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.

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)

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)