Three Coaching Traps: The Unique Challenges of Coaching the Alpha Male
by Kate Lanz

Alpha males are those who instinctively seek dominance—regardless of circumstance, they want to win. This is the key hallmark of the alpha and, in large part, it drives alphas' professional success. It is also the characteristic that gets in the way of their ability to learn how to do things differently and improve as leaders.

Accessing the point where the strength becomes a limitation is a particular challenge with the alpha client. This article provides some suggestions for overcoming three coaching traps which can plague alphas.

The Confidence Trap

Ben, a 36-year-old investment banker, presented as an extremely confident individual. It was easy to see why people wanted him to lead them. He dressed confidently, he spoke confidently, and he gave the impression of knowing precisely what he was doing. His track record was also stellar.

However, Ben had just transitioned into a more significant leadership role in an area of the business that was outside the zone of his expertise. Since he had to 'show up big' in this new role, a key piece of his armory was the confidence he projected. Behind the scenes, Ben was struggling. He was feeling completely overwhelmed by the scope of his new role, particularly since much of it lay outside his knowledge base.

Ben's company has a strong coaching culture. When leaders move into new roles, they receive coaching support to accelerate performance in those new roles. Coaching, therefore, wasn't Ben's personal choice. Furthermore, since he was caught in the confidence trap, he was not about to admit his feelings of overwhelm to his coach.

During our first session, I was able to support Ben at a very practical level, helping him to handle an issue with his boss. This built our rapport and trust, since he could see the process had been of value to him. During our second session, sensing that he might be caught in the confidence trap, I decided to take a risk. Through careful questioning, I allowed him to reveal how he felt about his previous role and his performance in that role. I then followed up by probing how he viewed his performance in his new role. Comparing the two illustrated the differences in energy levels and confidence-signaling body language he displayed in each position. Gently but firmly confronting him with this real-time feedback, and highlighting how this new role seemed to be taking him outside his comfort level, allowed him to begin to open up. Although he still couldn't admit to a lack of confidence, he was able to share some of his concerns.

Quickly, I pushed for a 360-degree feedback. This provided some concrete examples of situations in which he was not quite on top of things. One specific instance was an email from his boss, which had remained unanswered for too long. His boss was looking for an explanation. Once Ben and I were alone again, I was able to help him uncover what was behind his delayed response, and used that example to gently confront him with evidence of overwhelm. With this evidence providing access, he was able to discuss his overwhelm and some practical strategies for overcoming it.

The trick was allowing Ben to keep the appearance of confidence with others while, at the same time, exploring the gap that existed behind it. Where he had previously felt trapped by his confident presentation, he now felt protected by it while he worked through the relevant issues behind the scenes.

The Competition Trap

Innately programmed to win, the alpha male is constantly in competition with others. Paul was the managing director of a business unit for a major player in the consumer goods sector. Paul used his innate competitive spirit to good effect with his team. He had them focused on moving their organization up the performance ladder by competing with other internal business units.

This same competitive instinct, however, showed up everywhere—in conversations with senior people, with his peer group, and even with neutral outsiders. Paul was always 'scoring that point.' He was oblivious to just how omnipresent this tendency was. He was delivering business results. He was admired by his team for his winning nature. Why should he engage in any reflection on his style? As was the case with Ben, Paul was simply one of a group scheduled to receive coaching. He saw no reason to change. Paul was caught in the competition trap.

The key to success in this situation is to catch the alpha's total attention right from the first session. Lacking that, the coaching process would be set up for failure. I knew that capturing Paul's attention would be tough, so I initiated a double feedback process before the work started. The first step of this process consisted of an individual interview with Paul's boss, the line manager. Despite the fact that giving honest feedback was a challenge for him, he made it clear that the 'point scoring' mentality could well prevent Paul's consideration for promotion, since it really rubbed senior colleagues and peers the wrong way.

The second step in the double-feedback process was a three-way meeting, during which Paul's boss gave him this specific feedback and described the changes he needed to see. Although he was initially reluctant to actually pinpoint examples of Paul's problematic behavior, I was able, thanks to our previous interview, to push him to give some clear examples and describe their impact. Eventually, the boss admitted that Paul was quite often viewed as a 'smart-arse,' and this perception would compromise his promotion possibilities.

This threat to his ambitions really seized Paul's attention. The careful setup was key—it enabled me to name the point-scoring game and illustrate how much it mattered to Paul's future. After careful work, he was able to see where, unconsciously, he allowed his competitive instinct to get the better of him. Slowly, he began to catch himself, and his new awareness enabled him to use his competitive nature in a more conscious and productive way.

The 'My Way or the Highway' Trap

Alpha males are successful because they have the confidence to push hard for what they believe will allow them to win. Often they're right and the success reinforces the model. Robert, the 39-year-old commercial director of an FTSE 100, clearly fell into this trap. In fact, his version of 'my way or the highway' even contained a touch of the provocative. When communicating his view, he liked to include a little dig at the recipient.

Once promoted to a board position, situations began to arise in which the CEO was trying to control Robert's work. Robert's response was to defend his plan in the same manner as he had done in the past. The 'my way or the highway' model, however, was counterproductive at board level.

During our coaching sessions, I seized Robert's attention by underscoring the CEO's reaction to Robert's style. I helped Robert to understand that if he failed to change this dynamic, his time on the board could end up to be quite short-lived. He was fiercely proud and ambitious, and removal from the board would have been a terrible outcome for him. He paid attention.

By dissecting some of Robert's specific transactions with the CEO, I helped him to see the impact of both his 'my way or the highway' attitude and his provocative stance. He was surprised to discover just how strong the pattern was. We worked carefully together on ways to reframe some of his dialogues with the CEO. It cost him dearly sometimes to forfeit the joy of provocation, but he managed it because the stakes were high.

Within a couple of months, Robert's relationship with the CEO had improved to the point where the CEO was, in fact, consulting Robert rather than attempting to control him.

In summary, here are some helpful approaches to coaching the alpha male:

  • Recognize which of the traps you may be dealing with;
  • Build rapport and trust by offering practical value immediately;
  • Find ways to seize the alpha's attention—leave no 'wriggle room';
  • Confront early, basing the confrontation on your own experience of the client;
  • Help the alpha bring some of the subconscious patterns to the surface by linking them to tangible practical examples; and
  • Take risks: If you fail to make impact with an alpha early in the coaching relationship, you can easily miss your chance!

Kate Lanz, MBA, is the Executive Director of Sandler Lanz. Working with organizational leaders and their direct reports, Kate helps both individuals and teams to move swiftly from insight to action. Read more about Kate in the WABC Coach Directory. Kate can be reached by email at katelanz1@aol.com.

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