Coaching more than training can help deliver a much higher ROI that leaders can rely on to master the art of achieving deep, serious, long lasting change.

There are many different ways to define leadership. Put very simply a leader is one who has followers. And in today’s complex and rapidly changing business environment it essentially means that your followers are willing to make the changes that you as a leader desire from them. So a leader has to be a catalyst for change. If you want to lead people to a new destination then it is important that you interact with them based on where they are now (current state) before you take them to where you want them to be (desired future state). In my experience, the most sincere efforts of leadership to effect change fails because they are so focused on developing the technical competence of their teams that they fail to recognize the sociological aspects of human behavior that can impede judgment and derail the organizations attempt and implementing change.

Jack Welch, the legendary former Chairman and CEO of General Electric, always maintained that great strategy does not lead to great performance. It needs superior implementation/ execution of strategy to drive performance. And implementation always depends on the values and beliefs of the people which shape their behavior in the organization. So it is invariably the softer aspects management that has the biggest impact on the performance of the organization. Irrespective of what the source is – social, economic, political, technological, or cultural, the pace and complexity of change contribute to very strong emotions that play out in ways that can be a roadblock to implementing the chosen direction of the leadership. Such reactions as fear, insecurity, uncertainty, frustration, resentment, anger, sadness, depression, guilt, distrust, and a sense of unfairness and betrayal can make it difficult for leaders to set direction, encourage alignment, and gain commitment from the people who comprise their organizations.

So the core competency of a leader then is his\her ability to stimulate changes in behavior across the length and breadth of the organization. The key question then is do leaders have that competency? The answer more often than not is in the negative. The very skills that have brought them to the position of leadership not only lets them down, but very often goes against them in terms of being able to achieve change. So what do these leaders resort to? Training. They invest in training programs both for themselves and their teams. Unfortunately training is ideal to learn new skills and these skills invariably become redundant once you reach the stage of leadership. Training is great if you want to know more about performing valuations, or understanding EVA, or discounted cash flows etc but when it comes to leading change efforts it fails to deliver.

Learning, more than training

More critical than training then is the process of learning. How a leader develops as an effective learner can impact his ability to drive change. Hence the need to go back to school. Continuing professional development through leading business schools has the ability to help leaders learn the competency of learning which will help them master the science of driving change. I specifically refer to the science as I will come back to the art later. Interaction with their peers is a significant aspect of learning in these schools from which leaders derive the most benefit. However, as I have observed in so many instances, the magic wears off and they revert to type. The first few months after returning from an extension management program at an established B School is filled with energy and (unfortunately new jargon) new ideas for change.

Very often the ideas by themselves are commendable but the timing and stage of life of the organization does not lend itself to that particular solution. There is a backlash and quickly the leader goes back into his shell and reverts back to the old and trusted ways of doing things. That is why the art is as important as the science. This is the reason why no amount of role plays during leadership development workshops or training sessions can do the trick. Of course there are exceptions. Ever so often you do come across more evolved leaders who do a lot of introspection and self assessments based on which they are able to imbibe the new ways of interaction that can bring about the desired results from their teams. They are truly inspired and learn the soft skills of drawing out the creative responses of their subordinates and empower them to make the necessary changes that are needed to take the organization to the next level.

But that is not the norm. Most leaders need hand holding. They need help to master the art. Several years ago I took my kids to Florida (they were reasonably good tennis players) to a famous Tennis Academy I had an interesting conversation with the head coach. He observed both the kid’s service action and said that they would need to learn the appropriate technique. I politely enquired how long that would take, and the answer was ‘one hour, but it will take two weeks to unlearn what they have already learnt!”.  Leaders are the same. Very often they need to unlearn what they have learnt in-spite of the success this has brought them so far. Because change has to start at the top. Most organizations are full of change survivors – those who have dome nothing to change over several years and have still survived. They are skeptical and their approach is ‘this too will pass”.

Leading the change process for leaders

Change happens when there is a new awareness which in turn leads to new perception which shapes attitudes and leads to changes in behavior. The change process for leaders hence has to start with the help of a coach who challenges assumptions, and draws out new responses, and reframes perspectives. A good coach is an advocate, a sounding board, a cheerleader, an accountability partner, a truth teller, and a supporter. The leader is able to achieve deep, serious, and long lasting change through a well developed coaching relationship. This is what sets coaching apart from training. The coach helps shape the art of building change by bringing about changes in behavior where it matters- at the top. This is done by helping the leader develop greater self awareness, clarify core values, and set specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound goals. It happens through continuous dialogue, shaping perspectives, by aligning thoughts, eliminating doubts, validating ideas, creating positive energy, demonstrating empathy, building trust and finally creating structures that will drive the commitment to action. This on an ongoing basis will help the leader combine the science with the art, and bring balance between the mind and the heart which is an essential ingredient to helping create sustainable changes in behavior.

Most critically, leaders need clarity of thought and action. It is this clear thinking that the coach will deliver that helps leaders to commit to the kind of actions that will lead to the desired outcomes. Not only will this lead to the desired outcomes, but will also help the leader appreciate the immense impact of coaching which then he provides to the key members of his team as well. He does this either by mastering the coaching process himself, or allowing his team to have the benefit of the coach. They too can then experience the self confidence that comes from openly expressing their fears, anxieties, and concerns with a confidante who will help them in a non judgmental way always focusing on the future and developing clear thoughts which changes behavior and commits them to the way of the leader. Sun Tze called it Dao or the Way. When two armies are lined up for battle, the side that wins will be the won that is fully committed to the way of their leaders. That is exactly what Jack Welch too meant when he said that implementation of great strategy is what leads to great performance.

Pratap Nambiar,
CEO, Thought Perfect

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