Experience coaching

November 2011 » Columns » LEADERSHIP
Ed Friedrichs

A recent article in RHR International's Executive Insight prompted me to think about grooming successors. How are the future leaders of your organization going to gain the hands-on experience to prepare them for the roles they'll need to undertake? How do you "battle test" them to find out how they'll react when confronted with the complex situations that you encounter day in and day out?

My ideas expressed here are designed to accelerate that development, readying a candidate for a future leadership role. RHR divided its discussion into three categories of consideration that make eminent sense: the individual and the characteristics to be developed; the types of experiences that would best drive development; and a process to provide timely feedback and coaching.

How are the future leaders of your organization going to gain the hands-on experience to prepare them for the roles they'll need to undertake?

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The experience
Design the experience your candidate is going to undertake in a way that exposes him or her to a relevant challenge in your organization – one that matters. Give them the responsibility and the authority to act for the firm, and make your support explicit and visible. Be clear to the person about the philosophy of the firm that will filter the way they are expected to act. This is not an opportunity for the person to go off as a free agent, but rather to have an experience in which they are going to gain insights into leadership and decision making in the broader context of your firm.

Such an experience can be a "line" responsibility such as the development of a new practice area, or a "staff" mission such as a change in a process like building information modeling.

The individual
Each person is unique, having individual strengths and talents. Likewise, leadership roles can be played out differently and should be tailored to personal characteristics and style. When placing a future leader into a role in which you expect him or her to gain experience, take into account the person's unique character and learning style.

One outside assessment that I've used many times comes from a book by The Gallup Organization, titled "Now Discover Your Strengths," by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton. The book contains a code for a Gallup website where the reader can participate in a profiling questionnaire and get immediate feedback on his or her talents. I've found it unerringly accurate and a wonderfully useful tool in guiding individual development. It also will help you design the experience you're placing the person into in a way that is uniquely calibrated to take advantage of who they are.

Feedback and coaching
You cannot simply throw someone into a situation and let them sink or swim. Your mission is to guide the learning and style of the individual without imposing your own and to allow them to face and deal with tough challenges and resistance, learning how to succeed and, if necessary, to fail. Be there as a sounding board and coach, but let them pursue the endeavor personally and on their own – as long as they're not endangering or placing the firm or a client at gross risk.

Stay alert to the individual strengths and talents the individual exhibits, guiding his or her personal development as a leader. Point out style differences along the way between your candidate's style, that of others you can observe together, as well as contrasting it to your own. You will find that your own coaching skills improve dramatically the more frequently you undertake this type of experience coaching.

Ed Friedrichs is chairman of ZweigWhite. He previously was president of Gensler, Architecture Design and Planning Worldwide. During his tenure at Gensler he established the firm's successful practice areas in entertainment, transportation, urban and master planning, and strategic facility consulting. He can be contacted at info@zweigwhite.com.


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