Why Many Leaders Fail in Their Roles

Why Many Leaders Fail in Their Roles


In my early days as a first line leader/manager my boss offered me some perspective I’ve carried with me the better part of 3 decades.


I was young and committed – advancing from sales to sales management – and I truly believed my gift to my employees was in my passion for coaching. (OK – slightly delusional.)


Back then – in the world I grew up in – a District Manager’s primary job when he (or she) went into the market was to coach and develop sales representatives – and after EVERY call I did just that….feedback, mutual discussions of strengths and weaknesses, agreement on points of opportunity moving forward, demonstration of the call, role play, practice – and repeat the process over the course of the day together.


Sales professionals were conditioned to expect feedback and coaching (whether they wanted it or not)– and their managers were conditioned to provide it (whether they had something to offer or not.)


Those conversations might not always be accurate or even remotely helpful – but by golly they WERE going to take place….all day long.


But then the day came that my boss pulled up the written recaps I provided to each member of my team (Remember, I believed my mission in life was COACHING) and he asked me a question that I never forgot.


It went along these lines – “I notice the recap you provided to (Sam) looks pretty similar to the feedback you gave him last visit.”


Yes, I nodded. “Sam needs help with {insert 2 skill opportunity areas here} to drive his business.”


My boss pushed over 2 more recaps – from 6 months before…and put them alongside the 2 most recent versions. “Hmmm,” he said, “These are pretty much the same thing.”


“Sam needs a LOT of help,” I answered.


And then my boss pulled up recaps from 18 months before, drew them alongside, and asked, “So which of you can’t seem to move ahead…Sam…OR YOU?”


I looked down at all my wonderful letters.  Substitute the date and some of the miscellaneous pieces and it was pretty clear – the feedback had remained almost the same for going on 20 months.


“But….these really are areas of opportunity for Sam,” I sputtered. “I can’t just…ignore them.”


“Nope, you certainly can’t,” my boss answered. “But my question goes deeper – if you’ve invested almost 2 years of your life providing the same feedback, offering the same coaching, and sending the same recaps …. are we really dealing with a coaching situation or something else?”


Well, that question baffled me. I was MADE to coach…it’s what I did….what else could I do when I faced a performance problem but…..COACH???


“Tim, no one debates that one of your primary assignments is to coach the professionals that report to you,” my boss continued, “But my question is are we really making any difference at all?”




That little interaction was a long, long time ago. In the years that followed I began to appreciate that a great many leaders often contribute far less to their employee’s success than they want to believe. And I was one of them.


The legion of employees – across every industry– that see legitimate value from their “boss” is abysmally low. If you debate that, consider Gallup’s assessment of supervisor impact – and the resulting disengagement figures that plague our economy.


Now the reasons for that are myriad – but as regards the single element of coaching I was to learn there are three factors that compromise most companies and most leaders – and I was to see them demonstrated repeatedly in the thirty years that followed as I worked with supervisors at multiple levels.


They are:


  1. A great many don’t know how to coach– or are ineffective when they do. Though I might have been a zealot early (sometimes inappropriately so) – there are that many more who see their role as managing results – unofficial scorekeepers whose mission is to send “rah rah” letters and tell people if they are ahead or behind. No support – no realistic goal setting – no feedback. Their contribution can be counted of course – on the debit side of the ledger. (And coaching prowess, by the way, usually diminishes the higher we go in an organization rather than increase.)
  2. A great many don’t know what to coach, taking on an Attention Deficit Disorder approach to the skill set– the flavor of the month club where one meeting with the employee it’s subject A and next discussion it’s subject B. No strategy – just whatever comes to mind.  The end of year review is a surprise because there is no line of continuity that leads there. These supervisors’ contribution can be counted also – in the degree of confusion and frustration they engender for their direct reports.
  3. And then there is what I would submit is the most important factor; many don’t know WHEN to coach.  As companies roll out the latest “coaching model” and train their supervisors to coach, coach, coach, coach – they may be losing sight on a larger issue.


Should they be coaching at all?


I believe that up to 40% of most first line leaders’/supervisors’ time and attention is poorly invested – either spent on the wrong things or directed toward areas that are repetitive and offer no sustainable value (see my recaps of 30 plus years ago.)


Why? Because the fundamental question isn’t “How can I coach better?”


It’s “WHEN do I coach – WHAT do I coach – and HOW do I decide?”


Translation – building a better coaching mousetrap isn’t the complete answer.


Developing a strategic approach that challenges leaders to first analyze and diagnose performance and execution before taking action is – which takes us back to my dilemma all those years ago.


I was the hammer – and every problem I encountered was a nail.


In the years that followed I began to give that situation a LOT of thought – and to appreciate that my one-dimensional approach was limiting my growth – and the people that worked for me even more.


My boss’ simple question forced me to step back and (oh my gosh) THINK.


And so I began to ask myself tough questions first – Did Sam know what was expected? Did he know why it was important? Had he heard the feedback that had been provided before?  Was it making any difference?


You get the picture – I was beginning to think in strategic terms, not simply responding tactically.  There were times I should be coaching – sure; but there were other times I should simply be offering feedback; or going back and training on basic skills; or removing obstacles that prevented performance; or counseling on a “will do” problem.


And there were times I should be doing nothing at all – and allowing the employee to sort out for themselves the solution. (Said another way – shut up and listen.)


And because of the questions I asked of myself an amazing thing happened. My “work-with” visits became more impactful, my endless coaching exercises began to render results, and even Sam began to see light that he never had before.


Not because I was a better coach necessarily but because I was a far more insightful and strategic coach.


Not every problem was a nail after all.


That epiphany set in motion a strategic approach and the creation of a model I would eventually teach around – and the Compass Leader’s Executional Analysis Tool (we call it the 10 CLEAT) has gone on to become one of the most powerful resources I provide to companies and leaders – only because it compels supervisors at every level to Analyze and Diagnose BEFORE taking action.  A few minutes that can – and often does – give back hours of productivity.


As regards Sam – I doubt he ever knew why his manager suddenly stopped wrangling him – or why my visits became less arduous for both of us – or why we began to look at the business as one we shared versus one that I simply “blew whistles” around. But I would like to believe he realized that the biggest change had to begin with me.


Coaching is a powerful tool – but one of many.  Great leaders are great strategists. The greatest treatment plans begin with quality analysis that leads to accurate diagnosis.


Not every problem is a nail – and sometimes it’s not even a problem.



To learn more about the 10CLEAT or other resources please visit my website or contact me directly at www.thecompassalliance.com

  • Jan Makela
    Posted at 16:57h, 06 September Reply

    Right on target. When I use Gallup’s strength based leadership especially for sales managers the manager is many times the issue

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