I believe I do my best work when it is ‘on the edge;’ as I feel most alive, full of energy and I know the stakes are high. Waves are formed by numerous small droplets that rise and gain momentum before they gloriously spread on to the shore.
When I work with senior teams it’s more about orchestrating how the waves need to gain momentum in the same direction to eventually create positive benefits and results for the client, the team, and the organization overall.
I describe that next stage of how I continue working on the edge whilst,
- Both deepening and strengthening the relationship with the client,
- Understanding and working with the relationships in the team, and
- Adding value in real time.
Through a detailed example, I conscientiously explore how my approach works, step by step, to develop the full potential of the contract.
As I wrote this blog, I was struck by the importance of getting the relatively small and simple actions right, in order to build the wave of the whole process, which will have a far reaching impact in the organization. And following through on those actions lead to pivotal moments which helped me to continually develop those steps that are integral to gaining momentum.
I can broadly describe my approach as follows:
- Once I gain the client’s confidence, I obtain permission to work with their team.
- I then step into this phase by both observing the team dynamic in a leadership meeting as well as building relationships with the team member’s one on one.
- My focus is to create an open and constructive dialogue, where they can feel less vulnerable to tell me what they genuinely think and feel.
- I can thus strengthen my client’s understanding of their potential as well as their needs, and suggest strategies to get the best out of the team.
Continuing to spread coaching waves - meetings with the executive team
This coaching work began after first having a session with the senior executive (as the initial client, the new Boss) about how to expand their impact within the wider organization.
After the first session, I agreed with the client that I would be able to add significant value if I
a) Got to know the members of the team, and
b) See the team dynamics as well as interview them one on one.
He agreed and I joined the monthly executive team meeting shortly thereafter. There were more than twenty leaders who represented the businesses and functions, at each of these all day meetings. I share in quite vivid detail my observations of what was happening during the meeting I observed, and how I continually made use of the information to advise my client to take the appropriate steps needed to lead the organization.
THE MORNING SESSION – observing the limitations of the process
The team members were sitting around a big board room table with the Boss (my principal client) seated at the head. I sat towards the end of the table where I could see the Boss very well, and make notes from my observations of the team’s dynamics.
The Boss asked a few questions to gain understanding and clarity, it seemed. He appeared to have a step back attitude; and even leant backwards in his chair as though looking in from the outside.
It was clear, to me, there were several opportunities for improving the process taking place.
- The current process was very much focused on finding quick immediate solutions; i.e. "How will we deliver the numbers for the quarter? How will we fill the apparent gaps?”
- Some people did other things like read their mails and answer texts on their phones.
- Wider communication about what might have been involved in the matters raised and the broader implications was very limited.
- There was a lack of clarity about whether the topics on the agenda were for information, for discussion, or for taking a decision.
- A few of the stronger people with loud voices kept speaking; the remaining 70% said nothing.
LUNCH TIME – Quick wins on process improvement
At lunch time I caught up with my principal client, the Boss, and said, "OK, Let’s take a couple of minutes to the side."We stepped outside the room where lunch was served and found a quiet spot.
I simply said, "I suggest a couple of small things for you to keep in mind for the rest of the meeting: You need to be perceived as ‘in’ the team. You need to shift from I to We and from this organization to "our" organization. When you speak, use more "our" and "we" in your language. And your posture, body language appears to say that you are not connected to the team – lean forward to show your interest and engagement. You are asking straight questions and gaining clarity which is superb; because they also seem confused on what the ‘real’ issue is. And it is key to summarize at the end of a topic or get your team secretary to do so. Make clear what was decided, what are the next steps and who is accountable – otherwise nothing will be done, that’s my experience."
At this stage, the client didn't know what to expect from me, and I felt that I was creating that added value right there and then. He looked at me intently whilst taking in what I had said, smiled and said "Yes, I think you’ve made some good points. I’ll try them."
Summing up in a few simple words, here, does not fully capture the fundamentally dramatic shift needed for the Boss and the group around the table to start moving toward being a team, taking ownership together for running the business, and moving from "I" to "we".
This was just the start towards making the shift in culture and style evident so that the Boss could lead more comfortably by using his strengths. There were also other gaps, I noted, in what the group needed and what the Boss was giving them - especially since they were reluctant to take decisions themselves and were used to the previous Boss who had a more ‘command and control’ style and made all the key decisions. It was clear to me that my client, had a very empowering style and hence there were plenty of opportunities to make further use of his strengths.
SESSION AFTER LUNCH – surfing the next wave of opportunity
The team members noted the changes in the Boss’ behavior after we had spoken, and slowly a couple more of the leaders started talking to me more openly during the break. Some of the doubts and suspicions about what my real agenda might be were starting to be dispelled.
I took the time to seek out and speak with those who were more aloof. They shared their frustrations of how things had changed and told me that the organization was in turmoil as a result. When I asked their opinion about the new Boss they said, “*There is not much to say because he's only been here for a few weeks.*" I responded with respect and innocently said, “We make our judgements pretty quickly as to whether someone's effective or not-effective. You also have some views of the way he should lead the company to be successful, so what would those be?”
My sense is, getting through these little windows at the start is as important as going to speak with them and receive a huge amount of data on a one-to-one basis. Unless you get it right in those first few seconds, it doesn't happen.
END OF DAY - Adding immediate review as a big opportunity to improve the overall process
At the end of the whole day, we agreed to debrief and I said to my client, "We’ve been sitting for a very long time. Let’s take a walk and discuss what happened during the day – we will need to see how to make some sense of it." And with that, we both laughed and he said, "If you can make sense of what happened today, then you are worth every penny of your fees!” Laughing helped to shift the energy and he continued, "I am not sure whether to jump off a cliff or try to get my old job back! I did not know what I was getting into – they never tell you the real story in the interview or you wouldn’t take the job! “And we continued to laugh, which really helped to discharge some of the energy pent up in us!
So we went for a walk on the grounds which were pretty large. As we walked the client said, "For starters, it seems to me that half this group does not belong on this leadership team. And did you notice, there were a few people working on other stuff instead of engaging in the discussions. That infuriates me. I will tell them that if they have more important things to do than run this company, they need not come to my meetings any longer!”
Once again, I could see where other possible opportunities for coaching were, and some potential improvements, in how the process could work better, towards achieving what the client wanted.
It became even clearer from this first period of observation that there was potentially a great deal of additional data that could usefully be brought into what was happening, and not happening in the team. I thought to myself, "OK, it's time now to speak to each team member so we can get an idea of where they stand, how they interpret the current situation and their motivation to work with their new Boss in a way that could make them all successful."
Making wave, and adding value, with the whole team
Interviewing team members individually to understand their needs & motivation
After my discussion with my client, we initiated a series of one-on-one interviews with all the team members. This also provided an opportunity to discuss the situation prior to the new Boss joining the company – what was the culture like and the style of leadership of the previous incumbent, as well as some thoughts and suggestions for the new one. Some were extremely critical of the past leader of the team, who they described as, aggressive, bright, a micro- manager who rarely discussed the issues openly, got involved in minute details and, constantly followed up, which left them all exhausted. And now here comes this new Boss who’s completely the opposite.
And so it became my job to quantify what was needed to bridge this large gap in order to make him successful. Some of the team were questioning why he had been selected for this position, brought in from outside the company, from a different business, when there were a number of candidates inside. They were really questioning his credibility and this became one of the first areas I worked with my client on to address.
Although at times some team members portrayed themselves as victims, what I liked very much was their openness and eagerness to make the company succeed. I assured them that I would not mention their names specifically when I debriefed with their new Boss, my client, but that I would summarize their input into specific themes, otherwise what would be the point of speaking to them? I believe they were actually relieved and appreciated that their voice was being heard. A couple of them were quite surprised that they had been so open with me during the hour interview, and one of them said, "I am not sure why I have told you so much so quickly, for some reason I feel I can trust you to use the information discreetly."
Continuously and carefully building and maintaining trust
This has again been critical to developing the required foundations to add value – building the contract as we went.
In my own subtle way, I created the conditions to start to relax the other team members and make connections with them. I listened to them and I shared my intent, which was to support the Boss as well as them through this transition. And they were curious about how things would develop and what opportunities this change could bring.
I work hard on having a non-threatening persona, but still someone to be reckoned with, and well capable of being immersed into this context. I recognise there are a few things that I do.
- One is knowing that I know very little about lots of things. I listen deeply, use their words and explore the meaning the words have for them. I ask clear open questions and then probe further, and get them to give me examples.
- I also use my discussions with the team to continually encourage them to come with solutions and not just state the problem. I challenge them to see the issues from different perspectives.
- I also try to meet them where they are and empathize with what they might be feeling.
For example, when the head of one major business area started talking about the issues faced, I could see and feel that they were overwhelmed. Things were going very poorly and everyone was pointing the finger at this person as there was a problem with the performance of their area of the Business which accounted for some of the shortfalls in revenues. When I spoke to her, I could see she was having a very hard time, her shoulders sagged and she looked exhausted. She also had kind, soft eyes that seemed to say, I’m not sure I want to be here at all. I began by smiling and said, "You know, I've been listening to all the complaints your colleagues made in the meeting, and, my god, you must feel overwhelmed and exhausted!" She immediately began elaborating on the issues providing her perspective and appreciated my listening ear.
In these situations, I can empathize well, however, I know that I need to be careful and not to join them too much either (collude). I empathize and then pull back to, "OK, so what's your responsibility in this? What do you need to do? What can you control and influence? What is one thing the Boss can do to support you? ” I saw this was difficult for her as she was so overwhelmed, and she finally said "I probably have to leave the company because I don't have the conditions needed to be successful here." So I said, "Here's your opportunity to talk with your Boss and give him your perspective and ask for support."
Setting the basis for continuing this work with the team
Following the series of one-on-one interviews, I wanted to give my client some highlights so he could respond to their feedback and my suggestions. Since we were not able to meet face to face for a couple of weeks, and his agenda was completely full, I suggested we have a call one evening.
I could tell he was tired from all the initial impressions and pressure he felt already. He started with, "Let me have it then, what did they have to say? I said, "Oh my god, I got an ear full! I need a couple of glasses of wine. And you probably need a scotch ... to be able to absorb this!" "Oh that good," he said with a chuckle. I then went through some of the main themes and how he could constructively address a couple of their concerns by fine-tuning his style. I was careful to frame this in a way he could receive it, because at times he sounded a little confused and frustrated with their comments. I would confirm his reaction and remind him of his goal which was to get the best out of them, until he had the opportunity to make the changes he needed.
I had my views on each of them, however, I first got an understanding of what he thought about them before I divulged my impressions. We developed a frame of reference together in which to share the information. This allowed him to reflect and consider their strengths, what opportunities exist, even as possible disruptors, that make up his team. And what was the best way to work with each of them. That's how we went through the people.
I also made my client aware that there was a lot of fatigue in the organization. The whole leadership change was adding another layer of uncertainty, as well as disrupting things, and adding to what was already dysfunctional.
Receiving and assessing both the value and usefulness of this information, and connecting to my client’s vision, was a key opportunity to get the right contract he wanted to establish with his team right from the start. In addition, I was also developing a better understanding of the complex contracting involved in our work together. I could feel that my client trusted me to do the right thing for him and the organization, and we both wanted to check out and align on the basis of this trust, as we went forwards.
We were developing a rapport and a coded language which we had established (laughter being an important part of it).
The next cycle of the contracting was now complete.
Strengthening, even further, my awareness and confidence of these small actions that build waves of value in teams
Reviewing how I add waves of value to a team, I realize that I have typically responded quickly with small, short and sharp interventions that had an impact; a ripple effect on demonstrating how I worked with the client. I had to continuously find appropriate ways to solicit information from the team, share the information in a way that supports them to adjust to the context, and make better and more constructive decisions to lead.
How I’m strengthening my awareness of these important ways of making this happen:
- It’s about managing boundaries with humour,
- It’s being visible and seen as working for the Boss and their team, with the intent of connecting the dots and helping them see each other’s’ perspective
- It’s about sharing and delivering their information (without deviation) with a clear intention that it’s always about supporting the Boss to be better informed for working well in their role.
My approach to coaching hasn’t differed with each of the individuals that make up the team, including the Boss. Maintaining the boundaries, as part of the contracting with the client, has allowed me to keep my balance and deliver the value I know I can bring to our working relationship. And, at the same time, doing the ‘right’ thing for them which continues to build the trust and leads to further disclosure…creates the waves.
It’s repeatedly appreciating and realising how important it is to get small things just right to create and amplify these ripples!
Question: How do you strengthen your awareness of keeping your attention on the small things to do whilst in the midst of bigger scale and complex process interventions?
To connect with K.C. Char
K. C. Char has held leadership positions in international organizations for many years. For the last 15 years, K. C has applied this experience to advise, consult and coach senior leaders. K. C’s work draws from this rich experience, challenging clients to stretch themselves and find their edge, effectively leading people to perform at their best.