Executive Coaching – A Systems Perspective

Leaders, Context and Leadership (as a social process)

It is important to be clear about some of the fundamental assumptions that inform your approach and specific practices as an Executive Coach – especially where/when you are working with the CEO and her/his Executive Leadership team in a large, complex organisation (call them Enterprise Leaders who need to think, feel, relate and act as an “enterprise leadership team” ).  

How one thinks about Change and the impact of executive coaching:  1st order and 2nd order interventions…

Our understanding of how to ‘solve’ client/organisation problems also requires an understanding of HOW the stated problems are created and maintained.  Implicit to this is the understanding that all systems are ‘self correcting’, which means that you need to pay close attention to what creates and maintains the current state over and above an understanding of whether this ‘current state’ is acceptable or not.

Key to this is an understanding that an individual’s behaviour is always the reciprocal result of the person and their context and the significance of the processes underlying this “person-in-context” relationship.

(Sean Germond)

Traditional executive coaching interventions are typically based on a person centred ‘logical problem solving’ perspective, where the emphasis on change (goals always imply change) would be the person’s behaviour/practices within the system (and therefore being consistent with the rules of that system).  Such an approach means that the executive coach’s focus is on assisting your client with new skills, new insights and new strategies to deal with the system as it is.  

This is called “1st-order change”:  i.e., when you assist your client to develop alternative, more effective coping strategies and leadership practices to deal with the existing reality of the system that he/she is part of.  This is all good and well, but I have seen (and have experienced) how such an approach can potentially results in your client (and you as Executive Coach!), getting caught up in, and even worse reinforcing, what others have called[1]a ‘game without end’.   

This is not to negate the value of coaching the individual him/herself in terms of their own personal insight and self awareness, leadership practices (based on their frames of reference), or abilities (such as EQ, people management or business/organisational management skills). Often, such an intervention is more than adequate for the client and client organisation to perceive/realise the benefit of their investment in executive coaching.  

I have found, however, that the more senior your client, the more relevant the need to also consider “2nd-order change” interventions to support this 1st-order change process.  This requires you to assist your client in ‘changing the rules’ of the existing system that is sustaining the current response patterns that need to be addressed.  To achieve this, you are required to not only develop a deep understanding and appreciation of the system itself (i.e., the client’s business and organisational context), but to also assist your client (and his/her leadership team) with interrogating and shifting their assumptions in often quite radical ways in order to understanding the ‘person-in-situation’ context in a fundamentally different way.  

Implicit in 2nd-order change interventions, is that new assumptions allow new behavioural alternatives, which allows one to consider changing the system that is shaping/defining the perceived ‘problematic’ behaviour.

Reframing as a 2nd-order practice

How we ‘frame’ the world limits the potential for 2nd-order change.  Reframing is an invaluable ‘gestalt switch’ that encourages you to shift the existing ‘problem situation’ into a new set of assumptions (e.g., conflict = dysfunctional team, to conflict = healthy functioning high performance team).  By reframing one opens up the process of creating an alternative context that offers space for alternative behaviours. The process of reframing starts with you as coach being mindful of your own reference points as you engage with the client-in-context.  

Reframing is a subtle process that is based on how you structure the conversation (the engagement) as well as what the coaching conversation is all about (typically, it starts with the personal but moves towards an interpersonal contextual and peer-2-peer conversation that is facilitated by the coach)

Being a “perturber” rather than a “change agent”…

Because I am always ‘working from the outside’ yet ‘become part of the system that I am entering,’ I understand that the role of an executive coach is not that of change agent.  In keeping with a client centred approach, ones’ role is to assist and facilitate your client as change agent (for themselves as well as to the system that they are part of). A such, executive coaching is often the process of helping your client understand and appreciate the implications of ‘pertubating’ the system that they are part of, in keeping with a 2nd order change perspective.   

I use the term perturbation in the biological sense which refers to an alteration of function induced by external or internal mechanisms.  Biological systems can be perturbed though a number of means (environmental stimuli such as pressure/temperature changes; the introduction of substances such as medication; or manipulation of the actual genetic structure of the organism). 

In coaching executives and their leadership teams, perturbation is often through introducing new ideas/thinking, creating opportunities for new experiences/breakthroughs, considering structures and processes that support current roles and ways of working; or developing your client’s own abilities and practices to alter the system that they are part of in support of the desired goals of the coaching programme.

It helps to maintain an appreciation that large problems do not always require large solutions in order to effect change!

[1]Becvar & Becvar (Family therapy, a systemic integration)

Next Generation Leadership – Guiding Hypotheses to consider in leadership programme design

Traditional leadership programmes have a strong ‘management development content’ bias in the hope that by exposing leaders to knowledge and skills, there would be a concomitant change in how these leaders behave on completion of the learning experience – that there would be an impact back at work.

The following ideas about “Next Generation Leadership” were developed in response to a growing need to challenge and redefine what it takes to lead in a globally connected, ever changing and increasingly complex social and business environment.  The genesis of these ideas were developed in conversation and collaboration with Tom Cummings[1] and Charles Handy[2] over a 3 year period back in 2005-2007) when we were designing a programme for ‘emerging leaders’, or ‘new leaders’ who were going to participate in an annual global forum which focuses on some of the big questions of our time[3].

Next Generation Leadership – The Guiding Three Hypotheses

In developing our thinking about next generation leadership practices, we have been guided by the following three hypotheses about what we believe next generation leaders need to consider in terms of their own learning and development:

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Winning Teams – Pygmalion’s High Performance Team framework

“No man is an island unto himself…”


Having “Great People” in a team does not necessarily mean we can expect “Great Teamwork” from the team. Yes, we know you need to have the right people, but a team is by definition “a group of individuals with a shared identity who collaborate to achieve a common purpose or objective”.

This definition is inclusive in the sense that it can apply to all areas of life: from community groups, sporting teams right through to workplace teams. In the workplace, this means a defined group of employees within an organisation who are accountable for working together to achieve specific deliverables that are in line with business objectives. Often, this can also mean a ‘task group’ that has been created to deliver on a specific initiative/project – a more complicated team in that it has a more diverse set of functional/technical capabilities with members coming from across the broader organisation, and it has to ‘get going’ faster and be more agile in how it goes about delivering on its’ set of objectives.

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High Performance Organisations – reconciling the dilemma of efficiency and innovation

IMG_1027One of the polarities that leaders face in creating/nurturing a high performance organisation is how to hold the tension between organisational efficiency/effectiveness and encouraging innovation/exploring new opportunities and practices.    From my coaching work with senior executives, I have been intrigued by their uniquely individual approaches to reconciling the high performance dilemma of on the one hand fine-tuning the system, yet on the other hand encouraging radical change – both in support of the business growth agenda.

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Why Goal Alignment is good for your Business

unlocking growthThe oxford english dictionary gives 2 definitions for the word ‘alignment’ – the first relates to “the arrangement of things into their correct relative positions”, the second relates to “the position of agreement or alliance“.   We all tend to use the word ‘alignment’ quite quickly, but as with all business jargon, it is easier to say it than to mean it…  I am finding that both definitions are very relevant when it comes to ensuring not only leadership team alignment, but also cross functional alignment…

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