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Coaching Case Study: Newly Promoted COO

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In this case study, I share my experience as an executive transition coach supporting a Chief Operations Officer (COO) and how I helped her prevent career derailment.

Susan is a recently promoted COO in a large healthcare system. Her boss promoted her to her first C-Suite position mainly based on her experience, technical brilliance, and ability to clean up operational challenges. However, the skills that helped her reach her dream job were different from the right skills to enable her to succeed. Struggling in her new role, she realized she needed more support than her CEO could provide, so she engaged me as her executive transition coach. 

Susan’s Perspective

Based on conversations with Susan and her direct reports and an assessment of her personality type, I began to make sense of the situation. She struggles in her new role because her people will not step up and take responsibility for their functional areas. Fiercely loyal to her boss Steve, she wants to improve her business results but is still trying to figure out how to do this with the team she inherited.

Nothing was changing despite her efforts to involve herself in the day-to-day functioning of her subordinates’ organizations. She was frustrated with her staff and refused to recognize them, believing they would slack off even more if she did this. More importantly, Susan was frustrated that her talent for fixing broken organizations used to be valued by her employer but is now frowned upon. She feels the rules changed on what constitutes effective behavior for leaders somewhere along the way, and nobody told her. Susan wonders whether it was a mistake to take on this role and has considered stepping back into her former position.

Coaching Assessment Discoveries

As an executive coach, I always collect information from both my client and key stakeholders as an initial attempt to clarify the focus of our work. I administered the Hogan Personality Assessment so Susan could discover her strengths, potential derailers under stress, and core values. Among her insights from Hogan:

  • Tendency to isolate herself, work alone, and avoid reaching out to others in the organization.
  • Conscientious about her work, but also reluctant to delegate
  • Set very high standards for herself and others
  • Under stress, would become very risk-averse, fail to innovate and become overly reliant on her boss’ approval before acting

The Hogan Assessment provided some valid hypotheses I could test through behavioral interviews with her key stakeholders. Her raters suggested she struggled with delegation, building collaborative relationships with her peers, and having high standards for her team but not communicating those standards to them. Her boss, Steve, also mentioned that she was too dependent on his approval at times before taking action to address critical priorities they had already discussed.

Coaching Approach and Strategies

Once we debriefed her feedback report, Susan decided to set three primary development goals:

  • Improve her capacity to delegate and coach her team
  • Build stronger collaborative relationships with her peers
  • Shift her approach to her role from doer to leader

Based on her goals, we explored several strategies in our coaching sessions:

  • Susan practiced delegation conversations with me as if I was one of her direct reports.
  • She developed a system for delegation including a way to track tasks such as due dates, assigned staff, and notes on their level of performance.
  • Committed to stress management practices such as mindfulness, exercise, and yoga.
  • Left her office more often to informally stop by colleagues and direct reports’ offices to chat and build relationships.
  • Gaining greater clarity from the CEO on goals in her new role for the next 3, 6 and 9 months.
  • Recognizing when she was overusing her strengths.

Coaching Engagement Outcomes

At the end of the six-month engagement, I collected some feedback from selected stakeholders about changes they noted in Susan's leadership skills. Based on this feedback, Susan achieved most of her goals and shifted her reputation to a strategic leader. Her direct reports felt more engaged and supported by her, with greater clarity about her expectations. As a result, they were more willing to step up and take on additional responsibilities, freeing up more of Susan’s time to conduct strategic planning and proactive relationship-building with her boss and peers. 

Promotions can be a time of great excitement as leaders increase their compensation, achieve a new title, and expand their scope. However, given their greater visibility and heightened expectations at the C-Level, they may also present an opportunity for derailment. Executive transition coaching is one way to help new leaders adapt to their new role and thrive. 

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Dr. Kevin Nourse is an executive transition coach specializing in helping newly hired or promoted executives thrive. He is the founder of Nourse Leadership Strategies, an executive and team coaching firm based in Southern California. For more information, contact Kevin at 442-420-5578 or kevin@nourseleadership.com.

(c) 2023 Kevin Nourse

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