Developmental coaching – why is it different?

Photo by Florian Hahn on Unsplash

What’s the shape of your brain at the moment? This may seem like a strange question and not one that a coach is likely to ask directly. But this is what we’re asking in developmental coaching, along with others like how does this ‘brain shape’ fit your role or the role you aspire to? Are you in transition? What happens to you under stress?

In their landmark Harvard Business Review article of 2005, David Rooke and William Torbert shared their research and outlined a theory of adult vertical development using the term ‘action logic’. Each level of action logic essentially describes the cognitive capacity an individual leader has developed up to that point. An action logic thus describes what perspectives an individual is capable of comprehending.

We can see a very simple example of development developmental levels in children, by means of an experiment. The concept is called ‘conservation of volume’. The experiment starts with two vessels of water. Both contain 300ml, but one is short and broad, and the other tall and thin. If you ask children younger than 11 which has the most water in it, most will point to the tall thin vessel. After the age of 11, they gain the ability to ‘conserve volume’, now knowing that the volume is likely to be the same between the two vessels, despite one level being higher than the other. Knowing that these differently shaped containers hold the same amounts is called conservation of volume.

It was originally thought that progressing through different developmental levels stopped in early adulthood when the physical body is fully grown. But no – this sort of development continues through adulthood and is often ignored.

There are two critical things I think it is important to be mindful of when thinking about adult vertical development:

It is just impossible for a person at an earlier stage of development to have the perspectives of someone at a later stage.
That development has nothing to do with IQ. Vertical development tends to occurs over time when people are placed in progressively challenging environments, where they need to develop more complex ways of dealing with the world.

I’ve already used the term ‘vertical’ adult development and it is hard not to ascribe a higher value to a ‘higher’ level. But we need all levels; and progressing to the next level is not the be all and end all of adult development. One level is not better than another. It is important in organisations that the shape of your brain, the perspectives you are capable of, match the job required of you. If you’re too late-stage for a particular role, then this can be as much a disaster as someone who hasn’t yet reached the required level taking a role requiring late-stage capability. Vertical development doesn’t refer to kinds of people, it refers to the kinds of thinking that people do – their thought forms.

Imagine your adult development as a tower block. Each floor is a developmental level. Moving up the stairwells to the next level is a time of confusion and disorientation, and when you get onto the next floor, it’s unfamiliar to you. You will go up and down the stairs many times until you are sufficiently comfortable on the next floor. You now have some of the capabilities of this new level but never lose the perspectives you developed on the prior floors.

Transitions can also be quite scary as it’. Some people find it scary enough to be put off trying. This is why a developmental coach can be so valuable, because they can support and guide you through the uncertainty and doubt while you do make the transition. It may seem obvious but it’s also important that your coach is at a later stage than your own. How else might they understand you?

’Horizontal’ development is just as important as vertical development, i.e. spending the time to be fully competent across each floor, that is in each action logic. Horizontal development should be valued every bit as much as vertical, because if you don’t develop each level sufficiently it will mean your tower block is unstable. It will be much more likely to topple over when put under stress. Expanding horizontally is needed for stability as well as capability and this is here most coaching is applied.

When we experience a stressful event, it is sometimes due to an under-developed part of our horizontal development. We might not have gained the skills to cope with the stress as effectively as we might want to. In these cases, we may crash back to an earlier level of development. Part of developmental coaching is identifying and addressing gaps in prior levels of development and part is solidifying vertical transitions, along with extending development horizontally.

Most coaching could be considered horizontal development. Results can show up in days or weeks whereas in developmental coaching, changes show up in months or even years dependent on where the client starts.

As you move up our metaphorical tower and get to the higher levels you also find that it gets lonelier. There are fewer people up here. A critical advantage of being higher up though, is that you can see much further, in both space and time. It’s no surprise that the level at which you might expect to find a CEO has often been given the label ‘Strategist’.

To complete the metaphor, this strange tower block of your development has another feature and that’s there is a new language used on every level. Level 3 may speak Spanish, but on level 4 the language is Urdu. One source of confusion for people on a higher level is that some of what they say is in a language with concepts and nuances that are incomprehensible to people still limited to lower levels. We must realise that the meanings of the same concepts or words can be vastly different between the different stages of development. It’s important that our leaders can communicate in ways that can be understood across all levels of the organisation.

Where is developmental coaching applicable over more usual approaches? Examples include when a leader may be experiencing confusion and asking questions like why is this role or organisation no longer compatible with my values? or why am I so hugely challenged in this role when I was so great in my prior one? Another area is dealing with less desirable aspects of personality, maybe experienced under stress, that may now be blocking a leader from delivering more value.

A developmental approach can also be used organisationally, assessing what levels are required of each role.

Developing Awareness – Triggers

In my last post I talked about a client who had been unaware of a serious problem perceived by his boss. Of course it’s not uncommon that a CEO has a perspective as yet unavailable to others in their organisation. A leader being informed of a deficit is often the kick-off point for some coaching.

Coaching often starts this way, with the client in what can be called the ‘Unaware Stage’. They then progress, through feedback, to the Aware Stage. When clients come directly to a coach, they’re clearly already aware of at least some of their challenges.

One of the things a coach will do is help a client integrate this awareness and then progress from the Aware Stage into the next phase – the Trigger Aware stage. Let me give an example that many may recognise.

I was coaching a finance director. She was a strong leader, with a good reputation in the business. She not only got great results, but did so with really high engagement with her team. She also had good stakeholder relationships. So where was the problem? Her ‘strength’ all but disappeared when presenting.

A great question to ask is “Is this a full-time or a part-time problem?”

Usually, it’s a part-time problem and that means there is likely to be an external trigger or triggers that cause the unhelpful state to occur.

This was a part-time problem.

When did it happen? When she was presenting to the CEO and her team.

Had this always been a problem? No it hadn’t. She didn’t have the issue with the last CEO.

There was something about this CEO in particular, that was triggering the unhelpful state.

Three things were useful to do here:

  1. Identify the trigger(s). What was it about this CEO in particular that triggered this lack of confidence? Was the context different from before?

We nailed what the triggers were so my client was fully Trigger Aware’.

  1. Resourcefulness. We worked on being more resourceful in the face of that trigger. What were the things that she could do, before and during these interactions, such that the trigger had a neutral or positive effect instead of a negative one?
  2. Progress to the next stage. We moved on to the next stage, and that’s ‘Internal Process-Aware’ – identifying what was going on internally within my client that was causing the lack of confidence, and developed new strategieLeaderships and distinctions.

I don’t do therapy and most coaches don’t. I won’t ask a client to get on a couch and tell me about their childhood! However, what is productive is becoming aware of decisions that clients make early on in life that are playing out right now. Especially those that trigger them into less useful states. I must emphasise that we don’t explore the incidents that caused those decisions to be made in the past. That’s in the therapeutic realm and as a coach, I’m just identifying those decisions that are playing out unconsciously right now in the present.

It’s not always necessary or even desirable to move on to this next stage, but working on internal processes helps the client evolve and grow as a leader and as a human being. This model of Unaware > Aware > External Trigger Aware > Internal Process Aware needs to be attributed to the therapist Kim Barta. His model goes further if you’re doing therapy but stops here for coaching. Even though the model comes from therapy it’s great for coaches, or for managers taking an employee at least one step on from feedback.

Helping clients develop awareness around external triggers that cause less resourceful states, and developing new strategies is another example of coaching adding significant value. So ask yourself, what triggers you?

Transforming Relationships

One of the CEO’s direct reports had reached a ceiling. They were blocking the leadership pipeline. What was to be done?

I was in conversation with another executive coach. We were sharing success stories in terms of what the organisation got out of it, not just the persons being coached. It came to me that while coaching should really be a no brainer in terms of investment, many organisations aren’t getting as much value out of coaching as they could. Some organisations are hardly using coaching at all.

I was going to start a single blog post and then realised that this issue could provide the basis for a small book! So I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts hitting on several areas of value that coaching regularly delivers for organisations and individuals.

I’ll keep away from the straight financial benefits but I can give a few client quotes to demonstrate:

“I estimate (the coaching has delivered) several hundred thousand dollars of extra value.”

“Increase in profit of £0.5m this year and this will lead to an increase next year of up to £1.5m”

“Approval for additional investment in transformation programmes of £14m with benefits of £48m over 5 years”

Transformed Relationships

This first post about value is about that which comes from transformed relationships.

Improving relationships is probably the most common theme I deal with when coaching more senior executives and is most often mentioned benefit in my assessments.

Leadership has become less about being the smartest in the room and much more about how leaders collaborate, work with diverse stakeholders, inspire and bring the best out of others. At the core of all this is the ability to establish and maintain strong relationships, particularly with peers. As said by one HR Director “The leadership challenge now is not the people that report to you – but all the others you need to get on side.” *

Senior leaders have often come up through the ranks by showing how talented they themselves are at doing what they do. They bring value to the organisation in a specific area but suddenly this is not the only contribution the company desires. Modern leadership is so much more than doing your own bit well.

To the example mentioned at the start of the article, Terry (name changed) was a very valued contributor. He looked after his own business well (the most profitable in the group) but wasn’t contributing nearly enough to the rest of the organisation. He was a blockage in the leadership pipeline because without learning to contribute globally, he would never develop and deliver value on a greater scale.

This sort of leader is a valuable resources and the cost to replace is huge. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) estimates the cost to replace highly educated executive positions as 213 percent of annual salary. Developing these leaders to the next level and retaining them is clearly worth the investment.

Executive Feedback

This sort of engagement often needs executive feedback, with the coach talking to the client’s senior stakeholders. The client may have had feedback before but there’s feedback, and then there’s coaching feedback. Input from a coach who is not only independent but also with the coachee’s interests at heart. We can challenge in ways managers generally can’t. This sort of feedback works better than online tools etc, because the coach is also able to probe further with the stakeholders for context and for the consequences of the client’s action or inaction.

So if you’re an HRD or Talent Director and see a leader who struggles with establishing and maintaining the right sort of relationships, someone who struggles to collaborate well and contribute across the business, then it’s time to employ an executive coach. The return on investment of this sort of intervention for the organisation is likely to be huge.

What about the individual though? Well in this case a whole new world of possibility became available to them (along with other benefits!). The thing that had an impact on me though, was when he shared what had happened with his son. The relationship with his son was really difficult and continuing to go downhill. The coaching around relationships at work had transferred over to home and transformed for the better how he and his son could relate. By enabling the client to change the relationship they had with themselves, they were able to change the relationships they had with everyone else in their system.

Transforming Relationships. As Peter Hawkins says – the value is in the connections, not the nodes.

*Global Research Report, Henley Business School, 2018

Where will the coaches be when the world is burning?

Extinction Rebellion, Oxford Street, London April 2019

After the financial crash, Peter Hawkins rightly asked “What were the coaches doing while the banks were burning?” His point is valid. Undoubtedly, a percentage of those involved in creating the conditions of the crash did have coaches.

Ethics is a topic I’ve certainly been considering more over the past year and it’s a topic that has arisen regularly in my group supervision. Where and when exactly should we being challenging on an ethical basis?

One definition of coaching is non-judgemental support and challenge but this doesn’t mean as coaches we don’t have judgement. Those being coached should never feel that they are being judged as good or bad human being but when do we bring our judgement to the fore and when do we have an ethical requirement to speak up?

What is occupying me more and more is the environmental disaster that is happening all around us. The Extinction Rebellion protests certainly highlight this. There can be no denying the climate change arguments now but we seem to be sleep-walking into disaster. We are just not changing behaviour quickly enough and individuals changing their own patterns of behaviour is not enough. It’s clear that we need governmental (regulatory) action but organisations have their part to play as well. I heard on the BBC’s ’Wake Up To Money’ this morning that 87% of the world’s capital is not managed in a way that helps prevent climate change.

Here’s one example of many. I had an executive share with me the opinion of the CEO that the only thing that really mattered was return to shareholders. I think this is exactly the sort of area that we as coaches can show our judgement and challenge ‘with content’.

Me – “I’d challenge that assertion. Have you heard of the triple bottom-line?” They hadn’t.

The triple bottom line is a way of measuring performance, not on finances alone. It’s a framework with three parts: Social, Environmental (or ecological) and Financial. It’s often shortened to People, Place and Profit.

The positive impact on profit of increased employee engagement is well documented. For evidence see here but one sentence from Hay nails it “94% of the world’s most admired companies believe that their efforts to engage their employees has created a competitive advantage.”

Place can be a bit more difficult to grasp but consider a city delivery business and their vehicle fleet. The ecological argument is to move over to electric vehicles (EVs). If you’re considering the Environment (Place), then this is an obvious option. Once you dig into this, the Profit argument is actually a no brainer, especially for small and medium sized vans. EVs are far, far cheaper to run in cities than diesels.  

Would EVs have been considered if my focus is only the financial though? Do we not have an ethical duty as coaches to challenge a Finance only mindset in our clients?

It scares me that many clients haven’t considered things like the triple bottom line. 

I personally don’t want to be saying that I stayed quiet when we had the chance to stop the world burning. Ethically, we coaches have a part to play in challenging our clients to consider wider perspectives.

Derailment – The (mostly) ignored phenomenon that hurts us all

head in sand

In 1988 a train driver ignored a red light and a horn warning. The resultant derailment caused 5 deaths, and 13 injuries. This was the Clapham rail disaster

In 1997 the Southall rail crash caused 7 deaths and 139 injuries. Again, a driver failed to stop at a red light. Great Western Trains received a fine of £1.5 million for violations of health and safety law.

Most of us will remember the horrific, albeit dramatic video of the 2013 Santiago de Compostela derailment in Spain, where sheer recklessness by the driver left 79 dead and 140 injured.

What have rail disasters got to do with leadership in our organisations? All of these derailments were failures in human beings. Even when systems were in place, they failed due to human inattention, and a failure in moral character. Just like we need our train drivers and airline pilots to be paying due attention and free of significant flaws in character, we need the same of our leaders. If we want secure careers, we need this of ourselves.

Leadership derailment costs…big. Consider just three high profile CEO failures:

Fred Goodwin resigned from RBS in disgrace in 2009. A month later the bank announced a £24 billion loss – the largest annual loss in UK corporate history. The former chief executive was stripped of his knighthood in 2012.

Carly Fiorina promising operating margins of 3% from the HP/Compaq merger but the PC division earned a meagre 0.1% on $21.2bn in sales and the share price dropped to 55% below its pre-Carly position.

Martin Winterkorn, as Volkswagen chief executive admitted he bears the responsibility for the Dieselgate scandal, costing $24 billion in settlements so far. Never mind the reputational damage.

The cost to our Organisations, to Citizens and Society as a whole is massive. However, it’s not just at these heady levels that derailment occurs. Throughout the layers of management in our organisations, the unexpected failure of our leaders is a critical issue that needs more attention.

Approximately 30% to 50% of high-potential managers and executives derail at some time during their career [Lombardo & Eichinger (1995)]. This is backed up by further research published in July 2013 in the International Journal of Business and Management, finding that 30 to 67 percent of leaders fail. What’s the cost?

Gaddis & Foster (2013) found that 30%–60% of leaders act destructively, with an estimated cost of $1–$2.7 million for each failed senior manager.

Then there’s the cost of replacing someone. In 2014, replacing staff cost British businesses £4bn each year.20% of annual salary for mid-range positions (earning $30,000 to $50,000 a year). Up to 213% of annual salary for highly educated executive positions. For example, the cost to replace a $100k CEO is $213,000. On average, new workers take 28 weeks to reach optimum productivity. longer for more expert land senior roles.

Other studies show that consequences of derailment include low staff morale, low productivity, inhibition of leader’s career progression and loss of organisational reputation.

It’s a pretty compelling argument to pay attention to leadership derailment but it doesn’t appear to be front of mind. It has been called the elephant in the boardroom and it’s relevant that while Remuneration and Audit committees have been developed greatly over the last ten years, the Nominations Committee seems to have stayed still.

We need to talk much more regularly about leadership derailment. Leadership has been studied for over 50 years and organisations spend an estimated $50 billion a year to develop leaders. Decades of leadership study have produced over 50,000 books with ‘leadership’ in their title but almost none on leadership derailment or failure.

It is possible to take action on derailment however. It should be on the board’s agenda and preventative measures to insure against derailment should be built into our processes. How do we identify potential derailers? What can we do to protect ourselves against leaders failing with the resultant damage and costs? Who is accountable?

In line with Google taking hiring out of the line manager’s remit, preventing derailment should sit with a single executive, probably the role accountable for talent. It can’t sit with managers themselves due to cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias.

You can imagine the internal dialogue of hiring and promoting managers:

“I made that hire. She’s great like I said so. I don’t want to admit that she’s arrogant, doesn’t listen and has been making some bad calls. I’d look like an idiot.“

“I recommended that promotion. I really thought that they had it in them but this just isn’t good. I’d better get some help for them. If it goes on like this it will really damage my reputation.”

And then there are all the example is when poor behaviour is tolerated because someone gets results. Doesn’t mean to say that they’re not also a jerk that will cost the company more in the end.

The critical element in fighting derailment is remaining vigilant. The warning signs are there if we stay aware and pay attention. We disregard warning signals at our peril. Just like with those derailing train drivers, the consequences of ignoring the warning signals can be catastrophic.

Those that derail are very unlikely to self-identify as they nearly all suffer from ‘illusive superiority’. No one thinks they’re going to derail just like 80% of drivers think that they’re better than average!

So what are some of the warning signs?

Research from Personnel Decisions Inc. (PDI) on ‘career jeopardy’ highlights how an over-reliance on past competencies, combined with an inability to take action on feedback, are primary sources of executive derailment and failure. Further research from the Centre for Creative Leadership show leaders who derail have five key characteristics [CCL]:

Difficulty in changing or adapting – resistant to change, learning from mistakes and developing.

Problems with interpersonal relationships – difficulties in developing good working relations with others.

The failure to build and lead a team – difficulties in selecting and building a team.

Failure to meet business objectives – difficulties in following up on promises and completing jobs.

Having too narrow a functional orientation – lacks depth to manage outside of one’s current function.

Of the factors listed above the most obvious and easiest to test is the inability to take action on feedback. That’s one we can easily monitor. Aside from this I think the researchers have missed some obvious clues.

The most conspicuous is simply an inability to manage their emotions, particularly in times of stress or when under a heavy workload. This is clearly a failure of self/other awareness and why emotional intelligence is an important attribute to look for in our leaders, and should be part of any leadership development program.

Another is hubris. Mark Twain allegedly said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” I’m sure Fred Goodwin really thought he couldn’t fail.

Hubris is often indicated behaviourally by being a poor listener and this is easy to measure from feedback. A leader who fails to listen to his followers, colleagues and stakeholders will end up isolated, eventually leading to derailment. Another indicator of hubris is when leaders are fine until they have to live in the same room with someone else with the same ego strength. An intense need to win and beat others can indicate a narcissistic personality. Sadly not uncommon amongst senior leaders.

Another indicating factor of derailment is that it occurs most often at certain times. Career transitions are key events. In particular a job transition to a new organisation is one of the highest predictors of leadership derailment.

Although both successful and derailed leaders shared many of the same skills and flaws, those who remain successful share five common characteristics:

Diversity in their career paths.

Maintain composure under stress.

Handle mistakes with poise.

Focused problem-solvers; and

Get along with all kinds of people.

So what are some practical steps we can take?

Recruitment is an obvious place to start. Better not to employ potential derailers in the first place.

Jean Martin of CEB tells us that leading companies are adopting two new approaches for recruiting that may help solve this problem. The first is to change hiring criteria to highlight ‘network fit’, how well someone fits in with the way their new co-workers operate. Their research shows that hiring for a more colleague-centric type of fit can improve performance two years by 30%. It has more than double the impact of assessing only for general culture fit.

The second is to think about what recruiters are doing the assessment. Using in-house recruiters gives a much better chance of correctly assessing network fit. Consider your recruitment strategy and consider internal recruiters more, and look to develop the necessary skills internally.

Psychometrics are a key tool in recruiting. I’m concerned that while psychometric tests are used among 89% of senior managers, they are only used for 65% of board-level roles. Where does it say that board members aren’t susceptible to derailment? All of the examples at the beginning of this article were board members.

I believe there is a big opportunity to use psychometrics much more to inoculate against derailment. The same survey as above tells us that only 26% of organisations use psychometrics for talent management. The lack of psychometrics being used for talent management is a massive missed opportunity.

The most obvious tool here is the Hogan Development Survey though HDS is often used as an acronym for the Hogan Dark Side. It works with both bright side and dark side qualities and that’s its beauty. The key to this tool is that it identifies those strengths that can easily become derailing factors under changed circumstances. As high profile cases demonstrate, technical brilliance often sits side by side with self-destructive and other destructive traits.

It is important we have a more open dialogue to highlight weaknesses as well as strengths in talent development and executive coaching interventions. This is one area where a purely strengths based approach falls down.

The HDS is well suited to being used alongside executive coaching with well-crafted coaching interventions being shown to boost critical leadership competencies by about 20%–30%. The important thing here is to get coaches involved much, much earlier.

It’s a false economy not to employ a coach to support leaders early on in their transitions, even before the transition starts. This is especially true for talent new to the organisation, especially through their first 90 days. I’m not the only coach that finds it frustrating when we get brought in after the damage has already begun. Ultimately, of the 40% of leaders who are hired from outside each year, nearly half fail within the first 18 months.

This is also where team coaching can play a large part. It’s not only the new entrant to the team that matters, but the system into which they come. The CEB research mentioned earlier also found a surprising answer to why leaders hired from outside fail so often. Studying more than 320 leaders in 36 organisations, they found this: External leaders fail because they just don’t work well with the people on their teams. Maybe you’re bringing in new talent because they have complimentary skills or experience and because of this they have different backgrounds an approaches?

Entrances and exits to leadership teams are often missed opportunities for incredible learning for that team and it is learning that ultimately drives team performance. Team coaching as an intervention not only supports the new entrant but the team as a whole.

My experience of team coaching also shows me that when a team develops towards high performance those disruptive, toxic leaders that have been tolerated in the past are no longer accepted.

Part of the role of an executive coach is to speak truth to power. What is the truth apart from own experience of the leader? Truth is also present in the form of feedback if used. One of the clues to potential derailment is the inability to take action on feedback. Most of my executive engagements, and ALL of them involving a risk of derailment involve taking feedback from key stakeholders. Helping the leader accept this feedback and take action is a critical role for the executive coach. Coaches in general don’t teach, but this is one exception where teaching the leader to actively seek input from stakeholders and take action is a critical role for the executive coach.

I’m convinced that organisations can take the steps to avoiding and preventing leadership derailment if it gets high enough on the right agendas. It takes work and courage but the result is increased productivity, engagement and profit. The secret is to be on the front foot, actively searching for derailers because they are lurking there. By adapting recruitment and using psychometrics more, alongside engaging coaches much earlier companies can not only safeguard themselves from damage, they improve their chances of a more successful future.

Context is king in team coaching


It’s accepted that organisations will perform to a higher level when their leaders work effectively as a team. Good teamwork creates synergy, where the combined effort of the team is greater than the sum of each individual’s effort. An effective leadership team utilise their different perspectives, experience and skills to solve the increasingly complex problems facing today’s organisations. They create new solutions and in collaboration, deliver way beyond a collection of the most brilliant individuals working independently.

To quote Ruth Wageman, “Senior leadership teams, like other teams, need expert help in learning how to become better at working together over time.” Leadership team coaching is one of the three enablers for leadership team performance that she and her colleagues outline in the book ‘Senior Leadership Teams’ which builds on decades of research.

As a leader of a team or as an external team coach, where is the best place to start with a leadership team?

My gut has always told me to go for purpose. After all, if you’re not clear about your purpose as a team you are effectively lost. How can you work well towards goals that are unclear? I’m not alone in my instinct telling me to start with purpose. Speaking with a highly respected coach and prolific author, Professor David Clutterbuck, he shared that his ‘go to’ start point for leadership team coaching (if under time pressure) is also purpose.

One of the reasons that purpose is so powerful is that, aside from having something to align the team to, it gives meaning. There is little motivation without meaning. Purposeis indeed critical so it’s tempting to start there, but this is the time to take a step back. The phrase “There is no context without meaning” resonates. What’s the context within which the team is working and is the team purpose right for that particular context?

We need to ask some key questions:

Does the team share a common understanding of its key customers, stakeholders, and influencers? When’s the last time this was reviewed in your team?

If you’re clear on those internal and external stakeholders, is there agreement on which of these parties are the most important?

Critically, how sure are the team of these stakeholders’ expectations?

Without the answers to these questions, the team cannot agree on the challenges that face them. Ipso facto, any purpose agreed upon is unlikely to be unfit for the task. Stephen Covey, celebrated author of ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ tells the story of a team busy chopping down trees when one of them decides to climb the tallest tree nearby. On looking out on this wider perspective he calls down to his team-mates “Wrong Forest!”.

So as you move forward with your team remember to be asking who your customers, stakeholders and influencers are, and how clear is your team on their expectations? How does your team’s mission and purpose meet their needs? How true is your true North?

Picture © Massimiliano Leban 2008

Are you or your people unknowingly helpless?

In 1967, the famous psychologist Martin Seligman and a colleague started a series of experiments looking at how a perceived lack of control relates to depression and mental illness. Sadly this involved giving electric shocks to dogs and as a dog owner I’m glad to say that ethical considerations have changed since the ‘60s.

Thanks in part to the suffering of those dogs, Seligman discovered what we now know as ‘learned helplessness’. This occurs when “an organism (a person) learns that it is helpless in situations where there is a presence of aversive stimuli (pain) and has accepted that it has lost control, and thus gives up trying”.

Last year Seligman and a colleague, Steven Maier published an article saying that they were wrong. It turn out that “passivity in response to shock” is not learned at all. It is the default, unlearned response to prolonged aversive events.” While they got the mechanism wrong, the result is the same. Dogs and animals alike will stay passive (helpless) and suffer, even when they have the freedom to do otherwise.

Image © Gregor Findlay


Those suffering from passivity don’t realise they have some control over the outcome of the situation. In these experiments, certain dogs received shocks in a situation where they couldn’t get away from the source of the pain. Later, these dogs were free to escape the pain. It was surprising that the dogs who could simply jump over a short partition and get away from that pain didn’t do just that. They had the freedom to escape and Seligman and colleagues thought they had learned otherwise.

It turns out that animals, including us, actually have a default position of passivity in our brains. The ‘helplessness’ is not learned. This passivity can be overcome by learning control. Activity in one part of the brain (the medial pre-frontal cortex) can over-ride the default position of passivity. By thinking about the control we have we quickly turn off the passivity.

Unfortunately, you can find this passivity all over the organisational world. Take the concept of empowerment as an example. Leaders believe they are empowering their people and in fact, they may be taking the actions to do just that. They may be giving their people all the freedom they need to be in control and own things for themselves. When their people don’t take up the baton these same leaders can end up confused and frustrated. It’s not obvious at all that their people have spent considerable time, months if not years, unconsciously reinforcing their passivity. They’ve ‘learned’ that nothing they do makes a difference in this environment. They’ve learned to be powerless. The leader has changed. Their environment and history have not.

In order for the dogs with so calledlearned helplessness to realise they were free to move for themselves they had to have their legs physically moved for them. While we as humans don’t have our limbs moved for us, we also need to be shown explicitly that we really do have control, different choices and most importantly feel safe that the system around us supports that. Often people need to see proof that they’re safe before they move on.

In my coaching I see examples of passivity far more often than I would like. One of the things I hate about this form passivity is its insidious nature. It lurks unknown, causing damage and pain to those who are unconsciously letting it negatively impact their lives and careers. It frustrates their well intentioned leaders. What is also nasty are the emotions helplessness elicits in its victims. It brings up feelings of shame and guilt. Our society tends to respect strength and ridicules weakness.

In some ways what I see in organisations could better be termed Learned Powerlessness (LP). People take on, or are given, tasks that they just cannot achieve in their current state. They then stay in a painful/shameful/guilty condition feeling they’re not good enough. They don’t feel able to ask for the help they need, even when it would be freely given. For many, asking for help doesn’t even come to mind as an option. To ask for help would be to admit weakness. Again, something that tends to be socially painful in our society.

My LP alarm goes off when I hear someone talk about an intractable task or work goal they have been struggling with and failing at over a period of time. While they may be struggling I don’t believe that they’re failing. In reality one of two things is happening:

They’re not really responsible or accountable for the issue in question, and/or

They don’t have the power, influence and resources to affect the situation.

Often, there is a way to coach someone to develop the awareness and skills so that they can influence a good outcome themselves, independent of others. When this isn’t possible I find myself asking variants of a couple of questions:

Who has the power to make this happen? (clue – It isn’t the person I’m coaching!)

Who has the accountability for this issue? (as per a RACI matrix)

In asking these questions the coachee more often than not finds that they’ve taken on accountability for an issue when it really sits with someone else. Alternately, they simply don’t have the power needed to achieve a result.

The willingness to take on challenges is a strength that is desirable, but can unwittingly become a source of shame and suffering. Are you being too tough on yourself and being blinded by the strength of your determination? Just take a moment to check. Who has the power? Who’s really accountable here?

Gregor Findlay is a highly experienced APECS Accredited Executive Coach and Team Coach.

“You’re all grown ups. Just get on with it.”

I surprised a colleague the other day when I shared Ruth Wageman’s research conclusion that “(leadership) teams do not improve markedly even if all of their members receive individual coaching to develop their personal abilities”.

At firstit may be a surprise but when you think further this makes perfect sense. If you don’t have a strong team design, with a clear and common team purpose that everyone buys into then of courseeveryone will keep on getting better… but at their own thing. Without clear direction and someone driving shared learning and collaboration you’ll never get the high performing strong team people seek.

One of the things that I think gets in the way of great team performance is a set of assumptions being made by the CEO and the board. For example: “They’re all grown ups.” “They wouldn’t be where they are without being highly competent and capable. That’s the reason they were appointed.” “They don’t need much direction.”


These assumptions may well be correct but not the last one. More than any other type of team, senior leadership teams need an agreed mission that’s crystal clear to all – and to be kept moving in that direction.

Meredith Belbin is probably best known for the Belbin Team Roles he developed at Henley Management College in the 1970s. What is less well known is what he called the ‘Apollo Syndrome’. One hypothesis was that teams that were made up from people with sharp, analytical minds and high mental ability (Apollo teams), would easily win the team competitions. This hypothesis was demonstrated to be patently wrong, with Apollo teams coming last or near the bottom in terms of performance.

These smart individuals displayed certain flaws when operating in a team environment:

They spent excessive time in abortive or destructive debate, trying to persuade other team members to adopt their own view, and demonstrating a flair for spotting weaknesses in others’ arguments.

They had difficulties in their decision making, with little coherence in the decisions reached (several pressing and necessary jobs were often omitted).

Team members tended to act along their own favourite lines without taking account of what fellow members were doing, and the team proved difficult to manage.

In some instances, teams recognised what was happening but over compensated- they avoided confrontation, which equally led to problems in decision making.

Maybe you recognise some of these characteristics?

Some Apollo teams performed well but only did so when they had a certain type of leader. These leaders sought to impose some shape or pattern on group discussion, and on the outcome of group activities. They focused attention on the setting of objectives and priorities, and shaping the way team effort was applied. They were characterised as being tough, discriminating people who could both hold their ground in any company, yet not dominate the group. More than anything, they were present to the needs of the team.

Senior leadership teams are not taking part in team competitions like those carried out at Henley They do need a certain type of leadership however and it’s all too easy to make assumptions about what they (don’t) need because of their strength and capability. Here’s a quick checklist to test for some assumptions:

Can every team member articulate a common team purpose of what they can only uniquely achieve together – financial and other targets don’t count. They’re measures not purpose.

Is the team clear on the common stakeholders they must serve as a team?

Is the team clear who is actually on the team? (It may surprise but yes, many top teams are not clear on this

Has the team completed a RACI matrix? If they have, when’s the last time this was reviewed? Many challenges raised in coaching sessions can be root caused back to a lack of clarity in terms of accountabilities.

Are the team “just getting on with it”?

If the answer is no to any of the first four and yes to that last one, I’d say that there’s a whole bunch of performance potential that’s just waiting to be released.

Wageman’s research also found that “every CEO in our sample had a strong external focus, attending to great energy to outside the team and to the broader environment, but it was only the leaders of outstanding leadership teams that had an equally strong internal focus – on the development of their team”.

Coaching their team is not a natural strength for every CEO and where it isn’t, that’s when external coaching can really help accelerate senior leadership team growth, and their capability to deliver.

Who are you being at work? Identity and Authentic Leadership

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Some people have a tendency to compartmentalise their personalities and identity. It’s like we are one person at work and another person elsewhere. Some do this consciously, others unconsciously. I strongly believe this is a big mistake when it comes to leadership. I’m not talking about maintaining privacy and not over-disclosing, that’s just good sense. Identity is something deeper. Let me illustrate.

I learned this lesson many years ago when working with a manager whose development need was in the area of influencing without authority. This was highly relevant for the project she was working on as she had to influence several levels up in her organisational hierarchy. We had experienced a good deal of success but there was still an issue of her lacking some confidence and not being able to assert herself as strongly as she would like.  It was by accident that I picked up on something she dropped in conversation. Imagine my surprise when this woman, whose issue had been a lack of confidence, had competed at fencing to such a level she had been invited to trials to select her country’s team for the Olympics!

This was a revelation to me. Here was someone who was struggling to assert herself confidently but in a different guise, competed at such a high-level  inan incredibly adversarial sport! Where had that part of her character disappeared to?  She had in fact just left it at the door. Just like many others, she had developed a work identity and not integrated this incredibly valuable and powerful component of character within that identity.  I went on to discover that the strip that fencers compete on is called the Piste. When we looked at situations she had to succeed in as if she was a fencer on the piste (with a strong, competitive will to win), her ability to assert herself was transformed.

I now consistently spend time getting to know far more about the backgrounds of my coachees to discover other components to their personalities that might be missing in the workplace. The indoor hockey captain, the baseball player who called the plays for his team, the rower who went on to coach his university squad, the drummer who was the heartbeat of his band, the martial artist, the ballet dancer. The list goes on. It’s very rare that these elements of ‘private’ personality cannot be brought more fully into one’s business life to enable a much more authentic, and robust identity at work.

Being clear on the identity you hold for yourself can be a short path to highly effective change. How do you think of yourself at work? Who are you being?
I look for a noun, not a set of adjectives. Someone who sorts out problems would be a fixer. Someone who gets things done a Do-er. Someone’s right-hand man/woman a Lieutenant etc. These particular identities are limiting as a leader but they’re actually quite common.
Much more useful identities that clients have identified include Conductor, Coach, Captain, Cox and even Sumo!

I find that a useful metaphor for most workplaces is a cruise ship and the difference between the Chief Engineer and the Captain. What is important to both, i.e. what are the values that have their attention and drive their decision making?  For the chief engineer what will be important is looking after the engineering components of the boat, the engines, energy supplies and how that relates to the safety of crew and passengers. He/she is driven to maintain a reliable ship that functions to certain standards and solves problems that get in the way of that smooth running. Their focus is very much internal to the boat.
A captain, on the other hand, is responsible for the safety, well-being and enjoyment of all crew and passengers. They have an external view concerned with the navigation of the ship and will be expecting constant updates on the weather and shipping conditions. In the evening they are also the face of the company, dining with and entertaining passengers.  It’s quite obvious in this example the differences in what is important according to the identity of the role. For the captain, it is important to focus more externally, think more strategically about where the boat is going and has a much larger remit in terms of the well-being of all aboard. For the chief engineer, it is important to have a more internal, expert and tactical focus, with a more limited remit concerning crew and passengers.

Someone moving from a more limited, functional or expert role intoa director position is likely to experience a shift similar to that of a chief engineer taking on the role of captain. They need a change of focus and priorities, leaving behind the comfort of whatever their metaphorical boiler room was, where they were master of their domain, to a role where an external perspective, dealing with setting strategy and direction is critical. The difference is easier to see on a ship. A captain can’t do their job from below deck, they need to be on the bridge. It can be easy to take on the job, but if your identity stays the same you may unconsciously ‘stay below deck’ where it’s safe rather than get on the bridge.

When working with identity I have found that organisational labels, e.g. Strategic Director, just don’t have the desired impact. It’s best to have a single word that relates in some way to you and your passions and interests. It’s important that your work identity has at its core something that is really you.
It’s important to note that taking on a new Identity doesn’t change who you are in and of yourself. What it does do is help you to more quickly achieve a shift in the criteria by which you make choices.

My clients have come up with a lot of ingenious ways of reminding themselves of their new identities. Here are some of them:

  • Changing the password on your computer login. Entering a password is something that many of us do many times a day and is often a great habit-change reminder
  • Having something on your desk.
  • Placing something on your car dashboard.
  • Changing the background image on your smartphone’s screen.
    Post-It notes on the mirror in your bathroom.
  • Placing something in your pocket or on your keyring (I had a client who would put his hand in his pocket when he felt less confident. The item on his key-ring triggered his new identity into action)

What identity are you currently holding for yourself at work? Is this the most useful identity for you to have? What would be a more useful identity for you to hold?

Answering these three questions are fundamental.