Be brutally honest about performance. Accelerate what’s working, fix what’s not and fix it quickly. Don’t let problems linger. Address them right away. Because they always get in the way, and they definitely impact performance.
The number one leadership initiative in any organization today is improved coaching. Coaching empowers employees, empowerment drives engagement, and engagement drives performance. At its core, coaching is about transformation. Leading distributed teams requires transforming how we coach and changing our play calls and playbooks to get things done. As a part of our interview series called “Moving From Command & Control to Coaching & Collaboration; How Leaders and Managers Can Become Better Coaches,” we had the pleasure to interview James Robinson.
James Robinson was appointed Chief Executive Officer of Urovant Sciences, Inc., on March 23, 2020, having served as a member of our board of directors since March 2019. Mr. Robinson is a proven leader in the biopharmaceutical and healthcare industries, having successfully led multiple global businesses, operations, and commercial ventures in multiple corporations over the past 28 years including with Alkermes, Astellas Pharma, and Schering-Plough Pharmaceuticals.
Thank you for joining us to explore a critical inflection point in how we define leadership. Our readers would like to get to know you better. What was a defining moment that shaped who you are as a leader?
Relatively early in my career I had the opportunity to move from a successful run as a sales representative to become a sales manager for a newly created division that didn’t seem to have much upside, but I wanted the experience (in fact I was the only person that interviewed for the role). After about a year into that role where I had the opportunity to hire, train and lead a sales district for the first time — I learned more than I could have ever expected. Almost all of what I learned was taught to me by the sales representatives that I was meant to lead. They taught me new ways to analyze the business opportunities, the importance of collaboration and how momentum builds belief in what is possible. Very importantly, they taught me that the greatest form of motivation is encouragement.
About a year later, the manager position in my old district opened and I was able to return to that district — where I began my career as a sales rep — as the new manager. The time away from my old district was invaluable, as I got a chance to be a manager and learn from my previous team as well as evaluate all the business dynamics across four Midwestern states.
Fundamentally, as a team, we examined the business at a deeper level, mutually agreed on what was needed to succeed month-by-month and put a very clear and compelling plan in place. The month-to- month focus allowed us to assess the plan, adjust and ultimately see the improvement that led to that feeling of momentum that builds belief. That momentum created confidence in the team and the belief that we would succeed. In that first year we went from last place in the region to first in the nation.
The lesson for me was to know the business inside and out. To be able to explain that in terms of connecting the head and the heart by painting a picture that when we do this, we will achieve this and recognizing that people were on board with the plan. And because they got on board with the plan, and they knew it was their plan, they executed, and we ended up succeeding.
John C. Maxwell is credited with saying, “A leader is someone who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” How do you embody that quote as a leader?
I first heard that leadership quote from Fred Hassan who was the CEO of Schering Plough when I was an employee. It immediately resonated with me, and I have followed that approach ever since. How that translates for me is that when you build a team, remember you are part of that team, not apart from that team. Even as a leader, you’re going to be a member of the team. To be a leader means leading by example and a huge part of leading by example is remembering you are part of the team, and not above the team.
How do you define the differences between a leader as a manager and a leader as a coach?
A leader as a manager tends to be about task orientation. It’s about the “now” — execution on tasks — which is essential since we often need to manage myriad activities. A leader as coach is about your team and the future. It’s about developing the organization and developing the person for both today and the future path they’re going to provide the organization. On the one hand, we help them be successful today, but even more importantly on the other hand, make them successful long-term.
We started our conversation by noting that improved coaching is the number one leadership initiative in any organization today. What are some essential skills and competencies that leaders must have now to be better coaches?
I think the most important skill to develop is recognizing who you are coaching and what you are coaching them for. Each person and each situation have their own unique set of needs. You can’t apply the same approach to everybody and expect it’s going to work across multiple people in multiple situations.
For example, Look at the differences in perspective at different levels. When you are front line people or sales manager, your orientation tends to be focused on what’s right in front of you day-to-day. When you are at a Director level, with managers reporting into you, your orientation must be much further out, both week-to-week and month to month. I would coach a manager different than a director based on their perspectives and role.
It’s also about recognizing what you’re coaching for, which also calls for a tailored approach. Is it specific skills development, or broad areas of improvement, or developing a strategic path? Then you lay out a game plan, and they execute against it.
We’re all familiar with the adage, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” How are you inspiring — rather than mandating — leaders to invest in upskilling and reskilling?
I believe you inspire through engagement, which you achieve through time spent one-on-one with your team members, understanding what is important to them in their professional and personal lives. For me, I engage with my extended leadership team all the time. I want to make sure that I’m not removed from what matters and that I’m a member of the team.
As it relates to flies with honey . . . I firmly believe that treating people with respect always must be how we operate as a company. I believe that we tackle the issue and not the person. I have zero tolerance for jerks.
Let’s get more specific. How do you coach someone to do their best work? How can leaders coach for peak performance in our current context? What are your “Top 5 Ways That Leaders and Managers Can Be Effective Coaches?”
These are my top five ways leaders and managers can be effective coaches.
- Number One. Paint a very clear picture of what you want to achieve. And when you paint that picture, make sure it connects both the head and the heart. That will start the buy-in process because people will begin to visualize in their own mind what has to happen to achieve that outcome.
- Number Two. Always remember you are part of the team, not apart from the team. Everyone is in this together, collectively driving towards that outcome. There are no “swim-lanes” and there are definitely no silos. There’s one team.
- Number Three. Be brutally honest about performance. Accelerate what’s working, fix what’s not and fix it quickly. Don’t let problems linger. Address them right away. Because they always get in the way, and they definitely impact performance.
- Number Four. Praise in public, coach in private. Ensure you’re always looking to capture people doing the right thing. And absolutely don’t tolerate a jerk. There’s no quicker way to destroy the culture and morale of your company than if you tolerate jerks.
- Number Five. The best way to think about all of this is to create a virtuous cycle. It starts with painting that pictures to get the buy-in or alignment you need as a team to drive performance without exception. Actively building this approach into the culture of your company is a key to success.
We’re leading and coaching in increasingly diverse organizations. And one aspect of workforce diversity on the rise is generational diversity. What advice would you offer about how to effectively coach a multi-generational workforce? And how do you activate the collective potential of a multi-generational workforce?
With organizations becoming more diverse, you need to embrace that diversity. I firmly believe in DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), and defining it in a way which connects not only to all our colleagues but contributes to our business success. Diversity means that each person is unique, and the differences in who we are, how we think and our individual and collective experiences, make us stronger together. Equity means treating each person fairly, that we treat each other with dignity and respect, where everyone has equal opportunity to fully participate and succeed. Finally, inclusion means each person is valued, seen and heard, that they are comfortable being who they are and using their voice to contribute their best. These elements particularly apply to a multi-generational workforce.
You activate this potential through a pervasive culture of collaboration. Collaboration is that support translated across teams that, when harnessed effectively, creates a multiplier effect that accelerates performance and delivers sustainable results.
You’re referring to emotional intelligence, in a sense. What are two steps every leader can take to demonstrate a higher level of emotional intelligence?
These two steps have always paid dividends for me with respect to showing increased emotional intelligence. First, do your best to remove any other thoughts in your head and be in the moment to provide your undivided attention as you interact with your people. Second, you don’t always need an instantaneous response. If you feel an emotion start to creep in, wait a beat and be thoughtful in your response. That beat of time can be as long as you need, it can make a big difference for you and the person with whom you are interacting.
Words matter. And we’re collectively creating a new leadership language right now. What are the most important words for leaders to use now?
As ever, the language we use evolves with the times, and a new lexicon emerges. To me, two of the most important words are “empathy” and “gratitude,” and they are really interconnected. If empathy toward those you work with — both understanding and appreciating their experience and motivation — is part of your wiring, then you will be a person that’s grateful, grateful for their effort and contributions, and grateful for the opportunity to work with them.
I keep inspiring quotes on my desk. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote,” and why does it mean so much to you?
For as long as I can remember I’ve carried with me Winston Churchill’s quote: “Never, never, never give up.” No matter how well you plan, you just know that there will be issues along the way. The solution is to never stop, never give up, and make your way forward to a successful outcome.
Our readers often like to continue the conversation. What’s the best way for readers to connect with you and to stay current on what you’re discovering?
I invite anyone who is interested to follow me through my LinkedIn feed.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!