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N. Elizabeth Fried, Ph.D.

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How Can Executive Coaching Improve Time Management and Performance Feedback?

In my prior article I discussed my definition of an executive coach and how I work with clients to improve their communication skills.  Specifically, I covered addressing difficult conversations, active listening skills, and developing presentations.  This time we are going to take a brief look at time management and employee development. 

When time management is a concern for a client, a top resource is Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which is the industry staple.   I also recommend, Prioritize, Organize:  The Art of Getting it Done by Peg PickeringAlthough it was published in 2002, it contains a series of very useful exercises and practical tips. 

Time management impacts a number of areas.  Let’s start with conducting a meeting.  Running an effective meeting requires planning and setting an agenda.  This typically begins with sending out agenda requests to attendees, determining priorities based on the allotted time, then disseminating the final agenda to attendees with estimated time allotments for each item.  This process insures that attendees can be prepared and know what to expect, helping to keep the meeting on track. A scribe should be assigned to take minutes and note action items.  These minutes should be completed within with a day or so and sent to all attendees. Subsequently, these action items usually top the list of “old business” for the next meeting and hold people accountable for their assignments.  

Additionally, the meeting should start on time and end on time, which requires that the executive stick to the plan.  It is easy to get derailed and waste time if this simple practice is not observed.  Showing up late or being disorganized is ultimately disrespectful to all attendees.  It telegraphs the message that your time is more important than others.  All documents should be organized and easy to retrieve when an agenda item comes up.  Shuffling through papers in search of the relevant document is irritating to attendees, making the executive appear unprepared and can derail the schedule.

 Another aspect of time management is setting priorities.  That requires eliminating distractions and determining what is important, urgent, not important, or can be delegated.  Generally at the end of the day, the executive should plan for the next day, resulting with a clear list to start the day fresh.  At the start of the day, the list should be reviewed and items checked off as they are completed.  At the end of the day, the list should be reviewed and priorities reassessed for anything that may not have been completed.  For incomplete items, I have clients ask themselves, “Why?”  Was it simple procrastination?  Was it an unexpected emergency?  Was it a series of minor distractions?  Answers to these questions will help them prevent avoidable issues in the future so they can be more effective the next day. 

Delegation is another aspect of time management.  Holding on to tasks that should clearly be delegated or micromanaging employees can derail an executive.  While delegation is a fundamental management skill, I often find that a newly promoted president or CEO hasn’t fully mastered this skill and doesn’t effectively use his or her support staff to assist with this process.  For example, seasoned executives will typically have his or her administrative assistant review requests for action and determine which member of the leadership team should handle the action item.  A skilled administrative assistant will forward the request to the appropriate leader, inform the top executive of the transmission, and then maintain a tickler file (a follow-up file) to check on the status.  The assistant will follow up to insure that the action item has been completed and inform the executive of the progress.  The executive only gets involved if there is an issue preventing completion or requires special attention.  The key for this to be effective is that a brief meeting takes place between the executive and the administrative assistant (usually first thing in the morning) and that the assistant has a deep knowledge of the organization and the complete trust of the CEO or president.  Additionally, the executive must insure that leadership team be made aware that the assistant is to be respected and has the full authority to act on his or her behalf. Here is where some coaching is required with executives.  Many are unaware of how to effectively utilize their support staff.  Once they understand the value of this, they recognize how it saves them significant time, allowing them to focus on more strategic, rather than tactical issues.  It should be said, that the effective use of support staff is not restricted to the head of the company.  The senior leadership executives can also apply these skills to delegate to their respective management teams. 

With electronic calendars and emails, it is easy for an executive to get caught up in doing some of this work directly.  It is important that the assistant have access to email and calendars to insure against potential miscommunications as well as prevent follow up action items from falling through the cracks.

When executives are promoted to the heads organizations, their new roles responsibilities put them in the spotlight.  Externally, this means they are now the face of the company to its shareholders and the public.   Internally, it means setting the standard for effective, high integrity leadership as a role model.  This includes setting and promoting the vision, mission, core values, and business strategy to help inspire and motivate all their constituencies, from the senior leadership team to rank and file employees. As the organization’s ambassador, this requires top-level presentation skills, an often difficult challenge for clients with a technical or scientific background.  In my prior article I discussed how to develop a compelling presentation using the concepts provided in the book by Dan and Chip Heath, entitled Made to Stick. Additionally, these executives may need the help of an acting or speech coach to help them with the delivery component as well as an image consultant to help them to “dress the part.” 

Another critically important and often overlooked executive role is being a coach to support the growth and development of the leadership team.   The executive’s job now is also to help the other leaders become better thinkers and prepare for succession.  This means regularly giving feedback, both positive and constructive to insure the company maintains that its “A” players stay on track.  Employee development requires providing time, resources, and support to allow for the refinement of critical skills required for their current jobs and growth opportunities to prepare them for the future.

In my experience, executives typically think they are doing an adequate job of providing positive feedback.  When their 360 degree feedback reports reflect lower scores in this area, it gives them pause for thought.   Additionally, they are often further surprised when I have them do the “penny exercise.”  This requires that they take five pennies and put them in one pocket at the beginning of the day and then each time they see a genuine opportunity to acknowledge something positive or show appreciation, they tell the employee and transfer the penny to the other pocket.  Most of the time, they are shocked to discover that they have only transferred one or two pennies all day.  They often tell me, “I guess I thought it, but it just didn’t come out of my mouth.”

The awareness of the deficiency of giving positive feedback provides the opportunity to work on both acknowledging employees as well as being very specific in the feedback they offer.  For example, just saying, “Thanks, you did a good job on the Dynasty presentation,” is not enough.  They need to be specific so that the recipient truly knows what he or she did well and can continue that behavior.  Specificity provides the “stickiness” needed to ingrain desired behaviors. A more effective acknowledgement would be: “You did a great job on the Dynasty presentation.  Your slides were well-designed, your explanation of their issues was concise and on point, your frequent smile and tone of voice projected warmth.  These combined factors all contributed to our winning this account.  We appreciate your hard work!” 

Additionally, if the executive felt the presentation could be further improved and wanted to add some constructive feedback as part of the coaching effort, the executive should first ask permission to give this feedback.  From a neuroscience perspective, this request enables the recipient to feel in control and avoids defensiveness.  It’s also important to use the word and not but when offering to give constructive feedback.  Using but will negate all the good things that were just said and person will only hear what was said after the but.  For example, an executive might approach the rest of the comment with: “…and if you would like further feedback on how to continue excelling on your next assignment, let me know. I’ll be happy to share some ideas for you to consider at a time that works for you.” 

As the top executive continues to grow in his or her role, developing sharper time management and personal coaching skills in the areas of giving positive and constructive feedback will help to improve productivity and boost morale.  Next time, we’ll talk about emotional intelligence.  Stay tuned.