Professional coaching is one of the fastest-growing professions in the world. It helps individuals and teams achieve their personal and professional best. But a coach does not develop people. Coaches energize and equip talented and resourceful individuals to develop themselves and maximize their own potential. This requires a substantial set of skills. Coaches need to be able to set stages and define goals. They must know how to draw out a positive leadership presence. They need to skilfully ask penetrating questions and actively listen to, track, and challenge responses. Coaches must give and receive actionable feedback. And they need to inspire with positive inquiry.
Having these skills, however, won’t make someone a good coach if they attempt to energize and inspire the wrong way. And that’s an issue because while individual coaching is now a recognized tool, coaching task-performing executive teams is not as well established or understood.
Team coaching is not a simple matter of coaching a collection of individuals, but a sophisticated process of coaching a system of interdependent individuals that must build synergistically to achieve a shared outcome. Team coaching, when done well, fuels a team’s performance for maximum effectiveness.
COACHING IN NUMBERS
Leaders want to be coached. In 2013, Stanford University and the Miles Group polled over 200 chief executive officers (CEOs), board directors, and senior managers of North American public and private enterprises. The CEOs responded favourably to coaching, with almost all enjoying the process. CEOs and directors both identified team-building as an important leadership skill that they were currently developing, and one of the biggest areas for their own personal development. And yet, two-thirds of them were not receiving outside advice, along with about half of the senior managers polled.
Coaching individuals has tangible results. Research done by the Association for Talent Development (2014), for example, revealed that coaching improves communication (69%), raises engagement (65%), enhances skills-to-performance transfer (63%), and stimulates productivity (61%). Research done by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development echoes these results. In its 2015 annual report, the Institute stated that coaching has become an increasingly standard intervention for supporting effective development, with coaching identified by 40 per cent of the respondents with talent management activities as one of the three most used development practices, and by 45 per cent of the respondents as one of the three most effective. Almost two-thirds of survey respondents indicated that the use of coaching by peers or line managers would grow in their enterprises over the next two years.
The coaching profession is growing as a result, according to the 2016 Global Coaching Study done by the International Coach Federation. Based on an impressive sample of 15,380 respondents from 137 countries, the Federation estimated that there are 53,300 professional coaches worldwide, producing around US$2.36 billion in annual revenue. For the first time, the Federation also collected information about individuals who brand themselves as managers and leaders who apply coaching skills. Among those respondents who reported that they deploy coaching skills, 54 per cent self-identified as managers and leaders within their enterprises. Also, more than half of managers and leaders who use coaching (57%) see it as a skill-set.
THE FUEL: BUILDING AND SUSTAINING HIGH-QUALITY TEAMS
Individual executive coaching is clearly an established method of development, with much published on individual skill acquisition. But executive leadership team coaching is less common and little has been reported on the methods or success of coaching task-performing executive leadership teams.
Team-focused coaching is not all about the greater complexity of numbers or a collection of individual team members. Rather, in a team setting, the client is the whole relationship system itself. In other words, the team’s interdependent performance, behaviour, and relational energy are greater than just the sum of its individuals. Executive leadership teams should be developed to perform work effectively, not just mix well. It takes time to establish a productive team, and even more time and energy for a senior leadership team to grow together and reach high performance and peak effectiveness. Team coaching helps the team perform its designated tasks and achieve tangible goals, and, perhaps more importantly, coaching helps teams establish synergy that fuels even greater performance effectiveness.
Developing a coordinated and task-oriented team is a dynamic process. An established model, first described by Tuckman in 1965 and revisited in 1977, describes five stages of small-group development typically experienced by high-powered teams. Initially, in the forming stage, the team will set its governance, priorities, tasks, and goals. Next, the team will frame strategic choices; in this storming phase, differences will surface. In the subsequent norming phase, individual team members embrace other members’ positions as the team constructively devises outputs. Functioning teams will then move on to performing—the stage where the team is fully present and high performing. In the final phase, adjourning, the program of the task-performing team closes and the team learns from the engagement.
A competent executive team coach will dynamically mix coaching approaches, such as motivational, strategy-related, consultative, and educational coaching, to respond to the team’s lifecycle and development stage. Hackman and Wageman (2005) postulate a rigorous theory of team coaching, suggesting that team coaching can boost team effectiveness only when the following four conditions are in place:
- The processes critical to team performance effectiveness (e.g., collective effort, task-appropriate performance strategy, and team member knowledge and skills) are unconstrained by task or corporate demands.
- The team is well structured and the enterprise champions, rather than interferes with, team work.
- Coaching focuses on salient task performance processes and not on members’ interpersonal links or activities that are out of the team’s control.
- Team coaching is delivered only when the team is ready for it.
CLEARING THE AIR: TEAM COACHING FOR POSITIVE CHANGE
The need for transformation never stops. In fact, no matter what title and company are on your business card, the ability to lead positive change is an essential skill today. But executing successful transformations is not simple: the failure rate of change programs is alarmingly high—around 70 per cent.
When people are pushed beyond their comfort zones, major transformations can create negativity in the workplace and interfere with team dynamics and cooperation. These toxic side effects can manifest in a variety of ways. A few of many symptoms include stress, resistance to change, distrust, feigning ignorance, perceived breach of mutual expectations, fear of failure, procrastination, pursuit of personal agendas, arrogance, change fatigue, negative relational energy, and sabotaging. Negativity and interference are toxins that deplete enthusiasm and energy, and corrode a team.
Team coaches must deal with this interference, highlighting that such behaviours are not in tune with effective teamwork. Team-based coaching can be a powerful antitoxin—an organic, radical way to energize and lead positive change in a methodological and creative way. Team-based coaching can draw out alternatives and choices from which the best solutions can be developed in a non-directive, non-judgmental, and almost evangelical manner.
TEST FLIGHT: A MINI CASE STUDY
There is much a professional executive coach can do to energize and facilitate the process of change, helping an executive leadership team get to the high-performing stage quickly. One such situation I facilitated sticks in my mind. A talent management team had been grappling with a strategic recruitment issue for three days without an effective solution. The company was going international and needed to choose who would be appointed to lead and manage one of its overseas plants. The team had considered and debated several scenarios, such as filling key positions with executives who were nationals from the parent country, hiring extremely good individuals who were nationals of the host country, selecting the management team from a region of the world that most closely resembled that of the host country, or recruiting senior leaders from an underdeveloped country—talented individuals seeking a breakout opportunity and happy to relocate.
With coaching added and focused on what the team needed, the team puzzled its way out of the dilemma over the course of one day. Over that one day, the team vigorously and strategically wrestled with the problem. We defined the challenge, reframed the strategic choices, generated a few options and clustered them, specified what was needed to make each strategy work, identified the barriers to making the choice, and designed valid means of testing and removing the key barriers. In the end, the team proposed a game-changing functional formula for the organization to win against its very best competitors.
Getting from dilemma to solution was strategic, demanding creative responses within a coaching methodology built on three principles: team agreement; a cycle of energizing, redesigning, and gelling; and a dialogic approach to learning.
To better communicate winning aspirations and select the guiding principles and ground rules that the team would commit to throughout the coaching journey, a team charter was designed before any team coaching began. Designing the charter can be a powerful way to introduce team coaching, and later, the charter can be critical if the team goes off track or becomes dysfunctional.
Research demonstrates that leaders are likely to derail because of problems with interpersonal relationships, an inability to build and lead a team, an inability to develop or adapt, or failure to meet business objectives. If the leader normally adds value to the enterprise, and shows a readiness to learn and develop, the enterprise might go all out to help the leader retool and change dysfunctional rituals. Well-established methods for developing such performers may include, for example, daily self-coaching check-ins and specialized programs such as individual coaching for effectiveness, embracing both diagnosis and customized developmental interventions. A team charter ensures that any development supports the team’s direction, needs, and goals.
The team struggling with the strategic recruitment issue crafted the following team charter:
Winning Aspiration: The team set its goal as being the go-to professionals for any issues related to strategic people operations and learning and development that executives might need at any time.
Team Values: The team considered among its values best-in-class capabilities, practical rigour, constant learning, high-quality business partnering, being arrogance-free and entrepreneurially spirited, and viewing change as “managed learning.”
Team Roles and Responsibilities: Team members were identified and assigned roles such as monitor, resource investigator, disturbance handler, challenger, and energizer.
Ground Rules: Some of the ground rules provided for a code of ethics; a commitment to confidentiality, openness, and appreciative inquiry; the timing and frequency of meetings, and an agreement not to cancel a team coaching session unless it was an emergency; and an agreement to provide negative feedback positively and developmentally, and to tell the truth without blame or judgment.
ENERGIZE, REDESIGN, AND GEL (ERG)
To help the action-oriented, work-centric people operations team take performance to the next level, I used a series of stimulating questions that went beyond traditional problem-solving by building on what was working well. In my playbook for positive organizational change, I describe a model I call “Energize, Redesign, and Gel.” The approach is an alternate way to think about organizational development and change.
To create a threefold space of positive energy, design thinking, and ambidexterity, I used the following questions, among others:
- What energizes your team and gives it life?
- What is already working well? What “super powers” do your team members possess?
- Without being humble, share a story about when your team performed at its peak and completed a task that made you feel proud and had a particularly positive impact.
- What is the “Everest goal” that your team wants to pursue and achieve now?
- Describe the future you want for your team. What does winning mean for you? Use words, expressions, or images that capture your desired future, task outcomes, goals, and objectives.
- If you could not fail, what would be your strategic choices, and which of those choices would add the most value?
- Of all the choices you have considered, which ones do you think you will pursue?
- What action steps will you take right now (today/tomorrow/next week/next month) to accomplish your goal? What milestones, measures, and metrics can you implement to accelerate progress toward your goal?
- Who is going to do what and by when? How will you keep on strategizing to win?
Dialogue can help a team advance its learning and understanding by exchanging ideas and intellectual interventions willingly, genuinely, non-judgmentally, and without interference. To facilitate this type of open dialogue, five strategies of inquiry can fundamentally shape and transform team dynamics:
- Advocate for outcomes with suggestions and inquiry; e.g., “Here’s a possibility…,” or “What might be appropriate/inappropriate here?”
- Get genuine buy-in by asking the team members, “What should we do?” and “How can each of us explain this to colleagues?”
- Clarify by paraphrasing; e.g., “It seems to me that this is what you mean…. To what extent does that capture your point?”
- Resolve differences by asking for more information; e.g., “It seems that you think this argument is not a super idea. I’m not exactly sure how you understand it. Could you help me understand how you see the situation?”
- Deepen understanding by uncovering causes and justifications; e.g., instead of only asking, “What do you want?” ask, “Why do you want that?” or “Why is that important to you?”
Ultimately, given that the need for change never stops, a team never remains in one space. Having “gelled” the process, the whole positive inquiry cycle starts again in an iterative process for each new task or change. As the team cycles again through the three stages of energizing, redesigning, and gelling, high-quality links between team members are created and sustained. When collective leadership team coaching is working, team members engage this continuous process and are unwilling to stop and exit the team when the coaching intervention ends.
FLYING IN FORMATION
Coaching executive leadership teams is not optional; it is oxygen. Skilfully coaching boards and C-suite and senior business executive teams targets positive change, strategic renewal, learning, creativity, flourishing, health, effectiveness, and performance that is far above the norm.
The team coach’s primary responsibility is not to tell the team what to do (telling is not coaching), but to minimize interference on the team to help achieve flow. Talent minus interference is equal to performance. As disturbances are quelled, the potential increases for team members to actively shape and co-create desired futures. Intended outcomes are achieved when co-active team coaching energizes and equips executive leadership teams to develop within themselves the capabilities necessary for notching up another win.
Coaching executive teams is an emergent discipline and remains a work in progress. Most enterprises do not currently have robust cultures of team coaching in place, and, therefore, much is still to be discovered. Advancing a healthy practice of team coaching requires some work.
Evaluation has always been the Achilles’ heel of executive learning and development, and the evaluation gap in team coaching is clear. The dynamic processes unfold in real time, often in uncertain and task-changing environments. A critical approach to team coaching and its evidence base will help to close the evaluation gap and establish credibility. Rigorous evaluation involves measurement, using both quantitative and qualitative data. For example, coaches should measure team members’ reaction and satisfaction, transfer of team coaching and learning results, team productivity, task performance improvements and outputs, team engagement and growth, cultural and behavioural change, mission impact, actual business results, return on exceptions, and calculated return on investment. Ultimately, measure the success of individual leaders as coaches, too; for example, by using 360-degree feedback from key stakeholders on the leaders’ performance and behaviours.
A coaching culture needs to be nurtured. A compelling business case for team coaching as a strategic asset and business partner will help to secure the needed resources, sponsorship, and ownership for team coaching, as well as the time and commitment. Strategically align team coaching with business priorities, business metrics (such as key performance indicators), and organizational targets. Because the need for change never ceases, and change efforts necessitate shifts in team functioning, explicitly integrate team coaching with change management. Also allocate sufficient evaluation funds rationally so that higher-level evaluation efforts such as return on investment can be evidenced.
Healthy team coaching also means not confusing executive leadership team coaching with team training, consulting, mentoring, counselling, or therapy. Hire professional executive coaches, not “cowboys.” Talent development professionals should be aware of the mix of coaching delivery methods, including motivational, strategic, and knowledge- and skill-acquisition team coaching. Whether hiring a team coach or developing coaching abilities, invest in researching and applying effective methodologies to help teams pursue positive, inquiry-based, collaborative ways of working together.
Ultimately, team coaching is truly an act of positive leadership. It should be highlighted in the talent development portfolios of enterprises, emphasizing team development and performance effectiveness. Further, create ongoing top management team coaching opportunities. No matter how extremely talented and successful your full-fledged executive leadership team is, always aim higher.
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