How Coaching is increasingly essential to the development of Organisational Strategy by Sue Young

1        People have always been important to effective strategy

People make strategy work:  Despite being a follower of the predominantly intellectual ideas and debates around strategy, in my experience they can easily miss the main point. The overall direction may be clear, but the ‘how’ or ‘strategies’ to meet organisational objectives need to be devolved, as well as clearly connected and communicated, to all those who are working in the different levels and areas of an organisation.

When coaching managers is approached as the way to get the best contribution from people, and a way of getting people to appreciate how to get the best out of each other, it starts to have a really important contribution to the development and implementation of organisational strategy.

My coaching work increasingly involves use of a coaching approach in a wider and more important context than just separate one to one work with people on their ‘personal’ agenda and development.

Coaching helps people work: My practice increasingly involves drawing on my coaching capabilities on multiple issues with multiple teams. I am working from the individuals outwards – helping them take more personal ownership and initiating strategic thinking, and enabling others to do the same. It is not just the overall ‘plan’ or ‘system’ being imposed on the people.

My use of the coaching approach in these situations is getting strong encouragement from leadership teams, in particular.  For the traditional/previous approach to strategy … write it, and then do it … is just not that simple in modern organisations.

For example

  • Engaging teams: in picking up responsibility for developing strategies - create space for collective brainstorming of ideas and identifying priorities for development

  • Building rapport and common understanding of different specialisms and functional areas: within the team / unit. The standard to work towards is that anyone in the team / unit can talk to others about that area at a headline level

  • Building a common understanding of roles and responsibilities: where there is consistency in the team / unit in expectations and understanding of what are the prime purpose and accountabilities of everybody’s role.

  • Clear on organisation contribution: Everybody has a clear understanding of their organisational position and how that relates and contributes to the overall direction

  • Appreciation of different contributions: Relationship development and appreciation of different contributions is identified as a high priority in achieving Task objectives

  • Regular reviews of strategies: Effective processes for reviews of what is working well, areas for improvement and key learning points to be taken forward

All these examples can figure highly in coaching conversations, typically when a new leader is taking on a new team or in the context of an organisational change.


2        The challenges involved in ‘strategy’

Top down often has difficulties:  70% of all organisational change strategies (Kotter 1996) fall over on implementation. The traditional approach to strategy development is very much both top down and hierarchical with most of the thinking being held at the top level. This is the context we often start working with in organisations, both with individuals and teams.

Has the term Strategy lost its meaning?   ‘Strategy’ is one of those massively over-used words. Some people throw it around in an attempt to give themselves more credibility, without understanding it.  Many business books have been written about it. Many management and coaching ‘gurus’ pronounce about it. It's one of the main functions at all levels of leadership in organisations.

Typical flaws with the traditional strategy development process

The traditional approach to strategy development as a ‘top down’ process … with a series of pronouncements being made … followed by … a …. gap! This jerky process can last over months, and sometimes years. Into this vacuum floods uncertainty. This can stimulate a climate of anxiety, distrust; felt lack of transparency, disempowerment and ultimately huge de-motivation and dis-engagement.  Typical ‘gaps’ as experienced by my clients include:

  • The thinking and reasons for choice of strategy are not explained in terms that people understand or can relate to.

  • There is limited sense-making or interpretation review by local management teams in the context of overarching organisational strategic directives

  • The thinking misses out on a great deal of information that is readily available from people - both on internal processes and the external environment

  • Lack of explicit clarity about what is fixed, and what needs adding - and the areas where there is a need, or room to develop local strategies

Who knows best and who has the information? In today's dynamic fast changing world there is a need for information flowing rapidly to and from the decision makers – and those are not only the people at the top of the organisation. People at the top are the most removed from the front line realities. It is this hard reality that is driving demand for improved leadership and strategic capabilities at all levels of the organisation. Thinking and decision making need to be devolved to those who have the most information to make the best judgment call about what is required. This requires a different ‘mindset’, which is still outside of many managers’ comfort zone.

So how does the theoretical world define ‘Strategy’?

Johnson and Scholes (Exploring Corporate Strategy) define strategy as follows:

"Strategy is the direction and scope of an organisation over the long-term: which achieves advantage for the organisation through its configuration of resources within a challenging environment, to meet the needs of markets and to fulfill stakeholder expectations".

There are many definitions of ‘Strategy’ – not unlike ‘Coaching’! The above is an example that incorporates generally held principles of good practice in the field. This overall general definition can be applied, not just at the top level of an organisation, but at all levels and in all areas where objectives are set aligned to the overall organisational requirement.

Certain elements may be a given. For example a new senior manager inherits a direction, for example the answer to ‘what business are we in?’

Strategy in simple terms is planning the ‘How’ of achieving an overall objective. Different functions and units have to arrive at their own direction and strategy, which is aligned and fits within the overall organisational objectives and strategy.


3        The role of coaching in strategy development

Modern approaches to strategy development recognise that this is a ‘continuous and evolving’ process rather than a one-off exercise. Feedback is continuously monitored and active review is part of how organisations learn and adjust their approach as they go.

So, in terms of process, what does coaching as an approach have to offer?

Karen Wise’s blog “What is coaching? 10 definitions" (2010) draws on a number of definitions of coaching, a few examples of which are as follows:

  1. “Unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn, rather than teaching them” (Whitmore 2003)

  2. “A collaborative, solution focused, result-orientated and systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of work performance, life experience, self-directed learning and person growth of the coachee” (Grant 1999, basic definition also referred to by the Association for Coaching, 2005).

  3. “A professional partnership between a qualified coach and an individual or team that support the achievement of extra-ordinary results, based on goals set by the individual or team “(ICF, 2005)

Also see Jeremy Ridge’s blog for more ‘How we can define coaching – ‘Do It For Yourself’ (DIY))

I see a coaching approach, as defined above linked to good work on strategy developmentcharacterised by:

  • A willingness to listen and learn from others experience

  • Thinking together and exploring the various perspectives

  • Weighing up the options with their pros and cons

  • Asking good questions

  • Goal oriented:

  • Learning and helping others to learn

  • Working collaboratively with others

  • Retaining a clear focus on the overall goal

  • Not losing sight of the bigger context, and where we fit in – a ‘systemic’ approach in the jargon

  • A clear focus on development and improvement, not only in results, but in ways of working

  • Adapting to the requirements of end users

  • Actively developing quality ‘partnering’ relationships, both within the immediate team, and with a range of external parties.

Most coaches will recognise these as regular themes cropping up in coaching conversations.

There’s also a willingness in the most effective teams working on strategy to explore and challenge assumptions and to have the more ‘difficult’ conversations where some of the parties could see themselves as ‘losing out’ for the sake of something bigger that they can see the need for and how best they can contribute.

Again, working directly on conflict situations is a theme that often comes into coaching conversations. Taking this into the bigger organisational context can reveal the bigger and hidden forces at the root of what could otherwise be deemed as a highly personal situation. 

A recent client of mine shared one of her major strategic issues to be a key partnering relationship with an external organisational. She had become ‘stuck’ in her personal responses to what had become aggressive and unhelpful behaviour from her colleague. We discussed her approach and came up with various approaches, and she came down on one as her preferred option. She was amazed when she shifted towards taking an open more, genuinely curious approach, with the result that her colleague opened up on some of the real organisational pressures she was under. After a hostile start they then went on to develop a good working relationship, which was of mutual long term benefit to the two organisations. The preparation that helped my client shift was the insights and fresh perspectives she gained from the coaching, and then taking more a coaching approach herself to how she went on to develop that key working relationship.


4     What I find Coaching can bring – important outputs!

 

Individual coaching for just personal development comes later: Coaching increasingly provides a safe space for managers to think out of the box and explore their options, without feeling inhibited by considering others. That will come later... But the strategic thinking at an individual level needs to be done sooner.

The coaching skills of good questioning, genuinely listening, a more truly open attitude, with a learning 'mindset' are more widely and directly relevant to the nature of conversations most enabling strategic thinking, both at individual and at more collective levels. GROW, probably the most widely referenced model of coaching is, in essence, a problem solving framework that the coach draws on to support the thinking process of clients. However, just like Strategy, the Process is only part of how coaching operates in reality.

Quality exploration and broadening of thinking: Person to person relationships that nurture quality exploration and broaden thinking is the fertile soil that generates fresh and more innovative thinking. Creating a ‘safe space’ where people are treated with respect, where they are encouraged to say what they think, and to bring their perspectives. Good strategic thinking collectively, and ultimately effective action, depends on this.

Questioning assumptions and a readiness to question and re-evaluate the real current needs requires some up-front investment by managers at all levels. So, just as in coaching, the active engagement and ‘buy-in’ of people to the process is essential to the development of sound strategy. Without that quality of engagement the strategy will fall down.

Getting positive agreement about the understanding needed:  Working with people together, rather than just separately – e.g. Team coaching can often support leadership teams in having the exchange and conversations that can really help ‘break through’ on some of the entrenched and assumptive ways of thinking and working held, both by individuals, and the team.

In our coaching with managers the questions we ask our clients can direct them towards taking a more strategic approach in their thinking. In my experience, effective capable managers in fast moving, pressurised organisations can easily default to reactive mode, particularly when they are juggling such a great deal. The ‘space’ and climate that coaches can provide, both for individuals and teams, can lead to a step up in quality of strategic perspectives and thinking. In my coaching I actively encourage my clients to take a coaching approach in how they engage their teams in strategy development, which is best done as a collective process. 

Finally, I see the most capable leaders bringing intuitively a coaching approach to the ways they engage their people and teams in strategic planning and review of implementation. Use these people as role models!


In bringing a coaching approach as an integral part of strategy development, challenges still remain - dominant hierarchical habits die hard! For example:

  • The artificial divide between Task and People still dominates how many organisations approach strategy development and that artificial divide underpins a lot of organisational poor performance.

  • Regrettably the cultural bias of many organisations and individuals is to focus on an over-simplified naive short term Task emphasis in defining objectives.

The opportunity is the longer term reward and payback from taking a coaching approach to developing strategy, which is huge.

I leave you with some questions, as I'd be very interested to hear about others' experiences:

  • How have you managed as executive coaches to really engage in supporting your clients in strategic development?

  • What sort of relationship have you needed to enable the clients to focus on the long term rewards and pay-back from taking a coaching approach?

  • How has your coaching approach evolved with the needs of the organisation?

References:

  • Johnson. G., and Scholes, K., (2002) Exploring Corporate Strategy (6th Edition)

  • Keller S. and Price C. McKinsey & Company (2011) Beyond Performance

  • Kotter J (1996) Leading Change