Saving the President’s Job

THE CHALLENGE

It is rare that people ask for coaching unless they are in trouble – often with their job at risk. In this case, after a decade of success, the president of a well-known university (the average college or university president has less than a four year tenure) was wearing out his welcome. His Board indicated things had to change substantially or he would be asked to retire. The problem? He was too smart for his own good. 

His condescending behavior – some called it arrogance – had alienated him from many of his faculty. He received none of this feedback directly. Most thought he could not change, even if he heard the truth. And, of course, the more he felt threatened the more directive he became. He admitted that he was feeling increasingly isolated and, also, that he was not ready to retire. As a result, he was open to doing what was necessary to regain his credibility and previous effectiveness. He asked TNG to help. 

THE PROCESS

Combining personal insight on his part with his commitment to change while designing an intervention that would help others witness his new behavior and commitment to change would be the challenge. TNG asked a group of thirty-five of his most esteemed and trusted faculty a three-hour meeting. They were placed in random groups of five, each with an easel and chart paper. The president told the groups that he had lost touch with them and others and needed their feedback and honesty. He asked them to identify his eight greatest strengths on one sheet and his six areas he needed to develop if he was to recapture their trust and his effectiveness as the leader of The University. 

After thirty minutes, he stood at the front and began to move from group to group taking one strength at a time and checking how many other groups had a similar idea. It was a remarkable list of strengths. Then, he showed them a list of the eight strengths he had identified as well as another list that he “thought” they might say. He, then, asked, in the same manner, his areas of needed development. Again, one at a time, he posted them on his easel. Again, he revealed the own list of six and what he thought they would say. The similarities were, again, remarkable. What was clear was that his problems emanated from a handful of alienating behaviors he could change. 

He thanked the group for their candor and asked them to return a week later for a thirty-minute meeting, where he promised to share his responses to the feedback. 

During that week, with TNG’s help, he developed responses and shared them with the group. They were both strategies to address unfinished business and commitments to behavioral change.

THE OUTCOME

Smart people have the capacity to change, if they wish. He did. Plus, he demonstrated some humility. He remained six more years as President and retired with honor. He continually sought feedback to help keep him on track.  It was combining the feedback, owning his limitations and, then, creating an offense that engendered the support of his peers and eventually, his board.