Leslie Marquard: A Mind to Lead

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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An executive coach guides leaders from the inside out. Wanting to know more about coaches and the executives they serve, we ventured inside the brain—both hemispheres—of Leslie Marquard. As one half of Marble Leadership Partners with its blue chip client list, Marquard is a strategic planner. Alternatively she's an executive coach—privy, one-on-one, to executives' intensely private plans for personal development.

What does Leslie conclude about those leaders? How does coaching work, and where or how does faith factor? More to the point, why would a leader need a coach?

To begin, Leslie, can you tell us how a person becomes an executive coach?

Boy, my personal experience is not that of everyone. For me, becoming a coach was a natural adjunct service of transformational consulting. Organizational change starts in people and it has to start at the top. My executive coaching started from that background. But consulting experience wasn't enough; I needed coaching training and experience to coach effectively. My credentials include coaching certification. So now I have two distinct shingles: consulting and coaching.

And you think leadership can be learned?

Absolutely. Certain characteristics of leaders may exist naturally—like charisma, optimism, vision. But the skills of mentoring, of setting a course for folks, removing roadblocks, interfacing with other leaders, developing other leaders—all those are skills people are not born with.

Is it harder to learn leadership skills or teach them?

[Laughs] Well, I don't teach leadership skills. In coaching, I'm not sure I teach anything. In consulting, I teach some leadership, which is probably harder to learn because more's at stake—more people at stake if the leaders learn well or poorly.

How is leadership coaching different from sports coaching?

The similarity with football coaching is my education and training. Notre Dame's coach, for example, never played football, yet he coaches at one of the most prestigious football schools in the nation. You don't have to have played to coach. We differ in that we are not focused solely in one area of performance like sports coaches. We coach in many domains of an executive's professional life.

Executive coaches partner with a client in personal development. We are not cheerleaders. We challenge our clients in the areas they decide they want to improve. We provide homework, exercises, practice to develop their skills. And we give authentic, honest feedback they probably don't often get because of their positions. We provide a safe learning environment that's private.

Why is privacy so important?

Most executives are expected to know everything . . . or think they are, that's probably more accurate. In that case, learning in public is public confession that they don't know it all. Also they often don't get honest feedback from people who report to them. By the time they get it from the board, it's usually in the form of firing.

You're dealing with people with extraordinary egos . . .

No, I wouldn't work from the ego assumption. Some leaders have extraordinary egos and aren't likely to ask for help unless the board requires it. Some are constant learners. For them, coaching is a time-sensitive, laser-focused approach to personal professional development. And it focuses on only those things they want to work on rather than something blanketed.

Is there a skill or lack of it that execs typically want to address?

At the executive level, I sometimes help my client expand for the multiple positions he or she fills as a CEO . . . something like cross training. Most of the time we're preparing for their next roles: sometimes from manager to leader levels and sometimes the next level of leadership. Many of my clients are asked by their companies to be coached because the company is making an investment in them. They have general rough edges typically related to personality or behavior.

Can you give an example of addressing a behavior problem?

Recently I had a client who was seen as a bully. In some ways that means he's a results-oriented guy. He got promoted because he got results. Finally he got as high as he could go being seen as a bully. The company wanted him to make it to corporate senior exec level, and he's always gotten results by muscling rather than leading. He went into his program with eyes wide open that this would require behavior change. We uncovered the drivers behind the behavior, he came to understand the impact, and he changed because he wanted to. And he got the promotion.

One publication recently described leadership as creating "follower-ship." What do you think of that?

I think leadership is creating results through other people where everyone contributes and everyone knows they do. Success is on everyone's shoulders. If that's "follower-ship," great. But leadership is about getting results through other people. Having followers is not the reason you have leaders. You are a leader to get results; followers enable you to do that.

You've seen a lot of top leaders up close. What gets them where they are?

Leaders don't share one set of characteristics. A lot has to come together, not the least of which is the culture of the leader's organization. It's not just interpersonal or organizational. It's not just a results focus. It's not just emotional intelligence or intellectual gifts. It's also character: who a person is when no one's looking. And it's the organization's culture. An effective leader must work in an organization that allows her strengths to be used and to fit that organization.

Good leaders make really big differences. Average leaders just have the title—they're doing their thing but they don't leave a mark, a legacy.

The few standout leaders have assembled their skills in ways that work for them. That's why no one leader can write a book and say, "Do what I did." It's the person, the organization, the economy, the competition, the opportunities that present themselves—and the opportunities the leaders make for themselves. That's why you can learn something from a Jack Welch book but you can't do what Jack Welch did.

Can we talk about up-and-coming leaders? This month we saw a spate of articles about the Y generation work styles, expectations, values. If the generations at work are so different, would you say your coaching changes between a 50-something and a 20-something?

I am coaching a 20-something right now, entering the executive ranks for the first time. The main difference between Gen Y and Boomers is that Gen Y demands more balance. They hold their personal time as importantly as their business time. They don't necessarily agree that "whatever it takes" is the right answer for work-related issues. In other words, if it infringes too much on personal time, they may forego or find a way around. As a coach, I have to be aware of those sensitivities and work with clients to create solutions that work for them. You gotta stay in shape to coach because you can't predict the dance, and you're going to dance with them. My job is not to question or to judge. Gen Y's approach isn't bad just because a Boomer wouldn't do it that way.

Which motive is more likely to effect change—profit or personal?

Do I hear you suggesting that profit is bad? I don't make that call. The coach shows up and says, "If profit motivates you, I'm going to get inside and use it." I never judge motives. If they're breaking the law, I'm all over that. If they're stealing from the company, we're done too. I'm going nowhere illegal. But the coach is not there to judge motivation or outcome. I helped someone try to achieve status as his goal, for example, and it worked. For him, status was happiness. And he got it.

So what does it take for a person to genuinely change?

What genuinely effects change is desire. That's why interventions are ineffective. You can shock someone into treatment, but that won't cure them for a lifetime.

As a Christian, do you find that your clients' faith or lack of it affects your work with them?

It gets complicated when the answers they seek can be found in Christ, and they're not seeking faith. And it's happened that clients have ventured into spiritual things that aren't Christian. So that does complicate. Coaching rule no. 1, however, is to keep my story separate from my client's.

Now, my faith isn't separate from who I am. And I want the Lord to use me in a way to influence them personally through our professional relationship. I'd have to be given permission to speak about my faith specifically. But it's absolutely obvious, I would suggest, and if you asked my clients, they could tell I'm a believer.

How is that?

I care. I treat people with respect, with grace. And I think the judgment thing is big; I don't judge them.

Speaking the truth in love is big. That's why my faith is so important in my work. It's different for every person, just like it was for Christ on this earth handling different people different ways. And Jesus sees us for who we really are and knows who He created us to be. So I try, imperfectly, to see people as whole and healthy—not as problematic people with issues. A therapist sees issues; I approach in terms of strengths.

It would be interesting to know if you perceive anything different in leaders grounded in a faith and those who are not.

Believe it or not, sometimes faith weakens leaders because they interpret their faith in ways that limit their actions. They can be perceived as "soft" or "too ethical" or "unwilling to confront." In some cases, this is true. Leaders can confuse giving grace with not giving truth. Both grace and truth are needed. Most leaders with faith figure that out, but the ones who don't may want to seek out a coach in that area. I know of a CEO—a great man of faith—who had a hard time firing people in his executive ranks when he should have. It eventually cost him his job. Had he been coached in this area, it might have been prevented. Coaching is about changing the way you see things, and that's usually enough for breakthroughs to take shape.

Can you describe what you love about your job?

The complexity of each person is probably one of the most energizing factors. You never know what or who's going to show up, in what shape, and what they'll need that day. I get permission to climb in and do someone's life with them. That's a privilege that even spouses may not give each other. It's an intimate relationship, professionally, and that's a privilege, no matter what.