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Coaching

A conversation between a chief executive and a systemic leadership coach/advisor

When executive coaches have themselves internalised systemic leadership practice, they will want to find ways of introducing the approach to their clients. We would expect conversations like the fictional one below to become more common, particularly at the beginning of a coaching relationship.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE

As a systemic leadership coach, you are going to help me apply this approach in our organisation. What does that mean for me personally, my own coaching?

ADVISER/COACH
We will be focusing on your interest in how well your organisation as a whole works – especially how it releases, uses and manifests leadership. More specifically, how it uses leadership to continually improve, ‘making tomorrow better than today’ as we say – safeguarding the future as well as delivering today’s operational business. This means the leadership culture – what leadership looks like, how it works round here, what it is used for and what it does, and how it seeks to change and improve itself too so that the organisation can become better led organically, not hierarchically.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE
You stress ‘not hierarchically’.

ADVISER/COACH
Systemic leadership can be thought of as the opposite of command and control. Leadership belongs to the whole system, not just individual leaders. It is more than distributed leadership, though that is a big element. An organisation may be staffed with individually skilled leaders, but that doesn’t guarantee that it will get its leadership act together. But that’s what we’re trying to do.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE
What is this ‘whole system’?

ADVISER/COACH
An organisation can be thought of as a system of many interacting aspects. As well as having individual leaders, it has human processes, and many other systems and sub-systems, such as the reward system for example. We take a systems perspective rather than an individual one, being more concerned with improving the effective working of the whole rather than individual parts or individual leaders and even teams of leaders.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE
How do you observe the way the whole system works?

ADVISER/COACH
We are particularly interested in what glues the elements together. Where is there scope for improvement? Where are the gaps and what is falling down them? Where is waste going on – especially the waste of leadership? What is blocking leadership? How are relationships between executives, and between systems that have a bearing on leadership?

CHIEF EXECUTIVE
I suspect there are many things one could look into and try to improve, but where is a good place to start?

ADVISER/COACH
One of the elements in a well-led organisation – but one that is widely neglected – is having a clear process for holding senior managers formally and firmly to account for the things that matter most, on an ongoing basis. This particularly includes their exercise of leadership. A cornerstone of systemic leadership is how well accountability for leadership of the organisation is understood and managed. We are particularly interested here in senior managers’ corporate leadership, beyond their own individual job; that is, a share in the responsibility for ensuring that the organisation works together as an integrated system.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE
What does that mean in practice?

ADVISER/COACH
Rather than simply hoping that the organisation works healthily, we want to know how the leadership process itself is put under the spotlight practically and how responsible officials are called to account for the conduct of that process.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE
That sounds like a governance issue.

ADVISER/COACH
It is. If the organisation isn’t working well (too many silos, too much bureaucracy, too slow to respond, fraught relationships, a culture of blame, abuse of power, failure of coordination, etc.) then you, and everyone else, need to know where the buck stops in the organisation and what is being done about it.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE
The buck stops with me.

ADVISER/COACH
That’s ultimately true, and you may want to have a direct hand on the action yourself, in which case I suggest that you would need help in knowing what to look for and what questions to ask. You may instead choose to make one of your senior executives responsible for monitoring, advising and coordinating improvement action. That official will probably be a HR Director, Head of Organisation Development, or Chief Operating Officer, someone like that.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE
Wouldn’t they do that anyway? In fact, wouldn’t all my directors be doing that?

ADVISER/COACH
You might expect so, but the question of how well the organisation works as a system, and how it can become better, is often neglected and even avoided, at least formally. If responsibility is seen as shared, the quality of relationships between colleagues may itself be a hot issue and difficult to highlight and discuss. Or the organisation’s health and wellbeing may be a blind spot, or too difficult. Each official may think that someone else has their finger on this particular pulse. So clarifying responsibility, and what that means in practical terms, helps.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE
Is that it?

ADVISER/COACH
Besides clarifying where responsibility lies and what it is for, one needs to be clear with individuals how they will formally be called to account for discharging their leadership responsibilities; that is, for the quality of the leadership culture and the leadership ‘system’. And that is as an ongoing governance process and not just when something has gone wrong. In practice, it may be triggered by a serious systemic failure in the organisation and therefore of corporate leadership itself.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE
How should I hold responsible executives to account?

ADVISER/COACH
Decide who needs to be in the room when the responsible advising official is being called to account for the discharge of his or her responsibilities. It may just be you and the official, but I suggest that it is your senior team collectively. In any case, make sure that you are properly briefed and know what to ask and explore. You will probably want a one-to-one pre-meeting with the official on your own first.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE
Are these meetings awkward?

ADVISER/COACH
How leadership works, vertically, horizontally and organically is a politically charged matter. There are usually vested interests among senior executives in leaving things undiscussed and untouched. The process should be respectful, but honest, open, tough and challenging. There is always scope in any organisation for doing things much better, especially in how leadership operates.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE
We shall soon find out. What is the next step?

ADVISER/COACH
First, think about and decide which official should hold responsibility for monitoring, advising and coordinating improvement action concerning how well the organisation works, especially in respect of its leadership process. Share your thoughts on this with the individual concerned, discussing how you see the role, need and priorities.

Then discuss with your senior executive team as a group why you think this is important, what has led you to see a need, and your plans to act on this. Make clear the accountability process in which they will all have a role, what will be reported on formally in writing and what handled by oral presentation and discussion.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE
What sort of things are likely to be covered?

ADVISER/COACH
Things like this:

  1. How easily can people gain access to those they feel a need to talk to?
  2. How truthfully can people speak to their manager?
  3. How freely does information flow, unimpeded by rules, protocol, status, hierarchy, etc?
  4. How safely can people say No to their boss?
  5. How fully are people allowed to participate in decisions that affect them?
  6. How is managers’ leadership discussed in their performance reviews?
  7. How well does coordination work across boundaries?
  8. Where are there unresolved conflicts of interest?
  9. How healthy is the state of balance between the organisation’s formal/public/rational persona, and its informal/unofficial/shadow side, including things like politics?
  10. Where are the bodies hidden? What things are covered up and no one dare talk about?
  11. Where is there deceit in the organisation?
  12. What are we not good at learning from organisationally?
  13. Where are the biggest risks in how the organisation works?
  14. And, of course, how is rigorous accountability practised throughout the organisation on all important matters?

You may be starting with a fairly blank canvas, or you may already know – probably your colleagues too – that there are obvious issues that require improvement. You will want to generate a list with your colleagues in order to agree the focus.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE
And the other elements of systemic leadership?

ADVISER/COACH
Yes, we’ll come onto those, particularly discussing the leadership culture in more depth and your role in improving it.

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