A True Story of How One Company, Working with One Professional Executive Coach, Turned a Workplace Disruptor into an Inspirational Role Model
If you worked with George for a period of time, your impression would likely be a bit mixed. “I like George. He can be very charming. Though he seems to want to dominate every conversation.” George was considered a brilliant Chief Marketing Officer, but also a bully. One day, George’s need to feel powerful caused hurt and fear and nearly cost him his job.
George became verbally abusive to another employee. He got loud. He started throwing verbal insults. Eventually the employee broke down and cried. He realized that he went too far. He walked over to console her, perhaps to give her a supportive hug. He touched her. She went from feeling hurt and demeaned to feeling scared.
The employee filed a harassment claim with HR. Witnesses almost unanimously sided with the claimant even though George remained confused as to what he had done wrong.
The Cost of Saying Goodbye
Your first reaction to this might be, “Goodbye, George. You’re smart, but not worth all the tension and drama that you cause.”
As you might imagine, the CEO, head of HR, and other C-level members were concerned and wanted to respond appropriately. Due to the fact George behaved differently with his fellow leaders they liked him and appreciated his brilliance but understood his actions were not acceptable. Could we keep him and still seriously address the concerns.? Either way the remedy could be costly since the cost of replacing someone of George’s caliber would be expensive; probably 2 to 3 times his salary.
What’s a CEO To Do?
Did George deserve another chance? This was a serious complaint; a violation of the company’s code of conduct; more specifically, the harassment policy. situation. The CEO needed to demonstrate sensitivity and legitimizes the concerns while seeing if George was redeemable.
The CEO believed that – given the right chance intervention – George could change his attitude and his behavior. The CEO knew he had to do something, but had a gut feeling that George could do it. He made the somewhat controversial decision to put George through a 6-month developmental plan.
The goal was to get George to take responsibility for his actions, to become more self-aware of how his style impacted others in the company and to bring him the tools to become a true leader for his department. George reluctantly agreed to the plan.
You Can Only Coach the Coachable
Alan Dobzinski, Executive Coach and CEO of Accountability Experts, was tapped to see if the situation could be turned around. Remembers Alan, “After learning the details of this situation, I knew that this was going to be one tough assignment. People involved in these types of cases seem to find a way of feeling powerful at the expense of others. They are usually not open to coaching. On the other hand, the CEO thought that if George could see the consequences of his behavior, he had the ability to change. I knew that I had to bring my A-game to gain this guy’s trust and then help him see that there was another way to feel powerful.”
Alan also recalls that George was indeed “powerful,” but not in the best sense of the word. George was: loud, sometimes demanding, needed to be right, talked over people, wanted to be in control, and could be disruptive by always wanting things to go his way. What he thought was power was actually minimizing his effectiveness, a pattern often seen in harassment situations.
3 Principles at Work
There are three overarching principles that Alan brought to his work with George:
- Power – Alan realized, “I needed to attend to George’s feelings of power. If George felt threatened, he would push back and fight for his power at all costs. I wanted George to know and then experience, that he could be powerful in a way that would draw people to him, rather than push them away.”
- Empathy – Alan’s conversations with many of the other employees revealed that George was unable to express empathy. There was a huge gap in trust. George needed to learn how to express genuine empathy. It couldn’t be faked. “George felt empathy, but didn’t have the tools to display it,” says Alan.
- Self-Awareness – George’s assessment of himself was different than how others viewed him. Alan worked on helping George to see how his behavior negatively impacted others around him; how his need to feel powerful and his inability to express empathy prevented him from being an effective leader.Alan said, “What you’re doing isn’t working. Instead of pushing people away, you can start drawing them to you.” Slowly, but surely, George got it.
Trust Was Restored
George’s developmental plan included regularly-scheduled meetings with Alan, and check-ins with the company’s CEO every 60 days. At the first 60-day meeting, the CEO acknowledged that he was starting to see a change in George’s behavior.
At the third meeting, the CEO said, “George, you are becoming a role model for others. People are beginning to look up to you. It’s not just what I’m observing. This is what people are telling me. In fact, George, I trust you more than anyone else on my team.”
George was both pleased and moved. He said that he felt the same trust in return.
George had truly turned himself from a disruptor into to a role model.
The Gamble Paid Off
The firm would have been totally justified in firing George. Had they done so, George probably would have gone on to another firm, initially impressing them, and then repeating his mistakes. Keeping George and hoping he would grow was a gamble, but a gamble that paid off.
The 6-month developmental plan not only saved George his job. It saved George. He told Alan, “This unfortunate situation showed me how we can all make the workplace better using your Accountability with Care system. You’ve showed us a well-defined and clear path to have more open and safe communication that leads to more trust. I see more and more trust throughout the organization. And more care. I guess that’s why the CEO has asked you to share your system with the senior management team.”
A Kinder, Gentler George
In an email to Alan, the CEO wrote, “I have noticed ‘a kinder, gentler George,’ i.e. not the hard-driving, assertive Marketing Officer of first impressions, but a caring, interested, contemplative thinker, genuinely wanting to provide his assistance. And I am not the only one who’s noticed. George has fully evolved, removed all signs of being overbearing and ‘blossomed’ if you will, able to almost perfectly combine the hard-edge, objective analytical process with a very warm, genuine, personal and caring interest to assist any and all coworkers, at any level; he has become a consummate professional with charisma whom people not only respect but genuinely like and wish to work with – modeling the characteristics of strong leadership potential.”
As for Alan – the company has retained him for another six months of coaching with George – this time at George’s request – and has asked Alan to bring his Accountability with Care System™ to the rest of the leadership team to not only address harassment but workplace culture in general.
Obviously, this process of correction and improvement was intended to address the importance and too often ignored issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. Also important, however, is the Accountability With Care approach is a proactive strategy to make the workplace safe and supportive for everyone.
Alan Dobzinski said, “George went from needing to be the hero of everyone’s story, to becoming a guide who now helps others in the company become the heroes of their own stories.”
*Alan was brought in specifically to work with George and had no interaction with the claimant. HR provided the claimant with a great deal of caring support. She remains with the company.