By | Ganesh Chella | Co-founder and Managing Director – CFI
The impatient executive
Imagine this conversation between a Coach and his client, a hugely successful but impatient executive. “Hi Raj, do you see the 360 feedback. Every respondent is pointing out that you very very urgently need to become more patient!”
Well, sound like a funny conversation and the urgency around patience bit almost sounds like an oxymoron. But the truth is that for such a large number of very successful senior executives, being patient is such an urgent developmental need. It is urgent because the collateral damage of their impatience is so huge and mostly experienced by peers and team members who protest that it is almost impossible to deal with this person.
So, what are the typical visible behaviours of an executive who has a problem with patience?
He (mostly male) would have a huge difficulty waiting for any work output from anyone, be it peers or team members. It could be some data, some presentation, some report, or some response.
The person also has a difficulty waiting for things from the system or from the boss or top management. This could be approvals, decisions, clarity or recognition and rewards.
The person would often see others as huge hindrances to his speedy success and progress. Timelines and deadlines are not just non-negotiable. Delays have almost near fatal consequences in their minds. Not having something when the person imagined that he would have it can send him into a tizzy.
Such executives may often find meetings, discussions and consensus building efforts a complete waste of time. Why discuss on and on? Why don’t people get it? Why do I need to explain things? Why should I suffer fools are some of the questions buzzing in their minds.
The executive would believe that he knows what needs to be done and all efforts other than acting are an utter waste of time. Waiting of any sort is almost impossible. And those causing delays would be seen as villains who must be summarily punished.
Reactions would range from angry outbursts, frustrated emails, slamming of doors, rude phone calls and so on. They would imagine catastrophic consequences to not getting what they want or not getting them at the time they want. The world would seem to have conspired against them to make them miserable.
They would be constantly wired up, constantly ready to battle, should people or things come in their way. It can start with the morning newspaper arriving late to the drivers with a poor driving sense all around them to the secretary who dialed into the call 2 minutes late, to the team members who have too many coffee breaks. The list goes on.
The making of the impatient executive
There is a lot of research around what might have caused these almost neurotic conditions in otherwise successful executives. Early childhood experiences, certain self-limiting beliefs around unreasonable expectations of self, others and the world, fears and anxieties of losing out or missing out or failing or the view that things must happen the way one imagined it.
The competitiveness that was nurtured in our educational system, the premium placed on speed even in aptitude tests, the pressure to come first, the shortages that some of us might have experienced in our childhood, the fear that we may not have enough and of course the unending need to be competent and perfect all add to this state.
Organisational performance and reward systems also contribute to people having this constant need to win the race, come first, and get promoted quickly. I remember, in one of the organisations I worked in, Assistant Managers took either 30 or 33 or and 36 months to become Managers. The one who took 36 months was seen as an absolute loser – imagine just 6 months behind!
In the early years, organisations actually love executives who are always in a hurry. Add to this popular literature and management ideas that celebrate paranoia, urgency, speed and agility. These behaviours actually get rewarded.
It is only when the same executive becomes senior and needs to think more than act, needs to sell than tell, needs to inspire than instruct, needs to guide and not goad, needs to cheer and not chase that problems begin to arise. First, the employee engagement scores might falter. Then the 360 results might look worrisome over two or three rounds. Then come the battery of psychometric assessments which confirm all of this in technical terms. It is also likely that by this time, grown up children in the family have begun to protest, push back or give strong and direct feedback or just disconnect.
By this time, the whole organisation sees the urgent need for patience – except the executive. That is when the coach comes in.
In my experience, feedback and enhanced self-awareness is not adequate in helping executives at this stage. Suggestions that they should practice vipassana meditation and yoga might also be misplaced. Pushing for surface level behavioral changes may also be short-lived.
Coaches will need to help executives uncover the story behind the story – help executives look at ways in which they are coming in the way of their own happiness. They need to spot their mistaken beliefs and unhelpful thinking styles, habitual responses to situations that are unhelpful; self-talk that is causing them misery and so on.
They need to see such help as important and not as one more hindrance that will slow them down.
Once executives become more aware and catch themselves engaging in these unhelpful thoughts and behaviours, they may be able to come up with more balanced actions and responses. With some good taste of success and their worst fears not coming true, they might be encouraged to actually be more patient. Some are also able to leverage their spiritual orientation and get some perspective about themselves and the larger life and the world around.
It has been my experience that the journey is long and arduous and fraught with chances of relapse. Of course, for those who do manage to make sustainable changes, they discover that at the other end of impatience is their real self.