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The Need for Individual Coaching

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Re-designing an organization often starts with a brainstorming and a whiteboard. First, you define products and bundle a long list of roles under one umbrella. Secondly, unnecessary hierarchy levels are removed. To put some cherry on the cake, you tie salary levels to number of competences. Then you sit back in your office chair and sigh, satisfied with the outcome of today work. Ready to leave the office, suddenly you are filled with doubt. How will the people react to your concept? Will they be thrilled? Will they be horrified? How does this story end?

In the first chapter of his book “Emotional Intelligence”, Psychologist Daniel Goleman [1] describes two managers communicating the closure of a journalistic department. Both address the same people, both choose a completely different approach. Manager A opens up the announcement by praising the good results of competing initiatives and then chats about his recent journey to Cannes. In the end, he leaves a frustrated and angry crowd. One day later, Manager B enters the stage and reminds the employees why people choose to become journalists — not because they expect their jobs to be safe, but because they are enthusiastic about their profession and its value to society. He wishes them good luck for their future career and ends his speech in applause.
Manager B is a perfect example of an emotionally capable leader, able to find the right words that convey meaning and inspire employees to engage with their company — and their willingness to accept company decisions.

Researchers of the Gallup Institute have been investigating employee engagement in their yearly “Engagement Index”[2] for nearly a decade. Results point towards a high impact of leadership style and people development efforts to engagement.

So if the VUCA-world forces your organization and its people to deal with rapid change, you better make sure to offer suitable supporting activities and keep your colleagues motivated.

The creators of the agile framework LeSS, Craig Larman and Bas Vodde, have found their own answers to the question of how to prepare the grounds for change. One of their major principles is that participants need to own the change, not rent it. Installing extensive processes and tools disrupts change rather than favouring it, because it leaves no blanks to fill for those mostly involved.

Another problem they are tackling is the need for safety: “Of course people don’t want to lose a job because of a structural change. That’s one reason why LeSS adoption emphasizes the lean-thinking principle of job safety but not role safety […]. It is vitally important to establish the policy that nobody is going to lose their job. At least not due to position or role eliminations from the structural changes caused by the LeSS adoption” [3]

But let’s be honest with ourselves: Even if we do everything right, keep all jobs and set reasonable goals for our business transformation, we will encounter conflicts and resistance. After all, people are not robots that simply switch from one mode to another. They are complex beings with their own values, goals and a history of learning.

Challenges in a transformation are diverse: Teams learn to make decisions. People are given more freedom and responsibility. Management takes on a different perspective. Those involved have to deal with ambivalent issues: What does self-organization mean to me? What does leadership look like in the future? How can I contribute my strengths and passions? How do I deal with expectations that I cannot or do not want to fulfil?

If we want to succeed in change, we do not just need a new strategy and a new language or a plan or a whiteboard. We also need to master these personal challenges and ensure that people understand the implications and turn them over into living practice. We need employee engagement and compliance of individual with corporate goals.

Not all possible concerns are suitable to be handled by a scrum master, transformation consultant, mentor or team lead. Often it needs exchange with an independent third party — for example a coach outside the organization.

One important aspect about individual coaching is that clients are personally motivated to do the coaching. It is important that only the clients (or “coachees”) are the ones to define goals and measurements. All content is handled strictly confidential. A coachee is the sole person to decide, whether topics from the coaching should or should not be made transparent to other parties like human resources, team or mentor.

In contrast to the agile ambassador, an individual coach is not bound by any overriding goal. It is true that the coach must act in a way that promotes the well-being and health of the coachee and does not endanger it. Still, the responsibility for content and solutions lies exclusively with the client. The consequence: coachees cannot help it, but to start the change by changing themselves. In this way, external coaching can accelerate organizational change.

My observation is that “growth” in a transforming company is dependent on the “inner growth of the skills” of each individual in the system. Training and coaching of individuals and teams are therefore a substantial element of every sustainable digitization strategy. So here are my lessons learned in a nutshell: Change needs engagement. Engagement needs emotional leadership. Emotional leadership successfully relies on coaching and withstands any desire to control the course. Companies that invest in people development will be more successful in dealing with change. And that is the end of the story that we all like to hear.

[1] Goleman, Daniel; Boyatzis, Richard; McKee, Annie (2018): Emotionale Führung, 9. Auflage, Berlin: Ullstein.

[3] Larman, Craig; Vodde, Bas (2016): Large-Scale Scrum, More with Less, Indiana: RR Donnelley in Crawfordsville.

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