If there is one constant theme in the stacks of business research being conducted today, it’s the importance of change. Since the modern marketplace is increasingly defined by change, an organisation’s ability to stay relevant is defined by its own adaptive powers. We see this in surveys, white papers, and cold hard facts. Among those companies who topped the Fortune 500 in 2000, only 40% held their positions in 2010. And that’s just one decade. The fact that we’re seeing a slew of old economy businesses struggling in today’s environment, and often failing, only bears this out. If that isn’t an advertisement for the power of change in 21st century business, nothing is!
But where does an organisation find its adaptive powers? Where does the ability to change and adapt really come from?
Traditional answers to this question have centred on things like product innovation, business strategy, and interactions between companies and markets. While these are crucial parts of the change equation, there is a deeper stratum. Effective change is more than a clever strategy, a technological advance, or a new marketing initiative. The true source lies within individuals—especially those on whom organisations rely most.
Change From the Inside Out
The proposition made by executive coaching is simple: Empower executives and other key players to embrace change within their own personal sphere, so that driving organisational change comes naturally. In practice, this means setting targets and striving to hit them through the coaching process. It also means bringing an individual’s coaching goals into alignment with broader business goals (see this study on the relationship between goals and ROI in coaching).
At the same time, spontaneity is key. The coach is a sounding board, a feedback mechanism, and a confidential outlet for self-reflection. How can I better understand my own leadership style? Where do my behavioural patterns result in missed opportunities? How can I better understand the interpersonal dynamics around me? When executives embrace change on personal and behavioural levels, their ability to embrace organisational change is multiplied.
But can change within a key player really spread into the organisation? Can the coaching of only one or a few individuals really make an organisation more fluid and adaptable? In answer to that question, consider the following real-life case.
From CFO to CEO
We recently worked with a bright CFO who wanted to become a CEO. His EQ was low, and his leadership style was heavily geared toward results. These traits had served him well in junior roles; but now that he was a senior executive, his stakeholders were more diverse and demanding. His teams were bigger, and because he lacked the ability to understand their needs, they were unhappy.
A 360 degree survey gave insight into why this was happening. The CFO was commonly perceived as “going through the motions” and merely pushing for results. He wasn’t engaging his teams or involving his peers in decision-making. He even answered his own questions in meetings, leaving others feeling unengaged and demoralised.
We tailored the coaching process to address these concerns. Started with the basics of effective emailing, we explored ways in which he could seek input rather than demand outcomes. From there, we worked on how to engage teams on a personal level—in particular, how to understand that they are people with families, problems and goals of their own. We aimed to develop his self-control, so that he generated input and affinity rather than alienation.
Despite being a highly-driven and self-determined executive, the CFO was receptive to the coaching process. As he practised new ways of engaging people, he noticed changes in how they engaged him.
Executive coaching doesn’t attempt to alter personalities, but it does use behaviour modifications and coping mechanisms to improve performance. In other words, the CFO’s negative traits didn’t vanish into thin air. But the side-effects became less pronounced, and his positive style became the norm. People began to trust him more. He learned that the only way to reach the top was to elevate those around him.
The overall result of the coaching process? Not only is the CFO on his way to a CEO role, but the organisation has evolved a more collaborative culture. Change within a key player has improved the organisation as a whole.
Why Change Fails
The CFO’s results-driven attitude is itself a good example of why successful change initiatives are so rare. A recent survey on culture and change management, conducted by the Katzenbach Center, suggests that some 60 percent of major change initiatives fail; and when they do, it’s because they don’t engage the personal, informal and cultural dynamics within the organisation. 84 percent of respondents in that survey felt that organisational culture plays an important role in change efforts, while 64 percent considered culture even more important than business strategy.
Embracing change begins with people and interpersonal dynamics. That’s why executive coaching is more relevant than ever. While it can’t solve the big strategic problems directly, it can engage key players on levels that matter to them. It can feed their personal evolution directly into the culture and strategy of the organisation. The result is change from the inside out, and greater adaptability to a constantly changing marketplace.
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