Individual coaching in organisations is most often associated with personal improvement albeit this is just one of several agendas brought to corporate coaching.
In this article I set out a broader canvas for developmental coaching and highlight a range of themes, issues and agendas, each carrying its unique characteristics and challenges.
Based in Brazil, Ricardo is a Country Managing Director for a global manufacturing company. The corporate leadership team, based in London, recently decided to set highly ambitious financial targets for his geographical region, South America, targeting a doubling of revenue in a three-year period. Ricardo’s leadership would be critical to the achievement of this goal together with the other leaders in his region.
Ricardo is recognised as an important asset to the company with some impressive strengths and qualities, not least his immense drive, determination and loyalty. However, the corporate leadership team also have concerns about his leadership style, which they consider dictatorial and autocratic.
They believe this explains why a number of talented individuals, working to Ricardo, have chosen to leave the company in recent years.
At their exit interviews some have expressed their views in a forthright manner and common themes have emerged – Ricardo is a force of nature, but he doesn’t listen. He believes there is only one right way, the Ricardo way, and there is little room for anyone else’s point of view. Many of his direct reports have become frustrated with this style, hence the retention issue. The conclusion reached by his bosses is that Ricardo has not been getting the best out of his direct reports and has set the wrong leadership culture.
After considering all options, they decided to find an executive coach to work with Ricardo on a behavioural change and leadership style agenda. His performance as a senior leader in the company would have to improve or he would be replaced. They would give him 6 months.
Escalating workloads combined with ever-widening spans of control, against the backdrop of increasingly volatile and complex business environments, has created a set of circumstances that now tests many managers and leaders to the limits of their physical and mental capacities.
In these circumstances even the most skilled, well-intentioned and emotionally intelligent leaders face a constant challenge to be their best selves, look after their health and well-being, and pay sufficient attention to their personal and family lives.
On bad days, they are just getting through – surviving.
Martin, an Austrian executive, knew he was in trouble. He had been working longer and longer hours, making do with minimal sleep and poor diet for a number of years. He was deeply exhausted. By his own estimation, he was self-medicating – smoking and drinking heavily.
His wife and family were acutely aware of all of it and were worried. The couple had made an uneasy truce and Kerstin, his wife, had agreed to leave it alone until he got through a particularly busy and pressured phase of work.
One night he made his normal one-hour drive home from the office leaving around 9pm feeling tired and stressed. On arrival he expected he would eat a sandwich because the family would have eaten dinner earlier. Perhaps something might be left over for him.
After food and a couple of beers, he went to bed just after eleven hoping to get four or five hours sleep and be back on the road to the office at 5am. This was the normal routine for Martin.
When his head hit the pillow it was full of business issues and worries, and he couldn’t switch off – something that had been getting progressively worse for him.
After two hours of trying to fall sleep he gave up, showered, put on his suit and set off back to work. He was in the office doing emails by 2.30 in the morning. Even for Martin this was extreme and the dial inside him turned up a notch.
The incident stayed with him and scratched at his attention. The voice inside was saying – ‘I really have to do something about this’.
His thoughts took him back to the coach with whom he’d worked two years earlier. The very same issues had been present then and he’d discussed them with the coach but, as he reflected now, he recognised that he hadn’t been ready to take them on at that time.
He’d shared the story but also made it clear that he wasn’t going to commit to working on them. Now, he concluded that this was the reason why the coaching had fizzled out. He figured the coach had understood the time was not right. He reached for his phone and sent another email asking to meet again with the coach.
Martin’s story has become the norm for many senior leaders with the consequence that an increasingly common focus of coaching is the support of over-worked, over-stressed managers and leaders to help them simply get through.
The first two coaching agendas – personal improvement and getting through – suggest that coaching is best geared towards helping busy managers and leaders widen their repertoire of behaviours and competencies, expand their range of leadership styles, provide them with effective strategies to deal with pressure and stress, and provide support at times of transition.
However, whilst this can be a helpful focus for coaching, it doesn’t necessarily produce the transformational change often required. For that to happen, something bigger and more impactful is needed.
The recent interest in horizontal and vertical leadership development speaks to this issue.
A core proposition is that most leadership development processes, and learning in general, has been based on the premise that if we equip people with knowledge, new skills, abilities and behaviours, then those will later translate into improved competency and performance.
The paradigm is a technical one where problems can be broken down, analysed and fixed, so long as we have acquired the necessary technical knowledge to deal with them.
An analogy frequently used to describe horizontal leadership development is the act of pouring water into a glass. As more knowledge, skills and competencies are developed, the glass fills up. When deficits are identified, the answer is to find new or better ones to put into the glass.
People who constantly search for new tools and techniques are effectively on the same mission – to fill their glass. From this perspective, excellence in management, leadership, or for that matter, any form of practice, is achieved by filling the glass with the best possible material available.
Given that most education systems and professional development programmes are based on the horizontal, competencies-based paradigm, it is hardly surprising that many people understand growth and development from this mindset.
It would be absurd to dismiss the importance of knowledge acquisition and proper training to perform proficiently.
Without it people would flounder or worse still, make disastrous mistakes. So, it goes without saying that horizontal learning and development is necessary. The real question is whether it’s always enough – especially in the leadership space.
If you look back at the earlier case vignettes describing Ricardo and Martin, does the answer lie in equipping them with additional competencies, widening their repertoire of behaviours, expanding the range of their leadership styles and providing them with strategies to deal with pressure and stress?
Almost certainly these would help, but would they be enough?
In fact, both these senior leaders had previously been on several training programmes to improve interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence.
Martin has been on a number of time and stress management courses and had read many of the self-help books. Something else needed to happen for them to understand what drove their behaviours and led to the issues in their work and wider lives.
Vertical leadership development is inside out learning and involves a different process – one that is based on reflection, awareness-raising and personal insight.
It requires a deeper self-examination that can lead to changes in perspective, often an enlarged perspective. The purpose is not simply to add more software to the existing internal hard-drive – it’s to transform the operating system itself.
Indeed one of its key features, and an important reason why it’s so difficult, is that it so often involves letting go of something.
Loss, and the fear of it, goes hand in hand with vertical development. It can be the letting go of certainty, core beliefs and assumptions, previous ways of seeing the world or tried-and-tested formulas for succeeding which no longer work so well.
The change process is an interior one, a psychological and emotional journey, and is not always visible to the untrained eye.
Sometimes it’s only months or years later that other people notice and say – there’s something quite different about him or her now.
A number of developmental processes and life experiences have been identified that accelerate vertical growth and learning, presented here in Table 2.
Very few leadership development programmes purposefully designed to facilitate vertical growth and development exist at this time. One of the few is Courage and Spark©, a vertical leadership development programme designed by the author, and currently running in a number of international organisations.
The distinguishing feature of this programme is its emphasis on awareness-raising as the basis for growth, development and change. It is a consciousness-raising journey designed to help people develop psychologically and emotionally, strengthen their personal autonomy and grow their self-efficacy.
The best-fit developmental agendas for people attending vertical development programmes such as Courage and Spark© are presented in Table 3.
These themes have a number of commonalities and will resonate with people who are looking to explore who they are, what makes them tick, and what their purpose is.
Vertical development also makes sense to people who want to connect to themselves emotionally and learn how to express emotion more easily and confidently. Or, they recognise a need to improve their connection to others.
In some cases they have realised that relationships and emotional connection is what matters most to them; in others, they are conscious that they have been too transactional in their relationships and it’s time to change that.
In most cases they have been aware of these issues for some considerable time.
The sense of outgrowing a level is a powerful signal for vertical development and is often experienced as frustration with not being able to keep up, make progress or get closure around issues.
Marginal changes in actions and behaviours haven’t proved enough. They recognise a bigger agenda – the need to transform. The question that occupies their private thoughts is how.