Madeleine Homan Blanchard is on the Board of Directors and is Chief Coaching Architect at The Ken Blanchard Companies® and is a co-founder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine has 33 years of experience in the coaching profession and a deep understanding of working with organizations to leverage professional coaching, teach coaching skills to leaders, and create a coaching culture. Madeleine was a founding advisory board member of Coach University and a founding board member of The International Coaching Federation. Madeleine is a co-author of the best-selling books Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest: The Coaching Secrets Top Executives Depend On and Coaching in Organizations. Madeleine received her Bachelor’s degree in Theater and Performance Studies from Georgetown University and holds a Master of Science degree in Neuro Leadership from the University of Middlesex.
It is confounding that the qualities, strengths, and skills that turbocharge high achievers to the C-Suite turn out to not be the ones that will make them effective at the top. Or not the only ones, at least.
When the CEO is also the entrepreneur who started the company, this paradox is so commonplace that the term Founder’s Syndrome actually has its own Wikipedia page. It is also true that those who ascend through the ranks can often find themselves having to develop qualities or try on new behaviors that are not natural for them.
People who hopscotch quickly to executive leadership tend to be naturally comfortable with:
- Making decisions quickly and launching into action
- Change—lots of it
These are not qualities that tend to coexist with patience, the ability to slow down, or the detail orientation that process requires. The brilliant and hilarious culture consultant Stan Slap says (and I humbly paraphrase,) “If leaders knew how to get they wanted to go on their own, they would just go, and send a postcard saying ‘wish you were here.’”
Even leaders who are pretty good at bringing people along with them are often completely unprepared for the discipline and moderation of pace that is required to bring people along on a large scale. I think the biggest shock is the tedium.
As an executive coach, I have heard so many variations of “How is it possible that people don’t know this?” that one thing is clear to me:
Nothing that is obvious to an executive leader is obvious to anyone else.
- Not the vision—even though it was shared with great fanfare at the all-company meeting.
- Not the values—even though they are artfully displayed on strategically placed posters. (This is especially true in companies where folks have not been coerced back to the office.)
- Not the big picture strategy.
- Not the leaders’ standards of professionalism.
- Not the leaders’ expectations of their people.
What does this mean? It means that anything already made explicit—in writing and with announcements—needs to be repeated regularly. And it means anything implicit—almost always the unspoken rules a leader has for themselves and others—must be made explicit, and then repeated ad nauseum.
The part of the job of the executive leader that seems to always come as an unwelcome surprise is what I think of as the “3 Re’s”:
For fast-moving people who get things the first time, internalize the big picture, and have never needed to be reminded of anything, this reality is deeply unpleasant. It requires the patience of a saint. It requires diligence and self-control. It is, for most, unbearably boring at best, and can feel like babysitting at worst.
Examples of the kind of annoyance I hear all day long include questions such as:
Frustrated Question: “Do I really need to tell people that I expect them to be on time?”
Annoying Answer: Yes. If it is important to you.
Frustrated Question: “How can someone as well paid as she is not be prepared to present to the executive team with the right data?”
Annoying Answer: Because she was never expected to before, and no one ever showed her what a good job looks like. She will naturally show all the data she thinks might be important unless she knows exactly what kind of data the executive team wants. What she is paid is irrelevant.
Frustrated Question: “Why don’t people see the big picture?”
Annoying Answer: Because what makes people very good at their jobs is being able to focus on what’s in front of them. And then they tend to see only what’s in front of them. So if you want anyone to see the big picture, you have to paint the picture for them. On a regular basis.
On the rare occasion, an executive leader will have a direct report who just happens to share the same standards, has psychic abilities, reads minds, and can rise above the daily fray to see broader implications. These are your potential future executive leaders. And—I repeat—they are rare.
The rest of the perfectly lovely, well intended, totally competent employees are just trying to get their work done, stay in their lane, and not screw up. They are focused on producing results as well and as quickly as they can. They are in the weeds, so their executive leader doesn’t have to be.
The attention spans of these folks are in shreds from the volume of information coming at them, glazed eyed scrolling of the internet, and entirely too many platforms to navigate in the course of daily work. How can they be expected to know and remember anything that isn’t explicitly stated and repeated? They can’t be. And they shouldn’t be.
The good news is that the ways an executive’s people disappoint them, and the things an executive complains about most often, are valuable clues to expectations that the leader thinks are explicit and obvious but that most emphatically are not. If one accepts the fundamental truth that if people knew exactly how their boss wanted the job done, they would be doing it that way. Assuming best intentions, the only explanation for missed performance is that they did not know.
Maybe they were told but forgot. Maybe the rules changed, and they didn’t get the memo. Maybe nobody told them because it was believed to be self-evident.
Reminding people of what’s expected and what’s most important is a critical and relentless task that is often an unpleasant surprise. Executive leaders don’t want to hear it, because the sheer repetition is reminiscent of teaching a child to brush their teeth twice a day. Anyone who has grown children who actually brush their teeth twice a day knows that it is the result of twice daily reminders over a period of approximately 3000 days.
The best leaders have figured this out and have made their peace with it. They find ways to make it fun for themselves and their people. They use visual aids, they tell stories, they use music. They have accepted that creating clarity—again and again and again—is part of the job.