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