Coaching at the top table

Instead of coaching board executives as individuals why not coach the top team as a whole? This is how it works.

Do your board meetings present a united front or resemble a war front? There is an increasing awareness that British business is dominated by the latter and that senior executives are aspiring to being top guns – not as top teams – as they fly solo rather than work collaboratively.

“The trouble with top teams is that they are hindered by their structure as well as their egos,” says the head of leadership development at a national organisation, who wishes to remain anonymous.

She says that many of her board members are busy defending their functional role. “They have often been promoted because of their functional skills, leaving us to fight hard to make them understand that leadership skills are needed to see the bigger picture.”

HR and people development specialists often feel powerless to comment and so the in-fighting continues. The end result is that the organisation suffers, as it cannot sustain a great performance. According to Harvard Business Review (Turning Strategy into Great Performance, Harvard Business Review 2005), the average team achieves only 63% of strategic objectives.

The answer to stopping the rot could be to supplement executive coaching by bringing in a coach to work collectively with the team, not just on a one-to-one basis. Here is a chance for coaching to prove its return on investment: its benefits are apparent to the board as they control the profitability of an organisation and their progress.

At Newcastle Business School, Jane Turner, associate dean in executive development, is seeing a fresh demand for recruiting a special brand of coaching to tackle the lack of purpose and accountability which can create deadlock.

“Both suppliers and customers are increasingly asking for what I call senior team facilitation but which is frequently referred to as top-team coaching,” she says.

Turner identifies the danger signs for such coaching. “This is normally indicated by the mood in the boardroom such as a team caught in issues a chief executive with no interaction and key conversations taking place outside the boardroom,” she says.

She says that it’s then down to coaching to “unlock the stuckness”. Coaches go in to observe the board and their personalities before giving them feedback. And these conversations have to be distinguished by impact and tact.

“I normally use a sporting metaphor which helps people move away from where they are but which is respectful to people at the time,” says Turner. “For example, I might say ‘you’re a football team which doesn’t know who is on the pitch’. I’d follow this up with questions on what direction they should be heading in and also include facilitation.”

The strongest coaching element to this approach is an emphasis on reflective thinking. “The coach has to connect with the team and peel back the layers of onions,” she says, “and the coach has to have the ability to deal with discomfort.”

Being able to challenge the floundering CEO is a prerequisite to top team coaching, says Georgina Woudstra, co-founder and chief executive of board development specialist Wisdom8.

“I ask the CEO what they want from the top team and what they believe is on the team already. In a recent example a CEO went on to change the shape to a core team of four plus himself and created [an extra] broader team for consultative level questions.”

Wisdom8 has developed a programme known as Roundtable, which moves from the initial interviews with the CEO on the strengths and gaps in the team through a diagnostic tool and survey called the Team Climate System.

The company and the top team create a development plan which is targeted on the areas which should make the biggest difference to the team’s performance. Each team member is then given a Top Team performance coach who feeds themes (not individual confidential problems) to a lead coach.

“It is critical that each member of the team is coached,” says Woudstra.

“And the core of top team coaching should be very similar to how one-on- one coaching works. It is about working to an agreed contract and managing boundaries,” she says.

Stephanie Sparrow

Ten top tips for coaching top teams

  1. Interview the CEO and all team members in order to understand key issues.
  2. Identify individual strengths and prioritise areas of development.
  3. Run a team development exercise to generate understanding of each other
  4. Survey the members to diagnose areas which will leverage the biggest difference to a team’s performance
  5. Implement one-to-one coaching around personal development goals
  6. Coach the team as a team while it works on real-life business issues
  7. Ask board-level coaches to share the key themes and challenges faced by the team
  8. Ask the coaches run co-supervision sessions for each other to gain a greater understanding of what is happening with the team.
  9. Be aware that the top team has to be able to acknowledge its progress.
  10. Run a survey after six months to help them do this and to identify the next desirable stage.

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