The Value of Coaching: Part 1.

Value of Coaching Part 1

My reading and research ever since I stumbled into a imposed leadership and coaching program nearly 15 years ago, continues to reinforce the generalised hypothesis that many Australian organisations, appear to completely misunderstand how leaders and leadership strengths are developed and nurtured.

I am constantly surprised in my dealings with all kinds of organisations how poorly prepared many new managers are to deal competently with the significant challenges of management and how leadership and management are confused and mistaken for authority and privilege.

Given the millions of Australian wage earners and contractors, who rely heavily on the management and leadership skills of the organisations they work for and for their livelihood and the essential value of our collective management and leadership expertise to our economy and standard of living, it remains astonishing that an overall shortage of leadership and management skills will contribute to the estimated $8.5 Trillion Skills Shortage estimated by Korn Ferry to impact the global economy by 2030.

Given the estimated $366 billion spent globally ( 2019) on leadership skill development, CEO survey data indicates that a large proportion of leadership development programs fail to deliver on their value proposition and overall organisational performance. There are some very interesting research findings on some of the factors working against leadership and coaching programs, and I will look at these in more detail in subsequent blogs.

However most of the research findings reflects on my early experiences and my first exposure in this leadership and coaching development process.

My first leadership program was due to a promotion into a more senior role with expanded responsibilities, and management over a sizeable resource pool consisting of teachers, students, administrative staff, facilities and of course budget.

I had risen to this senior position through the usual career management processes – learning the ropes through the merit based process in use, cultivating support of senior managers, doing my time in risky projects, acting stints in more senior roles, demonstrating a working understanding of the organisational politics, the value of loyalty, resilience and being able to take a punch and being accountable.

I was of course one of a hundred ambitious career minded public servants who aspired to ever higher job/role classifications, pay grades and influence, but I observed that very few successful career aspirants actually knew what to do with the newly hard won promotion, other than to fashion it into a stepping stone for the next career step. Anyone seeking to make a real difference in their area of influence, finding ways to improve and grow, and providing genuine service to the people you are now working with and the clients you are now serving, was still a very rare breed.

“Leadership” mostly was merely a selection criteria that you had to master during the merit based selection process. If you had internal support, you would be given a glimpse of a written criteria example from a “model” applicant and you would spend hours trying to master the tricky criteria under pressure of a panel interview process. It was the secret handshake you had to master to progress your career ambitions. Your evidence for “demonstrated leadership” were carefully manicured examples designed to show your mastery of the selection criteria and your understanding of the current leadership political dynamic within the organisation. “Leadership” felt more like a merit badge on a uniform than a skill set that delivered concrete results.

In thinking about this article, I reflected on the number of genuine leaders that I had encountered before starting my climb up the career ladder. These few individuals were also very influential in my personal development – but they all shared the common characteristics of effective leaders – courage, respect, empathy, self awareness, integrity, influence, empowerment, curiosity, agile minds and strong communicators.

They were also, without exception, considered dangerous Mavericks in that they challenged cultural norms and were very focused on client outcomes.

So when the various government departments started to organise leadership development programs, there were no Mavericks in sight. You had to be recommended for the program and no-one wanted to take the risk of a known Maverick.

So when I joined the hundreds of successful applicants who had also found themselves in quite senior management roles, with little or no real training or skills in either management or leadership we all clearly shared a real life “sink or swim” approach. But it was also underwritten by some very flawed ideology that somehow those with management skills and leadership abilities were either “born with it”, or acquired these abilities through force of character, dedication to hard work or forceful personality. It can’t be learnt. It was a ridiculous notion.

Luckily for me and a large number of other recently minted managers, a newly appointed more senior department director would recognise – either through internal and external surveys some new data on organisational effectiveness levels, or through a desire to achieve expanded career ambitions of their own, proposed that a corporate style leadership and coaching program would most likely improve overall performance. Wahoo.

Even though I had a couple of handy university degrees, including an MBA, I was incredibly excited to be included in the Leadership and Coaching program and could not wait to improve myself both as a manager and as a leader. Even though the MBA was a wonderful education experience and inspired all sorts of personal growth – it did little to develop my practical skills as a manager and leader. But at least I now knew what effective management and leadership looked like and what it could achieve – but I still did not know if I was the right fit for either role.

I decided that the workshop would in some way, validate my interest and claim in more senior leadership roles.

We were organised into cross sectional disciplinary groups and immediately exposed to a battery of diagnostic tools – 360 degree surveys, Myer Briggs, Team Building Profiles etc.

We were then sent on a 3 day retreat to analyse the results and then though various workshops and sessions, develop an action learning plan to address any weaknesses. I think the leadership program may have been an early version of the “Three Frames” approach – but very little of this mythology made it into the next working week of those assembled once the leadership workshop was done. This was mainly due to overwhelming impact of the organisational culture that quickly crushed any new initiatives or “learning plans” the participants left with. This was entirely due to the failure of the program to provide effective follow up coaching – which can be a common design flaw in a large number of leadership development programs.

What was really fascinating and enormously enlightening, was the reaction of the participants to the diagnostic tools and the “results”.

Most, (me included) thought these tests were some kind of management/leadership exam and that there was going to a perfect model profile or benchmark set that we would all be judged against. Another selection criteria event. Even though the sessions was all done under the protective gaze of “facilitators and coaches” some very unexpected things happened.

For nearly all of us this was the first time a telling 3 way mirror was held up to us, and like the mirrors in Myer clothes fitting dressing rooms, there was always going to be a telling reflection from an perspective not seen before, where a more telling image of how you interact with your peers, direct reports and clients suddenly comes into focus.

For some, the feedback was devastating. The learning opportunity clearly available to all participants from the feedback exercises conducted started to evaporate when the small number of actual coaches in the session couldn’t get to everyone quickly enough and the session became more of a witch hunt with particiapnts trying to figure out which arsehole(s) gave that rating. Learning windows started to close. Self serving side doors opened and most of the candidates had escaped before anyone could harvest the valuable outcomes sitting on the table.

It was the impact of unintended consequences is what made this retreat remarkable.

Epiphanies started to emerge. Some participants used the reflection sessions to connect with some deeply buried personal truths. Some marriages ended. New relationships and identities emerged. It was powerful stuff. However the organisational key performance criteria improvement program that had inspired the leadership retreat sat ignored in the corner.

My epiphany came later. I was still processing. What do you mean I am “introverted and don’t consult enough”? Is that a bad thing? Will I still pass?

This was my first real exposure to the power of leadership programs and the promise of purposeful coaching. I now recognise that it was mostly fear that prevented the participants and organisers from fully harvesting the value of the diagnostic process and the examination of “leadership” as a personal developmental challenge. Fear is a real thing.

The learnings and self awareness from that retreat still resonate with me today although I had to self coach myself through the development steps that have led me to this point.

But it all started at that weird and wonderful 3 day retreat which changed the trajectory of many of my colleagues and stirred my awareness and awakened the Maverick that resides in all of us.