Are you on the Bridge or in the Engine Room?

by Malcolm Nicholson (United Kingdom)

I am frequently asked by newer coaches who are moving into assignments with more senior execs what are some areas to check in as conversation openers. I have adopted the question and metaphor ‘Are you in the engine room, or on the bridge?’ Engine rooms can be warm, social, with clear issues requiring clear actions. The bridge tends to be more exposed, looking for dangers on – or even over – the horizon. And today we don’t know what many of the dangers look like.

The following suggestions may seem a directive approach. However, use it as conceptual ideas that can be used as the basis for a coaching conversation. As ever, the true value of the coaching comes in the coach’s great questions, proving awareness and choice as a result, then helping remove roadblocks, to help the leader achieve a more appropriate level of contribution.

Many executives I work with admit they are operating at a level below that at which they should be contributing. At the very least there are some specific areas where their contribution is at a detail level rather than providing leadership. They take on responsibilities for a task that really should be delegated to one of their people. It’s easy to get caught in the weeds. We all do it from time to time. But when you are not providing the ‘big picture’ to your organization or you are doing some one’s role, you are not leading at your level. It may be comforting to operate at the detail level, (‘bizzy-ness’) but it is creating a bottleneck that affects everyone. Zoom, in, but zoom out again.

Whatever the reason, it diminishes your value as an executive and robs your people of the opportunity to learn and grow, whilst adding to your workload. You may be able to justify it – that’s the easy part! – but you are not making it easy to develop the up and coming leaders that all organisations need. And ultimately, it is not sustainable.

How does this happen?
Every leader needs domain knowledge. For those who have been promoted through a business, or have helped a business grow, then they know a lot about how the detail works – or at least, used to work when they did it! Never lose sight of the fact that the vector and velocity of change is escalating – as is the complexity of the work environment.

There are a range of justifications I hear all the time, which include:-

  • I come from a specialist technical background (e.g. lawyer, accountant, engineer etc) so there is an identity issue – ‘I am a lawyer – who will I be if I don’t specialize?
  • It’s a strength of mine and I enjoy it.
  • Time is short. It’s quicker to do it myself rather than explain.
  • It’s too important. I don’t trust him or her to do it right.
  • The place would fall apart if I didn’t keep things going
  • He/she’s overloaded. I’ll just do it

Source: iCN Issue 41  (Leadership Coaching); pages 16-19

About Malcolm Nicholson

Malcolm Nicholson is an experienced businessperson, entrepreneur and much in demand international executive coach, with in depth experience of challenging and supporting executives, enabling them to develop new approaches – both behavioural and procedural – that have a significant impact on their business.

To find out how he can help your organisation contact him at or +44 1932 267597