Paving the Way: Leaders on Coaching Other Leaders

April 14, 2015

[ikon images/corbis]
[ikon images/corbis]

Agency leaders often reach a point in their careers where they pivot from working with employees and teams and start coaching other leaders. This practice poses its own set of unique challenges and rewards.

Coaching leaders is different from coaching other professionals. These are people who have already succeeded, may have intense personalities and hold strong viewpoints. Working with them requires a special touch and sensitivity to the level of responsibility they hold in the organization.

I recently spoke about these issues with three “leader coaches,” including Rob Flaherty, CEO, Ketchum; Ellen Ryan Mardiks, vice chairman, president, consumer marketing practice, Golin; and Jim Joseph, president of the Americas and chief integrated marketing officer, Cohn & Wolfe.

Here, they share some of the insights particular to the PR profession, some of the missteps they’ve made along the way and, of course, their successes.

On advice and best practices for leading leaders:

Flaherty: One of the most important things is to recognize that they’re leaders. Establish a vision that’s meaningful to them and acknowledge they’re going to play a special role in achieving it. It’s like a blank canvas on a tight frame: The tight frame is your vision, and perhaps some of the core strategies, but they get to paint the canvas to achieve that vision for their part of the company.

To motivate the leaders who report to you, you have to set a good example by working hard and showing that you’re bringing value to the business. The idea that you create the vision and sit back and let them run with it sounds relaxing, but in the communications business in the 21st century, it’s not reality. Today, the leader of leaders isn’t bringing much value if they’re not doing hard work. It’s exhausting, and it’s supposed to be.

The use of the words “yes” and “no” are important. I’ve read that it’s important to say “no,” but you really have to know when to say “yes.” If you say “I don’t know” too often, you’re going to lose them. You have to know when to say “Go!” even when you’re on the fence. So say “yes” as often as you can, while running the business effectively.

Mardiks: When someone first becomes a leader, he or she is primarily a teacher. The challenge is recognizing that if you don’t pivot from teacher to mentor to coach, you won’t be an effective leader of leaders.

In mentoring, there’s an active relationship with someone who, in some way, is less developed than the mentor. But coaching a leader is a different thing. The leader-coach is pulling out the best in someone who’s already a leader, and possibly a star. It’s the coach’s job to bring out the best in them.

To effectively coach a leader, you move the conversation dynamic from statements, answers or instructions to asking the right questions.

Going through those pivot points is critical. Some are obvious, such as a promotion. When someone comes into a new role, you may have been the person who made that position available. That’s black and white. But there are softer pivot points — when you see a leader who you’re leading truly master a topic — that are critical too.

When you’re leading junior and midlevel people, you know what makes them tick and what doesn’t. But as you coach leaders, you need to create a bespoke leadership style, carefully crafting a highly individualized approach to each leader you coach. It’s different from person to person, and that’s hard.

Since you’re not as hands-on with them, it can take a lot more effort to find the customized leadership approach that works best. Doing so is even more important when leading leaders, because the stakes are higher.

Joseph: You have to be willing to step out of the way, allow them to lead, let them shine and do things as they see fit, with you acting more like the safety net. There are times when they need your leadership, but you have to know when to let them do their thing.

On some of the missteps made in leading leaders and what was learned from them:

Mardiks: A misstep is not realizing the need to shift your style as the people under you transition into leadership. A whole lot of people stick with the same style that used to be effective with that person, instead of recognizing that that person is now a leader.

I realized I was doing this, and hit myself on the forehead and said, “This person isn’t the person she was five or eight years ago.” I needed to shift in order to lead her effectively.

Joseph: The biggest misstep I’ve made, more than once, is assuming too much about what the person can achieve. I’ve been told I look at people and see what I want to see, not the reality. I often forget that even though they’re leaders, they’re still learning and growing.

Sometimes you have to go in and fix things. You jump back into management mode, you course correct, put in more check-in points and watch them more carefully.

When you have to do this kind of fix with a leader, you must focus on maintaining the relationship, and that’s all about having the right attitude. If you come in with: “Oh, my God, this is broken!” it’s going to worsen. If you approach it with an “I’m here for you, how can we make it better?” attitude, you’ll have a better outcome. You need a lot of communication. And you support their leadership by making these corrections privately. It’s through those moments that you build trust. You let them know that you’re there for them to succeed and you’re upholding their position.

Flaherty: I don’t give my leaders positive feedback frequently enough. I was raised in the strong, silent mode. I didn’t get a ton of positive feedback, so its scarcity gave it value.

But leaders need a lot of positive reinforcement from their leader, and that’s because the more senior you are, the fewer sources there are to compliment you. My direct reports only have me and their subordinates for this. I need to remind myself of that.

On the clear difference between leading employees and leaders:

Flaherty: I was fortunate to go to the Center for Creative Leadership’s “Leadership at the Peak” program when I was only 35. I was the youngest attendee, and I had just become the head of Ketchum New York. That week provided 360-degree feedback from a dozen people who worked for me, and the opportunity for introspection. I also attended the Ketchum Leadership Institute, which calls for lots of self-reflection.

I was particularly struck by Jack Welch’s quote: “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” That quote inspired me to shift my energy from growing myself to growing others, and subordinating my own goals to those around me.

In our business, it’s about the skills you bring as a practitioner, as a counselor. But then you shift from what you need to do to excel in your job to what you can do to help others do theirs. And that’s a critical transition.

Mardiks: It happened when I saw a strong individual I had led for years doing a job I had done before, but better. That was my “aha” moment. It felt good seeing her excelling to such a degree. At that point, I realized, “I’m now leading a leader, someone who is forging a new path, who’s going to create something on her own that will be truly great.” In that moment, I realized I had to create not just a new style but an entirely new way of working with this person.

Joseph: The moment occurred when I was running Saatchi Wellness, part of the Saatchi & Saatchi Group. I was reinventing the agency, re-engineering it to be not just about pharma, but about wellness, and expanding our skill sets from just advertising to integrated communications. To succeed, I knew I couldn’t do it alone, that this was bigger than me, and I needed proven leaders who could take my vision and direct their teams their way. That was a transformative moment.

On the unique challenges and pleasures that come from collaborating with leaders:

Mardiks: Seeing talented leaders step into their potential is a great joy. And the relationship continues and grows — you’re working with them, but in an entirely new way. It’s stimulating. And then you see that those leaders lead you right back. It becomes much more of a mutually beneficial relationship.

Flaherty: There is a unique pleasure in working with a set of leaders to come up with a vision, create a strategy for it and then to see it work. We’re in such a moment of transformation, aware of how much we need the agency to grow into new areas, and it’s gratifying to work with so many talented leaders on that.

Joseph: Watching leaders grow is the best part of the job. It’s amazing to see people engineer an initiative from end to end — design it, start it, assemble the people, overcome the roadblocks, bring it to fruition and come out a success. You see them grow and flourish, and their people grow and flourish, and it’s tremendously rewarding.

On the best counsel to provide new leaders who are just stepping into their roles:

Flaherty: In addition to developing others more than yourself, and the important interplay of the “yes” and “no,” remember that good leaders motivate their organizations by getting shared direction, shared alignment as to how to get there and showing the commitment to getting it done.

Joseph: The other part of the job that’s particularly rewarding is when you see the leaders you’re leading nurturing young talent. As you get higher and higher in a bigger organization, you have less of that interaction. Seeing younger talent growing their careers is rewarding, because they are your organization’s future.

Mardiks: First, embrace the tremendous excitement of seeing others excel. Second, be there as a sounding board. The leaders you’re now [managing] are competent, confident people. But they still want a sounding board. Third, coach actively. Don’t just lean back and watch what happens. Know when to get in there!

When you go through the years as a doer and a manager, you believe that you can do anything and that no one can do it better than you. But now’s the time to go outside of yourself and embrace the mentality of “I’m going to let them be even better than I am. I’m going to help them be better than I am, and I’m going to celebrate that they’ve done it better than I did.”

When you become a leader of leaders, you embrace that others are better than you, and when you help them achieve it, that’s nirvana.

Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs is principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching. Visit his website ( and contact him by email ( or Twitter (@KensViews).


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