Sven Gade

Coachitive Leader

Ready for a new approach

Alex is a seasoned leader; 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 Alex 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, Alex 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 Alex 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.

Challenges

In his new role Alex 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 team members in Asia, Europe and North America spread over eight locations.. 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.

Alex’ 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 Alex.

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 Alex’ 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 !

Immediate action

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 Alex’ 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 Alex 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 Alex 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. Alex 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.

Alex 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. Alex 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.

Alex 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.

Get support

Before communicating the strategy to his team Alex 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. Alex 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 atypical approach for the US and Asia, where employees have very short notice periods. But Alex 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.

Alex 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 Alex’ manager wanted to gain higher cost savings. Alex 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 Alex’ honest feedback and his perspective, thus he finally approved the strategy.

Obtain commitment

Alex 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.

Alex 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 Alex 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 !” Alex 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 Alex 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.

Alex 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. Alex 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 to their peers or share specific knowledge they gained.

Twice a year Alex 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 Alex 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 Alex 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 Alex’ team to lose their jobs, in contrast a cooperative relationship between partners started to grow. Alex 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 Alex: “The team was indeed overwhelmed by the teamwork in your department”. Later it became common practice that Alex was asked to bring small signs of gratitude from one regional team to the others.

Cultural differences

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 Alex’ 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. Alex had an interesting conversation with 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 his manager 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 Alex asked at the end “Where do I have opportunities to do better ?” After a little while the Asian manager 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. Alex 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 his manager 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.

Alex 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. Alex 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 Alex 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 Alex remained attentive to their local cultures and showed his respect by adjusting his approach accordingly.

The winning team

Alex 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 Alex feels accomplished as a leader. One of the regional managers said once to Alex: “I look at you, your style and try to adopt where I feel the need”. Alex has touched people’s lives; he listened, empowered and connected them.

Observations and Conclusions

Alex 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. Alex truly evolved into a coachitiveleader.

Sven GadeCoachitive Leader
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Focus vs Clutter

Meaning of Focus

The important goals in life are not easily achieved. They require a full hearted commitment by the individual, to invest the necessary energy, time and other resources to make them happen. These goals define then the top priorities in our life. Nevertheless it is possible that despite all enthusiasm and willingness we are not progressing as planned, struggle on our way forward and eventually even stop our efforts and give up on our great intentions.

Focus is required to achieve the main goals in our lives as they compete with other less important activities for the limited energy and time that we have.

Let’s first think about a little activity. In front of us is a glass jar surrounded by three containers. The largest was filled with sand, another contained polished pebbles, and a third held nearly a dozen fist-sized rocks. The task is to place all the material into the glass jar—the sand, the pebbles, and the rocks. We can take all the time we need to think it through. An approach could be to pour the sand into the jar and smoothing the layer with our hand; the pebbles would form the next stratum, and then come the rocks. Regardless of how we arrange the rocks, we always have four left over. By all means the approach is wrong. The solution however is to start with the big rocks first. Once they were all in the jar, the pebbles could be placed in the spaces between them and the fine-grained sand could be shifted into the smallest crevices. The connection to our personal planning doesn’t need to be explained. If we start with the big rocks, we will find space for the pebbles and sand in our life.

People fulfill different roles at the same time, as a professional, as a family member, as a friend, as a part of a community, as member of different projects. All these roles come with related obligations and goals that need to be carefully balanced. Therefore focus is of the essence to meet our own and others expectations in each of the respective roles.

Focus (cognitive process): selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things (Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focus of focus

A strong focus is demonstrated by athletes before competition. A swimmer, a tennis player, a high jumper shuts everything off but their next moves – how to pull through the water, to cross the bar, to hit the ball. There is a clear priority, nothing else matters. They visualize their success; every part of their body is directed towards their goal.

Focus doesn’t mean to give up on flexibility. We live in an ever faster changing world; we operate in volatile markets, which unexpectedly present new opportunities, hurdles and risks. These dynamics affect also others in our network and let them change as well, leaders, employees, business partners, friends and loved ones. Flexibility has to come from a safe space for reflection, to evaluate changes relevant to achieve our goals, review intermediate achievements and make adjustments as far as needed.

However flexibility in this sense is not the reaction to the growing distraction in a world, which has become more connected, more global, more complex.

Recognize Clutter

We often hear comments like these: “There is so much going on !”, “I am so busy !” or “Times are crazy !” and we don’t hear from our best friends for too long as they are reacting to all requests at work and other obligation until we get an e-mail starting with the words “Sorry for the late reply..”. People are a permanent target of distraction, which is becoming more frequent, more aggressive as modern technology makes us almost always reachable- anywhere, anytime. Information travels fast, it pushes us, we feel obligated, almost addicted to react immediately because it’s so simple.

Once we open the door for distraction, clutter comes in, as does the temptations to change course. When this happens we are driven by other’s agendas and will be permanently chased by them.

Clutter: a large amount of things that are not arranged in a neat or orderly way; a crowded or disordered collection of things (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/clutter)

Sources of Clutter

A few causes for clutter are fairly common and stand out even though the reasons in each case might be much more specific.

Clutter can be generated by our underlying beliefs. We don’t want to disappoint anybody, are ‘too friendly’ and react to any favor we are being asked for. We also might believe that most requests brought to us need an immediate reaction and we find ourselves constantly replying to the stream of e-mails or Facebook posts reaching us.

In other cases clutter is a result of fear. We might see changes brought about by our goal only over time and are suddenly afraid and can’t let go of the past. Once we also see all the detailed actions leading to our goal we feel a fear of failing, not being able to make some of the small steps necessary to go forward to the aspired destination.

Sometimes it is our behavior that lacks structure and doesn’t support what really matters in our lives, which then causes clutter. If we don’t have a personal action plan, no written agenda, if we are just going with the flow and set our priorities unconsciously and spontaneously; we’ll face difficulties to achieve what we are striving for.

We need clear agreements with others and ourselves.

Focus in Practice

We have a choice not to become a victim of clutter. Once our long-term goals are clear in all aspects of life, such as profession, family, health, hobby and finance we need to identify those that will get the majority of our energy and attention. These main goals really matter to us, they determine our daily priorities and they have to dominate our agenda. It is almost impossible to focus on more than two / three goals with their respective sets of action. Trying to focus on everything at once means to focus on nothing !

In order to achieve our goals we first need to determine the sequence of milestones that will bring us to the desired destination like a stopover on a longer trip. The approach to each milestone requires multiple activities which can be grouped into monthly, weekly and daily actions. The effort related to those actions is our anticipated investments in our goals.

We need to be clear on the most important tasks of a day before we start to act. They usually are connected with the main goals and need to be addressed first, like the big rocks in the glass jar. Importance comes before urgency !

“Urgent tasks are those requiring immediate action, or those with the earliest deadlines. However, we all have differing priorities, and someone else’s urgent deadline may not necessarily be an important one for us. Our important actions and tasks, by contrast, are those which assist us in achieving our own goals or priorities.” (http://www.pocketfm.com/general/important-vs-urgent/)

Our plans don’t have to be complex, but they are better written down. On one hand we don’t want to know by heart all the smaller tasks with lower priorities and on the other hand it’ll help us to internalize the bigger picture.

People have a tendency to overcommit, so that they end up doing too much at the same time. Times are not crazy but our plans are ! The time we have for our goals is limited and a certain portion of it is already reserved for consciously created routines, e.g. workouts, meditation, errands, meeting friends. Short breaks need to be accounted for in our daily plans as well, they are a powerful tool to mentally reenergize. The kind of breaks and their frequency differ by individual; some like to take a look in the newspaper, some like a light exercise others enjoy a chat with a colleague or a friend. The available hours after all these routines constitute our net capacity. By checking our action plans against our net capacity we can prevent over-commitments.

Requests brought to us by others could impact our plans. The first and most important question to be asked is: Am I the right owner of this task or is somebody trying to let me do his work ? However, there will be cases were adjustments of plans are necessary after conscious and careful reflection.

As soon as we notice an overload of activities and tasks we can proactively adjust our plans starting from the low priorities. The following questions will lead us to a solution:

  • How can we negotiate the timelines with our partners ?
  • Who else would be in the best position to take over ?
  • What would happen if we completely cancel the task ?

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on.
But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other
good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud
of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done.” Steve Jobs

A solid plan provides an excellent baseline to see progress when reflecting on a day’s activities, to detect learning and growth, to recognize successes before maybe challenging oneself. Success breeds success, the plan becomes a source of satisfaction and confidence.

Gaining Focus

A coach can support a client to move from clutter to focus. Monitoring and recording the expenditure of time for certain activity clusters can be a good start. The result might be surprising and a critical review will open new opportunities.

Some clients might react: “I wasn’t aware that I dedicated so much attention to social media. I will drastically change that as of tomorrow”. The social media can be good tool to stay in touch with close friends, to reenergize after a hard day’s work but also a waste of capacity. Others might conclude “The lion share of my workday is for meetings and telephone conferences. I will be more selective and ask myself what my expected contributions and takeaways should be”. In some cases it is more effective to receive the respective information by e-mail instead of attending a meeting or telephone conference. .”

The deep dive into the time analysis will lead client and coach to the general root cause of clutter and lack of focus. They will then be addressed in the next steps of the coaching engagement.

 

Belief

When the client’s clutter is obvious; the related triggers have to be investigated. Somebody ends up doing all kind of tasks for others, because he/she believes that rejecting requests or even challenging given timelines would violate the relationship with another person. In other cases a belief that every request needs an immediate response leads a client to delay other, much more important tasks.

The coach can help to gain clarity, shift the client’s perspectives and re-establish his/her vision.

 

Fear

Even if a client is fully committed on the overall goal fear can creep in somewhere along the way with clutter as a result. It is possible that single tasks seem to be heavier, their impact more massive when they come closer and the client might feel a fear of failure or change.

In cases like this the coach can work with the client to fully understand his/ her emotions and brainstorm different solutions and re-enter a state of positive action.

Structure

Often clients act without the structure to focus on their goals and the related actions. They permanently underestimate their time and effort; they do the easy or quick stuff first before they come to their important tasks. This will add up if done every day and will result in a serious delay or even worst in an uncompleted mission, in a broken dream. It is the same as in the activity with the glass jar; some of the fist-sized rocks will surely not fit if we start with the sand.

Some clients might just increase their focus by turning off their email for three hours in the morning and in the afternoon. A simple test can prove a positive result ! “Participants in a study who completed tasks in parallel took 30% longer and made twice as many errors as those who completed the same tasks in sequence” (McKinsey, Quarterly 2011)

There is a lot of research about people not being able to work without breaks. Creating ‘time off’ in the morning and afternoon can be a highly effective routine.

The coach can encourage a client to think about a better self-management and change a behavior. The client will find a multitude of tools and techniques to remain focused: action-list, prioritization, time-recording, capacity checks, dedicated time slots to respond to e-mails, etc. The coach will support to find the most effective routines and help the client to make them stick.

 

Conclusion

Clutter can easily takeover someone’s life. Focus is an option; however it takes conscious actions to move from one to the other. Knowing the own goals and committing to them is essential to start the process, becoming aware of fears and underlying beliefs will open opportunities for change and introduce a supporting structure will lead to suitability. An experienced coach can be great resource, helping the client to achieve confidence, success and satisfaction.

Sven GadeFocus vs Clutter
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