Coaching the top team: Time for the team talk

Coaches believe that these straitened times are perfect for coaching oganisations’ top teams. Why might that be?

It seems that no one can see their way out of global recession. Even the ‘saviour of the world’, prime minister Gordon Brown, told the World Economic Forum in Davos last month that there is “no clear map” for getting out of the crisis.

Perhaps some coaching, to explore vision and goals, would help.

“At times like this, instead of thinking about how to climb the mountain, imagine that you have already climbed it,” says coaching expert Marielena Sabatier.

Sabatier, who is chief executive of Inspiring Potential, has noticed an increase in demand for team coaching as companies look for help in clarifying their thinking.

“We are coaching top teams in communicating more effectively and in setting a vision,” she says.

Keeping quiet

The problem with a downturn is that leaders can have a tendency to wade through difficult times alone, while their peers and direct reports keep quiet for fear of losing their jobs. Hence the need for coaching arises, with its promise of creating communicative and cohesive teams.

“When under pressure, people tend to close in and ensure the basic need of security is in place, as fear of losing their jobs and business starts driving behaviour and motivations around basic instincts of security, fight and flight,” says Sally Baxter, deputy managing director of Penna Boardroom and Executive Coaching.

“Therefore, creativity, appropriate levels of risk-taking, being out there in the market and commercial savviness are drowned out – that is, the very aspects that are needed for a business to thrive, are stifled,” she says.

“The key for coaches is to encourage leaders in tough times to keep very open channels of communication, involvement and trust. It’s a time to remember and involve top talent, not forget it,” says Baxter.

The moribund economy means that teams need to maximise the return on their time spent in a coaching session and expect to meet coaches who have a business background.

“Coaches want to bounce ideas, to ask for a coach’s opinion and be challenged,” says Baxter. “If we took the most perfect form of coaching and reflected back all of these questions, I wonder how much value we would be providing for our clients?” she says.

Experience counts

An extra benefit of bringing a seasoned coach with business experience is that it is likely to be someone who can remember how UK plc got out of previous economic ruts.

However, chairman of Praesta International, Robin Linnecar, highlights a major issue: “One problem is that some leaders haven’t been through a recession before,” he says. Top teams are being coached together and work towards objectives set for the group rather than just the individuals in it, he says. “The purpose is to bring the team together and to draw on each other’s strengths.” But he points out that it is crucial to identify those individuals’ talents in the first place.

Linnecar uses Belbin’s Team Strengths Inventory, or assessment tool Firo B, or simply questions the team members early on.

“We interview people, or hold a discussion with them, to ask what is going on with the team, find out about the team and bring that back into the collective mindset,” he says.

Acting on a crisis, like the current economic downturn, can actually help to bind a team, he says. “Teams come together when they are working on something together. And it can lead to an opportunity to be creative and to harness ideas.”

Linnecar is enthusiastic about this type of coaching, yet he is also wary of other ideas that may be dressed up as team coaching – an anxiety shared by David Clutterbuck, founder of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council and Clutterbuck Associates.

“Some people bundle anything up as coaching,” says Clutterbuck, “and a lot more people are claiming to do team coaching when they are really doing facilitation, or team-building, and they are not offering coaching.”

Defined goals

He advises prospective coaching customers to have a clear definition of the team coaching process, and to be clear about what they are buying.

This is important because the coach or facilitator’s input will have an effect on the dynamics and progress of the team, and on the final result, so being unclear about what you are buying means that you could end up with an unforeseen result.

First, the buyer needs to be clear about what a team is.

“Is it a team in manner?” says Clutterbuck, “Does it have a clear sense of shared purpose and a sense of inter-dependence?”

And the buyer needs to understand that a coach and a facilitator operate on different levels of involvement. The coach builds on the capability of the team in the first instance and then changes its behaviour.

One illustration of this is that Clutterbuck was recently called in to help a company that had done well before the economic crisis, but was preparing for tougher times and realised that the way the team members interacted had to change.

In such cases it becomes clear that the coach has to get the team to set out its goals and to work through its issues, which can be a complex process

“One of the issues is that if you have a fair idea of where you are taking the conversation then it is facilitation, not coaching,” says Clutterbuck. “Coaching is a much more open dialogue. Also, within facilitation you are taught not to get sucked in, but in coaching you are.”

Clutterbuck sees a facilitator as “a catalyst for change”, whereas “the coach is learning at the same time as the team,” he says. “And the coach changes as well as the team, because the coach learns as well. They share mutuality of the learning.”

The age of the team

Another key consideration in team coaching is the age of the team. There is a proliferation of new teams at the moment as companies merge or cut back.

“New teams need to get off the ground fast. We also know that there are key points in their development,” says Clutterbuck – pointing out that these occur at the beginning, in the middle of their life-cycle – when they need to re-cap – and at the end when they consolidate learning.

Team coaches push the teams towards learning because, ultimately, the goal of the coach is to make himself obsolete.

This is where team coaching shows itself as an unsuitable exercise for line manager coaches. Line managers cannot become obsolete because they need to stay around. They also need to fight their urge to have a parent/child relationship with their reports and to reassure the team members that confidentiality exists in the relationship.

“If you have psychological safety then people feel able to say what they think without fear,” adds Clutterbuck who is developing a postgraduate certificate in team coaching for Oxford Brookes University.

So how can the coach help the team to meet these goals? At the Pinna consultancy, managing director Helen Bailey favours a solution-focused approach which she says helps the team to concentrate on its future and to define the small steps which take it close to the ideal.

“They take away a common shared vision and understanding of where they are as a team,” she says.

Such has been the impact of this approach that Bailey has been able to run this model on half days or as a loose structure for a full day’s coaching with the team.

Top tips for top teams

Sheridan Maguire is a faculty coach at the School of Coaching. Here he sets out his advice on how to run top team coaching and how to make sure that it is not just team facilitation or even teambuilding

  • Know the difference Teambuilding is really about bringing people together who do not know each other well. Team facilitation is not about affecting the dynamics, but hoping for a good result. And team coaching rises above those things – its about the psycho-dynamics.
  • Understand what’s at stake The top team is the centrepiece of the whole organisation.
  • Observe the power base The coach should sit with the team as a whole and spend a session just observing and taking note. Find out who’s powerful, who’s different.
  • Intervene with the team Set out, with them, the ground rules for the coaching, such as honesty, fun and truthfulness.
  • Be an honest broker There is something happening here that requires them to give up their positions and to be much more collaborative. Celebrate team coaching as coaching at its best. Here is coaching shifting the whole system, not like individual coaching, which will have single impact.

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