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How You Learn to Lead Matters

A part of National Library of Copenhagen, the mirrors reflected the sky and clouds.GETTY IMAGES

How personalized learning strategies foster better leadership at any career stage

When Eleanor* embarked on her leadership journey with me, it quickly became apparent that she was a high performer and had a work ethic many would envy. However, when I discovered how she interacted with her team and peers, I realized she was blind to her Achilles heel.


A few years ago, Harvard Business Review examined the executive coaching engagements of more than 70 executives. Their findings highlight executives' distinct and often nuanced coaching needs based on their career stage. Specifically, this analysis found a clear contrast between the experience of younger (30s) and older (40s and 50s) leaders.


The study found that younger executives often seek guidance on tactical and operational issues. They want clear, actionable advice to help them navigate their early career stages. In contrast, older executives look for strategic insights and personal growth opportunities, aiming to refine their leadership style and leave a lasting impact. I've witnessed this dichotomy firsthand in my executive coaching practice, even if these groups have significant variability and nuance.


Eleanor was often immature, gossiping and engaging in petty conflict with colleagues. She was unaware of how this impacted her reputation across the organization. When her behavior was brought to her attention, she insisted she was doing the right thing or played down the consequences.


Developing robust self-awareness is critical for all executives, especially those early in their leadership journey. Success is often measured by an individual’s capacity for following prescribed steps and executing tactically in their higher education and even in the early stages of their careers. However, as they advance in their careers, developing a more nuanced understanding of human behavior and organizational dynamics is crucial. Young-in-career executives must get out of the executional weeds and develop a new skill set. I’ve found that many of my younger clients often lack the experience to interpret complex interpersonal dynamics accurately. Moreover, each individual’s personal background and core values will add a lens to how they communicate and interpret their interactions. Our coaching work often focuses on bridging this gap by providing them with the right tools to build self-awareness and understand the subtleties of leading and influencing others effectively.


Around the same time I worked with Eleanor, I also began working with Daniel*. His manager had come to me seeking support. Like Eleanor, he was a high performer with immense potential, but his communication strategy was uniformly aggressive. While Daniel was delivering results, he was also alienating the people around him.


A somewhat pervasive trait among high-potential young executives is the belief that they have it all figured out. This confidence can be a double-edged sword. While it fuels ambition and drives performance, it can also camouflage blind spots.  Eleanor and Daniel had strong beliefs about their effectiveness, but how they responded to stakeholder feedback and coaching made a difference in their longer-term success.


At the beginning of a coaching engagement, I seek feedback from key stakeholders for each client to better understand the core areas we’ll focus on. We then work to align their core values with the path forward.


Eleanor resisted her stakeholder feedback and justified her behavior, refusing to acknowledge that there might be some truth to it. She doggedly insisted her behavior was fine despite the damage she inflicted on her reputation, not to mention her relationships with others. Last I heard, her professional advancement was flattening.


Daniel claimed that one of his highest priorities was cultivating deep relationships, yet he didn't do that at work with his peers or his team. Although it was uncomfortable, with coaching, Daniel began to explore being more vulnerable, open, and curious in his work interactions. This required increased self-awareness, intentional connections, and empathetic communication at work and home. The result was improved relationships with his colleagues and a well-deserved significant promotion.


Regardless of age or career stage, my most successful clients are those who are more receptive to different approaches and continuous learning. They understand that there isn't always a "right" or perfect way and are more willing to experiment and adapt to embrace transformational, root-cause changes. While quick fixes and tactical solutions seem the fastest way forward, sophisticated leadership development often requires a fundamental behavior, understanding, and awareness shift.


*Names have been changed to protect privacy.


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