Lessons Learned from Twenty Years of Developing Leaders

Posted 12.01.2020

The publication date of this post, December 1, 2020, marks the 20th anniversary of our leadership development company, The Eblin Group.

Over the past two decades, colleagues, friends and clients have often asked my wife, life and business partner Diane and me how we’ve grown the business over two decades and what we’ve learned along the way. There’s a lot to say and share about that for sure – more than one blog post can address. But if we were to boil it all down to a couple of words about why we’re still here and going strong, they would be connection and relationships.

When I think of connection, I think first of coaching conversations with individual clients. I remember a couple of months into the business talking with a new client who had just been promoted into his first executive role. When I asked him to talk about what he wanted out of coaching it basically came down to support and guidance about how to handle this big opportunity that secretly scared the hell out of him. As I looked at him, I could see a deer in the headlights expression. It was the same look that had more or less been reflected back in the mirror to me most mornings years earlier when I was a corporate executive feeling way over my head in the biggest job of my life. I had been where he was and could feel what he was feeling. It was a connection. And, by the way, that guy is now Senior Vice President and Treasurer of his Fortune 500 company. Safe to say, it all worked out for him.

In the early years of The Eblin Group, I pretty much did nothing but coaching and almost everyone who was drawn to me as a coach and that I was drawn to as a client were like my deer in the headlights friend and me – leaders who quietly wondered how they had gotten where they were and were searching for guidance on how to navigate this terrain of the next level where the expectations are always very high but very rarely clearly defined.

Making that connection was what led me to write my first book, The Next Level. My goal with the book was to help leaders understand the expectations that others have of them and what they need to pick up and let go of when they’re moving into big new roles or situations.  First released in 2006, The Next Level is now in its third edition and has sold around 50,000 copies. Its reach has exceeded anything that Diane and I ever expected. The thing I hear about the book from readers most often is along the lines of, “I think I knew a lot of the things you write about but you put it in a way that connected with me and that I could use.” I love hearing that because it means we’re making an actionable difference for leaders, their teams and their organizations.

Connection, of course, can lead to relationships. We’ve been very intentional about and fortunate in developing long-term relationships with our clients. I’ve coached over 200 leaders in one on one relationships over the past 20 years. A number of them have brought me back to work with them again as they move to their next level like from CFO to COO or, in another example, several times over the years as the leader moved from VP to SVP to business unit president to, finally, CEO of his company. It’s so rewarding to do that kind of work and see the impact that leaders make in their organizations and communities. Likewise, we’ve had around 700 rising leaders participate in our Next Level Leadership® group coaching program since the first cohort we ran in 2005. Today, a sizable number of the alumni of that program are senior executives and business unit presidents in their companies.

Strong relationships depend on trust. As I’ve written here before, my favorite definition of trust is that it relies on three components – sincerity, credibility and competence. Sincerity, for us, comes pretty naturally as we are firmly grounded in our belief that better leaders leading better lives create a better world.  We are grateful to contribute in whatever way we can to that outcome. As for credibility and competence, we’ve worked hard over the years to deliver on what we promise and to continually get better at what we do and how we do it. Our core team of our events and program coordinator Joanne, our tech and customer support guru Mary, our financial manager Deb and our web designer and brand strategist Andy have been with us for years and have helped make it possible to deliver on our promises. And the woman who gets it all done from customer relations to marketing to scheduling to program and product development is Diane. There would not be an Eblin Group without her.

Our client organizations have also been amazing partners in helping us get better and better. We’ve been privileged to work with over 160 companies and government agencies over the years and about a third of those are ones that we’ve done multiple years of business with. The best client organization contacts have been those that partner with us to create something truly impactful for their leaders. Sometimes they give me really direct feedback and coaching on how I could personally improve to more directly connect with their leaders. I remember one Fidelity Investments program manager back in 2006 or 2007 who had multiple opportunities to watch me deliver one of my early workshops on leading at the next level. Frankly, some of those went really well and others were just so-so. After one of the so-so days, she pulled me aside and said, “Here’s something I notice about you. When the group’s energy is high, yours is high. When the group’s energy is low, yours is low. I can’t have the group leading you; I need you to lead the group.”

That is what you call valuable feedback. For several years after that coaching, I made hitting the sweet spot with my energy the focal point of my development as a speaker. Since then, I’ve delivered well over 500 workshops and keynotes, many of which have been part of corporate leadership programs that run several times a year, year over year. In all of those cases, we partner with and learn from our clients so that I can target what I have to offer to the needs that are most pressing for their leaders.

One of the great privileges of the work I get to do is processing and sharing what I learn from the leaders I work with. I love the leverage and multiplier effect of that. I have so many examples of how that works so I’ll share just one. As I wrote about earlier this year, one of the great thrills of my professional life was the first time I got to present from the hallowed space known as the Pit at GE’s leadership development campus, Crotonville, about an hour up the Hudson from New York City. The audience that night was a large group of high potentials in the company who were there for a flagship two-week development experience. I began by sharing Next Level behaviors self-assessment data from other high potential groups I’d worked with at GE. In summarizing the highest rated and lowest rated behaviors, I said, “If you’re like your peers here, you’re so busy doing stuff, you probably don’t see what needs to be done.” The room erupted in agreement and we quickly pivoted to a one-hour conversation on what that was like. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that evening was the impetus for writing my second book Overworked and Overwhelmed in 2014. It’s since sold around 25,000 copies and has helped me really frame how the work of leading at your best depends on living at your best. And, in this year of dealing with the pressures and stress of leading from home during a global pandemic, that work has never felt more relevant to our clients. As I said, it all flows from connection and relationships. I wouldn’t get to do the work I do in the way that I do it without those two things.

And this year, the connection and relationships endure even as everything we do for now at The Eblin Group is delivered virtually and from a distance. Like everyone else, we’re looking forward to the day when we can meet again in person, but for now we’re still partnering with clients to help them pivot and support their leaders during and after the pandemic. We’re especially grateful for long-time clients who called on us this year to step into the breach to deliver significant amounts of virtual leadership development programming for their new companies when it became clear that that was the only way the work could be done.

As we look to the future, we’re going to build on what brought us here – connection and relationships. Those principles inform what we do and how we do it including the upcoming launch of our first digital course: Next Level Leader: A Proven Plan for Increasing Your Impact where, in addition to video content and self-directed work, we’ll build and grow a community of leaders through live online coaching office hours with me and online peer coaching and collaboration.

If you get the sense that I could go on, you’re right, I could. There are so many more stories and lessons I could share about the lessons and blessings of having done this work for the past twenty years but this post is already too long. And that brings me to you, the reader. There may be some of you have been long-term relationship people with me for well over the 1,000 posts since this blog began back in 2008. Or, you may be a newer connection. Either way, thank you for being a reader and sharing this space with me. I’m grateful for all you’ve taught and shared with me over the years. I’d love to hear what you’ve taken away from our connection and relationship, either in a comment on LinkedIn or through this quick questionnaire.

In the meantime, here’s to what’s next.

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