Posts in Leading from the Middle
Moving from overwhelmed and unfocused to a high performing leader

When she started her coaching Mariya's aim was simple, she wanted to take back control of her time and stop feeling so overwhelmed. As she got into her programme though she was able to focus on empowering her leadership team, fostering robust conversations where everyone gets a say, encouraging a culture of sustainable change and learning and enabling better onboarding of new leaders. This in turn enabled her to step back from the day-to-day operational challenges and focus on offshore centre strategy and how it linked to wider company strategy.

Ultimately, the members of her leadership team and the teams they headed up were more motivated and capable, which had a positive impact on business results.

Historically the offshore teams had worked in silos, with little collaboration between each other. Mariya worked hard to get her leaders comfortable having conversations with each other, questioning, challenging and disagreeing without falling out, and asking each other for help before coming to her.

So, for example, where before issues of consultant under-performance would quickly be escalated to her, they were dealt with by the team leaders. Or when the company reorganised, the team leaders worked together to enable a smooth transition, rather than involving Mariya every painful step of the way. And when a big project meant people were being pulled out from her teams, the team leaders again worked together to manage the impact, rather than competing against each other, requiring Mariya to act as referee, as they would have done in the past.

The knock-on effect of getting her team leaders and teams to collaborate more effectively with each other was that this also enabled them to collaborate much better with other parts of the business as well as with customers and suppliers.

From high performer to high performing leader

DIRECTOR OF SALES

We worked with a data warehousing director of sales, who was taking longer than he had expected to transition from high performing account director to leading a sales team. He had spent his first twelve months in post doing what he did best – being the best salesperson on his team. Unfortunately, this limited team member autonomy and slowed down the sales cycle. Further, he was heading toward burn-out. He realised things needed to change significantly if he was going to make his target for the year. The pace of work wasn't sustainable and if he wanted his team to succeed, they needed to break out of the cycle of chasing every deal just to make this quarter’s number and start acting more strategically, which required him to stop micromanaging and start leading.

Through his Leading From the Middle programme he was able to step back from operational issues and trust his very talented team to do their job. He developed a sustainable vision and strategy which would enable long term success and cascaded this down to his team as clear goals, with milestones and a robust reporting framework. He coached and mentored individual team members in planning and problem solving but didn’t interfere with implementing solutions. And he made sure they had the necessary resources to do their job.

By the end of his programme he had aligned team goals with wider business goals and established longer term targets, not just for revenue but for targeting new clients where there was a good fit and prospects for long term and productive relationships.

It’s still early days for this director but he is getting results. He has a sound strategy for growth which is supported by his vice president. Team members are much more motivated, clearer about what they are doing and work with far greater autonomy. The director of sales is less stressed and confident he is moving in the right direction.

Coaching the small stuff gets big results

PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MANAGER

A head of professional services realised that when his managers constantly came to him to solve problems, he became a bottle neck and issues got delayed, plus his workload greatly increased. He wanted his direct reports taking more decisions on their own and encouraging the same behaviour in their teams, making them all more effective.

During his Leading From the Middle programme he recognised coaching as a skill he could learn and apply right away. He saw it as a powerful tool to stimulate the thinking of his managers, but that it was also something he could use with peers, between teams and with customers. He took it slowly at first, allowing his team time to adjust to his new approach of asking questions rather than telling. Coaching on the job helped him become a better manager, who delegates more. He stopped taking on additional work by helping others think through issues and generate options for moving forwards, freeing himself up to focus on higher value activity. He also encouraged his direct reports to coach their teams and has seen confidence improve as individuals take on and succeed in more complex tasks.

An unexpected outcome was that learning to coach also extended his listening capability. Where before he would finish people’s sentences or just give them a solution, he now takes a step back and hears people out. He is more patient with his team – which is validated by his boss – and customers have also benefited – he listens more attentively to be clear what their issues are, which has helped him handle a number of difficult customer situations much more effectively.

Learning to lead by not getting in the way of your team

Principal consultant

This highly skilled technical consultant and manager worked on the customer’s site with his project implementation team. He was the central point of contact for all issues, which while reassuring for the customer was frustrating for him as he couldn’t find time to fulfil his management duties. Additionally he was a bottleneck, with everyone having to wait in line until he could deal with their query, which slowed down response rates for resolving customer problems.

The manager wanted to take a step back, trust people to do a good job and monitor what was being done. He knew micromanagement was an issue for him and he had been trying to extend his delegation skills for 15 years but now he wanted his team to become the main point of contact for the customer.

By adapting his coaching skills he quietly began to put his plan into action. He began asking the team questions to help them think through problems and come up with some options for moving forwards. He is now able to refer customer issues directly to one of his team to deal with. He said:

It is a little thing and it has had a big and positive impact. It gives the guys accountability to do something and I will be there if they need me.

Furthermore, he encouraged the team to use each other as a resource and to work out problems together rather than waiting to escalate it. By encouraging them to think for themselves, the team felt more engaged and involved in the tasks, which had a beneficial impact on motivation.

Identifying high potentials in the team was also important – there is a real shortage of senior technical staff in the company, so developing his people has been a great benefit. The team has a wider skill set and capability, they are now better equipped to work on different projects with more responsibility than before and there is less reliance on the same few individuals to take on increasingly challenging work from the customer. As for the customer, they know the team members and engage with them better. They also recognize the valuable contribution team members make, which helps the manager justify their professional rates.

Having freed up some of his time, the manager was able to undertake senior technical work and be the manager. Additionally, he used his newly gained people skills to support valuable pre-sales work to help the company win more business. He also reported a better work / life balance, where he works fewer hours but both he and his team get more done, and make a far greater contribution to achieving company goals than before his programme.

Getting the basics right for a step-change in business results

GLOBAL ACCOUNT DIRECTOR

We worked with a global account director who wanted to step back from his role and look at the bigger picture, enabling him to focus on making a real difference to his business. He had always made a point of responding to emails and voicemails promptly but realised this meant he spent his time reacting to other people’s agendas. He needed to identify his own agenda for the team and free up his time to deliver to that. At first he thought there just weren’t enough hours in the day and that high stress levels went with the territory.

Through his Leading From the Middle programme he developed working habits that got better results for him, his team and for customers. He got clear on the long term strategy for his part of the business, made sure team members understood their objectives, which would deliver the revenue. He became more goal focused and learned how to prioritise more effectively – now HE decides what’s important. His team worked to his lead and are clearer on what is expected of them. They now spend more time thinking about how to engage with customers and partner organisations, to ensure they deliver the best possible service. They are also learning far more from customers and partners about how to continue to improve.

The changes the account director has implemented have become the norm for his team. Now that he is truly goal-focused and has learned to prioritise, he spends more of his time helping the team win new business and achieving higher margins. The team gets the deal in this quarter as planned and doesn’t let it slip to the next. This translates directly to increased revenue and profit for the company as a whole.

Focusing on high value activity

PRACTICE LEADER

When leaders learn to focus on what adds most value in achieving business goals, they focus others around them too. That’s what happened when the leader of an overseas consulting practice in a rapidly growing market came to us. As part of a global company, his practice of 350 people had been set very challenging growth targets, and he wanted to free himself up to focus on strategy and empower his management team to take ownership of the operational side. His team was already working flat out, just not always on the right things, and there were too many problems and distractions throwing them off course.

Through his Leading Form the Middle programme we focused on helping him learn on the job how to grow the capability of his management team, enabling them to take the lead on operational issues. First steps included extending his delegation skills and how to pass important tasks onto the right people, at the right time and in the right way. As the programme coincided with the performance review cycle, we also worked on developing his coaching and feedback skills. We planned sessions with his people before he undertook them in the field, meaning the results he got were better and faster. In addition, by paying attention to how he extended his own capability he was able to pass what he learned on to his team, helping to grow the company’s next generation of talent.

We helped the practice leader learn how to engage his management team in creating a compelling vision for the practice, which was closely aligned with the direction of the organisation. He led his team through this process and then tasked each manager with repeating the process with their own team, thereby engaging more people in the new direction. As a result, team members got clear on how the practice aligned with the company globally, and what they needed to do individually to achieve practice goals. In the year of his programme the practice had its best year ever, is now highly focused and continues to exceed targets.

Collaboration achieves a more productive outcome

Senior Technical Consultant

A talented key player, much in demand with customers and colleagues, this consultant set high standards for herself and her team. She played a critical role in high profile contracts, worked hard and cared about her contribution. Able to analyse complex data quickly and come up with a solution, the consultant of often felt frustrated when her colleagues couldn’t keep up. This was exacerbated when up against a deadline and often led to her being aggressive and confrontational when the team needed to make a decision on how to move forwards. Not surprisingly her direct approach alienated both colleagues and customers.

Behaving in a professional manner was always important to her and she wanted her Leading From the Middle programme to help her promote harmony, not discord. We worked on the theory that, if she wanted her customer to go somewhere with her, first she has to go to where they were. Therefore, instead of telling the customer ‘the answer’ to a problem she began to help customers understand issues before she recommended potential solutions. This wasn’t an easy or overnight transition, it took time, hard work and patience, but by setting small goals and reviewing her progress regularly the consultant was able to turn things around.

She is now more collaborative and less confrontational. In customer meetings she listens more and says less, and she continues to provide thought leadership and advice by enabling, not directing. Customers benefit from a more pleasant working atmosphere, more positive results, and report a feeling of ownership, learning and knowledge about their project.

After a number of years in the company she was delighted to win her first consulting excellence award.

Achieving results through others

Senior Business Consultant

We worked with a senior consultant, leading a virtual team across EMEA. He wanted to build a high performing team but instead found himself constantly jumping on a plane to resolve operational issues faced by individual team members. He spent so much time on everybody else’s job he never seemed to have time for his own. Despite all his effort, therefore, he was having little impact on business results.

His Leading From the Middle programme enabled him to make a shift in thinking about his role as leader. He worked on how to achieve results through others rather than doing it all himself. He established a common purpose with the team and developed an effective communication strategy, greatly reducing the endless country hopping. He also learned how to delegate and assess team member’s will and skill, in order to achieve the results he wanted in the right time frame.

He developed his people to do more of the right things, which freed him up to focus on high value activities in his role. As for results, he went on to exceed his targets in this and subsequent years and has since achieved two promotions.

Stepping up to new challenges

DIRECTOR OF BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT

We worked with a newly appointed director of business development. The role was a new position in the company and it was a radical change from his previous job as a consultant. Despite it having been a number of years since he had directly managed a team he now had to build and lead a new department, which had two years to be successful and meet revenue targets. He knew he needed to develop new capabilities to step up to the challenge and was concerned about how to bring the best out in his team.

Initially he behaved as though everything was important but his Leading Form the Middle programme enabled him to step back from the fire-fighting and he was able to stop wasting time on jobs that were of low or no value. He also quickly realised he had to set specific time aside to think about strategy and the longer term in a more structured way.

An important step for him was to improve communication and collaboration with his peers on the management team. He improved his understanding of the sales directors’ pipelines and their plans for the next 12-24 months, and focused on integrating business development into the flow of information. Through doing this, he created a framework that minimised the number of gaps in communication that had frequently led to problems for other members of the management team in the past.

Building these peer relationships enabled him to provide real leadership for his team too, getting them to think about the bigger picture and what they were trying to achieve with each prospect. In particular, he was able to greatly reduce the amount of time they spent working on leads that were of no real substance, freeing up their time to focus on genuine prospects. The whole team is much clearer about what is expected of them, and they come across more professionally to prospective clients because they are well prepared for sales calls. As a result they provide more and better quality leads for the sales teams.

The director of business development is enjoying himself more and reports:

I’ve got much better use of my time and better use of my day, without working ridiculous hours. I can delegate in a thoughtful and planned way.

And his boss said:

As an organisation we are in a much better position to execute for the coming year. There is also more potential to develop the business development role – there was no blue print for this role before you (the director) took it on. Now other countries are putting in this role and they are coming to the UK for guidance.

His approach helps his boss in other ways too. Their one-to-one meetings are highly focused and tackle priority issues, they have a shorter list of things to discuss when they meet, which are the right things for the business to drive growth. They have also cleared time to focus on developing the important strategic alliances that will help them.

Exponential revenue growth

SALES DIRECTOR

We worked with a sales director in a systems solutions and professional services company. His team was successful but he knew he could get better results if he improved working relationships.

At the start of his Leading Form the Middle programme the sales director recognised there was a silo mentality between sales and professional services. A lack of trust between key executives was slowing down the allocation of resources, and a general lack of cooperation between the two teams was impeding agility and affecting results. He therefore worked on his strategy to mend fences and demonstrate a genuine intention to collaborate. This meant careful planning for some difficult conversations and exploring conflict resolution techniques.

It was hard going at first but his commitment to growing the business helped him succeed. Taking a pragmatic approach, he established a communication process which involved professional services much earlier in the sales cycle. Where previously the sales director’s team had competed for resources and assigned blame, they developed trust and learned to collaborate with the professional services team. This relieved the pressure on both teams and gave them time to plan resourcing of new opportunities more effectively. Over time, the professional services manager noticed the benefits of the new working arrangements with the sales team and therefore insisted his team work in the same way with all function leaders. 

By changing his leadership style, the sales director shaped his entire team’s performance and also directly influenced improved performance of the professional services function. This helped accelerate the sales cycle and the sales team’s contribution to UK revenue grew from 45% to 65%, an increase of approximately £7.5 million annually.

A driven and very successful executive he has now been promoted into a business leader role within the organisation.

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat

Consultant

We worked with a consultant who was leading a critical piece of work with a global telecommunications company. He had failed to establish trust with one of the key stakeholders and their relationship was going from bad to worse. The consultant had to make the relationship work – his company would not tolerate losing this account and it was his responsibility to get it back on track.

He had done everything he knew to understand and meet the client’s needs, but this one stakeholder seemed never to be satisfied. Working together was starting to seem impossible.

We helped the consultant identify strategies for pulling the situation back from the edge. He noticed how he could trip himself up by feeling frustrated with the client stakeholder’s apparent intransigence. He started to focus more on the stakeholder’s agenda and planned how he could listen more effectively and ask incisive questions which would add value to their conversations. His aim was to get them both on to common ground.

He identified the areas where the client stakeholder and he triggered unhelpful responses in each other, and those where they would be most likely to establish genuine cooperation. His relationship with the client stakeholder improved so much he sold £400K of services — surprising himself and exceeding his target. But most important he positioned the account for a long term, productive relationship.

Extending the team’s capability increases revenue

FINANCIAL SERVICES SALES DIRECTOR

A financial services sales manager had been in the role for two years. He was successful and had a clear strategy for continuing to grow his part of the business by breaking into a new industry sector. He knew that how he performed as a leader would have a direct impact on his team and that he could stretch his people by delegating more of the sales execution, freeing him up to focus on strategy and the longer term.

However, changes in the team meant he had to fill vacancies and transition new people into the organisation. Unexpectedly, therefore, he found himself under extreme pressure, lacking the bandwidth to offer the increased support his team needed while developing his own capability.

His Leading From the Middle programme gave him space to reflect on what makes a good leader and how to foster high performance in his team. Previously, having seen most problems before and not wanting to waste time talking things through, he had relied heavily on directing his less experienced staff. We therefore explored the value of taking more time, at least at first, to help individuals work out solutions for themselves.

He learned the difference between directing and coaching, when to do one or the other, and he increased his ability to do both effectively. His team took responsibility for resolving problems on their own, asked for support only when necessary and, as a result, started to get the breakthrough moments that you need in a sales situation. As a result of his programme the director’s team learned how to win good, profitable, long term business bringing in multi-million dollar revenue year on year. The director of sales commented:

This kind of performance is directly related to the team working in a certain way – that’s my belief. I was able to delegate effectively and empower my team, to be there to support them when needed but not smothering them. The benefit to the company is directly related to the bottom line.
 We have to work closely together as a team to get results. There are things which enable us – trust and respect – and coaching my team developed that. It was satisfying for me to get to the end of a call or meeting, where I had people thinking and looking at different options and actions. I didn’t always have to jump in and tell people what to do.