I am celebrating my 15th anniversary this year -- in providing Breakthrough Leadership Coaching. This process is different from what I provide as a Growth Coach, where the leader’s development is more additive. Breakthrough Coaching is more transformative. When I started this coaching 15 years ago, I had been in business about 8 years but knew very little about the coaching profession. There were no coaching certifications or federations at that time. There were not the abundance of coaching providers that there are today.

I was asked by a client if I could coach one of their rising stars to help him become effective at leading the knowledge transfer around his area of technical expertise. He was considered a genius in his field but his struggles in interpersonal communication and leadership were keeping the company from being able to leverage his knowledge and achievements throughout the world. Since I had never provided what I refer to now as Breakthrough Coaching, I adapted an approach from a consulting process I used with clients called the Customer Satisfaction Review – interviewing key customers and coach client to improve customer satisfaction.

Breakthrough Coaching is a transformative opportunity for the individual but it does not transform the person. It just helps the person achieve breakthrough improvements in their leadership competency by better leveraging their strengths and keeping their weaknesses from getting in the way of their strengths. Not all coaches provide Breakthrough Coaching and not all coaching assignments need it. The best candidates for Breakthrough Coaching are for those that are very talented in their area of expertise and have the potential to multiply their contribution if they improve their leadership, management or interpersonal communication skills. Sometimes they are rising stars that are beginning to run into some advancement roadblocks and sometimes the individual’s technical/business accomplishments are being watered down by poor working relationships or complaints about their leadership. For the latter, I often get comments up front like, “I don’t believe he will change but we should at least give him a chance“ and “This will be one of your most difficult coaching assignments ever.” But after doing this for 15 years, I believe that people can change and am very optimistic about people’s capability to have a leadership development breakthrough or turn around negative perceptions that others have of them. As it relates to the rising stars, I am not a believer in the Peter Principle as a limiting factor -- that people rise to their level of incompetence. I believe rising stars plateau and face challenges in continuing their leadership competency rise. Not all will continue to ascend in their leadership competency growth but I believe that most can -- if they break through some of their own historical behaviors/principles that might become a roadblock.

My Breakthrough Coaching Model  is just an “itinerary” for our journey. It’s an opportunity (for those that I coach) to learn, apply what they learn to the workplace and create the discipline to make it a habit.

What is a Breakthrough Development? The following are some examples:

• Addressing damaged peer relationships by learning the skill of rebuilding and improving trust

• Transform from being an “intellectual bully” to an effective facilitator of knowledge transfer

• Overcoming a fear of not having enough to do if more responsibility is delegated to direct reports

• Reversing burnout by learning personal balance and better prioritization of important but not urgent activities

The breakthroughs described above were challenges that were very instinctive in nature and often the downside of their most valuable strengths. Breakthrough development often involves trying to leverage the strength but mitigate the downside of that strength. It is definitely possible for people to change or at least compensate for the downside of what is natural to them. It is also important for both the individual and the company to believe in their ability to change as well.

I have been lucky to coach some great people who really took advantage of the special opportunity that Breakthrough Coaching provides. I have witnessed some unexpected turnarounds and some accelerated advancements. Each one of them that has a leadership development breakthrough teaches me about what differentiates those who break through vs. those who don’t. I have learned a lot from them and believe there are 3 keys to breakthrough development for leaders:

Key #1: The “Out-of-Body Experience”

It is difficult to improve our leadership competency and influence others around us without first understanding ourselves at a more in-depth level. Phase 2 above refers to the coach interviewing key stakeholders to get others’ view of what is expected of the person I am coaching – including their strengths and areas for improvement. Since this feedback is perception-based, the challenge for any individual receiving this feedback is to see it in a depersonalized way – as if it is about someone else. This is what I mean about the “out-of-body” experience. For example, some interview feedback that one individual received was, “He sometimes makes a face. He has a hard time hiding his feelings and needs to learn to soften his words in a group setting. If there is an issue in a meeting that is annoying him, he goes after that person publicly.” It would be easy for you and me to tell Joe to take this feedback constructively and to seek to understand – in order to learn from it. The challenge for Joe is to be able to look at this feedback as if it was about you and me, not about him. After a while, Joe got the hang of it and said to me, “That Joe is messed up. I’m sure glad I’m not him.” More importantly, taking advantage of this fresh view of themselves through the eyes of others can help these individuals achieve a leadership development breakthrough.

Another step in the “out of body experience” is to better understand how you see yourself and the world around you. This can help you get a more in-depth understanding of how you believe you influence the world around you and how you perceive your natural strengths vs. what you expect to see from others. I was lucky enough to have been trained/certified in the Birkman Method 27 years ago. Most personality profiles do not have the depth of information to facilitate this “out of body experience” that is needed to look at yourself in this way. For example, there are people who see themselves as direct and straightforward but don’t really see themselves as any more straightforward as anyone else. They may not understand why others see them as blunt because they don’t see themselves as any more straightforward than anyone else. Understanding that blind spot can be a key to help them improve their leadership competency and how they influence others around them.

Key #2: Having a Reason to Change

Believe it or not, getting a promotion or keeping your job is not as big of a motivator as you might think – at least as it relates to improving your leadership competency. In those that I coach, the reasons for changing/improving will vary. For one of my clients, the reason for changing was to be available for family time and exercising. For another, it was about feeling bad about how his communication and leadership approach was causing peers and subordinates stress that spilled over to their family life. For another executive, improving delegation was more about lifelong issues in trusting others to do things as well as he could. In all of these “reasons,” there was an internal reason to improve, not just an external reason of being recognized, rewarded or promoted.

There are some who are only going through coaching because their boss asked them to. There are some, during the coaching process, who may consider changes because their future advancement seems to be riding on it. There are some that believe that the negative feedback or flags being raised by others is wrong because the problem is with the other people, not them. Those external motivators often don’t motivate people to change. Having an internal reason to improve makes a very powerful case for improvement – to themselves.

Key #3: Development Momentum

It is great for me as a coach to see someone get an “Aha” learning moment right before my very eyes. I can see their enthusiasm and passion returning as they realize they just arrived at a turning point. I can see them become instantly more confident that they really can break through. Unfortunately, the learning from this “aha” moment can dissolve quickly if they lose momentum in taking that learning forward with their actions. Momentum is defined as the product of mass and velocity – the heavier the object and faster you get it going, the more momentum you will have and the easier it will be to move it faster. It takes a lot of effort to get started for very little progress in the beginning of your development effort. But if the effort is kept up, the progress on development goals will increase at a faster and faster pace. Momentum is really about executing your specific developmental actions, applying the learning to the regular workplace – at a regular, ongoing pace. Avoid the starts and stops with your development plan execution. Development is not your full time job but it needs to be part of your regular tasks/actions.

I don’t know the neuroscience behind this momentum phenomenon. I have seen that if there are long time lapses between the “aha” moment and the actions that lock the learning into everyday actions, then a certain amount of the improvement seems to get lost. It’s almost like when there is momentum, the development progress seems to exponentially multiply because the learning builds upon itself. But if the individual loses momentum, it’s that same feeling that you have when you thought of something important but forgot what you were going to say. It’s just gone and you’re not sure how get it back.

I try now to have the talk with the people I coach – right after they complete their Development Plan. I let them know that it is normal after completing the Plan to lose momentum and that some of the learning will be lost if not applied. Many heed this advice but some do not. They find more and more inertia to get going again the longer they wait. Improving leadership competency is not something you do when you have time. By definition, you should be trying to be a more competent leader all the time.

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Breakthrough leadership development is a journey and like any journey, it is better to take advantage of the experience than to be too concerned about the destination. Whether you are coaching a direct report, going through a leadership training program or are one of the people I coach, I believe that a leadership development breakthrough is possible for any person. As Anthony Robbins states, “All personal breakthroughs begin with a change in beliefs.”

Mike Goodfriend is an executive coach, teamwork engineer and meeting facilitator. Since 1989, Goodfriend & Associates has been helping leaders and leadership teams increase their strategic advantage through achieving higher levels of competitive advantage, teamwork/alignment, leadership competency and excellence/customer satisfaction. Mike Goodfriend can be reached at 713-789-6840 or via email at mikeg@goodfriendconsulting.com.

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