How to transform leadership in VUCA world


The old prescriptive ways of developing leaders based on a preset scale of competencies does not help them to address adaptive business challenges in the VUCA world.

In the 20th century, the world seemed dependable, uniform and operated with a fair degree of predictability. Organisations were designed around central authority, predictable business models and a willingness to follow the overarching cultural and market rules.

Today’s VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous—an acronym coined by the US military to describe extreme conditions in Afghanistan and Iran) is turbulent, unpredictable, fragile and most importantly, disruptive.

During the last one decade, coaching has emerged as a transformation tool of choice to deal with the VUCA world and the disruptive changes in our ecosystem.

Further, research in the area of leadership development points to the fact that the old prescriptive ways of developing leaders based on a preset scale of competencies does not help them to address adaptive business challenges in the VUCA world.

This calls for a greater focus on building the ‘capacity’ of leaders to address emerging business challenges through individual transformation and change. Therefore, traditional classroom-based training approaches may not be practical from a business perspective and more one on one coaching is called for to address individual leadership maturity and capacity needs. Though cohort-based learning could lend support in sharing best practices and learning from peers.

Perspectives on coaching

There are many definitions and perspectives on coaching. However, the most insightful perspective on coaching comes from Tim Gallway, a tennis expert. Galleway says- “Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them”. Every word in Galleway’s articulation is important: first, it entails that we must see people in terms of their future potential, not past performance; second, it refers to unlocking the potential, which means the ownership for action rests with the coachee and third, coaching is more of learning and less of teaching. Coaching is a lot about the shifting perspectives of the coachee and dynamically changing the context they operate from. I will elaborate more on each of these elements, the underlying psychodynamic principles, conditions for ensuring success of coaching and the business benefits of coaching.  

Tim also highlights the need for a coach to identify the inner game the coachee plays, while concentrating on the outer game. The inner game which comprises beliefs, assumptions, fears, and mental chatter has to be regulated and managed by the coachee to reach the coachee’s potential.

Coaching is based on the fundamental principle of identifying a person’s potential. Good people managers understand this secret and they place bets on their high-potential talent. Celebrated executive coach, John Whitmore, affirms that while it is important for managers to focus on peoples’ potential, it is even more important for people to recognise their own hidden potential. Whitmore believes that only 40 per cent of people’s potential manifests successfully at the workplace. The rest of the potential remains hidden and dormant. Both external and internal blocks obstruct the manifestation of complete potential. Typical reasons for untapped and dormant potential are lack of opportunities, restrictive HR practices and manager’s incessant focus on results chucking individual development to chance.

Thankfully, the picture is changing and coaching has certainly earned respect as a key development intervention in organisations. Executive coaching has come a long way in the last one decade.  Perpetual demand on leaders and employees to deal quickly and frequently with paradoxes and complexities of work and life has increased dramatically. To effectively navigate the complex change process, the need for top-class executive coaches has become greater than ever before. Coaches are engaged for a variety of needs and specialities, such as executive coaching, performance coaching, leadership coaching, public speaking & voice coaching, life coaching, and so on.

Principles of coaching
Harvard Business Review’s research report identifies the top three reasons why coaches are engaged:

•    To develop high potential, as a sounding board, and to address derailing behaviours. Clearly executive coaching is growing by leaps and bounds. As per the ICF-PWC (International Coach Federation) research report, the coaching industry globally has an revenue/income of over two billion (USD).

Evidently, executive coaching has earned recognition as a potent transformation tool among business leaders. Coaching is about bringing the desired behavioural change in the coachee. I would like to elaborate on the principles of the science and art that form the basis of coaching. The first principle is that, more self-awareness creates a strong foundation for change. Self-awareness demands two outcomes: the ability to be conscious of one’s own sense of self, emotions and behaviours providing a congruence in our thought, speech and action; and a cohesion between how we see ourselves and how others see us. People can regulate and change only those patterns of behaviours that they are aware of and are willing to engage with. This awareness helps to bring about change in attitude change, overthrow self-imposed limitations and build skills for change.

•    The second principle of coaching is taking responsibility for own actions, but do remember that people take responsibility when they are able to exercise choice. Deep down, people want to have choice and independence. All the progress in the world has taken place because humans wanted choice. For example, passionate people make conscious choices. In a healthy coaching relationship, a coachee chooses his agenda and acts on it. A coach merely stands by and guides the coaches in a non-directive way. This simple principle of choice leading to responsibility and commitment makes change in behaviour possible.

•    The third key principle of coaching is—there is no path without risks. In fact, doing nothing in itself is a risk since one will end up with a default future, which will only happen to them and they have no influence over. A coach pushes a coachee out of his/her comfort zone for superior results. This is where a skilled coach makes a big difference. As a matter fact, smart coachees are aware of what they need to do and what risks to take, but it takes a strong coach to transcend beyond the self-imposed, self-limiting and self-defying limits. Tim Galleway, in his book The Inner Game of Tennis makes a profound point when he says— the most common complaint of sportsmen ringing down the corridors of the ages is “It’s not that I don’t know what to do, it’s that I don’t do what I know”.  Therefore, each of us seems to have an inbuilt immunity to change and transform.

•    The fourth key principle is that all coaching conversations are generated from powerful questions that open up the coachee’s mind. Skilful questioning is the best tool in the hands of a coach, and if used well can bring about ground-breaking changes. It is based on the well-known norm that telling or asking closed-ended questions saves people the trouble of thinking. However, asking open-ended questions pushes people to think on their feet. All of us have heard about 5W1H framework of asking questions but let me tell you that good coaches never use the WHY question. The reason is simple— a WHY question implies criticism and makes people defensive. Consider these questions posed by a driving instructor to a learner driver: the first question is— “Why don’t you slow down your car near the traffic light instead of breaking hard?” The answer could be “No I tried to slow it down” or “I don’t know”. Now replace the question with: “How will you mentally calculate the breaking distance as the traffic light changes?” or still better “What should be the safest speed of the car when you are expecting the traffic lights to change?” Questions without why will not only remove defensiveness, but will also help a new driver improve his driving skills. As a matter of fact, answers to questions give valuable data for coachees to act upon and help the coach determine the next line of questioning. Questions are the building blocks of good coaching conversations. Marilee Adams, executive coach and consultant, has aptly said — “Great results begin with great questions!”

Coaching models
Structuring a coaching session needs a framework. The GROW model (Goal, Reality, Options, Wrap-up) is one of the most common coaching models used by many great coaches. The GROW framework provides a simple four-step structure for focussed coaching conversation. During the first step of a session (Goal), the coach and coachee agree on a specific topic and objective for the discussion. During the second step (Reality) both do reality testing thru assessments, perspective testing and objective feedback. Then they move onto the third step (Options), where suggestions offered to solve the problem and different choices are evaluated. And finally (Wrap-up) the coach and the coachee commit to a set of actions, define a timeline and agree on how to measure progress. In other words, the GROW model deals with four fundamental questions: G (Goals)—what do you want? R (Reality)—what is the present situation? O (Options)—what could you do? And W (Wrap-up)—what will you do?

Coaching, if used well, can make a positive difference and save billions of dollars worldwide. However, you must be aware of two key challenges. Coaching practice remains an unregulated industry globally, and it has become fashionable for retired executives to anoint themselves as executive coaches (some years back, the self-awarded label was consultant!). The second and most important issue is that of untrained individuals calling themselves coaches. This is causing huge damage to this respectable profession. Some international bodies are doing their bit by offering certifications but their efforts are neither guaranteeing high coaching quality nor protecting some of the best coaches. Therefore, identifying qualified coaches with strong management and leadership experience is a key challenge for human resource managers.

Making a coaching relationship successful is a three-way responsibility. It is shared by the coachee, coach and coachee’s manager. That said, there are some preconditions for the success of coaching. A coachee must evaluate himself honestly—this is easier said than done. All of us have blindspots and unfortunately, the higher the executive is in the hierarchy, the more damaging the blindspots could be. It is very difficult to help a coachee, who is in denial mode. Secondly, a coachee must acknowledge his own contribution to certain dysfunctional patterns of behaviour. All of us have negative and dysfunctional patterns of behaviour, or in other words, the shadow or a dark side of our personality. Acknowledging this shadow is a bold step. Simple acknowledgement of the dark side is no guarantee that improvement will happen, but awareness and acceptance of one’s contribution to dysfunctional behaviour can lay a solid foundation for long- term behavioural change. Staying in the shadow, acknowledging it and identifying a way out of it would help individuals overcome the limitations that come in the way of liberating themselves.

Thirdly, a coachee must be open to feedback. A 360-degree feedback is used commonly. Some coaches even include spouses, children, close family members and friends in addition to work colleagues in the process of identification of behavioural patterns. It is important that a coachee must be self-reflective. Making sense of highly complex behavioural data can be overwhelming, and therefore, a coachee’s emotional maturity and level of consciousness—both for the current state of being and for the need to transform and change—becomes crucial for individual transformation.

Finally, the coachee’s manager must also be supportive and offer many opportunities to experiment with new behaviours at work. In essence, the success of coaching is a shared responsibility of the coachee, coach and coachee’s superior. Unless the manager is able to create the appropriate environment for the coachees to operate in the transformed space, and also provide feedback on an ongoing basis, the coachees will not be able to live their transformation and could potentially slip back into their comfort zones.

As coaching comes of age and managing leadership transformation for individuals continues to remain top management agenda, behavioural scientists are engaged in trying new approaches to coaching. Skill, performance and behavioural coaching are practised by coaches, but honestly the results are mixed.

Let’s understand this with a pyramid model. A human personality can be understood at three levels. At the top of the pyramid are observable behaviours and actions—what someone says and does. Below this level are the underlying drivers that get manifested as personal style, preferences, motivations, assumptions, beliefs, and mental models which are also referred as the person’s DNA. At the bottom of the pyramid are the deep-life experiences, childhood experiences that shaped your personality and even abuses that a person may have been subjected to as a child.

This is a broad structure of our personality.  Most coaches operate at the top of the pyramid. Performance and skill coaches typically operate at this level with occasional dabbling at the next level of underlying drivers. Let me explain this with a real-life example of a manager who came to me to improve his delegation skills. I taught him some tools to help him delegate both task and authority, but retain overall accountability.

This coaching operated at the behavioural level. After more probing I realised that this manager believed that he cannot go wrong and that everything he does has to be perfect. Therefore, there was a significant resistance to delegation. Finally, I realised that as a child he was punished severely whenever he made a mistake. This was the root cause level intervention. After some deep, passionate and personal dialogue, the manager realised the root causes of his behaviour and was able to change the same for the better. In the next few years, he became skilled at delegating and earned well-deserved career growth. Coaching at the bottom of the pyramid is generally avoided and is often considered the realm of trained psychiatrists. However, well-trained coaches can help coachees touch the deeper core of their personality to get permanent results. The psychodynamic approach to coaching can create positive and lasting results. This is not to suggest that coaches have to be trained in psychiatry but well-trained and skilled coaches can certainly help individuals explore the core of their personality for lasting changes.

Coaching: Best practices

As mentioned earlier, the effectiveness of the coaching process is dependent on the personal involvement of the coachees and their commitment to walk on the path of transformation. However, sound coaching processes operate on certain best practices, and a few recommendations from renowned coaches have been listed below. These best practices ensure that the coaches are well supported and equipped on the journey of self-discovery:

Self-awareness and responsibility: Coaching works because it adheres to the key principles of development, that is, self-awareness and responsibility. In coaching situations, these are not mere advocacy measures but a journey of self-discovery that a coachee must undertake. Perhaps one of the first tasks for a coach is to create self-awareness for the coachees so that they cultivate self-reliance, self-belief and self-dependability. Responsibility is crucial for high performance. When we accept responsibility for our thoughts, actions and consequences, our commitment and performance intensify.

Stretch goals: Professional coaches believe that people possess more capability than they express. We all have seen people give their best during crises. This means, the capacity exists and crisis acts as the catalyst. Coaches derive the best from coachees with carefully- designed stretch goals and actions. Coaches see people in terms of their future potential, not their past performance or historical track record, no matter how impressive it might be.

Transitional space: Great coaches create transformational changes by creating transitional space — a place where a coachee can experiment with new behaviours without being afraid of failure or criticism. No other development tool provides such a robust safety net to experiment, reflect and learn. New experiences and perspectives push coachees out of their comfort zone and trigger powerful learnings that last.

Spirit of inquiry: The primary skill of a good coach is to ask powerful questions. Questions could take many forms, and discovery is the foundation. Powerful questions make coachees think creatively, examine core issues and take action. Powerful questions open the blind spots and encourage a coachee to discuss “undiscussables”.

Agenda: A coach always works on the coachee’s agenda, which makes the process of coaching more powerful than anything. The coach’s role is to influence the agenda, not set it. The learning experience is first and foremost, for and about the coachee. Coaches view coachees as Michelangelo’s marble block — once you remove the excess material, a beautiful statue emerges.

Coaching is not merely a problem-fixing technique, but a managerial philosophy and a powerful world view. The INSEAD Global Leadership Centre believes that leadership coaching is more an art of discovery than a technology of delivery. Coaching is not something that you do to people but entails joint accountability, exploration and partnership.

(The author is ?group head- human resources at Kotak Mahindra Bank)

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