Case Study: Mark Takes a Stand

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Mark, the director of IT project management in a large pharmaceutical

company, was really enjoying the support and development

he received as a participant in the company’s new leadership development

program.He began the program six months ago, along with

80 other managers from within the company, and was inspired by

what he was learning and who he was meeting. This was the first

leadership development program the company had implemented in

many years. The COO and HR VP believed that having leaders adapt

change management principles and practices into their leadership

responsibilities would reduce bureaucratic sclerosis and propel

growth.As part of the program,Mark was able to work with an executive

coach to help him apply what he was learning in his own work

environment. Other leadership development activities included

leadership workshops and action learning teams. At first, Mark had

been somewhat skeptical about the value of working with a coach,

but he soon found himself looking forward to the insightful conversations

he had with Tim, his coach. Tim, meanwhile, familiarized

himself with the company, the leadership development program,

and the particulars of the change management model.

Mark was facing a particularly tough challenge.When Mark took

over his team of IT project managers a year ago, no appropriate standards

were in place for designing and delivering projects, and a lot

of infighting was occurring throughout the department. The IT

project managers had a reputation within their internal client base

for missing important deadlines and being a challenge to work with.

This was precisely the kind of bureaucratic sclerosis that the COO

and HR VP wanted to eliminate. If it wasn’t for the company’s moratorium

on procuring outside IT services, the group would probably

have been outsourced long ago.

As part of the leadership program, Mark participated in several

assessments, including a leadership assessment and a personality

profile. Tim and Mark reviewed the findings and spoke at length

about Mark’s goals for his participation in the leadership program

and his aspirations for being coached.Mark was a technically strong

manager who placed high value on developing himself and his team.

As a star performer, he was used to leading by example and expected

others to follow his lead. His experience with the IT team was the

first time that the strength of his character had not been sufficient

to propel a team forward. Mark chose to focus his coaching work

on expanding his leadership style to include enhancing his ability to

inspire others and to manage challenging situations. Mark felt that

these new leadership capabilities would enable him to attain his

other coaching goal of leading his team to significantly improve their

customer service ratings, which were currently well below the

acceptable limit of 85 percent satisfaction.

Mark was making good progress in organizing his team and

setting up systems to establish accountability when he entered into

the coaching relationship with Tim. The challenge was in getting

compliance from the team. Initially, Tim focused the coaching in

Quadrant 1, engaging Mark in conversations to get clear about what

was truly important to focus on to get his team turned around. Tim

also helped Mark integrate a few new ways of staying calm and

focused under pressure.

Mark could clearly see that instilling discipline around the project

management systems was essential, although he was uncertain how

to get his team to buy into the ideas, which took him clearly into

Quadrant 2 work. With Tim’s coaching, Mark began to engage his

team members in one-on-one conversations to gain insight about

what was working and what was not as they struggled to implement

the new standards. Initially, Mark was uncomfortable about conducting

these conversations, because he was not sure how his team

would respond. Tim encouraged Mark to get to the heart of what

was really bothering him about this situation. Through reflection,

Mark was able to identify that he was afraid that his team would use

the opportunity to blame each other for any problems—a trait they

were famous for. Tim was able to coach Mark on how to manage the

blame game in these conversations and get at what was really going

on. The conversations went well and provided an opportunity for

Mark to use some of the coaching skills that he was naturally picking

up from his work with Tim.

Moving into Quadrant 3 work, Tim encouraged Mark to spend

some quiet time after the interviews were done and reflect on the

underlying dynamics that were operating with his team. He suggested

that Mark write down the thoughts that came to him,without

evaluating them. Mark brought his thoughts to the next coaching

session. He noticed that his team really did want to do a good job,

and while some of his team members were actively working to

implement the new standards, others had given excuses as to why

the standards would not work. When Tim asked Mark what he

thought was going on, the first thing that came to Mark’s mind was

that some of his team members were afraid of trying and failing.

They were already getting beaten up by their clients, and the new

system would give the clients more ammunition with which to

attack them.Mark also sensed that they were testing to see if he was

really serious about the new standards. He was not the first person

to try this approach. It was now clear to Mark that just creating the

standards was not enough.He would need to help his team learn the

new skills required to be successful, both at delivering their projects

on time and using the new system. Mark sensed that the team was

ready to rise to this challenge. As the coaching continued, Tim and

Mark discussed possible strategies for getting the additional training

that the team needed. Mark decided to approach the leadership

development program coordinator for guidance on obtaining the

necessary training for the team.

Mark’s opportunity to demonstrate his resolve came sooner than

he expected. In Mark’s regular one-on-one meetings with his boss,

it was strongly suggested that Mark should fire the bottom two performers

of the team. Mark’s boss felt that this would provide all of

the motivation needed to get the team’s client satisfaction numbers

up. Mark’s boss was getting tired of taking the heat for this team’s

poor performance. Time was running out. Although Mark’s boss

acknowledged that overall, the numbers were starting to improve,

he wanted them to move faster. Mark asked if he could meet with

his boss again at the end of the week to discuss this matter further.

Every participant in the leadership development program was

asked to keep a personal journal. They were introduced to the idea

of using the journal to reflect on their own experiences and find

their own insights and answers. Mark used his journal to sort

through his feelings about his boss’s request. Mark truly did not

want to fire his two team members, but he was uncertain if this was

because he was afraid to fire them (it would certainly be a difficult

task) or because he felt that it was not the best thing for the team.

Mark brought this question to his next coaching session with Tim.

Tim allowed Mark to share his thoughts and feelings and then asked

him what he intuitively thought the impact of the firings would be

on the team.Mark paused and then said with conviction that he felt

it would be a huge setback, because the team was really just starting

to pull together for the first time in a long time. He believed that

with the proper support they could make their numbers. One of the

two team members at risk was well liked by the others, and losing

him was likely to put the team into a tailspin. Tim asked Mark

what he wanted to do. As a result, Mark engaged in two difficult


The first conversation was with his boss. With Tim’s coaching,

Mark was able to lay out a plan of action for the next six months for

delivering better client satisfaction numbers for the team. Mark

shared with his boss the insights he had gained through his conversations

with each team member and his conviction that with some

supportive training, they had what it took to deliver results. He told

his boss that he wanted to keep the team together through that time,

but he promised to reevaluate everyone on the team at the end of

the six-month time period. Mark’s boss was impressed with Mark’s

plan and agreed to support him in implementing it.

The second conversation was with his team. Mark arranged for a

half-day meeting in which Mark shared with the team what he had

learned through his one-on-one conversations. He opened the

meeting by setting clear expectations that this meeting was about

moving into action, and there would be no finger-pointing. He let

the team know that he believed they could perform at a much higher

level, and he coached them to set some stretch goals. He made it

clear that making the changes was not optional, although he allowed

the team a fair amount of input into how to achieve their goals.

The team left the meeting energized about moving forward.Mark

left the meeting with a satisfied feeling that his words and actions

reflected who he was as a manager and leader.He knew that it would

be an uphill battle, but it was a battle he believed in and one he

thought he could win.