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The Importance of Context and Structure for Leader Success

Kevin Nourse, PhD,
February 12, 2021
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As an executive coach, I am often invited into organizations to help peak performing leaders get ready for a promotion to transition into a new role. Performance is the result of a leader's ability as well as the presence of contextual factors that support peak performance. While coaching can help accelerate skill development, learning, and development, it is not very efficient in addressing inadequacies in these contextual factors. Even when there are clear developmental needs among leaders for which coaching can help address, these factors will limit the success of a coaching effort.

What are some of these contextual and structural factors? Consider the case of Barbara, a new senior program manager in a healthcare organization. Her organization embraces a matrix design where she reports to both a clinical and a service line leader, as well as administrative manager responsible for staff management.

Barbara’s managers had widely differing views about the nature and focus of her role as well as outcomes. As a result, she struggled because of the mixed and conflicting messages she often received from each of her managers. Barbara was further disengaged when her two managers decided she needed an executive coach to help her improve her behavior and attitude. While Barbara was open to coaching and achieved some useful insights, it did little to address the lack of alignment between her bosses.

What are some of the structural and contextual factors that impact both executive success and the success of a coaching engagement?

Job Role Design and Success Outcomes

For executives to excel, they should have a well-designed description of their role with a manageable set of responsibilities and performance outcomes. Also, a surprising number of organizations I have worked with are ineffective in communicating to a newly promoted leader about how an executive should achieve the goals of their role - the core competencies and organizational values they should demonstrate in producing results. For example, I recall one leader who faced near derailment because her direct and command-oriented style was incompatible with the norms of her organization’s culture which was highly collaborative.

Clear Accountability

A lack of clear accountability and reporting for a leader can lead to role ambiguity, unnecessary conflict, and diminished career potential. Executives should understand to whom they are accountable. The case of Barbara noted above is an excellent example of consequences of unclear accountability.

Job Fit

Poor executive performance sometimes results from a bad fit with their job role. An executive may have a long list of talents and skills, but if their personality or motivations don't match the job, coaching won't make a difference. One typical scenario I see involves individual contributors who are not motivated to be leaders, especially in technical, scientific, and clinical fields. The sad reality is that some organizations continue to embrace the mistaken belief that a successful individual contributor is always an ideal leader. 

In one instance, a technical leader I coached had little interest in managing people but took the role because she did not feel as though she could say no to her boss. As a result, she often ignored performance issues among her direct reports since she was more interested in the technical responsibilities of her job. Moreover, my client did not see herself as a leader, making it exceedingly challenging to help her develop her leadership skills given her self-perception and career interests.

Support from Above

Support comes in many forms - feedback, autonomy, and incentives to perform. I am often surprised at how little quality feedback my leadership coaching clients receive from their managers - to the point that I often wonder whether I should be coaching the boss. Quality feedback is timely and behavioral, whether developmental or positive. It is particularly critical during and after a coaching engagement, where my clients experiment with new behavior and need feedback to reinforce their development.

Autonomy for a leader is also a crucial contextual factor promoting success in an executive. I’ve coached some leaders viewed by others as too passive because they were not proactive in driving change. In some cases, they had the necessary skills to step up but lacked confidence because they were unsure about how much autonomy they had to act.

Incentives to improve performance represent an essential form of support from a boss for an executive undergoing a coaching intervention. For example, incentives like financial and non-financial rewards, greater role autonomy, or recognition. This factor goes hand-in-hand with removing barriers that limit performance improvement. For example, a leader I coached received feedback that she needed to demonstrate greater gravitas or executive presence in meetings with senior leaders. However, her boss limited her access to the CEO and other senior leaders, diminishing the impact of the coaching engagement.

Executive performance is a by-product of a leader's skills and motivations as well as contextual and structural elements. Executive coaching is an efficient way to accelerate a leader's ability to perform in a current or future role assuming these elements are in place and functioning well.

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Dr. Kevin Nourse has more than 25 years of experience developing transformational change leaders in healthcare and other sectors. He is the founder of Nourse Leadership Strategies, a coaching and leadership development firm based in Southern California. For more information, contact Kevin at 310.715.8315 or kevin@nourseleadership.com

(c) 2020 Kevin Nourse

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