Tag Archives: coaching in organisations

Keeping your best talent: lessons from the school playground

Working, as I do, on two sides of the leadership coin, there’s one thing that intrigues me.

I’ve yet to work with a client organisation in which the most senior leadership cadre complains about having too many talented leaders or aspiring leaders across the organisation.  This remains true even now, in the midst of painful down- (or right-) sizing, when the number of leadership jobs available is diminishing.

It seems that talent is in short supply.

At the same time, working with individual leaders in organisations or at my coaching clinic on a Sunday, I meet men and women who are clearly talented and yet who struggle to find the right next job. (Right now, as a result of these kinds of conversations, I’m recruiting members of a London-based coaching group called Kick start your next career move.  If you know anyone who might be interested, please forward this link to them.)

It seems that people with strong potential don’t always find it easy to find a job in which they can truly shine.

If you read my blog on a regular basis you’ll know that I don’t hold line managers responsible for the careers of their staff.  We all have a primary responsibility to meet our own needs.  Still, if you are a line manager to a talented and aspiring leader, I wonder if you relate to the dilemma faced by your colleagues.

Are you worried that coaching your staff will prepare them for a future in someone else’s organisation?

Learning to hold the reins
Learning to hold the reins

You know how it is.  You’ve made the case for a new member of your team, someone who can take some of the load off your shoulders.  Perhaps it took you a while to ask for help.  Maybe it was a long and painful approval process, so that by the time you get to recruit, you’re almost on your knees.

You advertise the post and get any number of recruits.  Maybe some of them look just right for the post, though your colleagues worry that these well-formed candidates are already ready for the next job and encourage you to take on someone who can benefit from some learning in this post.  You do.

You choose someone with potential and you spend time bringing them up to speed.  For a while, it seems as though you have more work as a result of recruiting them rather than less.  Perhaps you spend six months, eight… maybe even twelve months or eighteen teaching them to hold the reins.

Having delegated all sorts of tasks to your new team member, you’re starting to motor.  You are free now to handle an altogether more strategic agenda.  You enjoy stepping back from the detail to plan your forward path.

And then, just as your plan comes to fruition, they leave.

It may be that this is the reality of your situation.  Perhaps it’s something you worry about even though it hasn’t happened yet.  Is it wise to invest so much in support of members of your team if all it means is that they move on?

Building a learning organisation

In 1999, the UK’s Department for Education funded a major piece of research in order to understand what differentiated the most effective school teachers.  It followed hot on the heals of research into effective school leadership which underpinned the design of a national Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers.

I was working at the time for the Hay Group, which carried out this work.  Although mostly I have worked with client organisations in the private sector, these projects heralded the beginning of my involvement in the education sector.  I was Director of Quality for the conduct and analysis of interviews with teachers across the country, for example, as part of the Hay Group’s research.  After I left the Hay Group, I served for ten years as a regional and then national judge for the Teaching Awards.

One year, it was my privilege to observe a head teacher who, already successful in leading her own school, had taken on the headship of a second school.   The second school was in some difficulty so her remit was to raise standards in the second school whilst maintaining standards in the first.  As others before her had already found out, parents’ fear that standards might drop can make them highly unwilling partners in such an endeavour.

Coaching new skills
Teaching new skills

Nonetheless, the head teacher’s approach was audacious.  She started to make strategic exchanges of personnel between the two schools.  A member of staff in one school would swap places with his or her peer in the other school.  Both would receive coaching and both would work with each other to exchange best practice with the aim of raising standards in both schools.  Hers was essentially a coaching approach.

It worked.

Standards improved across the failing school.  Teachers across both schools reported an enriching experience which had built their awareness of and confidence in their skills.  They improved existing skills and developed new ones.  The head teacher had created what some call a learning organisation, in both schools.  Coaching was woven into the culture and practices of both schools.

What “Miss” knew

What did this head teacher know that made her feel comfortable to take such audacious steps?  Two things.

Firstly, she knew that even without any changes of personnel, the school she was taking on had greater potential than it was currently fulfilling.  She had faith in the people in the new school – faith that they could learn and grow.  She also held the belief that staff in her existing school, already seen as high performers, had the potential to learn and grow.  She set out to make the experience a learning experience for everybody.

So far, so good.  But what about the risk of preparing people for a future in other people’s schools?

In truth, this head teacher positively wanted to prepare people for their next roles, whether or not it was in her school.  You could say that she wanted it because this was a reflection of who she was.  She was, at root, a coaching head teacher.

But in case you are not a coaching leader, you might still want to know why.  What thoughts and attitudes did she have that made her want to coach her staff even whilst knowing they might move on?

This head teacher’s approach was the manifestation of her belief that there are plenty of talented people in the world, people with potential to learn and grow.  She knew that there would always be people coming into her school with potential and with an appetite for learning.  In truth, experience had taught her that creating a learning environment for the adults in her school made the school an attractive place for precisely the kind of people she wanted to recruit – people with aspirations to learn and to work to high standards.  She had no concerns about losing good people because she felt confident of her ability to recruit more good people to the school.

Room to shine

As I draw this posting to a close, I remember that this head teacher’s school shone like a beacon in her area and was heavily over-subscribed.  It attracted parents and their children.  It attracted teaching and non-teaching staff.  What’s more, it attracted applications from precisely the kind of people she wanted to recruit.  I wonder what brand your organisation has in your marketplace, whatever it is.

It’s easy, too, to see that some people also have a personal charisma that makes them shine like a beacon within their organisations and beyond.  These are the people you recruit with confidence, if only you get the chance.

But if you’re not shining as an individual to your current or prospective employers, it doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer.  More likely, it means you don’t know what your talent is or how to describe it.  (If so, please think about joining me to Kick start your next career move.)

And if, as a leader, you want to attract staff who will make a real difference in your organisation, think about recruiting the very people you’d most like to keep, coaching them whilst they’re with you and accepting that, at some stage, they will move on.

In the leadership shadow of Margaret Thatcher

On Monday, I returned to work after a wonderful break in Istanbul with family.  I was so grateful for the warmth of the sun as well as for the beauty of the city, including its mosques and palaces.  The photo above (of my mother, me, my sister-in-law and niece) may give you some sense of our sunshine and good cheer.

In between catching up in my office and generally getting stuck in, I found myself glued to radio and television following the death of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, a towering and iconic figure in British and indeed global politics, one who divided a nation – the Marmite of twentieth century politics in Britain.  The hurt that some people still feel, especially in Britain’s former mining communities, is so great that some have lost sight of the basic human experience of bereavement and have openly celebrated her death.

I wonder if Britain’s current generation of beleaguered CEOs feels some empathy for the challenges Thatcher faced when she took on the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975 and became Prime Minister in 1979.  Many commentators in the last 48 hours have pointed to aspects of life in Britain in the 1970s as an important backdrop to understanding Thatcher’s role in British politics.  Thatcher came to power at a time of economic turmoil and industrial unrest – bitter disputes between government and unions.  In 1974, for example, having failed to win the battle with Britain’s coal-miners, the UK government imposed a three-day working week for commercial users of electricity.  In 1979, Thatcher’s rise to power followed Britain’s “Winter of Discontent”, when fresh industrial action included action by dustmen which left rubbish piling up in the streets of London.  The Conservative slogan Labour Isn’t Working struck a chord with voters who gave Thatcher a 44-seat majority in the 1979 general election.  In 1979 Thatcher herself said she couldn’t bear Britain in decline.

As I write, I feel humble in the face of any commentary on Thatcher’s leadership which was, itself, controversial.  Instead, I allow myself a few reflections on aspects of her leadership and compare them with what I see in some of today’s CEOs.

Vision and principles

As a leader, Thatcher’s approach was grounded in a vision of a more prosperous Britain and in her firm beliefs about what it might take to get there.  True to her roots, she was able to extrapolate from her childhood as a grocer’s daughter and to understand that Britain needed to balance the books – a lesson that politicians and businessmen and women all over the world are currently and painfully having to learn again.  Thatcher also took the view that the ideals of her socialist opponents were best fulfilled via prosperity for the country as a whole – that Britain could not fulfil its aspirations to care for those in need without, first, generating wealth.

Today, CEOs are having to refresh their vision for the organisations in their charge, stripping them back to a bare minimum.  For clients I work with, this bare minimum includes core aims of the organisation and activities which support those aims.  It also includes stripping away excess cost.  It also includes managing risk and ensuring compliance with core external requirements.  Stripping a vision back in this way creates clarity for organisations which have been or might otherwise be in crisis.  The message is not always welcome and, nonetheless, it is clear.

Personal transformation

Thatcher’s steadfast adherence to her vision and underlying principles were such that, when Captain Yuri Gavrilov described her as an Iron Lady in 1976, the nickname stuck.  At the same time, whilst steadfast in her political beliefs, Thatcher was the queen of personal transformation.  Famously, she received vocal coaching from the National Theatre’s voice coach, lowering her voice to achieve greater gravitas and authority.  Later, as aspiring leader and PM, Thatcher toned down her hair colour because she understood that her platinum blonde was too strident.  Later still, her wardrobe was transformed under the direction of Margaret King, who became her stylist in 1987.  

In the modern world of leadership, few CEOs would go to such lengths.  Even so, the most effective leaders understand that whilst they need to promote a clear vision, they need to be flexible about the means to achieve their vision, adjusting their approach in the light of new information or to meet the needs of a specific situation.  If their message is not getting across, they think about how to change their communication and influencing approach so that it can be more easily heard and understood.

Building a leadership team

Commentators note that when she became leader of the opposition in 1979, Thatcher’s cabinet was comprised entirely of the supporters of her exiled predecessor, Edward Heath.  Her response was to quietly replace them, creating a new cabinet.

The new CEO always faces the challenge of legacy and has to manage a tricky balance in order to create an effective leadership team.  The history that comes with the “old guard” can act as a barrier to change, even at the most senior levels.  There may also be questions of capability – does the inherited team have the capability needed to achieve important goals for the organisation?  At the same time, the old team often has a fair dose of organisational savvy – team members know how things get done around here.  Bringing in new team members can create a time delay whilst “newbies” get up to speed and poor recruitment decisions can also impede progress.  It takes great skill to proceed effectively as a new, incoming CEO.

Addressing the “enemy within”

Thatcher saw the unions as Britain’s “enemy within” and her most bitter opponents include many former miners and their relatives.  She was concerned about the power held by union leaders which she saw as anti-democratic.  She was also concerned about the impact on the nation’s economy of strike action.  Two years after winning the Falklands War she took on the miners – and won.

In 21st century Britain, CEOs who have set tough challenges for their staff nonetheless seek to work with them to achieve their aims.  Approaches like “LEAN” seek to maximise value whilst minimising waste.  At its best, this approach exemplifies the distribution of roles and responsibilities:  CEOs set targets for the organisation which are broken down for execution by leaders throughout the organisation.  Leaders, in turn, work with their staff to identify ways to meet these targets.  In the modern era the enemy within is more likely to be excess cost or bureaucracy than some powerful lobby of people.

Drawing on personal support

It’s lonely at the top.  This phrase is no less true for being a well-worn cliche.  Behind the scenes, Britain’s Prime Minister was supported by her loyal husband whom she described as “my Denis”.  An article in the Independent told how Thatcher once said of her husband:  “I couldn’t have done it without Denis.  He was a fund of shrewd advice and penetrating comment.  And he very sensibly saved these for me rather than the outside world.  I think the marvellous thing is that he gives me a sense of perspective.  If I am upset or think I have done something silly, we talk about it and he makes me see sense”.

In the modern era, people increasingly understand the need to have the right personal support.  The modern CEO may well be supported by husband or wife or by others in his or her life who have been tested in long relationships – former colleagues, for example.  Equally, support may come in the form of a well-chosen coach or mentor.

Leading by example

I may be wrong and still, “hypocrisy” is not a word I associate with Margaret Thatcher, nor one used by her detractors.  A proponent of sound financial management in the country as a whole she is said to have practised great frugality in her official residence – Wikipedia notes that she even insisted on paying for her own ironing board.  It is, perhaps, this congruity between speech and action that underlines the current fashion for “authentic leadership”.

In closing, I ask for your reflections on Margaret Thatcher’s leadership.  What do you see as her greatest strengths in the role of leader?  I also pause to remember with compassion the human being – the woman – who has been lost to her family.

What is a ‘coaching culture’?

Sometimes my colleagues ask the most stimulating questions via discussion groups and this one (on the Coaching at Work group on LinkedIn) intrigued me: what is a ‘coaching culture’?

Amongst the many environments I have worked and played in, I think first and foremost of my experience as a member of a number of resource teams with ITS (http://www.itsnlp.com/). In this context, I was a volunteer working with other volunteers to support our trainers in delivering various trainings in neurolinguistic programming (or NLP). As volunteers we were all interested in furthering our learning as well as supporting the learning of others. You could call this a ‘coaching culture’.

What was the culture in this environment? This was an environment in which team members embraced each other fully, understanding that we are all learners. Anyone seeking support for their learning would be welcomed by other members of the team. Whenever there was friction or misunderstandings feedback was given openly and directly, and both parties understood that they might have something to learn from this exchange of feedback. And when team members had a ‘gripe’ with another member of the team it was typically well understood that this was a signal to the ‘griper’ that he or she might have something to learn. Team members tended to view each other – and programme participants – as resourceful, whole and able to learn (even if they hadn’t learnt yet!). There were high levels of trust and flexibility.

What about work in this environment? Whilst there was considerable flexibility and a willingness to cut each other some slack, we still worked to high standards across a whole range of tasks, from sorting the stationery cupboard to supporting participants. Over the life of a team (twenty days over five four-day modules) we got to know each others’ strengths and to work to them as well as to our own. Work was a joyful experience.

How might this translate into the workplace? Correspondents on the Coaching At Work group highlight that organisations aspiring to a ‘coaching culture’ at work might have many definitions of this phrase and as I write I wonder how many definitions would fall well short of the ‘ITS experience’. How many organisations would welcome the level of intimacy involved in working together in this way?

I also wonder which is chicken and which is egg. For, on the surface, it seems to me that the culture of the resource teams was only possible because team members were chosen with great care. At the same time, I think of Douglas McGregor’s famous ‘XY Theory’ which proposed that managers tend to adopt one of two fundamentally different approaches to managing their people. Is it possible that, over time, an organisation in which leaders believe in the importance of learning (who engage in their own learning and support the learning of others) will, over time, attract precisely those employees who wish to work in a ‘coaching culture’?