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A better normal through leadership team coaching

Focus on building trust among your senior leaders to achieve results.

Leaders can no longer pretend to be experts in all areas. A crisis will quickly expose leadership team flaws. If we pretend to have all the answers instead of admitting mistakes, others will certainly adopt this same worldview.

MOST people are familiar with the benefits of individual coaching, but few understand the intrinsic value of team coaching in organisations.

Aren't leadership teams supposed to be already high-performing? Why do they need team coaching, some may ask? If individual leaders are lacking in terms of certain capabilities or leadership behaviours, wouldn't individual coaching help?

These are valid questions. The fact is, both individual and team coaching offer different and complementary value to the organisation.

I have worked with extremely bright and experienced individuals and yet, it comes as no surprise to me that when these individuals come together as a team, they fail to harness the collective wisdom and often fall short of what is expected of them. Allow me to illustrate with this case.

Peter, the chief executive officer (CEO) of my client organisation, presented to the board chairman plans to restructure the organisation, moving from a functional structure to one based on value-chain - or what they now call from "pipes to platforms".

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This proposal was initially met with an uncomfortable silence. Then the chairman took a deep breath, looked into the CEO's eyes, and responded in no uncertain terms: "You asked for restructuring to address the silo behaviours and lack of accountability within the organisation. Know what? Over my dead body would I allow that unless all of you get your act right". And by "all of you", he meant the entire senior leadership team.

The first thing I did then as team coach, supported by both the chairman and the CEO, was to have one-to-one conversations with each of the senior leaders in the team.

Many felt that they were making little headway in terms of achieving the collective goals of the organisation. Working with one another was "excruciatingly painful", and thus they felt it was "better" to focus on their own key performance indicators (KPIs) and domain areas. Behaviours reflecting silo mentality, conflict avoidance, and a lack of ownership over corporate goals cascaded throughout the organisation.

When it was suggested that they avail themselves as a team to share and dialogue on how they feel, many expressed cynicism: "Vincent, we have done this before; trust me, it will not work". It was evident that trust had broken down within the team and they were not prepared to talk about their vulnerabilities.

In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team - which was subsequently repackaged as a model and development programme titled "The Five Behaviours of Cohesive Teams" - Patrick Lencironi talks about achievement of organisation-wide results through purposeful team interventions, built on a foundation of five behaviours, in the following order:

1. Trust one another: When team members are genuinely transparent and honest with one another, it forms a safe environment that creates and builds vulnerability-based trust.

2. Engage in conflict around ideas: With trust, team members can engage in unfiltered, constructive debate of ideas

3. Commit to decisions: When team members can offer opinions and debate ideas, they feel heard and respected, and will be more likely to commit to decisions.

4. Hold one another accountable: Once everyone is committed to a clear plan of action, they will be more willing to hold one another accountable.

5. Focus on achieving collective results: Do this by implementing the model's principles of trust, conflict, commitment, and accountability.

I recall my first team coaching session was planned to start at 9am and end at 6am, followed by another one-day engagement session with their next-level leaders the next day. It was not an easy start to the morning, as they were apprehensive and cynical about how the day would pan out.

The breakthrough came when Tom, who had been with the company for 15 years, started to share how he felt about the state of matters within the team and his individual fears and concerns. One by one, the rest of members expressed how they felt about their vulnerabilities, and the conversation flowed.

Instead of ending at 6pm, they spoke till 9pm, ending the day with quick bites and red wine. Yet they were not content with their "renewed connections", and requested for the following day's engagement session with the next-level leaders to be postponed, so they could continue to talk.

That was the breakthrough.

At the end of the two-day session, one of the commitments that they set for themselves was to have a monthly team coaching session for the next six months, where the key agenda was to work on and track their progress as a leadership team. Desirable and undesirable team behaviours were identified for team follow-up.

We spent the next two team coaching sessions getting team members to participate in dialogue and share individual perspectives on the team journey. It was indeed heartening to hear feedback from their direct reports (through separate sessions facilitated by me) on how they had observed positive interactions between senior leaders, and that eventually resulted in less stress across the entire organisation. These were quick wins, and they invested time to celebrate and reinforce the positive behaviours.

Subsequent coaching sessions were focused on the alignment of organisation success outcomes and key thrusts, the development and tracking of results, collaboration and role expectations, on-going review of team journey, and communications and engagement of staff.

A year and a half later, the board finally approved the restructuring of the organisation, and the journey of transformation took off. I also partnered the leaders to engage their respective teams during the transition. Overall organisation culture has improved, and people across the organisation are now more open to try new things, share information and call out behaviours that are inconsistent with the achievement of corporate goals.

The result of their renewed focus was positive, not just from a financial perspective but also from a human capital one, measured regularly at the leadership team level and across the organisation.

Some leaders still look at vulnerabilities as a weakness. As leaders, we can no longer pretend to be experts in all areas. A crisis will quickly expose our leadership team's flaws. If we continue to pretend to have all the answers, instead of admitting mistakes and asking for help, others in the organisation will certainly adopt this same worldview.

As a business owner or CEO, are you prepared to start the conversation with your team?

  • The writer is the co-owner & director of aAdvantage Consulting Group

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