How team coaching is often a bumpy road

How team coaching is often a bumpy road

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Filip Fiers and Paul Van Geyt of Coaching Partners International share an example of team coaching practice.

Five years ago, I was contacted by a company’s HR director, asking for one-to-one coaching for several managers. Talking to him, it became clear that the company was still functioning in a ‘control and command’ way and was even suffering from bullying behaviour by some of the managers. The reason this had happened, we discovered later, was that a senior manager had left the company, which created a leadership vacuum, and those who shouted the loudest had taken over.

My advice to the HR director was that one-to-one coaching for a few individuals would probably not be the best solution, and that a broader, more collective approach would be more appropriate. I asked to talk to the senior management team, to have their view on this. However, the HR director told me that he had tried this approach for months without any success. In his view, one-to-one coaching would be the only feasible, realistic way to go.

My colleague and I debated on whether we would step in for this coaching assignment, knowing it would probably not create fundamental change for the company. We decided to continue, based on the thought: Let’s work with what we have. We believed that windows of opportunity would emerge along the way.

We performed several one-to-one coaching assignments, and the coachees and HR were pleased with the results. As coaches, we were still in doubt about the fundamental added-value of this approach. Suddenly, the context changed when the HR director left the company to take on a new challenge, and a more junior HR person took over.

When the new HR manager asked us for additional one-to-one coaching, we took the opportunity to raise our earlier concerns, and fortunately he responded: ‘One of our senior managers is here today. Why don’t we go and speak to her?’ And that’s what we did!

We explained to the senior manager what we had done so far, and then told her that we could probably co-create a more fundamental solution for the challenges faced by the company. A key moment in that conversation was a short explanation of Peter Hawkins’ Five Disciplines model. The senior manager remained silent for about 30 seconds, and then said: ‘I agree we have to create another leadership style and culture if we want to stay a leader in our industry. And now you probably want me to come up with a commission, right?’

The company put together a leadership task force. During the kick-off meeting, three senior managers were present. We introduced the five disciplines model as an overall guiding framework, while the senior managers brought the commission to the task force. We also organised a Q&A in a structured way, and the leadership task force discussed the way forward.

The company chose, at the start of the task force, not to include some of the managers. That led to plenty of reactions within the organisational system. It was interesting to see that the approach to ‘having to earn your ticket for stepping in’ really worked out. It led to new behaviour and fresh contributions later on in the process. My colleague and I coached the leadership task force every month in half-day sessions. And every second month, senior management was also present.

Based on that one-year, interactive developmental process, the company decided to look for other roles for some of the managers. They also appointed a new area manager, and installed a new leadership team which was distilled from the leadership task force.

What did we learn from partnering with this client as team coaches?

• Stay with the client, continue to stay involved, interested, and walking shoulder to shoulder.

• Regard the client as the organisation viewed collectively, as a whole, but also viewed in its different parts, functionally, geographically, hierarchically.

 Be patient, work with what emerges, and learn to work in and with a sometimes messy environment.

• Step in and start to work to co-create a pathway for growth (with its ups and downs), and be prepared for moments of truth to pop up along the way.

• What is the team? Ultimately, the whole organisation is the team. As a systemic team coach, we work with multiple teams and individuals in parallel. However, constantly re-contracting and re-clarifying are key – for example, asking, ‘What is the team here?’

• Working with a team in a focused, fundamental way always leads to clarity about who is really ‘stepping in’, and who isn’t, potentially creating a different team composition in the end. All this is fine, as long as we continue to co-create a fair process for everybody.

Filip Fiers and Paul Van Geyt are managing partners of Coaching Partners International, as well as working with AoEC as consultant coaches.

Photo by Mourad Saadi on Unsplash