. It emerged that he had been bullied by his older brother and that early in his career he had worked for a boss who was prone to bullying outbursts. At some level he had identified with these negative role-models and found himself behaving in the same way under stress. A recent reorganisation in the company had put him under particular pressure and had lead to the deterioration in his usual levels of self-control.

The coach and client then examined in detail what was most likely to trigger his inappropriate behaviour. Once these factors had been clearly identified, his coach was able to help him generate and practice strategies for controlling his negative feelings before they were expressed. For example, he began to prepare for difficult meetings by visualising himself reacting calmly and professionally to what might feel like a provocative challenge. If all else failed, he would excuse himself, leave the room and go for a walk for a few minutes in order to calm down. On the occasions when he still became angry, he would take responsibility and apologise afterwards to those affected.

Over a 9-month period, the FD became much more successful at managing himself and his emotions. His outbursts became first less frequent and then a thing of the past. With the coach's encouragement he began to invest more time and effort into building effective relationships with his staff. When the 360 was repeated one year after the survey that had triggered the coaching, his scores had significantly improved in all areas relating to leadership of people.