Homework – a perennial coaching issue

All executive coaches have encountered clients who commit to doing follow up work but don’t complete it. As a colleague of mine said, “A coach should not accept this, without interrogating the situation. It’s essential to find out why.”

There are several possibilities and the simplest is that life got in the way. Working with adults means working with people who have competing priorities, and sometimes even the keenest client has priorities which can take precedence. It’s important to be accepting of this situation. Work with your client to ensure they are still committed to their follow-up work and help them establish a new timeline.

Another possibility is common to coaching, teaching and managing staff: misunderstanding. You need to check that you and your client actually shared an understanding of what was expected. If not, this issue sits squarely with you as the coach. Part of your job is to ensure that understanding is shared.

But what about when you and your client share a good understanding of the task, they have time to do it, but your client does not complete the work?  I decided to take a look at the approaches other executive coaches took when they encountered this situation. Underlying most of their approaches was ensuring that you, as coach, understand why your client has not followed through rather than making assumptions.

I recently found an excellent article by Tony Stoltzfus. Stoltzfus sets out five steps to take when this happens:

  1. Check for Buy-in
  2. Identify and Troubleshoot Obstacles
  3. Reset for Next Week
  4. Nail Things Down Tighter
  5. Reconnect with Their Motivation.
I didn’t sign up for homework …

Working with Bob* was an unusual experience. Bob approached coaching with great wariness, although he was always involved in each session. Although coaching was not mandatory for Bob, I thought he might have felt pushed into participating. It seemed unlikely that he was committed to the process. Repeatedly, Bob made a commitment to undertake follow-up actions, which he suggested for himself, and repeatedly he failed to follow through.

It seemed that Bob’s enthusiasm, which he brought to every session, waned the moment he walked out the door. Even when he tried to follow through, he always encountered impenetrable barriers. Bob was charming, courteous and warm but I came to realise that he was simply not ready for coaching. (See Matt Brubaker and Chris Mitchell for more on clients who aren’t ready for coaching, and our article on what makes a client coachable.)

When Annette* came to a session without having completed an action she had agreed to, I decided to use respectful listening techniques to discover what sat behind this. The first question I asked myself, referencing Stoltzfus’ article, was whether this was an action the client came up with, or one I had suggested. On reflection, I realised it had come from me. When Annette had asked for ideas about how to move forward on a particular issue, I had suggested a piece of homework for her to try.

It was clear at our next meeting that she had considered and rejected the action, so it was important to find out why. This led to a transformational conversation about her view of her organisation and her role in it.

Annette’s reaction led her to a realisation that this homework was based on a direction she no longer wanted to pursue. In rejecting the homework, she had come to recognise something she had not understood before.

The issue went way beyond the particular piece of work. It led her to reconsider her future directions both within and beyond the organisation. She set new follow-up actions which aligned with her new goals and which she completed with panache. As Stoltzfus writes, “Sometimes you’ll uncover an important obstacle, and find that dealing with that obstacle was much more transformational than the original action step itself.”

I believe the best approach is to be pre-emptive, wherever possible. One strategy I use when setting homework with my clients is to remind them that they can reframe or reject outright any suggestion I might have, before it becomes a follow-up action. So even when they ask for a suggestion, this does not mean they are obliged to accept it.

When a client expresses doubt about an action, I ask the questions that my own coach once asked me: “What’s standing in your way? What’s stopping you from trying this?” My clients’ answers range from, “Nothing. I’m going to try this out,” to “That would never work in my organisation.”

When I get the second answer, I ask them to talk to me about what’s going on. The answer can be far more revealing than any outcome from a single piece of homework and add great insights for you and for your client.

Contributor: Dr Catherine Burrows is a Sydney-based executive coach, available in Wollongong, Newcastle, Western NSW and other areas by arrangement. Catherine is a co-founder of Executive Coach Exchange and the CEO and owner of Innoverum independent consulting.

*Clients mentioned in this article are amalgams of actual clients and no actual names have been used.

Leadership series – Phil Cox

This week we continue our leadership series with an interview with Phil Cox. Phil currently holds Directorships at the Hunter Valley Training Company, the Lake Macquarie Foundation and the Honeysuckle Community Group. Prior to this, Phil was the Director of Hunter TAFE, where he used staff development to achieve significant cultural change in his organisation. We asked Phil to talk to us about this.

Phil Cox – achieving cultural change through leadership development

Executive Coach Exchange Phil Cox
Phil Cox

Phil told us that when he was appointed as Institute Director (a position equivalent to CEO at an institution with around 60,000 enrolments), he found a workplace culture which suited the previous incumbent but did not suit his personal leadership style. He found the culture rather hierarchical, where successors were identified more on their seniority than through a structured succession plan. He also found senior people in roles that he felt they were not best suited to, so he commenced the change process using restructuring. While some people chose to move on, others found a new and more appropriate role within the organisation.

Phil’s next step was to create a Developing Leaders Program, with the focus placed firmly on emerging leaders, rather than the existing leadership team. A consultant was brought in to help develop the program and to collect extensive data on the participants. Phil emphasised that the support and involvement of the Deputy Institute Director was integral to the ongoing success of the program.

It was a full-year program, run over 5 years, with up to 45 participants a year. While some program elements will sound familiar, others will not:

  1. The program commenced with a process of research, assessment of current leadership culture and staff consultation to identify 10 leadership effectiveness behaviours.
  2. The program was open to everyone. All staff were encouraged to apply, whether they were permanent or temporary, full-time or part-time; and from all levels of the organisation.
  3. Phil launched the program personally, using emails, podcasts and visits to most of the 15 campuses to promote it.
  4. Applications were assessed against the 10-point behaviour plan, which ensured the focus was on potential rather than past achievement.
  5. Despite his demanding role, Phil personally interviewed all short listed applicants and devoted 3 days, 3 times a year to the program. He was involved in both the initial interview and in robust follow-up discussions on the participants’ development plans, ideas and innovation.
  6. Tools including the Birkman Method and Leadership Effectiveness Analysis 360 degree evaluations were used, and repeated during the year to assess progress.
  7. Development Action Plans were established for each participant in consultation with the consultant. All participants discussed these Action Plans withthe Executive Strategy Group – comprising the CEO, the CEO of a partner institution and a member of the Institute’s Advisory Committee, ensuring an external focus on the interests of clients.
  8. The consultant was available as a ‘help line’ for participants and discussed emerging issues with Phil regularly. The consultant also provided 1:1 coaching to all participants.
  9. Participants were given projects to undertake which allowed them to experience new roles and experiment with new ideas.
  10. Participants were also given opportunities to act in other positions, based on their career Action Plans rather than on seniority, and were supported in these roles.

Clearly, this was a program designed to implement major cultural change, with the CEO at the centre of the experience.

We asked about the outcomes. Phil said that the majority of the participants are now in leadership roles, either within the organisation or elsewhere. People who wanted a career change were encouraged to try new roles. Phil gave the examples of a part-time security guard who now works in a specialist support role; and two IT technical specialists, one of whom moved into marketing and the other into a faculty leadership role in Tourism and Hospitality.

The participants were highly motivated and were empowered to become change agents. Phil said he saw positive changes every week, as the desired new behaviours were increasingly adopted throughout the Institute.

The final benefit was for Phil, himself. Phil told us he found the enthusiasm of the participants infectious. For Phil, the program was exciting and motivating and it was very clear that this Leadership Program was one of the most rewarding aspects of his work at Hunter TAFE.

Uluru statement from the heart

This week we are stepping aside from our usual themes to ask you to read, and support, the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Executive Coach Exchange Uluru Statement from the HeartThe Statement asks us to walk with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples “in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”

We support the Statement wholeheartedly and consider that its importance for leadership and transformation, in the broader sense, cannot be overstated. You can support the Statement here, and here, by sharing it from here, and by contacting your Member of Parliament.

Catherine Burrows & Elizabeth Burrows
Founding Partners
Executive Coach Exchange

Now that you’ve hired your talent, what happens next?

Last week we looked at an interesting case study, where Unilever had taken a novel approach to diversify its candidate pool for entry level positions, by automating most stages of the recruitment process.

We discussed:

  • what consequences this approach may have for diversity in hiring, and
  • that a conscious effort to identify and encode desired characteristics has potential to help organisations understand their own culture.
Executive Coach Exchange leader pixabay PaulLeng
How important is it to understand organisational culture when recruiting a leader?

This issue of understanding an organisation’s own culture is highlighted in this thought-provoking article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Clarke Murphy.

The authors highlight the difficulty that organisations have in recruiting and promoting effective leaders, and link this to the difficulty that organisations have in identifying the most important features of their own culture.

This leads to a situation where even those organisations that have a good recruitment strategy – not relying too much on intuition over more valid selection tools – fail to look at whether their candidate’s qualities and skills are a good match for their organisation’s culture.  “As a result, too many leaders are (correctly) hired on talent but subsequently fired due to poor culture fit,” Chamorro-Premuzic and Murphy say.

The authors make the point – and we think this is a vitally important consideration in any effort to recruit a new leader – that “for most people, leadership potential will be somewhat context-dependent”.

A person who has outperformed in a previous role, with:

  • familiar structures,
  • a support framework, and
  • a clear understanding, built over time, of the organisation’s goals,

may easily flounder – in fact, could almost be expected to flounder – in a new and unfamiliar organisation.

If this leader has been recruited to undertake transformation in the new organisation, the task is doubly hard.

The authors identify 3 key areas where more work needs to be done in the hiring process to avoid the disruption and inefficiencies involved in repeated hiring and firing:

  • understand the organisation’s own culture;
  • decode the motives and values of their candidate to see whether these are a good fit for the organisational culture; and
  • where this is a desired outcome – be realistic about whether a new leader can change the organisational culture.

The authors recognise the difficulty that a new leader will have in reshaping organisational culture, and that, potentially, only a “moderate misfit” will have the time, inclination and personal attributes to do so.

The authors suggest objective measurement, including via well-structured climate surveys and crowdsourcing ideas from team members, to help organisations understand their own culture first.  This approach puts organisations in a strong position of self-knowledge, before either recruiting or beginning the transformation process.

 

 

Cutting edge coaching

Here at Executive Coach Exchange we were delighted to be given the task of coaching an entire team at the Centre for Aboriginal Health.

The Centre, which is part of NSW Health, asked us to work with all the staff there who wanted to participate and we were so pleased that they did. The Centre is developing a reputation for innovative approaches to professional development and we feel privileged to have played a part in this.

The Centre undertakes very effective advocacy for Aboriginal Peoples and is excited by the challenges presented by new strategic approaches in Aboriginal Health. The decision to coach the whole team was based on the belief that each person in the team contributes to the outcomes of the whole team, so each person should be supported to perform at their best.

The Centre has a coherent and cohesive leadership team, who have a strong commitment to the vision of the Centre, to quality improvement and to achieving better outcomes. This commitment is shared by the staff who also share with them a strong appetite to find new and better ways of doing business.

Coaching the entire team meant a significant investment in staff time, as all staff, irrespective of how long they had worked with the Centre or what their role was, were invited to participate.

By expanding coaching from the leadership team to the entire team, the Centre provided staff with the opportunity to build skills in a completely personalised program. This is paying dividends already. We found that staff engaged enthusiastically in the opportunity provided by the coaching program and tried new ways of working as a result. We were impressed and pleased to witness the improvement in work practices and the excitement and energy of the team in trying new ideas.

The Centre for Aboriginal Health is to be congratulated for this program. While executive coaching for leaders and aspiring leaders is becoming well-accepted across the NSW Public Sector, the idea of investing in this type of professional development for an entire team is at the cutting edge of coaching.

Organisational change – Part 3 – working with champions

In Part 1 we looked at the differences between obstructionists and sceptics, and in Part 2, how to work with sceptics to achieve great outcomes. In this post, we will look at champions of change.

Why does someone become a champion? Champions are ready for change and your ideas resonate with them:

  • They may have experienced the same frustrations or problems that you have
  • They may have seen the same data as you and reached the same conclusions
  • They may have been dealing with customer complaints and so understand the imperatives for improvement
  • Or perhaps they understand the political externalities that are driving your change.

Executive Coach Exchange team startupstockphotos pixabaySome will also be new to the organisation and have no allegiance to the old ways of doing business. Generally speaking, seniority doesn’t determine a team member’s attitude to change: you will find champions at all levels of your organisation.

Champions believe in your change and they have faith in you to deliver it, so it is essential that you support them as they encounter difficulties implementing your change. Like you, champions will find working with sceptics difficult, time-consuming and trying.

Champions may dismiss objections raised by the sceptics, failing to listen for what is useful in their concerns. If this occurs, especially in the case of newer team members, the old hands will dismiss the champions in turn. Great champions need to learn to embrace the sceptics. Your role will be to model the behaviour you expect to see and to equip the champions with the skills they need.

There are other people who are sometimes confused with champions. Some team members will support your change as long as they perceive you to be sufficiently powerful to take them with you as your career progresses. They don’t need to believe in the change: it is sufficient for them to believe it will be personally and professionally advantageous to support you. They will quickly decide to support you all the way – until there is a bump in the road, at which point their support may be withdrawn just as quickly.

For this reason, it’s important to check the motivations of those team members who are enthusiastically embracing your change program.

Ask yourself how they have come to the conclusion that change is needed and why your proposal is the best approach. Or better yet, ask them. A true champion will have genuine personal and professional reasons for supporting your change, even if they have some difficulty in articulating these. A less sincere supporter will probably have a facile answer which they think is what you will want to hear. By asking probing questions and listening carefully to their answers, you will be able to find the champions you need to get your work done.

Working with an executive coach can be extremely beneficial here. Because coaches come from outside your organisation, they can bring an objectivity to the process. An executive coach can help you build an understanding of whether the people putting themselves forward as champions get the rationale behind your change or whether they have a history of following their leaders, no matter what change has been implemented.

An executive coach can help you build a framework to decide how to assign critical tasks, and develop a plan for better engagement of the less sincere supporters.

Sometimes events can overtake your change so that it does not come to fruition. Champions of your program for change will be at least as disappointed as you. They may have put themselves on the line for you and may have faced significant opposition. In appropriate situations, they will have let your customers know about the improvements that were coming and realise how frustrated those customers will now be. They will also be facing the obstructionists who will no doubt tell them, “I told you so.”

In this situation, it is essential that you support them. Explaining the situation clearly and effectively to the people who have been helping you implement your change, both champions and sceptics alike, is essential. Let them know what has occurred that makes the change impossible and allow them to express their feelings to you. After all, when the next change needs to be implemented, you will want trusted allies who believe in you and your efforts to improve the organisation.

An executive coach can help you:

  • build your skills in these difficult communication tasks
  • find the best ways to deliver the bad news to your staff and
  • assist you to find positive approaches to listening as they express their frustrations.With these skills you will be able to engage your champions in a way that allows them to continue to be your champions now and into the future.

Organisational change – Part 2 – how sceptics can help you

Executive Coach Exchange meeting james oladujoye pixabayIn Part 1, we looked at the difference between people who are obstructionist and people who are true sceptics. In Part 2, we are looking at how sceptics can help you implement your change.

Learning how to listen and who to listen to are skills leaders need to master. Combined with effective staff communication, they form an extremely powerful skillset, one which executive coaches can certainly help you to build and enhance.

Without these skills, a leader trying to implement organisational change can quickly find themselves in deep trouble. Which of these scenarios would you rather be part of?

Scenario 1: You are in the middle of a media storm, defending your recent changes, and one of your staff says, ‘”We told them ‘sh*t’, that’s not going to work when they explained how the computer was going to do the work and said that it was going to misrepresent people’s income and lead to incorrect debts going out, but they just told us “computers and data can’t be wrong”.

‘”They…weren’t interested in hearing what we thought about it.”‘ (“‘They don’t care about average Australians’: Centrelink staffer speaks out about debt controversy.” Sydney Morning Herald, 11/1/2017)

Scenario 2: A member of your staff keeps protesting about a new approach. They say, ‘”I still don’t like the idea.”

‘You reply, “Which is a good thing. … That means you’ll make sure we don’t mess this up.”‘ (From Ryan, E. 2014. The Courbet Connection. p. 113)

Working with early adopters, the champions of your change, is exciting and rewarding. These are the people leaders trust to get things done. They understand your ideas and see your imperatives. People who get on board make your life easier and make it seem that everything will go smoothly.

In contrast, dealing with sceptics is time-consuming. Their failure to see what you can see, the advantages of your ideas, can be frustrating, irritating and dull. They make your life more difficult and seem determined to find every possible impediment to your change.

When you are working to a tight time-frame, the need to move things along can seem like the most important priority. However, if you don’t get it right, you can find yourself in the middle of Scenario 1, defending a system which, it appears in this case, is not working. Worse still, based on the media report, the public will assume you knew it wouldn’t work and didn’t listen. This assumption may not be correct but, unfair or not, this is what people will remember.

In contrast, in Scenario 2, you have outlined your proposal for change and invited feedback. You have listened carefully to the opposing view and demonstrated you have considered it. You have shown you respect the staff member’s right to disagree. Nevertheless, you have decided to proceed. This is powerful because, if you communicate this properly, your staff member will know their view was taken into account.

What is more powerful is that you have authorised your sceptic to help you get it right. All this takes time but, if you consider consulting the sceptics as being like ‘beta-testing’ rather than finding barriers, you’ll know you have a better chance of getting a better outcome.

There is one further stage in embracing the sceptics. Leaders often focus on the negative response of sceptics and question their motivation. However, few leaders question the motivation of the champions. Because their response is so positive, leaders tend not to ask why champions are eager to get on board. Is it because they can see your true genius? Or is it a case of “Always back the horse named self-interest, son. It’ll be the only one trying.” (Jack Lang)

An executive coach can help you step outside the situation, observe from different angles, and identify your own motivations and those of your team members before acting.

In Scenario 2, the leader goes on to say, “Thank you for being the only sensible one in this group and insisting on telling me.” The sceptic replies, “We’re a team.” (Ryan, ibid.)

It may be a difficult process – but how much more effective your change will be when your sceptics have tested it from every angle and let you know, however grudgingly, that with a few modifications it will work.

Organisational change – Part 1 – embracing the sceptics

Executive Coach Exchange officeLeaders almost always need to introduce significant change at some point during their tenure. We have all heard the stories about businesses which failed to change before it was too late.

When change is needed, leaders often set out the agenda and, having ensured their authorising environment is on board, commence implementation. They find supporters who are as enthusiastic for the change as they are. These people become champions of the change: they are effectively the leader’s delegates for ensuring the success of the implementation. Leaders hope their champions’ enthusiasm will become infectious, so everyone gets on board. But hope isn’t a strategy.

What about the people who don’t get on board? The sceptics? The naysayers? The down-right obstructionist? Common practice is for the leader and the champions to sideline these people. But what if they actually have something useful to contribute?

Our research has shown that the sceptics really fall into two groups.

One group have made up their minds: nothing you say can shift them. They are effectively obstructionist and may even have an agenda which is not in line with the best interests of the organisation.

But the others are true sceptics. They are not telling you they think your idea for change is bad. They are telling you that you have – so far at least – failed to convince them.

Perhaps they can see some flaws in the process you have designed. Perhaps they are aware of something that you are not aware of. Maybe if you communicated your idea in a different way, they could move from scepticism to acceptance, and even to championing your change. In fact, they may be able to contribute ideas which will make your organisational change work better and deliver better results.

An executive coach can help you determine how best to work with your staff to ensure necessary change is implemented effectively and efficiently. An executive coach can help you find ways to determine who is a sceptic and what you need to do to bring them along with you, as you implement that vital change for your organisation.

In Part 2 of this topic, we will look at how sceptics can help you implement your change.

How executive coaches can support organisational change

Executive Coach Exchange change SD-Pictures PixabayCEB Global recently released a well-publicised whitepaper on issues with traditional top-down change management processes and the benefits of an inclusive, employee-driven approach.

The whitepaper sets out a compelling case for inclusive change management, with findings including the following:

  • the average organisation has undergone 5 significant changes in the previous 3 years, including restructures, expansion and leadership transition. This frequency of change highlights the need for ongoing, adaptable change management processes rather than one-off approaches.
  • of 400 change initiatives reviewed in the whitepaper, based on self-reporting by the organisations, only 34% were rated as clear successes, with 50% identified as clear failures.
  • surprisingly, the majority of employees report that they are willing to adapt their own behaviour to support organisational change.
  • despite this willingness by team members, previous restructures have created flattened management structures with complex interdependencies and multiple reporting lines, meaning that change in organisations is less able to be managed by a top-down approach now than in the past.How can executive coaches facilitate successful organisational change?

    An executive coach can be a powerful catalyst to help leaders examine how they can be more effective, especially in times of organisational change. By working with senior management to help them understand better when and how to delegate well, executive coaches can facilitate improved leadership in flattened management hierarchies. In a flattened hierarchy, a top-down management approach can easily become a command-and-control approach. Research has shown that this model of management is ineffective. In our experience, command-and-control stifles creativity, undermines trust and demotivates staff. This in turn risks the success of the organisational change.

    Some leaders feel such a sense of responsibility, they believe they can’t afford to delegate. In times of change, however, appropriate delegation is vital:

  • if leaders don’t delegate, their business will atrophy and they risk collapse themselves.
  • if managers don’t trust their staff, staff are unlikely to trust their managers.
  • if staff don’t trust the leadership, they won’t trust their communication, particularly when times are tough.In times of change, people can find communication very challenging. Are staff members hearing the message the executive wants to give? If not, what is impeding good communication? How could it be improved? An executive coach can work with leaders on whether their communication with staff about the change is working and how it can be enhanced.

    An executive coach can help a leader take a new look at the resources they have at their disposal. Not every good idea needs to come from the leadership group; and this is as true about organisational change as it is about other aspects of business. Are aspects of the change being resisted by team members? What are their reasons? Could they be right? Could your team see a better way of achieving your objectives?

    Finally, in times of great change, some people feel they don’t have time for a coach. In our experience, this is one of the most important times to use an executive coach to make you a more effective leader.

Coaching’s value for high performers

Coaching for Olympians and executivesMara Vizzutti has written this interesting article, Coaching for both Olympians and executives, about the value of coaching for high performers: “For businesses to grow into their next level of success, providing coaching to valued people transforms their leadership. In turn, these leaders are in a better position to help create transformational change within the organisation.”

We like this positive view of the importance of executive coaching in helping high performing people to be their best.