How are you doing? Whenever asked that proverbial question in life, my standard answer used to be “good.” After the conversational niceties ended, I would then go on with my day. Years ago, however, I was tossed a game-changing follow-up question. A wise gentleman asked: “Would you like to be more effective?” Since the answer was obvious, I asked what it would take. That’s when I was instructed to seek feedback from others and simply align my actions accordingly. “It is that easy,” the gentleman said. “And if you do it often, you will get better and better.”
For a long time, I did not understand the power of this simple truth, until I failed a few times. And when I failed, it typically took someone else to push me back on track. From the start of my career, I have always been lucky enough to have people help me when I lost focus by offering thought-provoking observations — often in the form of brutal feedback. Over time, I realized that the help I was receiving was really a form of coaching. And as a beneficiary of this process early on, I decided to become a custodian of coaching skills and expertise. In other words, I systematically set out to gain the meaningful experience required to enable others to stay on track and serve as an ambassador of coaching.
There is no question that the prowess of coaching has accelerated leadership development at companies big and small, including some of the most successful members of the Fortune 500 club. But what exactly is coaching, and why is its importance growing significantly in the corporate world? This article aims to address these critical questions with the utmost simplicity.
Humans are guided by beliefs, but belief systems tend to become outdated. In other words, the passage of time can affect our understanding of current context and limit our future potential as a result. Effective coaching can counter this. But being effectively coached requires awareness of the need for help and the willingness to accept it. And that does not come naturally, especially to leaders who have experienced success.
Indeed, one of my more challenging starts to a coaching engagement involved working with a senior executive who flatly told me that he didn’t have any belief in the usefulness of feedback from others, insisting it is generally motivated by “malicious intent.” It took some doing, but I eventually persuaded the executive in question to glance at his 360 report. A simple peek sparked curiosity. After sifting through the feedback that highlighted arrogance, blocked learning, and abrasive behaviours, the executive in this case eventually looked up and said: “I don’t think I am like that.”
But these words of denial could not hide the fact that reflection had already started. He was now asking himself, “Am I that way?” After reviewing the critical report in detail, this executive wanted to understand the feedback and started asking questions. And at the end of a marathon conversation, he was surprised to deem the negative assessments fair.
When it comes to the ugly side of our behaviours, most people are out of sync with reality. However, once we accept the dissonance, transformation can begin. And with eyes now wide open to how others saw him, the executive expressed a desire to change. Initially skeptical, I am happy to report that this case turned, albeit slowly, into one of the most rewarding coaching engagements of my career as we worked together to address the untested assumptions that were stunting his development as a leader.
Blocked Leadership Development
Blocked leadership development is common. Think about Ken Blanchard’s concept of situational leadership, which requires leaders to adapt to the situational needs of their followers. As human beings, our original factory settings enable situational awareness. However, due to our limited number of experiences, these settings go haywire over time and we fail to renew our belief systems.
Unlike other species, human beings are fundamentally designed to self-correct. In addition to enabling us to think clearly, choose precisely and act decisively, our intellect allows us to recalibrate. But we need to see the need for an update and our vision is often blurred by perception, blind spots and mental cobwebs. And therefore our perception of situations is often based on outdated beliefs and misaligned with the current situational observations of others. This derails leaders from the path of optimization, re-imagination and acceleration.
Coaching — an art that entails the science of triggering, reflecting on and reframing the mindset — allows us to address this derailment issue.
Simply put, coaching is an extremely powerful process for personal growth and transformation that helps us stay “alive” to situations. The art can be traced back to the anecdotal conversations of Eastern philosophy. It is also found in the Socratic method of powerful questioning.
Over the passing of many years, Western management thinkers have done a remarkable job of refining and packaging the essence of experiential learning through coaching. But the focus has mainly been on making people effective at work. This has led to a propagation of terms such as business coaching, executive coaching, team coaching and performance coaching. Outside of work, of course, there is life coaching and so on. But despite all the ambiguity that surrounds coaching, there are three fundamental principles associated with the process of helping people identify the blind spots that derail them from the path of progress and effectiveness as well as the sweet spots that accelerate their journey of excellence through the realization of potential.
These three steps are:
- Coaching leads the coachee to revisit his/her assumptions — the core engine of the belief systems.
- Coaching triggers the coachee to review his/her image in the light of feedback from his/her surroundings.
- Coaching enables the coachee to update his/her portrait, which is far more in sync with the current reality.
Whether at work or at home, making life better is ultimately about managing blind spots and performing in sweet spots more effectively. This is true when making choices alone or within a team. Hence, conceptually speaking, there is not much difference between different types of coaching. Simply put, all coaches act as the catalyst in a transformation journey. To help coachees improve their choices and actions (and the related outcomes), coaches shine light on distortions of reality to enable the self-awareness of behavioural issues and enable clear sight. In the process, goals are established, dictating required alterations of attitudes, belief systems and developmental needs to address identified capability gaps.
Being expected to have all the answers can make leadership a challenging and often lonely proposition, especially when faced with decision paradoxes. This has become more of an issue in recent years due to increased marketplace competition and rising complexity in the workplace. The pace of technological change hasn’t made leadership easier. When executives face these challenges alone, they often eventually hit a glass ceiling constructed out of their narrow band of experience, which limits their ability to view situations with a wide-angle lens. When operating with a narrow view based on limited experiences, leaders not only shut out the diverse perspectives of others, they tend to forget personal failures while cherishing successes way beyond their shelf-life. With little focus on harnessing learnings, self-awareness is clouded along with the ability to see “the real reality.” This issue of distorted leadership is often further aggravated by an inability to acknowledge and own authentic feedback when one is lucky enough to receive it from the reporting line. Instead of seeing feedback as an opportunity to develop as a leader, there is a notion of embarrassment, inefficacy and fear of being proven wrong.
The best top-level executives, of course, don’t face challenges alone. Instead, they actively seek out a trustworthy thinking partner to obtain authentic feedback in order to test their beliefs in a safe and non-judgmental manner. These partnerships work by creating a counterintuitive view or perspective via deep one-on-one conversations. This is critical to see the reality that exists outside an isolated leadership position, which is imperative for refining the initial thought process that is often developed more from instinct than reason. A thinking partner who enables a leader to develop deeper insights and reorient their mindset to effectively face the challenges of leading businesses and people is called an executive coach. They help coachees stress-test ideas, viewpoints and perspectives before they are vocalized on the operational floor by:
- addressing executive isolation;
- providing strategic sound-boarding; and
- creating a safe and motivating feedback loop for change.
Barriers to Mindset Transformation
According to the philosophy of human transformation, there is a dormant passion for change buried deep in every individual waiting to be ignited. But as explained by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey in the Harvard Business Review article “Immunity to Change,” outdated assumptions and untested beliefs, along with dogma, conspire to create a natural and powerful barrier to change that holds us back. As French physiologist Claude Bernard put it, “It is what we know already that often prevents us from learning.” Therefore, to ignite an individual’s passion for transformation, this barrier needs to be broken down by peeling off its many engrained layers of myths. This, of course, doesn’t really happen in most workplace developmental programs, which often leave existing mindsets as they are, in place to block the acceptance of program takeaways. As a result, huge amounts of time and money are wasted on people development.
Effective one-on-one executive coaching works because it is an ideal medium for reframing outdated mindsets and drawing new rationalities via the brutal confrontation of existing ideas in a very cause-and-effect manner — the first step for the internalization of learnings, not to mention a lasting journey of transformation.
In order to turn the immunity to change into an excitement for change, accomplished coaches systematically lead their coachees to:
- see their resistance to change;
- examine the root causes of this resistance; and
- understand how resistance limits personal growth and transformation.
Figure 1 and Figure 2 below visually demonstrate how lasting change is triggered.
Undergoing this cycle of discovery, realization, gaining clear vision and working on new possibilities is the hallmark of successful leaders.
A Coaching Anecdote
I once met a 55-year-old CEO of a brand consulting company — we will name her Janet — while working with executives taking part in a six-day development program for leaders of family-run companies at a leading business school. My role was to observe and assist participant CEOs in internalizing targeted learnings on a one-on-one basis. To that end, I approached Janet during an evening session. I was seeking to find out how she liked the program. To my surprise, she didn’t have an answer one way or the other because she had been too distracted to harness any takeaways by the recent departure of three of her top executives. After hearing that each of the departing leaders had quit her company, I asked Janet if she knew why they had left. “I am 100 per cent sure I know why,” she said, adding it was obvious to her that her former team members simply could not “cope” with the business pressure. I then probed her about how she knew all three exits were due to an inability to keep up. Eventually, I provoked her to consider if there was even the slightest possibility that they had left for a different reason, one they didn’t share. And if that was possible, I asked if this unknown issue could lead to further attrition in the future. “Well!” Janet responded. “That is possible. But I don’t know. All I know is that I cannot afford another high-profile exit.” She then suddenly asked if her leadership might be the issue. “Why wonder,” I said. “Let’s find out.” And that is when our coaching journey began.
The 360 review that followed revealed that Janet was a control freak who wanted to protect her business like a mother wants to protect her baby. It exposed trust issues that could be traced back to a bad experience Janet had early on in her career, when after losing her father, some professionals took advantage of the situation and almost ruined the family business. Employees likened Janet’s dictator-like leadership style to that of Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi. They called the related work environment sickening, noting that micro-managing sucked all creativity out of the air.
Simply put, Janet’s passion for protecting her baby conspired with negative past experiences to make her harsh, suspicious and autocratic, which stifled the creativity and entrepreneurship required for a successful and sustainable brand consulting company.
When faced with such precise feedback, Janet’s eyes were opened. Over the next few months, we worked together to figure out how to address her anxieties and need for control in ways that would not negatively impact the business. These solutions included:
- Hiring a chief operating officer to manage day-to-day operations and act as a bridge between employees and Janet, who would be freed to focus on strategy and long-term business goals
- Eliminating the need for accountability interventions with robust processes
- Investing in personal thought leadership so that she could engage with her team on an altogether different level — a much sought-after expectation from employees
Janet’s coaching experience (or any other coaching success story) was positive because it:
- set a standard or baseline for growth;
- set a new direction for her leadership; and
- set Janet free to think big.
Finding a baseline is akin to establishing your ground position with a GPS before choosing a direction to pursue. While there can be many metrics and measures to establish the baseline, one powerful question must be asked: “Am I being relevant?”
Even after finding your baseline, of course, setting a new developmental direction is never an easy task. Most leaders I have worked with invariably ask me, “How do I figure out what I really wish to do in the future?” My usual response is to invite them to reflect by examining the three circles of a Feasibility/Viability/Desirability framework. If on the right path, an individual’s core ideas for the future will surely intersect.
Unleashing the ability to think big, not to mention different, without fear of failure is how executives unleash the potential for achieving exponential effectiveness and aspirational success.
What does that mean? People ask me that a lot. Fortunately, I found a simple answer during the 112th minute of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina in Rio de Janeiro. With no score in extra time, German coach Joachim Löw invited substitute player Mario Götze to take the field with the following words: “Go and show to the world that you are far better and superior to [Argentine forward] Lionel Messi.” At the time, no European team had ever won a world title in South America. And Löw could have noted what was at stake if Götze failed to perform, but the focus of his words was on what Götze could do. As a result, the German footballer was set free to perform without fear of failure. And in the next minute, Götze made history, collecting a left-field cross from André Schürrle on his chest before volleying a high left-footed shot into Argentina’s net for the win. This is what I mean by setting someone free in a coach–coachee relationship. The end game is the creation of an environment where the coachee can realize his or her deepest talent and potential.
So Where Is Coaching Most Effective?
Coaching works because coaches can aggregate feedback from all stakeholders and objectively play it back as an outsourced provider of absolute candour, something that is not typically available from reporting lines (up or down the line). And years of experience have led me to conclude that coaching relationships are most effective at: a) addressing executive derailments; b) helping leaders realize their full potential; and c) accelerating effectiveness development. Figure 3 below shows the process for each category.
At the end of the day, of course, success depends upon the coachee’s willingness to be coached. They must see the coaching sessions as personal “blank cheques” for development and must honestly embrace the process of self-discovery. If they can do this, they may not get all the answers they seek. But the needle of transformation can still be moved just by staying alive with the questions. After all, as is often said, unanswered questions are better than unquestioned answers.