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Coaching for Change

(Reprinted from Semiconductor Magazine, June 2000)

Just when things seem to be working well, you have to do more with less, faster, cheaper, and better. YOU may have to change.

A manager is given a high profile project with eight diverse engineers, each from a different country. His culture taught him to rule from the top down. His opinions are rarely questioned. Several of his engineers have complained to his boss that they want to work collaboratively, not in a hierarchy.

My assignment was to help him change his dominating style into a collaborative team leader. After applying the blueprint which follows, several sessions with the leader, and several with the team, he got a promotion for demonstrating that he could modify his style and get positive results. He calls me for a tune-up every six months or so, when he feels he’s slipping back into his old patterns.

When styles clash, it’s tough. Coaching is often used to mitigate a crisis and relieve tension. But it is also useful to improve team and individual effectiveness.

An international company had recently grown from 1000 to 3000 employees through several acquisitions. The leadership team was a combination of strong individuals, each representing the various company cultures.

My challenge was to design a series of “all-hands” meetings at the various locations with the purpose of realigning all employees, building buy-in to the “new culture”, and eliminating the mental walls of separation from the acquired companies. We coached all of the leaders in presentation and motivational skills. We rolled out a series of dynamic, high participation meetings. After the process, employees were focused on a shared vision, were aligned with their goals, and were all wearing Tee shirts with the same logo!

The corporate environment is rapidly changing, often creating an atmosphere of chaos and isolation. E-mail, voice-mail, mergers and acquisitions, and virtual teams, all help create lack of unified focus, some voids, and very little face-to­face communication. These factors tend to dehumanize the environment. Leaders, as well as most employees, need other people to talk to. They need role models. They often need another perspective and reality check. Coaching can provide feedback and a sounding board that they may be missing.

Whether you are in a large corporation or a dot.com, coaching has its place. There is definitely a need in the fast moving start-ups, which, for the most part, lack structure, procedures, and a depth of leadership and management experience. The larger companies may be such a blend of various company cultures, that coaching can help them all get on the same page sooner.

Coaching can help people deal with their challenges. Using a qualified consultant as a coach can give leaders a neutral, unbiased perspective. The leader can feel “safe” to express doubts, anxieties, fears as well as ambitions. A director at Lucent Technologies said: “Dr. Manning’s coaching has helped me in virtually every phase of my job. From more effective presentations to a better understanding of people’s working styles, I am a far more successful manager today than ever before. Coaching is also helping me and my management team achieve our goals and create a work environment that retains and attracts our staff.”

A coach can give the leader a “kick in the pants,” to make the personal changes necessary to be as effective as possible. Change can be viewed as either an opportunity or a threat. Unfortunately, most leaders will make significant personal changes when faced with a crisis, rather than using change as a vehicle for continuous self-improvement and innovation. Leaders often ignore their own weaknesses and lack of balance.

A leader needs to recognize indicators of increased stress, such as less trust, enthusiasm, and participation. These signs may call for an in-depth assessment and a sound plan for implementing some positive change. When change is not well planned, people often end up in a defensive cycle. Some even react with a range of behaviors from yelling and blaming to avoidance and justification.

On the other hand, when change is part of a coaching process, it should be better-planned and implemented. It can be viewed as an opportunity for innovation and problem solving. Behaviors can become constructive and productive when a coach articulates a clear and beneficial vision for personal change. Coaches help others overcome fears. The most common fears are the fear of loss of control, loss of meaning, and loss of a future. These are pretty basic human needs and when any of these are threatened, people will resist and lapse into defensive behavioral patterns.

In W. Edwards Deming’s Fourteen Points for Quality (from his book Out of the Crisis), point number eight says: “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.” A coach can help the person discuss the undiscussables. Allowing one to freely express any fears and anxieties in a safe environment is an important step.

Could your team benefit from coaching?

  • Has your company recently reorganized, restructured, or changed direction?
  • Are there any unresolved conflicts within the team?
  • Could the team benefit from improved meeting or problem-solving skills?
  • Do most members work alone, not fully utilizing team resources?
  • Are their conflicts around prioritizing?
  • Does the team get overlooked by the company and need better positioning?
  • Would some renewal and motivation boost productivity?

A director of facilities at a semiconductor company I worked with said this about the team coaching we did: “Dr. Manning excels in getting co-workers to buy into the problem resolution process by illustrating how poor communication contributes to unnecessary conflict. They became aware how they and others prefer to receive information. Team coaching got the barriers to come down.”

After coaching many executives, politicians, Boards of Directors, and teams, I have found that the following blueprint for Change is essential in the early stages of undergoing major personal or team change.

Step One: Establishing the need and the benefits

A self-assessment process helps determine what changes are potentially most beneficial. This process can assess personal leadership style, relationships with peers, staff and boss, productivity and efficiency levels, time management, and specific management skills.

Once needed changes are identified, a coach can suggest options and processes. Who will be their various internal champions for change? What type of outside experts will be needed to guide the process? Do they have a good match with their coach? Perhaps they need more than one coach: one for behavioral changes, one to coach on company strategies.

Who makes a good coach?

Traits should include…

  • able to maintain a neutral, non-political position
  • an empathic, attentive listener; able to make linkages and summaries
  • a risk-taker, willing to vulnerable and admit their own mistakes and learnings
  • known for their coaching and subject matter expertise, with top references
  • experience in your situation, industry or profession
  • handles their own life and relationships
  • has the right skill set for the job: from interpersonal to strategic planning
  • can customize a coaching plan to fit your needs; flexible

Take time to interview a couple of potential coaches. Beware of “canned” approaches and inexperienced consultants. Your company may want to have several choices for teams and individuals. There needs to be a good match in personalities, philosophies, skill set and experience.

Step Two: Leadership readiness

To be successful in a coaching process, leaders must have a high commitment up front. They may want to speak with others who have benefited from coaching. The company might consider holding some “Manager as Coach” training sessions so that all leaders have some basic coaching skills themselves. If you are recruiting one of your employees for coaching, take time to review their past successes and learnings. What changes have they succeeded in? Which have failed and why? Give people ample time to talk about resistance and fear that they may have as well as what they expect from coaching.

Many organizations have invested vast amounts of money in new technology and quality or re-engineering programs and report little success. Leadership was not trained or ready. When significant change is implemented, weak management practices surface like wild fire. Invest in your leadership and their people skills. After all, people will either resist and sabotage the change or get on board and be your champions. Coaching is a focused process to develop leaders.

Could you, as a leader, benefit from coaching?

A “yes” answer to any of these questions makes you a good candidate.

  • Could I use someone influential to help promote my advancement?
  • Do I need to realign my passion and direction?
  • Do I have any limiting patterns and behaviors (like micromanaging) that I’d like to modify?
  • Can I safely discuss my mistakes, doubts or anxieties?
  • Would the people I work with say that I am motivating and easy to work with?
  • Do I ever feel out of balance in my life and need strategies to prioritize?
  • Do I need a good, attentive listener to bounce ideas off of?

Step Three: Mission, vision, goal clarity

Research supports that mission-driven projects are more efficient and productive than rule-driven projects. Coaching should be treated like a project: have a clearly defined mission that you and your employee agree to. Help them create a vision for their success. Have clear, measurable goals.

When I coach a leader, I guide them in a “personal strategic plan.” The plan includes clear goals for each step of any modification in behaviors and actions. With one senior vice-president of finance, I showed her how her style clashed with two of the other senior vp’s. She outlined her needs from each and articulated a new approach to take. With one, she tried a more formal, analytical dialog. With the other, she was careful to always state her key points before elaborating. Communication quickly improved.

Step Four: Formal and informal communication

The person being coached should hold regular status meetings with their manager. They need encouragement, support, and someone to report their success to. In fact, everyone throughout your organization should have some formal communication link where they can talk about their individual professional growth plans. People need to feel that there is an appropriate place to ask questions, express concerns, and deal with fears and anxieties as they arise. Well-planned change has positive benefits for the individual as well as for the entire organization.

Many coaching processes can span over three to six months. However, I have had some short-term assignments that have only taken a few sessions. For example, I was asked to resolve a conflict between three project leaders who worked in the same department. Visit one was individual interviews/assessment. Visit two consisted of my facilitating each “pair” to state their issues and agree on how to work with each other. Visit three came a month later to assess if the conflicts had been resolved and the agreements adhered to. The three are not best friends, but they now treat each other professionally and with respect. Having an outside “mediator” broke the ice and allowed them to discuss issues in a fair way. There was no “right” or “wrong,” but agreements to let go of the past and work together in some different ways.

Remember, when you are asked to do more with less, faster, cheaper and better. YOU may have to be the one to change. A coach might help you speed up the process. For a free team assessment, contact Dr. Manning.