Coaching Case Study By Lashley Pulsipher
(Leadership Coach, DUBAI)
This case study focuses on a six-month group coaching program for five directors who are part of the commercial department of a large family business in South Asia.
The directors will be referred to by their initials:
- SM - Director of Marketing
- NJ - Senior Corporate Director of Sales
- ST - Director of Revenue Management
- AN - Director of Digital Distribution
- DS - Director of Loyalty & Partnerships
All five directors are new to the commercial department with new director-level roles, and four of the five are relatively new to the company. When the coaching began there was a clear absence of coordination in the division, poor communication, lack of management experience and leadership skills, and the roles weren’t clearly defined for the directors or their direct reports. Their boss, the chief commercial officer (CCO), wanted to create better internal reporting and increase visibility for the department in the company. The departmental goals were not being achieved and productivity remained low. There weren’t clear processes and systems in place. More importantly though, the team of directors needed to develop their leadership skills to make both themselves and their teams more resilient and ready for the changes that were expected over the following twelve months as the company continued to grow and evolve into new verticals.
The company is a South Asian family business with a deep saith culture. The model of most saith companies is “one genius accompanied by many helpers,” which often leads to the view that the business does not need managers and management – all it needs is the owner-entrepreneur with his “helpers.” In this company the owner-entrepreneur shaped the company culture for more than four decades after he started the company. He is respected as a visionary, but like many saith-Sahibs, he was a mercurial leader – immediately firing or sidelining anyone who stepped out of line or fell out of favour. He was an extreme micromanager, overseeing every aspect of the business. Mistakes were not tolerated, which directed focus on people’s weaknesses rather than their strengths. Saith organizations are usually more interested in “Who is right?” than in the question “What is right?” When companies focus on “Who is right?” employees are compelled to either play it safe or become extremely political in the organization. This created a culture of “covering your ass” instead of acknowledging mistakes and looking for opportunities to learn from them, which ultimately stifled innovation and led to decades of low productivity.
The son of the founder took over as CEO of the company at the same time that the department began to reorganize. The commercial department is spearheading a digital transformation that will not only change the way the company operates, it also has the potential to impact change industry-wide in the country. The country is about 25 years behind the times in terms of online sales and distribution, which limits its customer base and its earning potential. The government in the country is optimistic about business potential in the country. The young CEO is closely aligned with the new leadership and has personally committed to being a major industry ally to push for modernization in the country.
The CEO not a micromanager like his father and was reluctant to make sweeping changes to the organization at first, but acknowledged the need for a major company culture shift. Under his leadership, the company hired a training manager and a director of project management. The project management team hired a consultant to conduct a training needs analysis (TNA) in March 2019 that evaluated the leadership skills of each director including:
- Effective Communication Skills
- Social Intelligence
- Emotional Intelligence
- Decision Making & Problem-solving
- Flexibility & Adaptability
- Strategic Thinking
(The TNA results were published in late August and provided additional evidence of the benefits of coaching this team. More on this later.)
I started by speaking to the CEO, CCO, COO, and CFO of the company and then meeting with the team of directors to better understand the needs of the department. Due to the deep-rooted saith culture, the team was overworked, discouraged, and underperforming. The operations and finance departments were very critical of the new team and seemed to be making decisions that inhibited their ability to make necessary changes for the digital transformation. This is referred to as “leg-pulling” in South Asia. In the west, you would describe it as “keeping someone down” or “putting them in their place.”
I decided to use a “coaching with compassion approach” with the team as described in the following paragraph from the article “Coaching with Compassion: Inspiring Health, Well-Being, and Understanding in Organizations.” from the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science:
Coaching with compassion will arouse positive emotions and healthy psychophysiological systems, helping a person become more open to new possibilities, grow, and renew themselves. As a result of the effects of emotional contagion, coaching with compassion is likely to have an impact that extends beyond the coaching relationship to others in the organization, leading to favourable outcomes at the individual, dyad, group, and organizational levels.
The coaching worked less like sponsored 3rd party coaching and more like traditional one-on-one and group coaching. After I presented the coaching program outline the CEO and CCO did not require me to share specific information about the sessions and simply asked for results in six months.
The coaching plan consisted of six months of coaching from late February until the beginning of September 2019. The team met with me weekly for group coaching sessions on the 1st and 3rd weeks of the month, and one-on-one coaching on the 2nd and 4th weeks.
The first phase of the coaching program focused on the “Ideal Self.” This started with a group coaching activity that helped each director get a good sense of his vision of who he wanted to be, his values, and deepest aspirations for the future.
The second coaching session was an individual session focused on an assessment of their current situation on both a personal and professional level where we identified changes that needed to be made. We used their job descriptions as a starting point to identify challenges that could prevent them from achieving their KPIs and also areas for improvement to increase their executive presence and leadership skills.
The third session was a group coaching session about goal setting, followed by an individual session the next week where each director started drafting realistic plans to implement changes based on their goals.
Then we moved into the second phase which was focused on creating awareness and assessing strengths. Each director took The VIA Character Strengths Survey and also did the Reflected Best Self Exercise™ we discussed the results in group sessions to create more understanding and cohesiveness among the directors, and then again in individual sessions.
The RBSE had a profound effect on SM who had never heard a compliment from his father until he participated in the exercise. SM was so moved by the pride his father expressed for him he became much more empathetic to his direct reports, his emotional intelligence significantly improved, and he was able to see himself in a new light.
The next month in our group and individual sessions we worked on a self-assessment of their strengths versus weaknesses based on Marcus Buckingham’s view:
A strength is an activity that strengthens you. It’s an activity that leaves you feeling energized, rather than depleted.
We all have things that we’re good at, but that we hate doing, right? Those are called weaknesses.
We then used the information from all three assessments to refine their visions and goals and then make a realistic and exciting plan to implement necessary changes and address knowledge or skills gaps in order to achieve their personal and professional goals.
The final phase of the coaching program continued the group and individual coaching on alternating weeks and focused on coaching for designing actions, creating structure, and providing accountability.
Establishing Trust & Intimacy with the Client
The concept of coaching was new to all five of the directors, and given the company culture of mistrust some of the directors took longer than others to build rapport with me and be “coachable.” In each session, I closed the door, put away my phone, and hung up a DO NOT Disturb sign. At the beginning of each session, I repeated my commitment to confidentiality and holding a “safe-space” for them to talk openly, and explained that the information they shared would not impact their performance evaluations. For NJ, SM, and AN it took approximately three sessions for them to realize that I was not sharing the information from the sessions with anyone else, to be receptive to the coaching model, and stop “performance reporting.” DS and ST were very receptive to coaching from the first session and were able to make progress quickly in the first few sessions.
Establishing the Coaching Agreement
This started at the beginning of the program with a group discussion about the roles of the coach and the client, what coaching is and what it is not. I expressed my commitment to confidentiality and explained that I was not required to share specific information about our sessions with the CEO or CCO who only asked for tangible results at the end of six months. I shared with the team that we would be able to determine those metrics ourselves and encouraged them to be open to the coaching process and they would have more to share at the end of six months than they could imagine.
Although the coaching program followed an outline of three phases with planned activities for most group sessions and some of the individual sessions, at the beginning of each session we agreed on a point of focus for the session, the desired outcome, and measurement for success. As issues came up we tailored some one-on-one sessions to better fit any pressing needs of the directors. When DS was facing some conflict with the CCO we focused on improving his communication skills for three consecutive sessions.
Using the three strengths assessments and our subsequent coaching sessions on the topic we were able to foster more self-awareness in each director and set up several opportunities for further discovery about how their challenges also impact their teams. In Phase Two we went back to the initial Ideal Self and KPI assessments. Bolstered by more awareness they were able to refine the desired changes and goals and design more impactful actions to address them.
Active Listening & Powerful Questioning
By the second session each director said “Wow, this is so helpful. I didn’t believe in coaching at first, but now I do.” To be truly listened to appeared to be something completely new to the directors. They each expressed how much they started looking forward to their coaching sessions and truly valued clarifying their values and being challenged on assumptions and beliefs that were no longer serving them. Through coaching the directors explored beyond their current thinking to new, expanded ways of thinking about their personal and professional lives. SM had been suffering from physical pain following a car accident where he blurted out a statement of blame against his wife in the shock of the accident. He had not spoken to her about it for weeks and during a coaching session revealed his guilt about what had happened. In the following session reported that he finally felt comfortable enough to talk to her about his feelings and to apologize. His back pain went away a few days later.
The session on strengths v weaknesses gave ST a new perspective on his strengths and managing his energy for tasks. He was inspired to rearrange his daily schedule so that he focused on his weakest tasks in the morning when he had the most energy and inserting strategic breaks to ensure he didn’t get weakened by his least favourite tasks. He moved his strengthening tasks to the afternoon when he typically felt a lull in his motivation and was energized by focusing on work he enjoyed. He then used the same strategy with his team and successfully increased their productivity.
NJ and his team faced the toughest sales targets they ever had during the two quarters we worked together. NJ is a natural leader with strong emotional intelligence. He replicated many of the activities from our coaching sessions with his sales directors and the team was not only able to meet, and exceed their sales targets, several sales directors utilized their new self-awareness and to change their unhealthy lifestyles and lose significant amounts of weight. NJ also reported that his team were enjoying more time with their families than ever before.
At the end of the six-month program, the team displayed higher levels of cohesiveness, improved communication skills, greater social and emotional intelligence, adaptability, and leadership. The results of the TNA that was conducted in March were shared with me at the end of August and the CCO and I discussed the results. Every director had made a noticeable improvement in each area. The CCO was delighted with the impact that coaching had on her team. They were easier to manage – “they didn’t bring problems anymore, they brought solutions”, the morale in the entire department was boosted as the directors became resonant leaders, and the department met its KPIs for the two quarters.
When I started this coaching assignment I wondered if the compassionate coaching approach would be “too Western” for South Asia, let alone a family business with a strong Saith culture. The company had a reputation for being a toxic workplace and most of the C-suite was sceptical of coaching. However, I decided to stick to the compassionate coaching approach and see what would happen. I also focused on the ICF core competencies to execute the sessions in each phase and trusted the magic of coaching.
The outcome of this six-week coaching program exceeded all of my expectations. It proved the idea that all niche coaching really ends up being life coaching as I saw the personal growth that the directors made and heard stories about their improving relationships at home. As Boyatzis et al. said in the aforementioned article on coaching with compassion:
Our experiences at work affect psychological and emotional states and the health of our bodies . . . The psychological, emotional, and physiological consequences of experiencing coaching with compassion have an enduring impact on individual health and development.
I felt honoured to help bring about the positives results of these coaching sessions and I can only imagine the enduring impact of the positive “emotional contagion” created by this coaching program on the lives of the five directors, their families, and hopefully the rest of the company.