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Signs of inevitable change

James Dillon, PCC, Executive and Crisis Coach -International Coaching Federation

Since the world today is in upheaval, even to the point of rupture with COVID-19, it stands to reason that our clients, essentially business leaders, want to see beyond risk assessments in order to anticipate and discern patterns that may engulf their corporation in the near future. Just how do we as coaches work with these clients so that they explore the sense of what is happening and gather new inputs?

This implies seeing the market and environment a corporation operates in as a System, with different actors, obstacles, levers to be pulled, explicit as well as implicit rules, even anomalies that make little sense to outsiders, that are probably leftovers from another time — in fact, there are a lot of moving parts. Yet our clients are often schooled in a linear mode of problem-solving, in determining which process to apply according to different cases. If they could possibly set up a dashboard, they reason, and just keep their eye on certain criteria and risk factors, they could “control” their business model. This is like a safety net for them, setting up a KPI perimeter and protecting their company from risk factors.

This is one thing that a smart company needs to do, but is it enough?

Under the heading, Facilitating Learning and Results, The International Coaching Federation (ICF) has this to say: “Creating Awareness—Ability to integrate and accurately evaluate multiple sources of information and to make interpretations that help the client to gain awareness and thereby achieve agreed-upon results.”(Section D, Core Competency 8).

How could this coaching premise help leaders to become forward-looking?

In these risky times that easily trigger crises, leaders call on us as coaches during our sessions to work on approaches that explore with an eye not just on what they see in their proximity – but to also be able to keep an eye out for what they cannot readily perceive. Thinking beyond blind spots

Unfortunately, companies often set up scenarios based on what has already transpired. One Leadership & Development Director proudly told me that he ran hostage-taking games based on traumatic, real-life events, scenarios where his business leaders could be tested for their negotiation skills under pressure.

I  don’t doubt that something of this order might happen for an international company, although there are specialized, highly trained negotiators that typically intervene in such instances, not the officers of a corporation itself. I’m afraid that the L&D Director was mostly interested in the pressure he exerted on his High Potentials, to weed them out if they couldn’t pass muster.

Another phenomenon with untapped potential occurs when there are major accidents, whether industrial, transportation or health. Deeply buried in company records, there is invariably a minor accident that was a precursor, which was soon forgotten. A small fire was put out. A plane leaking fuel landed. A safety report indicated that there is risk of an explosion of a refinery if the company did not refurbish it. These risks get neglected. The problem was solved long ago, the company believes, or it can be dealt with later.

Why continue to budget so much for safety precautions? Inevitably, in major catastrophes there are such “smoking guns” and leaders are caught unaware, unready, by something someone in their company already “knew”.

Coaching for a forward-looking attitude
A coach, not being a specialized consultant, not even positioned to act as such, would not point out where the client has a blind spot. We are dealing with behaviors, on how business leaders who truly want to be able to open their eyes to signs and patterns of what is going to impact their environment.

Our clients call on us to work on thinking strategically, even relying on their intuition, which they may or may not be used to trusting. Dissimilar things that pose no particular problem by themselves may suddenly merge to create an unrecognizable threat; how will leaders be able to discern it in time? Responding appropriately would require a whole different mindset.

Just what does it mean for leaders to have this forward-looking attitude?·

  • Using their curiosity as an asset, not as something that only “entertains” Asking questions becomes their signature – and leaving people the lapse of time and space to reflect and come up with authentic, perhaps surprising responses the leader can value.
  • Listening to voices in their eco-system that may have been brushed Of course, this may require patience many leaders are short of… to begin with.
  • Engaging with people both inside and outside of the company that may in turn ask them uncomfortable questions, raise painful.
  • Developing an instinct for triangulating dilemmas, breaking out of the binary-code mindset of right/wrong.
  • Avoiding the reflex to want to simplify their options when they face complex issues, leaving themselves only with poor Poor choices are usually something they have tried before; they know how going down certain roads will turn out. It’s time to search more strategically for what needs to be done. Who said that innovation was supposed to take place in their Comfort Zone?
  • Dodging the time-trap and zero-sum games to negotiate value propositions, sustainable solutions that are coherent with their company’s longer-term.

These are attitudes everything in a leader’s background tends to discourage, relegating them to the category of so-called “soft-skills.” They actually become a leader’s life’s blood in the clutch, when he or she decides how to make strategic choices and commit resources.

So coaching sessions are a welcome chance to leaders to explore these different and new spaces, to cast a wider net, to perceive how they can navigate new realities.

Accepting signs of inevitable change
This is hardly easy for leaders. The leader knows she or he is going to face critical resistance, both from the market and from within their company. For example, a company may have invested heavily in equipment it hasn’t amortized yet. Yet the leader foresees how the company is liable to potential lawsuits because of pollution or other inherent risks. The leader forges convictions when a coach challenges him or her, then the leader finds ways to fully articulate a new plan to all the stakeholders, including skeptical investors. Delivering uncomfortable messages requires courage and assuming responsibility – but also the ability to mobilize people and impress upon them the urgency to act, not just to submit to the coming change.

In the end, the work with a coach goes full cycle. Leaders learn to filter new and multiple sources of information that enrich their point of view. They learn to see themselves as an engaged actor within their system and become alliance-builders. Also, leaders think more strategically and see the coming changes in the market or business environment as being organic, as an opportunity for a company to evolve and grow out of a business model that will no long sustain it in the approaching future.

Signs of inevitable change trigger new directions that are full of opportunities, if only business leaders are able to embrace them.

To learn more about professional coaching and its organizational benefits, visit International Coaching Federation. 

If you need support on your organisation’s and leader’s coaching journey, do contact us at ICF and our team of volunteers in the UK will be happy to help.

References for this article:

ICF Core competencies:

Meet the Challenge of Change in 7 Steps, James Dillon and Brigitte Warnez,

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