By Sarah Woods, Vice President, Strategic Client Relationships

A month or so ago, one of my executive coaching clients sent me an email.  He told me that his CEO's office had just called to alert him that the CEO would be coming to town.  The CEO wanted to stop by to meet with the senior management of the site.  

My client had already leapt into action but wanted to run something by me.  He had drafted up a robust agenda for the hour-long visit, complete with presentations by each of his senior leaders.  It's not often the CEO makes it out to his site, and he wanted to maximize the time.  What did I think of this plan?  He emailed me his agenda.  I promised to review it.

As I did so, I couldn't help but think of my father.  Let me explain.  As a young woman entering the workforce, I had often sought out my dad's advice as I navigated the business landscape.  He was an experienced and successful business leader as well as the CEO of a non-profit foundation, and he was known for focusing on the right issues.

How did he develop that quality?  Dad often credited his Jesuit education with this gift.  Throughout my career, he reminded me that when decisions are being made and a course of action is offered, step back for a moment.  Question the premise.  Are we asking the right questions?  Are we solving for the right problems?  Are our assumptions correct?  What’s our real goal here?  This ability to question the premise is a real differentiator in executive development.

On a follow-up coaching call, my client forged ahead with describing the plans he was making for lining up a packed hour for his CEO.  I stopped him.  I asked him to step back. “What are we actually trying to accomplish?” I asked him.  “What is the purpose of the visit?”  

An awkward silence followed my redirection.  "Good question!" he finally replied.  "Guess I’d better find out."  After some inquiry with a few trusted advisors close to the CEO, my client revamped the entire agenda based on what he had learned. 

He decided to use the time for a one-on-one meeting and a briefing on some of their key clients by one or two of his leaders.  They addressed the highest priority business objectives for the firm instead of reducing it to a meet-and-greet of senior staff.  The CEO's chief of staff approved the agenda: This was the right use of their time.  

There’s an important lesson here for executive development.  As a leader, you have so much to get done, and there’s a tendency to plow ahead and make things happen.  But before you jump to action, step back and question the premise. 

Hitting the pause button to question the premise often kept my dad from doing the wrong thing.  Try it for yourself, and you may find it’s the way to hit fast forward for results.

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