Systemic Team Coaching

Systemic Team Coaching

Developing the Leadership Team for Business Transformation

“We know we need the leadership deep in the business to respond quickly to emerging possibilities and shape the future.  We know we cannot do it from the centre.”  Head of Learning for a FTSE 100 business.

The biggest challenges facing businesses now are transformational rather than simply performance (see first blog – “Thriving in a VUCA World”).  Teams are the energisers for change (see second blog – “Leadership Teams as the Energiser for Systemic Change”). This raises the challenge of developing the capacity of teams to provide the leadership needed for business transformation.   This includes but is certainly not limited to the top teams as recognised in our quote above.  The challenge is for leadership teams across the business but also lies in the relationships between teams and into the wider business ecosystem.

A great deal of the practice around team development focuses on business performance goals and the dynamics between team members.  This is important but not enough if the team is to lead transformational change.  It is important to start with an “outside in” perspective ie what is needed for the stakeholders around the team.  These stakeholders will include people in the business, shareholders, customers and regulators, but needs to extend much wider.  How about our customer’s customer?  The wider society in which our people and customers live and work?  The business ecosystem on which we depend?  The more than human world; the planet on which we depend for survival?  All of these are in contention.  Often different people in a team will voice these interests when considering substantive change; informing priorities and approaches and also creating a dynamic tension in the team itself.

The team also needs to consider different timeframes.  There is a need for a future back perspective.  What is our purpose and vision?  Where do we think we need to be in future?  Complexity thinking teaches us to start by developing a deep understanding of where we are now, building on a perspective of where we have we come from and what led us here.  What has shaped us as an industry, business and team?  Transformation means we are asking people in and around the business to change how they see and feel about things.  We cannot do this unless we appreciate what we need to let go of and unlearn.  Also, what we need to preserve for the future.  The stepping-stones forward from where we are to our future vision will not all be clear.  The team needs to step out in the right direction and recognise they are immediately reshaping the future.  Of course, they have to simultaneously continue to deliver on performance now; to ensure this is attended to and working well but without it consuming all of their time.  Too often, leaders are drawn back into the familiar and achievable rather than the ambiguous and uncertain.

The role of a team coach is to grow the capacity of the team to take leadership.  They may do this in 3 ways:

  1. Provide space, structure and interactive processes for the team to consider the issues and build shared insights and commitments on the journey.
  2. Surface the challenge to the team themselves; what is the change in them, needed to generate the difference in the business to create future shared value with its stakeholders.
  3. Sustain their development through time; offering support, challenge and encouragement as they progress and build their capacity to learn and adapt for themselves, without the coach.

One of the ways we help the team consider itself in its systemic context is through the 5 Disciplines Framework that we have developed with Professor Peter Hawkins as part of our team.  It considers the dimensions of task and process both inside and outside the team.

Applying the 5 Discipline framework from our colleague, Prof. Peter Hawkins (“Leadership Team Coaching: Developing Collective Transformational Leadership”: Kogan Page 2017) helps to understand where your team might need to be developed.  Often simple questions generate the best insights:Commissioning: Who does the team serve?  What is it there to do?  How does this align to the wider organisation purpose and objectives?
Clarifying: What is the team’s collective endeavour and core objectives?  Are team members clear about roles and processes?
Co-Creating: How is your team working together and partnering internally and managing its team dynamics?
Connecting: How is your team partnering with the various parts of the wider system and your key stakeholders?
Core-Learning: How is your team learning from its experience and developing as a team?

Surfacing the challenge is the second way in which the coach will help the development of the team’s capacity to lead.  In a recent discussion with a business leader whose team is leading a transformation effort, I heard him describe a very clear road map offered by the HR Director.  He explained how all the team agreed to the approach in a short session at the end of a 2 day workshop which was mainly focused on other business priorities.  My immediate response was to hold up the mirror and offer some feedback.  There was nothing in his manner that suggested real commitment to the road map.  He expressed it as just another set of tasks to add to the day job.  He was even a bit unclear about which areas he was sponsoring.  The proposed approach seemed perfectly logical and thought through but seemed focused on what they want others to do in the business.  For the journey to be successful, they will need to consider how they need to be different as a leadership team.  How they interact with each other; where they apply their focus and energies; who and how they connect with their stakeholders will all require personal and collective change.  The danger is it becomes a change initiative to which everyone agrees but nobody commits; doomed to be an action list that will be partially achieved while leaving the business unmoved – or perhaps just a little more cynical.We draw on a rich toolkit of activities and processes for developing the team in each area and the interaction between them all.   These includes different and engaging ways to bring-in stakeholder perspectives and the 3 time frames of delivering now; innovating for tomorrow and future foresight (Bill Sharp 1988).

In contrast, I have worked with a team leading substantial change in a bank where we started with them sharing some deep insights on each other and how they saw their roles.  We set this in the context of the business vision and the needs of their stakeholders.  From this, they set the challenge to themselves as a team and they shared some intense feedback on where they each needed to change and how they would support each other to enable it to happen.  As we worked thereafter we could revisit and revise this and I offered the processes for them to challenge each other about where they seemed to be stepping-up and where not – among themselves and with their stakeholders.

This third area a systemic team coach can play an invaluable role is helping to sustain the change through time.  Every coach should be working to make themselves redundant from their current relationship.  Success is measured in 3 ways:

  • Progress on the transformation agenda in the business.
  • The capacity for the Team to lead in new ways that are better for their context than before the coaching journey.
  • Their capacity to continue to learn and develop themselves and their business.

The route to this lies in helping the team to develop simple, energising learning processes that facilitate purposeful experimentation, reflection and lots of good quality feedback between themselves and from/to their stakeholders.  This should be embedded in the coaching process throughout the journey to develop the mindset and through the practice of tools and techniques.

As an illustration, I once worked with a team who noticed that their business meetings were more effective when I was with them.  This was because they were less likely to display their disruptive behaviours when I was watching; they knew I would interrupt the process.  So part of our shared endeavour became how they interrupted their own processes.  How they could surface and voice their internal frustrations or concerns in a way that was constructive for others in the team to hear and work with.  Also, how they could give constructive and challenging feedback as part of their team dynamic.  This enabled them to use their time together much more effectively, in service of their stakeholders.  It also meant they could rapidly learn and adapt their ways of working for themselves.

Systemic team coaching for business transformation is not a process where one can mechanically use a few simple tried and tested techniques.  Every team and business context is different and the interventions are customised.  It is a craft, which draws on a range of disciplines and skills with insights on strategy, systemic and complexity thinking, team dynamics, psychology, sociology and more.  The key for success is in building effective relationships with the coach standing alongside the team as they face the opportunities, challenges and uncertainties of generating substantive change in their business in response to as well as shaping the changes around them.

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