Jan 302009

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

My leadership coaching engagements tend to focus initially on the habits and leadership style of the client. A first stop on this journey is often the way in which they gather and process information about their team members. Often executives – particularly CEOs – have developed insensitivity or blind spots that prevents them from achieving what I call ‘situational awareness’. The actual dynamics of any situation or relationship largely define what is possible. Lack of a sharply focused awareness of those dynamics is a primary reason why so many potentially powerful and inspirational leaders end up frustrated and ineffective. Improving situational awareness becomes one of the principal goals in leadership development.

I have developed a series of exercises that help a client become more aware. Each focuses on a particular dynamic that commonly occur and tests their ability to see clearly what is going on around them. In this series of articles, I plan to describe some of them. Here is one that I use regularly:

What are their motivations and how motivated are they: Every coach will tell you that you should not underestimate the power of motivated people. It is a mantra in the leadership-coaching field. However, the intellectual understanding that motivation is important is not, in and of itself, motivating. Understanding motivation – whether yours or that of others – is not an intellectual exercise. I have my client produce a ‘motivational map’ of group they are charged with leading. Initially the effort focuses on the individual members – what are their motivations, how strongly are they motivated and what competing motivations are draining their contributions to the group?

Initial efforts usually highlight a lack of situational awareness. Often, my client will tell me, “I haven’t a clue what motivates so-and-so?” My response is, “think about it, focus on the question, talk to so-and-so – get me an answer – not a confession of ignorance”. The first time I respond in this way the client is usually taken aback. Then they begin to focus on the reality – they are limited in their ability to lead if they do not know the answer to such a fundamental question.

I like to use this exercise early in most leadership-coaching engagement because of the ‘sun came up’ effect that it produces. More properly I should say ‘suns came up’ because of the multiple realizations that occur. Once the primitive and self-serving map has been discarded, the client goes on a journey of discovery. There is no way to ‘batch’ the process. Group discussions simply do not generate open and honest responses. The client has to spend time actually talking to each member of the group they are leading.

Early attempts at these discussions are generally unproductive – mostly because the group leader just pops the question – “hey Bob, what motivates you?” The blank stare, evasive replies or generalized responses usually convince the client that they have to develop a more subtle approach to discovering the level, nature and focus of a person’s motivation. It is at this point that real conversations – truly human conversations – begin to occur. The motivational map improves and the client’s understanding of the motivations of the group members becomes a much more significant component in their ability to manage and lead the group.

There are multiple ancillary benefits from this exercise. Here are a few. The first is that channels of communication open up between group members and the group leader. The second is that the nature of relationships between the group leader and members deepen and move towards a new, more personalized model. A third is, paradoxically, that the motivations of the group members tend to increase simply because they have experienced human conversations with the leader. A forth benefit is that, because of improved situational awareness of the motivations of group members, it becomes easier to the leader to increase and help to focus their motivations. Finally, the exercise tends to help evolve a stronger group identity and improve overall group motivation. The network of deepening relationships with the leader tends to begin to expand into relationships among group members.

Motivation maps are a good early step in any leadership coaching engagement. By focusing my client’s attention on a personal behavior that involves interaction with and awareness of others, personal and professional growth can be cultivated in ways that are not as well supported by more introspective approaches.

© Dr. Earl R. Smith II

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