Research Paper By Sven Gade
(Leadership Coach, USA)
The Accidental Coach
A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. Lao Tzu
Ready for a new approach
Sam is a seasoned leader in the logistics industry, he has worked for the last several years in various roles in the same corporate organization. He likes to work on difficult tasks and strives to reach defined goals. His leadership style is democratic, he is interested in the people he works with and has been effective in building high performing teams.
Over time Sam became interested in mentoring and coaching assignments. He enjoyed supporting the professional development of others; however he saw this function as separate from his role as a corporate leader. After starting an online training program in coaching, Sam began to challenge his view point. Why shouldn’t he approach his team with the tools and methods of a coach, blend those into his leadership style ? He was intrigued by the idea to eventually develop into a coachitive leader. A while after that Sam was asked to take on a new position in his company and became responsible for the reporting of operational performance to the internal and external customers.
In his new role Sam assumed leadership for a new department consisting of three regional teams that formerly belonged to different, separated entities. He knew this would force him to cross boundaries related to time and geographical distance with one team in Hong Kong and Singapore, another in The Netherlands and Belgium and the third in North America. His new combined team would need to communicate, share information and collaborate by using technology e.g. email, conference calls etc., regular face-to-face meetings would only take place for those team members in the same ‘home’ location.
Sam’s new team performed a lot of repetitive reporting tasks, which to a certain degree could be transferred to a shared service entity in a low cost country in Asia or Latin America. His management expected quick and significant cost savings from Sam.
Report request were brought to all regional teams by their internal customers without defined approval processes and without the team having the necessary capacity to satisfy them all. Important analytical work to determine root causes and start corrective actions could not been done. In consequence Sam’s team members felt overloaded and neglected. Ironically they tried to compensate their customers with little favors which made them then further step out of their roles, being too nice is not too good!
It takes a little while to find a holistic approach to meet major challenges like this. However, almost always there is something fairly obvious that can be done, which is the right first step no matter what the final plan will look like. In Sam’s case it was the introduction of what he called global work-stream, three team assignments to investigate outsourcing options, to identify synergies in reporting across the regions, and to assemble the metrics of their own performance. The work-streams were organized like projects, but less formal; the three regional leaders took on responsibility and assembled work groups with team members from all regions.
Joint conference calls gave the global team an excellent chance to get to know each other, brainstorm ideas and create possibilities. By creating an atmosphere of comfort and providing a minimal structure Sam was able to bring the team into a state of positive action. His employees immediately felt engaged and started to build trust while getting ready for necessary changes.
Plan to win
Two months after the new organization was put in place Sam came together with each of the three regional teams for a few days. There was time for interactions with the entire group and for individual face-to-face meetings with team members. Sam wanted to know more about the status of the business, he invited the team to share their views of the services provided, the demands of their customers and the struggles they faced. He asked powerful questions to find out also about their strengths and growth opportunities, as a team and as individuals, he demonstrated his sincere interest and really listed to them.
Sam was able to round off his picture and adjust some of his initial perceptions from all the new insights he got. After almost a hundred days in the job he began to compile the strategy for the department from all the notes he took. It was no surprise that the result became rather a sophisticated summary of his meetings with the team as most of the content originated from these interactions.
The conclusion on the future service portfolio was to spend less time on standard reporting activities and supply more value adding services. That required streamlining existing reporting activities and transferring the repetitive tasks to a shared service center in India. The introduction of a new annual customer satisfaction survey aimed at obtaining objective feedback on the service performance.
Measurable goals along these different elements of the strategy defined the success for the team. Sam also defined the future attitude he expected from the team members as their market approach changed significantly going forward: he wanted them to focus, execute and improve.
Sam could also identify a group of people that would support the change from the beginning. Generally these individuals were most receptive to a coachitive leadership style, a great base for win win partnerships.
Before communicating the strategy to his team Sam had to align his plans with relevant stakeholders in his corporate organization. His peers and internal customers liked the concept and were relatively easy to convince. The critical part was the personnel restructuring, reducing the own workforce and building a dedicated team in a shared service center in India. Sam wanted to notify the impacted employees immediately and give them up to six months’ notice. Additionally he wanted to offer those employees a ‘retention bonus’ for not leaving earlier, so that his team could keep its current capacity and provide all services before some of their work would be transferred to the shared service center. This was a very a typical approach for the US and Asia, where employees have very short notice periods. But Sam was able to sell his ideas to the regional managers in HR and get their signoff’s. This allowed him to be fully open with his team, tell them the ‘whole truth’ from the get-go.
Sam still had to present the overall business case to his manager. Even though there was never a concrete financial target discussed before, it became quickly obvious that Sam’s manager wanted to gain higher cost savings. Sam fully believed in his plan, that it was in the best interest of the company and that a turnaround with less people would cause severe business risks. He stayed calm and rationally explained his evaluation of a more aggressive approach. His manager saw his passion; he appreciated Sam’s honest feedback and his perspective, thus he finally approved the strategy.
Sam began his presentation of the strategy with the bad news first. After the regional leaders spoke with the impacted individuals he disclosed that approximately 30% of the team members would lose their jobs as a lot of their tasks would be given to a shared service center in India. In the second step he showed the concept to turn around the business by focusing on more value to the customers, regaining customer satisfaction and eventually becoming the source of continuous improvement.
The team recognized their involvement in the concept through the earlier intense discussions and they welcomed the potential development, however the immediate reaction was restrained at best. The cut was deep and the reduction of headcount was hard to accept for everybody, even though the offered compensation for the impacted personnel was perceived as fair.
Sam knew that beforehand, he consciously put ‘all cards on the table’ to remain trustworthy, he didn’t expect an immediate buy-in and gave the team time to settle. Two months later the regional teams came together for an annual kick-off meeting, also to discuss the strategy. The energy around this topic became much more positive in the meantime. On one hand because its logic and long-term orientation was appealing and convincing on the other hand because most of the laid off team members found new jobs in the organization.
Groups worked in breakout sessions on the implementation of the strategy and assembled a comprehensive list of actions. Each individual assumed ownership for parts of the plan and fully committed to the overall strategy, most visibly by accepting the related annual team goals as part of the individual bonus agreement.
Even more notable was, that everybody saw the adjusted scope of work required a reflection on individual behavior and change if needed. In some cases Sam could connect the departmental strategy with individual aspirations, an employee in Asia said to him “I don’t have to look for the next step in my career, it comes to me !’ Sam felt good to reach this very important milestone, he unveiled the answers within the team and expanded their view, has acted as a coachitive leader!
Tie the team together
To keep the momentum Sam introduced a structure with several elements that allowed the team to frequently interact on a global level despite the geographical distances. For his management group he arranged short but numerous calls. This allowed them to deal with a 13 hour range of time zones and it kept the discussion lively and crisp.
Sam met his direct reports individually in a video call every other week. The format enabled them to better observe each other, to avoid misunderstandings and to develop a closer connection. The agenda was flexible; it contained items related to the strategy implementation and ongoing business as well as leadership coaching elements. Sam used these interactions to gently challenge his regional managers and acknowledge them for their achievements.
Employees from all regions continued to cooperate in global projects. Once a quarter the entire global team came together for a ‘Learnshop’. This is a conference call in which team members volunteer to present new experiences with their peers or share specific knowledge they gained.
Twice a year Sam traveled to see the regional teams in interactive workshops. Together they reviewed and celebrated progress in executing the strategy; identified current roadblocks and explored opportunities to overcome them. Other intense experiences were the discussion of team assessments, they additionally supported the individual self-awareness and the better collaboration within the teams. Around the workshop Sam took time for face-to-face meetings with team members. Their perspectives helped him to holistically see the state of the business. On the other hand he could keep them engaged by asking powerful questions like: “What would you do differently if you would be in my shoes ?”
At the end of each month Sam sent out an e-mail to the entire team highlighting their progress in implementing the strategy, he acknowledged individual achievements and kept the team focused on their common goals.
Several team members had to visit their colleagues in the shared service center in India to train them and transfer specific tasks. Remarkably, no conflicts arose from the fact that this entity was the reason for a number of employees in Sam’s team to lose their jobs, in contrast a cooperative relationship between partners started to grow. Sam began to include also the team in India in his regular visits. It was for him less a business need but rather a clear sign that this team is part of the bigger global team. He was touched when he once left from Singapore to Mumbai and his regional team asked him to bring some small presents to India. There the manager told Sam: “The team was indeed overwhelmed by the teamwork in your department”. Later it became common practice that Sam was asked to bring small signs of gratitude from one regional team to the others.
Culture is defined as the collective programming of the mind, which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another. Even though all of Sam’s employees and those in the shared service center are working for the same global corporate organization they bring their local culture and their local values into the newly created global team. There are some very obvious examples. Punctuality for instance is much more valued in Asia vs. in Latin America. Disparities in personal relationships are visible when Dutch are very direct, North Europeans and North Americans get down to business quickly but Indians build the relationship first.
Other cultural differences are hidden and can easily create misunderstandings or irritations. Sam had an interesting conversation with Camilla, his manager in Asia. When he asked her for some feedback on his own leadership style, she hesitated to respond and said that she wasn’t used to such an interaction. They agreed to give Camilla some time to think about it. When they picked up the topic again after two days the process was a bit stringy, like an exercise in the gym done the first time, but it worked. The feedback was primarily positive, so that Sam asked at the end “Where do I have opportunities to do better ?” After a little while Camilla asked “Why do I get so many exclamation marks ?” The point was that apparently in the Singaporean culture an exclamation mark in a text highlights criticism. Sam uses a lot of exclamation marks in his e-mails to show excitement and encouragement. So a simple e-mail like “Let’s talk about that tomorrow !” means for him: ‘I am looking forward to speaking with you’. For Camilla it reads like ‘you have done something wrong, we have to review it ‘. Both enjoyed the clarity gained and the value of an open and two-way feedback was impressively proven.
Sam had similar discussions with all his direct reports. He encouraged the entire team to provide immediate feedback to each other in case one would violate the feelings of another colleague. Sam empowered them to focus on their presence and behavior, which then helped to solve conflicts relatively easily, avoid escalations, further build teamwork and increase the overall performance.
In different meetings the team started to discuss their understanding of focus, execution and improvement, the attitude Sam expected from them. Over time they developed an aligned understanding of what it takes to excel in their role and formed their own culture as a team.
When coaching his people Sam remained attentive to their local cultures and showed his respect by adjusting his approach accordingly.
The winning team
Sam and his team have made significant progress since they agreed on their strategy. All identified reporting tasks have been handed over to the shared service center. Less capacity is meanwhile necessary for the regular customer reporting after related activities have been reviewed together and then streamlined. This gives them the opportunity to be much more active in offering value adding services which raised very positive reactions from their customers.
The team is on course and confident to also take the next steps as planned. Their involvement in shaping the direction highly motivates them. Common professional values, common approaches and common goals give them a sense of unity.
The strategy is not fully implemented yet, nevertheless Sam feels accomplished as a leader. One of the regional leaders said once to Sam: “I look at you, your style and try to adopt where I feel the need”. Sam has touched people’s lives; he listened, empowered and connected them.
Observations and Conclusions
Sam learnt in his new role that coaching is a way of leading; it is not something he does separately. He rebuilt his leadership style by practicing all the tools he gained through his coaching education. His belief in transparency and authenticity were his key ingredients for success. Sam truly evolved into a coachitive leader.