The Leadership Coach

Sept. 1, 2006
In his study of the interior design and decorating business, Neil Gordon, founder of The Designer's Coach, has discovered six main reasons that will prevent a firm's ultimate success. In this first module, Gordon examines leadership competencies and helps readers develop a leadership profile. Further, he challenges readers to take advantage of their strengths and remedy their weaknesses in order to create a strategic vision for their firms.

By Neil Gordon

You studied and worked hard to become an interior designer because you felt a real desire to be creative and to use your talent in your career choice. "You should do what you love!" This is great advice, but I hear over and over again the following common complaints:

"I am doing everything myself."

"I am always on the phone, and there's so much paperwork."

"Why am I working so much and getting so little done?"

"Is all this effort and hassle worth it?"

"Why am I always solving problems?"

"Why do I feel like I am a juggler at a circus?"

Did you become a designer to be challenged with all these problems? Not necessarily, but you are running a business, and in order to free yourself up to design, you must systemize the business. In order to devote more of your time to designing—to fulfill your dreams, to fulfill your client's dreams—you must develop business systems. As an entrepreneur of your own design business, this means working with the knowledge of organizing your company to understand six basic skills:

  1. Providing effective leadership and a vision
  2. Building a solid team
  3. Creating a brand and awareness
  4. Selling your designs
  5. Fulfilling your promises to your clients
  6. Being an effective negotiator

To develop these necessary skills, you need to create systems and techniques for each of these points in order to release yourself from the torturous bondage of a "job" you hate. Each system you implement in your company will add value or equity to your business because you are creating procedures that do not require you to perform every task. You can assign someone to these responsibilities. Maybe you are the only employee today, but if you plan on growing your business, you will eventually need to hire someone. This first hire should be greeted with systems in place and an understanding of the requirements of the position.

This article is the first in a series that will help you develop these critical business skills. I have created six modules, each one focusing on a specific discipline of running a successful interior design business. The first module is called The Leadership Coach. This is the first area of business development—and it is all about you. You are the leader, and you must look within and become self aware as to the type of leader you will need to be.

The Leadership ProfileLet's begin by asking: Have you ever considered taking a look at what your strengths and weaknesses are in order to measure your leadership competencies? Interior design is a unique profession in the sense that, as a designer, you are in a leadership position, regardless of whether you are an owner of the firm or not. As a designer, you are typically the leader for each project on which you work. Therefore, you need to develop all the same traits as the leader of any business would.

There are some effective coaching tools that can be employed to create a Leadership Profile. What makes you tick? How does your behavior affect the way your run and lead your business?

Being an effective leader is crucial to running and growing an organization. This self-awareness enables you to read your emotions and measure your impact upon others. Additionally, with this knowledge you can be confident to trust your "gut" on important decisions.

There are many qualities a leader needs. Do you lead with a sense of confidence? Are you able to keep any disruptive emotions or impulses under control? Are you aware of how others "really" think about you? Do you have a self-imposed code of honesty, integrity and trustworthiness?

In today's challenging business environment, you must demonstrate flexibility in adapting to constantly changing situations and everyday surprises. There must be consistent expectations for excellent performance and readiness to jump at any opportunity. The leader, needless to say, must be the perpetual optimist.

The key quality for anyone in a leadership position is empathy— being aware of the emotions of others. Understanding this and caring about your team members' concerns are fundamental to great leadership. These similar traits are also essential for the organization as a whole. You must gauge the pulse on the overall mood of your company, the needs of your clients, and the ever-changing attitudes of the marketplace.

It is the highest calling of the leader to motivate through an inspirational model of behavior. But how does a leader inspire in such a compelling way? There are many ways and approaches to be persuasive. The development of your team is done by offering guidance and by measuring with feedback. You are the catalyst for change, and only you can lead your company to greatness.

Of course, the leader must be able to resolve conflicts in a constructive way. The team must build bonds by fostering cooperation, and the leader takes responsibility for the team's failures and successes.

Being an effective leader doesn't allow for mediocrity. This desire for greatness needs to be displayed through the confidence of one's ability and passion for the work from day to day. The leader needs to understand that taking measured risks can be the only path to success. The evolution of you as a leader can only take place when you aspire to be different and lead your organization to a place where your greatest plans can be realized.

What Are Your Leadership Skills? To be an effective leader, you must have a strong will to lead. This desire to take charge comes with many responsibilities. In order to lead you must have willing and motivated followers, or in other words, a team. As you will see, this team that you create and mold will be critical to your company's success. Asking yourself the following questions can help uncover your Leadership Competencies:
  • How often do you seek out feedback on your behavior and leadership qualities?
  • How often do you reflect on your behavior?
  • In the course of a day, how much attention do you pay to your feelings?
  • Are you quick to recognize what others are thinking and feeling?
  • Are you able to modify your communication style to suit the situation?
  • Do you handle conflict in a productive and creative way?
  • What do you think are the essential characteristics of an effective leader?
  • Can you list three of your personal strengths?
  • Can you list three of your personal weaknesses?
  • What are you willing to do to remedy your weaknesses?
  • What personal skills as a leader would you like to improve upon?

One of the best ways to improve performance as a leader is through one-on-one coaching. A critical first step in coaching is to administer a battery of assessments that provide the leader insight into their strengths, weaknesses, communication styles, decision-making processes and leadership styles. Based on this feedback, the leader and coach will co-create an Individual Development Plan that will include skill areas to develop, strategies to improve these areas and ways to measure these improvements. The assessments that will be administered depend on the goals of the leader. Examples of assessments are:

  • Leadership Competency Inventory—a 360-degree feedback, measures leadership competencies, such as setting a vision, inspirational leadership, ability to execute and building relationships. This tool provides leaders an opportunity to analyze themselves through the perspective of their peers, their team, customers and manager (if applicable).
  • Myers-Briggs—a self-assessment that taps into how people process information, make decisions and communicate. This assessment is excellent to use in any coaching engagement and can provide insight into leadership, teamwork and even career paths.
  • Emotional Competency Inventory—Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is a higher predictor of performance than IQ. Emotional Intelligence is the ability to be self-aware, manage emotions in the workplace, empathize with and influence others.

Many times, on-going sessions will be needed to help keep the leader accountable and to coach through situations where the leader is trying to change certain behaviors. The end result of a coaching engagement is to see measurable improvement in the behaviors that were targeted.

The Strategic Vision Creating a strategic vision is the first step in building the foundation of your firm. It is a plan of what you would consider to be your ideal business, sometime in the future. You should take some time and imagine what you could create. Be bold, and try to think of ideas that might not be possible today.

Also, consider your personal goals. If you could recapture time from your busy day, what would you do with it? Besides work activity, what would you like to do? What in your life fulfills you or makes you happy? The strategic vision will be your road map. You will refer to it as a basis to make all other decisions.

You will find this work to be stimulating and rewarding as you create a clear articulate view of what your business will be like in four to five years. To write your strategic vision, you need to ask yourself many questions. Here are a few things to help you formulate this plan:

  • What are the main reasons you are in business?
  • What set of operating rules of behaviors and actions will be put forth?
  • How will you examine the strengths and weaknesses of your competition?
  • What technology will you use to operate your business?
  • What will you do to create important relationships with clients and suppliers?
  • What will be your strategy to pay your employees?
  • Who is your ideal target market?
  • How will you position your company to appeal to them?
  • What will be your niche?
  • What will separate you from the competition?
  • How will your target market know your vision?
  • How will you examine the strengths and weaknesses of your clients?
  • How will you examine what went wrong when a prospect declines to purchase?
  • How will your company grow? (Employees, sales, profits, the value of your business.)
  • How will you create and implement client fulfillment systems?
  • How will you measure the true costs of each job?

These are just a few samples of questions that you can use as a guideline in writing your strategic vision. I have five modules that will follow this leadership module. The work you are to do in the next modules will all depend on the vision that you foresee. For more information, visit

Neil Gordon is the founder of The Designer's Coach, a coaching and consulting service, dedicated to professionals in the interior design and decorating business. With more than 20 years of experience in the field, Gordon provides designers with powerful tools in order to grow their businesses. He has received training and certification as a business coach from the Behavioral Coaching Institute.

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