Sometimes It’s Not Your Client

The word “coaching” usually brings to mind efforts to help individual clients perform better. Maybe they don’t read people well (low empathy) or maybe they shoot from the hip (low impulse control). Such coaching can have great value.

But sometimes the individual is not the right focus. Sometimes it is the organization that needs attention.

Picture this: You’ve been coaching someone for a while, a senior leader in a successful organization. It’s gone well. This person is smart, engaged, and a quick learner. In other words, a joy to work with. Let’s call him John.

Six to twelve months into your coaching engagement, John says, “I’m worried about my company. We’ve done awfully well for a long time. It is a good company, with good people, as you know. But I see danger on our horizon. What has brought us success for so long is getting outdated. The market is changing, and not in a good way for us. I feel like if we don’t make a significant change, our days may be numbered. But when I bring it up, all I get is resistance.”

First, congratulations! John is telling you that you have become highly trusted.

But second, can you help him?

John feels that he needs to figure out how on target his concerns are, and, if there’s a good chance he’s right, how to influence his organization to make some needed changes, a tall order. As John’s coach, you could work to:

  • Be a sounding board for John’s ideas to help him be sure his insights have some grounding. You don’t have to be a subject matter expert to be a sounding board. You simply need to allow John to listen to himself as he talks to you, and as you ask him tough questions.
  • Help John know he’s not crazy. When all of your peers see things one way, and treat you as if you are a Typhoid Mary, that social pressure can create dysfunctional self-doubt. It’s pretty easy to feel “crazy.” Your role as coach can be to help John recognize that the group is likely engaging in an unconscious conspiracy to discredit his insights in order to avoid the anxiety associated with the danger he is seeing, and its implications for them.
  • Help John learn more about what his colleagues are thinking. With John’s sanction, you could do a series of interviews about the future of the company in support of strategic discussions. John’s colleagues may be willing to say things to you in private that they might be reluctant to say publicly or in the group. Ask open-ended, non-biasing questions such as:
    • What do you see for the company five years from now?
    • What are the biggest challenges the company faces?
    • What are the company’s best assets for overcoming those challenges?
    • Are market conditions changing, and if so, how? What are the implications of those changes for the company’s future?

Let’s assume that John continues to be confident in his insights following the sounding-board discussions he has with you. Let’s further assume that the data from your interviews offers at least some privately expressed support that John is on to something with his concerns. If so, John will need your guidance about how to conduct a change process in his organization. Change is scary for everyone. Actually, managing anxiety about change is equally as important as the content of the change itself.

Start with helping John manage his own anxiety. Remind him that all leaders must lead their organizations into an uncertain and rapidly changing future. And yet, decisions must be made, and made based on incomplete information. No one ever has all the data needed. Leadership is not for the faint-of-heart. Having someone like you who can listen in an unbiased way, who can be a sounding board, and who can give “No BS” feedback, is a godsend.

Next, John will need to deal with his colleagues’ fears. Help him build a change plan based around managing three fears natural to this situation: (1) fear of change; (2) fear of not changing; and (3) fear of not knowing how to change. Let me explain.

Fear of Change: Help John understand that the denial his colleagues are presenting him with is really fear of change. And they have a point. Basically, John is asking them to give up what has worked well, in exchange for an unknown (uncertain) strategy, the proverbial “pig in a poke.” (In centuries past, a poke was a bag that kept a potential buyer from actually seeing the pig being offered for sale.)

As long as John tries to argue with his colleagues logically, his efforts are doomed. Their anxiety is understandable, but non-logical. Therefore, logic can’t touch it. John’s colleagues have invested years of effort and lots of their self-esteem in their current approach. They have a right to be fearful of change. But that’s not a good enough reason to march off a cliff, lemming-like.

Fear of Not Changing: John has to find a way to make his colleagues more afraid of not changing than changing. How? John might share a little recognized but perhaps startling fact: The average age of companies in the Fortune 500 is only fourteen years. These huge companies, that have achieved the very pinnacle of success, are vulnerable to becoming irrelevant, just like any other company, including John’s.

What makes them vulnerable? Failure to adapt. It is tempting to believe that one has found the secret of success. It is hard to be more successful than becoming a Fortune 500 company, and yet they fail. The threat of failure gets hidden in many leaders’ minds by the money on the balance sheet, and in their executive compensation. That money isn’t necessarily greed, though it certainly can be. Money is a way of keeping score. But group-think that protects the status quo becomes dangerous.

The reality is that the world changes. What worked yesterday, what is working even today, may not work so well tomorrow. For ongoing success, the company will need to figure out how to adapt.

Assuming that John has gained their attention without a frontal attack, his colleagues might be open to at least looking at the information about their company that John has put together, perhaps with your help from those interviews. If John has succeeded in making their fear of not changing more intense than their fear of change, the only way they will be able to reduce their anxiety (which the human brain is highly invested in doing) is to change. And suddenly, they will want to.

Fear of Not Knowing How: But now John’s colleagues will have a new fear. They probably don’t know how to make the needed change. John’s vision for a new direction likely involves doing things that the company hasn’t done before, and therefore doesn’t yet know how to do.

The solution is to figure out what new skills will be needed and find a pathway to learning them. Maybe the company needs to figure out a different approach to marketing. Maybe it has to redesign its products or services. John’s colleagues are smart people. Properly motivated, they can learn new skills! John will do well to find and share concrete ways that everyone can use to learn the needed new skills.

Now consider what you have done for John as his coach. You have helped him cut through deafening noise by teaching him some things about human nature. As a result, he can better understand why his colleagues are acting as they are. His more accurate interpretation prepares him to respond more intelligently. And you’ve given him a roadmap to do just that. Nice work!

You can find an extended discussion of this process in The EQ Leader Program2.0 manual on pages 255-261. This information about organizational culture change is one of twenty-five coaching tools the manual offers. To see a list of the twenty-five tools, and to get an idea of what else is included, please go to The EQ Leader Program 2.0 by Dr. Dana Ackley

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