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Ask The Coach

Ask the Coach appears regularly in New England In-House. Two expert executive coaches, Dr. Lew Stern and Linda Lerner, share their thoughts and ideas in answering your questions on complex management and leadership issues and difficult work situations.
We are excited to be able to bring together the depth of experience and insights that these two coaches offer. The topics for this question and answer format will be based on your questions and those most frequently asked by their clients. Lerner and Stern will respond to one or two questions and we reserve the right to edit questions for clarity and length.
Have a question? Send it to: executivecoach@comcast.net. (No names will be published.)

Question: I have to rely on many people in my role as a corporate attorney. Some of those people report to me and I have some leverage to influence them to do what I ask of them. Many others are beyond my sphere of authority. I’m getting to the point where I feel like I can depend on fewer and fewer people to give me what I want so I can deliver on my own commitments.
With my own direct reports, I’m using the company’s process to address issues of performance and competence. Even with them I often get to the point where I feel they have reached their maximum potential and it’s not enough. With the others, they just don’t seem to get it and end up giving me far less than I expected, often at the last minute or after I really need it. I have worked in several companies over the past 10 years and found this problem to be getting worse. Am I missing something or has there been a general degradation of the standards of the people in the work force and what is considered reasonable quality and timeliness in corporate America? Do I need to lower my own expectations, or can I be doing something differently to get people to give me what I need at a reasonable level of quality and on time so I can serve my company well?

Answer: No, yes, and yes. We do not believe there has been a significant degradation of the work force. But there may be several disconnects which could make you feel that way.
First, there are major differences between generations when it comes to what is considered high quality and reliability.
Second, your high standards may be much higher than most others’ but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are right and they are wrong.
Third, you may need to be more direct and clear about what you want from people and when you want it than you might think you need to be.
Fourth, most companies are running lean these days with fewer people trying to do more with less resources in less time.
And finally, you may assume people should do what you want them to do just because you think it’s important. You need to understand what they care about so you can collaborate with them and help them get what they want. That will make it more likely that they will help you.
But there is something to your frustration about people just not being able to do everything you expect of them at a high level of performance. Today, there is an unreasonable expectation about people being able to do lots of things very well. Very few people are that versatile, nor can they manage their time, understand what others tell them, and work efficiently to get everything done to which they have committed.
And most of us have some significant weaknesses or holes in our skill portfolio or aptitude which just won’t get any better. After you do whatever you can to be clear about what you want and collaborate with people to maximize their motivation to help you, you may need to learn to accept that people have limits and you need to expect certain things from some people and others things from others.
It often helps to fill in the gaps by relying on more people for different things rather than a few to fulfill most of your needs. Sometimes it is “as good as it gets.” But that doesn’t mean people are incompetent or disloyal or lazy. It just means they have limits, need support, and should be relied on most to do the things they do best.
Here are a few suggestions on what you can do differently to get more of what you want from others:

  • Change some of your expectations and do a “reality check” on your standards.
  • Expand your pool of people on whom you rely.
  • Collaborate and communicate better with people to make sure they know what you need and that they are more likely to do what you ask.
  • When you don’t get what you need from someone, describe what you needed, what you perceive that you got, what the gap was, the impact that gap had, how you felt about it, and what you would like them to do differently this time or next.
  • Don’t assume people know when they have disappointed you or what you want from them to better support you.
  • Don’t assume you are right and others are wrong and that your needs and priorities are the most important ones for everyone else.
  • And if you truly believe the level of quality at work is inadequate and it’s affecting your customers and your business results, say and do something constructive about it rather than stay resentful or just talking about the problem.
    Most people really do want to do a good job and aren’t out to sabotage their co-workers. But that doesn’t mean everyone can do everything well. And given today’s lean organizational resources, so much of what could be interpreted as unresponsiveness may just be a lack of time to do it all and a different set of priorities from one part of a company to another.
    Assume the best about people. Reach out to build collaborative working relationships. And work to make sure that you and the people with whom you work understand what you need from each other. I have seen that those who follow these simple but tough guidelines are often amazed how much more productive they can be and how much less frustrating it can be to try to do a high-quality job.
    Dr. Lew Stern is president of Stern Consulting, and is a senior level executive coach and leadership consultant with over 25 years experience working across many industries in the U.S. and abroad. He is the chairman of the board of The Executive Coaching Forum, and is a frequent speaker and writer. He can be reached at sternconsulting@comcast.net, or at (781) 235-0205.
    Linda Lerner coaches executive managers and professionals in various fields. Her coaching and human resources experience provide consulting on best practices to a broad range of businesses. Previously she was senior vice president and member of the Executive Committee at USTrust. She serves as chairman of the Stonehill College Human Resources Certificate Program and is principal of Lerner Consulting Services. She can be reached at: Linda@Lernerconsulting.com or at (617) 262-2260.

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