By Elloa Phoenix Barbour
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It doesn't matter what kind of you work for, or which industry or role you're in – if you belong to an organisation in 2021, the following points are probably relevant to what you do each day:
Businesses need to generate a profit, yet the world is in crisis. There are thousands of issues needing smart, strategic solutions delivered by intelligent, aware and responsible humans and companies that care about more than just the bottom line. In fact, pursuit of the bottom line at any cost has had and continues to have a destructive effect on people and the planet.
Wellbeing and burnout are hot topics. With the World Health Organization naming burnout as an occupational hazard in 2019, followed by a global pandemic, productivity and profit at any cost are no longer feasible objectives. Sooner or later, organisations have to start balancing old school KPIs with social responsibility and respect for the people who work for them as inherently worthwhile and not simply bodies who can get things done.
Adaptation, resilience and the ability to pivot are key if organisations want to thrive. Whatever term you use – being agile, innovative, resilient, or adaptive – being able to respond to the fast-paced VUCA conditions we live and work in is fundamental to success these days. Bureaucracy, red tape and top-down hierarchies often slow organisations down and inhibit their ability to respond to change at pace. Being entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial, doing experiments and devolving power to teams can all support organisations to be more adaptive – this requires a particular mindset.
Leaders are the lynch pins. Leaders make the decisions and lead the teams that effect change. It is through leaders that change is either enabled or inhibited.
Gary Hamel put it this way:
"The most profound business challenge we face today is how to build organizations that can change as fast as change itself."
Researchers, expert practitioners and leaders at the coal face have written and talked extensively about each of these in their own right (see for example Do Purpose, Radical Candor, Agile methodology, Reinventing Organizations and Brave New Work, to name but a few).
At a certain point, the question of change, transformation and performance intersects with the individual leaders, and who the leaders become as a group or system.
And this is where coaching can really make a difference.
In this article, we are going to put forward the idea that coaching, while absolutely not the be all and end all, is nevertheless one key intervention that can support organisations to develop, evolve and thrive by tackling many of the issues that lay behind the above points. Good leadership coaching can encourage leaders to step back, find a different perspective and approach, and unleash the potential within themselves and the people and systems around them.
What coaching isn’t, and why it matters
From our experience, the gift of coaching isn’t that the leader emerges from the conversation with a six point strategic action plan which they then execute with laser-sharp focus and motivation.
Most senior leaders that we work with are already extremely driven, committed and hard working. If anything, what people working in organisations need, particularly at the higher levels, is help slowing down.
It isn't about personality transformation. It doesn't change who a leader fundamentally is.
It also isn't therapy, although it can be extremely therapeutic.
What coaching does do is offer individuals and groups a unique space for reflection, processing and the development of deeper insights. (At TWP, we blend our coaching sessions with other tools to really get under the bonnet. We often use the Lumina Spark psychometric, which we love for its comprehensive look at people's personalities and how they play out in various contexts. We also address learning agility, which looks at an individual's hunger to learn and grow.)
In the coaching room, we work with the person first, and the person-in-role second – even when that person has come to us directly because of a role-related issue.
And this is where coaching really stands apart as an intervention.
The gift of coaching
Here are just some of the reasons why coaching is such a unique and powerful intervention, when it's used well. 1. It gives people space.
Image by Philipp Berndt via Unsplash
Space to breathe – literally – and space to think, feel and reflect. Most senior leaders (and indeed, most people working in any kind of role) have precious little white space in their working weeks. We’re on the hamster wheel, and working remotely has, if anything, only increased the intensity of that for lots of people. We see this playing out at the organisational level, with people’s days overloaded with back-to-back meetings and commitments, and we are immersed in a wider cultural addiction to busyness as a way of being. Whilst some people genuinely thrive on this, for many of us it puts chronic, cumulative stress on our nervous systems, brains, bodies and relationships, and over time, leads to potential if not actual burnout. That’s why, with certain coachees, we will spend dedicated time simply inviting them to stop figuring everything out, to stop the endless execution of action (the doing) and for a few minutes, to simply land in the fundamental fact that they are a human being. We invite people to notice how they feel, what’s happening in their bodies, to breathe, to reflect and to enquire into what they might be running away from. This is incredibly important work, because so many of the challenges facing organisations today are human-centric. The conversations about wellbeing, engagement and yes, even productivity, all have our inescapable humanness at our root. The more senior leaders can connect to their own humanity, the more human the organisation will become.
2. It supports leaders to make better decisions about the culture, strategy and overall focus of their team(s) and the organisation as a whole. We all have different personality traits. Some of us are logical, analytical decision makers. Some of us make decisions on the fly, or really listen to our gut feeling, or approach decisions with a blend of influences, values and priorities.
But we’re going to be bold and say with conviction that we believe all leaders – all people – benefit from having greater self-awareness. Awareness of oneself, of the people around you, and of the group or collective dynamics at play in any given situation (there are usually many!). There are multiple ways to develop greater awareness, including mindfulness and meditation practices. What makes coaching so valuable is the relationship between coach and coachee. The coach’s role involves questioning, challenging, exploring, connecting the dots and opening up new lines of enquiry. Sometimes people simply need some space to think out loud.
3. It helps leaders listen to parts of themselves that they typically shut down in their day-to-day roles.
Photo by Math via Unsplash
This is important in and of itself, and also builds the ability to listen to the many and diverse voices and perspectives of the people in the organisation, which leads to a culture of true inclusivity and not simply tokenistic diversity.
Often, we are inclined to lean on certain more dominant aspects of our personalities as individuals, or to default to listening to certain key voices in organisations, such as those with more overt power or authority. This can exclude and silence other valuable aspects of ourselves and people and even entire groups in organisations.
It's 2021; we need to be doing things differently, and coaching offers space for people to connect and listen to themselves and others.
4. It helps uncover the hidden assumptions, fears and internal narratives that lurk beneath the surface (for us as individuals and as a collective).
We cannot emphasise enough how important this is to do. So many organisations have a culture of fear, and in many cases, this is being driven by fear-based assumptions carried individually and collectively by those in an organisational system.
Fear-based assumptions are often connected to the idea of:
scarcity (e.g. ‘There’s not enough time/money’),
safety (e.g. ‘It’s not safe to try a different approach. Better to stick to what we know’),
survival (e.g. ‘It’s either us or them,’ or ‘Beat or be beaten),
relational principles (e.g. ‘People can’t be trusted’), or,
life being a zero-sum game (e.g. ‘Either we succeed or we give people flexibility; you can’t have both’).
It’s vital to remember that we come to work – even to our very first job – with a wealth of experience gained from different organisations we’ve been part of: educational institutions, clubs, communities, and of course our family of origin.
In coaching, we spend a lot of time digging beneath the presenting concerns or issues and connecting the dots to these formative experiences – without necessarily doing any work that’s required to process the trauma that lies there; that work lies in the realm of therapy and/or trauma-treatment. But in coaching, we can raise awareness of the influence that previous life experiences have on who we are as a leader today. Ultimately, this aspect of coaching is vital because without it, these stories and assumptions are not brought out into the open and can silently ‘steer the ship’, influencing and even directing the decisions that get made. This prevents new possibilities from being experimented with and doesn’t allow new ideas to truly enter the room. They might get spoken, but perhaps not deeply heard, especially if a new idea (‘Hey, I’ve been thinking and I really wonder if we might be able to work a 4-day week and still be just as productive’) bumps up against a hidden assumption (e.g. ‘People can’t be trusted’). Yes, this is about inclusion – as many people have pointed out, the presence of diversity in itself is not enough if those voices and perspectives aren’t being genuinely included and listened to. And it’s also about trust, innovation, risk-taking, power, authority, psychological safety, hierarchy, transparency, decision-making and every aspect of what gets prioritised in a business and why.
In Conclusion (or TLDR)
Good executive coaching can support leaders with the shift in mindset needed to evolve and develop their perspectives, which in turn paves the way for organisations to create shifts at the systemic level.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, and there are times when it isn’t the intervention we’d recommend (more on that in our next article). But there are multiple benefits:
It gives leaders space to reflect, process the busyness of their lives, which can help prevent burnout.
It supports leaders to make better, more strategic decisions.
It develops leaders' ability to listen to themselves and others, which can contribute to a culture of true inclusivity and can also minimise derailers and blind spots.
It helps uncover the hidden assumptions and fear-based beliefs and narratives that can lurk 'below the surface' in any given individual, group or organisation.
Finally, it creates dedicated space for leaders to focus on their own and others' development.
We'd love you to join the conversation
If you've had coaching, we'd love to know what the greatest benefit or breakthrough you've experienced has been, and what helped create those results.
If you haven't ever had coaching, does it appeal to you? If so, why? If not, why not?