As operating environments become ever more complex and volatile, the rate and scale of the change required of organizations increases. However, financial industry transformations continue to stall and fail at an alarming rate, whether their purpose is preparing the enterprise to face industry disruption, enhance innovation or reduce the overheads associated with bureaucracy.
A key reason is that transforming an organization to a new, more dynamic and adaptive form requires leaders who can take responsibility, shoulder great expectations and play a pivotal role in establishing the new culture – for example, through enabling collaborative innovation and nurturing high-performing teams. So how can organizations build a right-sized group of leaders with the capabilities and the desire to be catalysts for change throughout the enterprise?
Coaching versus training
Organizations often provide aspiring leaders with opportunities for training, but we should see these sessions as primers and not the complete answer. A few days in a classroom will give leaders a new glossary of business language and an introduction to a toolbox of techniques. Creating a sustained shift in mindset of the sort needed for a truly enabling leader is usually a longer mission, requiring continuous improvement through practice, challenge and reflection.
Chris Argyris, who was a co-founder of organization development and emeritus professor at Harvard Business School, understood this well when he said that leaders “need to reflect critically on their own behaviour, identify ways they often inadvertently contribute to the organisation’s problems and then change how they act.”
However, leaders faced with a multitude of daily challenges – handling budget pressures, encouraging staff, keeping alignment with changing company strategy – often find it impossible to prioritize the much-needed time for retrospection to gain meaningful insight into current challenges or plan for change. Cue the arrival of the adaptive leadership coach – a person who provides much needed structure for reflection and is the appropriate foil for a leader to safely challenge preconceptions and encourage growth.
Three key qualities
So, what expectations should we have for an adaptive leadership coach?
First, the coach should be ethical. The coaching process requires participants to be open, honest and experimental. A leader will rightly expect their leadership coach to maintain confidentiality and to be non-judgmental. Trust is a must-have for the relationship to be successful. Whether you call them Chatham House or Vegas rules, what happens in the coaching room, stays in the coaching room, unless with express consent.
Second, the coach should be credible and inspiring. Two coaching techniques help to deliver these qualities: consulting – providing plausible answers for problems where no other means is available; and mentoring – sharing the coach’s own experiences to better illuminate options for the leader to use in finding their own approach. For these techniques to be meaningful for the leader, the coach must have a deep understanding of the role, mindset and behaviors of an adaptive leader. Mentoring works best when the coach has real insight into the challenges faced everyday by their mentee, and when the coach has real-world experience to draw from.
Third, the coach should be able to hold up a mirror so that leaders can better observe themselves. The most sustainable change in any leader is identified and driven by the leader herself. A leadership coach’s strongest and most often used technique is the coaching conversation, carefully structured so that the answers and actions all come directly from the leader. The role of the coach is to ask powerful questions and illicit new thinking and perspectives that stimulate the leader’s own thought process.
Unlearning from the past
A key aim for the coach is to help the leader challenge their own preconceptions and unconscious biases. We are all the result of our experiences and the organizational cultures that we have emerged from. Whether we like to predict rather than experiment, control rather than distribute authority, or act as an expert rather than as a catalyst for others to develop their expertise, our established mental models need to be examined and new paths forged.
The futurist Alvin Toffler was, as usual, ahead of the curve when he commented, “The illiterate of the 21st Century won’t be those that can’t read and write. It will be those that can’t learn, unlearn and relearn.” Leaders must seek to gain new understanding and adapt their behaviors and approach to the workplace to ensure they remain relevant.
Adopting a coaching approach isn’t a sign of weakness. When transformation is critical to our future, creating transformative leadership is a necessity. To borrow and adapt a well-known internet meme, leadership coaching is product development, with the leader as the product.
At Capco we understand the imperative for adopting organizational adaptivity and the crucial part that leaders play. As exemplars for behavior and a primary carrier of organizational culture, the role of leader is the single most impactful factor in establishing sustainable, resilient adaptivity – and leadership coaching is one of the best ways to produce transformative leaders.