Thought Leadership

Why leaders who coach are more important now than ever

Ann Knights

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When the COVID 19 pandemic hit, or at least when it started to become clear that this was an extraordinary and devastating event, I, like many others, asked myself “What can I do to help?”.

In my case, I did two things – followed the advice to stay at home (devoutly) and I joined a group of Hult accredited coaches offering pro bono coaching for National Health Service and social care staff. The offer was enthusiastically taken up by people dealing with the stresses and strains of working in the UK health service. Not all of these stresses and strains were directly related to COVID 19 though. The people who have come for coaching have often been clinicians who are also leaders and managers of people. They are themselves under tremendous pressure, experiencing great uncertainty and ambiguity. At the same time, they are being called on to provide leadership and clarity for teams of people who are delivering care and service, in a resource-constrained, complex, intense environment.

Leading in a VUCA world

The term VUCA, first coined in the late 1980s by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, seems apposite here. The now-familiar acronym stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity and was taken up by the US Army War College as a response to the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s. Suddenly, there was no longer only one known enemy, but a much more unpredictable environment, resulting in new ways of seeing and reacting.

In the midst of the complexity and uncertainty of their environment, NHS clinicians and managers came to coaching wanting a space to think and make sense of their challenges and their responses (emotional and practical). More often than not, they also wanted to think about how they supported their staff. We very often ended up talking about how they might support their people through coaching conversations (although not always did we use the word coaching). How do leaders lead well when they themselves do not know the answer? Or help their team to deal with stress when they themselves are subject to the same stresses?

Why is coaching so helpful in this context?

People define coaching in different ways – with varying degrees of complexity, and attention to the relationship and the task (performance). I enjoy Denham-Vaughn and Gawlinski’s (2011) idea that coaching is a collaborative processwhich helps others to experience their situation from a new perspective”. This new perspective opens up the possibility of relevant action, reframed thinking, or feeling differently. The collaborative part is important.

We think of coaching as joint inquiry, with the leader and colleague working out together what is going on in a given situation and what that means in terms of learning and/or action. This means that leaders don’t need to know the answer or be immune to the same stresses that their colleague is experiencing, to be helpful. Instead, it opens up the possibility of the leader learning alongside the coachee.

However volatile, uncertain, complex or ambiguous the environment, leaders’ coaching conversations often have simple aims in mind: helping their colleagues to “do well” (solve problems, do a good job, get things done, have good working relationships, progress their career, etc) and/or to “be well” (feel supported, resilient and fulfilled, handle stressful environments/situations, grow personally, understand themselves, flourish). This might be the “will” (hard edge) and “grace” (responsive side) of coaching (Denham-Vaughn 2005).

At our Centre for Coaching, we hold some assumptions about organizational life and working relationships in the VUCA world that impact our way of working with leaders who coach.

5 assumptions for leaders who coach in a VUCA world:

  1. Change happens here and now
    This means that leaders need to be ready to spot and act on opportunities to help colleagues through coaching type conversations as they arise

  2. Everything is impacted by context and the current situation: :
    To paraphrase Maurer (2005) People’s work performance and well-being are inextricably linked to and emergent from the web of interactions and relationships that surround them. Even a simple task is potentially complicated by its context and current relationships.

  3. People are resourceful:
    And do their best thinking and acting when given autonomy and support to think for themselves, rather than being “done to”. As Chidiac (2008) puts it, “each individual is unique and needs to find their own way of being the most they can”. But sometimes people get into stuck and limiting patterns, especially in difficult contexts and need support to recognize and get through this.

  4. Relationship matters:
    How you show up for each other makes a huge difference to what happens in any working relationship, especially in a coaching conversation.

  5. Things tend to emerge rather than be fixed or clear at the outset:
    Planning in advance what the precise goal or outcome of any conversation is usually a hiding to nothing. Angus Igwe, the eminent psychotherapist, used to say that “the important thing is to let the main thing be the main thing” (But that doesn’t mean that a clear outcome won’t emerge nor that you cannot have a clear intent)

With all this in mind, we encourage leaders to look for opportunities to coach in all their existing relationships and situations where it might be helpful; not just to save coaching for formal performance management conversations. We take the view that all leaders have inherent relational skills and personal strengths which they can bring to coaching. The challenge for leaders is to let go of the idea that they need to be clear about how to solve a problem or even what technique to use to help a colleague to do so. Instead what matters for leaders is attunement; to themselves, their colleagues, and the situation they find themselves in together. This provides the ground for a collaborative conversation where new understanding can emerge.

Ann Knights works with leaders and influencers to develop their capacity to lead and support meaningful change. She has been coaching business leaders for 20 years and supervising and developing coaches for more than a decade. She is a member of the Hult International Business School faculty on the Masters’ in Executive Coaching and Team Coaching and leads accredited development programs for internal coaches in organizations.

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