Knowledge Center: Article

Leadership Development

The power and process of team coaching

Subscribe to Leadership Development 12/31/2015 Cathy Powell and Sharon Toye

power and process of team coaching

Organizations face considerable change and uncertainty and will continue to do so. In this context, it is crucial to motivate and manage teams for success. Traditionally teams have turned to team building and team facilitation to support them in the challenges they face. Here the focus is on the individuals within the team and with tasks internal to the team, such as identifying how relationships can be improved so that the team can work better.

This approach has value but its value is limited. Team coaching, by contrast, enables a team to function as more than a sum of its parts by clarifying what the team is there to do and by improving the relationships both within the team and between the team and its external environment. Achieving this goal requires integrating a finely balanced combination of individual coaching, work on interpersonal relationships, coaching the whole team on its purpose and behaviors, building successful stakeholder interfaces, and aligning the purpose of the team with the needs of the wider organization. Team coaching is a well-blended synthesis of team facilitation, organizational consulting, organizational development, individual work, and team development work. The specific combination and approach used depends entirely on the formation of the team, what stage the team is at in its lifecycle, the organizational context in which it is nested, and the issues and challenges the team faces.

Principles for team performance

Work together on the decisions most important to the business

To be truly high performing, team members need to work together successfully to coordinate highly interdependent work and focus on the small number of decisions most consequential to the business. Often teams end up being a collection of individuals with individual accountability who meet with a leader to discuss and agree upon the extent to which their contributions are delivering on the organization’s goals. Such teams are not really teams at all and are certainly not high-performing ones.

High-performing teams don’t happen by accident

Getting to high performance requires identifying how the team needs to work in practice so it can put into place the right processes, governance, structures, behaviors, education, and communication to ensure successful goal setting and delivery. MIT’s Peter Senge comments powerfully on this: “It is amazing how often you come across teams with an average intelligence of over 120, but the team functions at a collective intelligence of about 60.”

Team coaching needs to focus on the “real work” of the team

The real work of the team includes its outputs, deliverables, outcomes, and contribution to the wider organization it belongs to. Effort spent on individual development, interpersonal connections, and the team dynamic is all in the service of this real work. Success requires enhancing both the performance and the health of the team.

External team coaches are often critical for developing team performance

Mutual accountability and joint performance is difficult for a team on its own to achieve. Therefore, teams often benefit from working with someone outside the team to facilitate their development. There is always the potential for conflict between team and functional business goals, for example — not to mention to the personal agendas of team members. Over time, the coach transfers the role of team coach to its leader.

There are no quick fixes

Only a programmatic approach delivered through a range of thoughtful interventions helps to achieve a real shift in team performance. Moreover, team coaching needs to avoid being “event driven,” for instance lurching from one offsite event to another. Instead it must be an ongoing journey with a mixture of interventions designed to maximize the performance of the team over a sustained period — typically six to nine months.

Seven stages in the development journey of a top team

The executive team of a transport company needed to move their organization from a functionally focused business unit to a customer-facing entity while maintaining performance levels and improving both customer satisfaction and customer engagement levels. We worked with them as team coaches through the seven stages of their coaching journey.

Stage 1. Clarify the team’s purpose

This stage involved working with the team leader and his team to understand what the team needed to achieve together that no individual or other team in the organization could achieve — the team’s purpose. As part of this effort the coach also worked with the team leader to agree what type of team was needed to deliver on its purpose. This enabled clarity about who should compose the team rather than inheriting a team with no clear sense of purpose.

Stage 2: Working “inside-out”

Here the work focused on articulating the gap between the current and required team performance achieved through an “inside-out” assessment of the team. Structured feedback was given by individuals to the coach around a given framework of high team performance. In addition, psychometric tools were used to understand the impact of the team profile on how it was working. Making meaning of such “inside-out” data with the team was important, and the team and the coach revisited the data at several points to understand and interrupt unhelpful dynamics in the team and improve the ways the team handled conflict, communication, learning, and leadership.

Stage 3: Working “outside-in”

Team performance does not improve just by working better together. The team only makes a difference through how it collectively and individually connects and engages with all its critical stakeholders. A team can only do this if its members understand how their stakeholders see them. A semi-structured interview format was used by the coach to gather stakeholder feedback — an “outside-in” assessment. In this way the coach was able to hold up a mirror to the team and share with it the stakeholders’ perceptions of the team’s performance, as well as feedback about its interactions with others in the business. This gave the team the insight and power needed to influence stakeholders far more effectively.

Stage 4: Individual coaching for team members

A coach was provided for each of the team members, including the leader. (Team members had a different coach from the leader to ensure confidentiality). Each team member had six sessions of coaching where one session was used for gathering 360-degree feedback from those they interacted with through short telephone interviews. The agenda for the coaching was for each team member to work with their coach on how to improve their contribution to the leadership team. Built into the process was a three-way meeting between each team member, his or her coach, and the team leader to share action plans, gain the team leader’s input, and agree on the way forward for the coaching. This helped align the individuals’ personal work with the work of the team.

Stage 5: Working on the team as a team

A series of offsite forum meetings were held that focused on both the “soft stuff” of improving trust, collaboration, and the ability to have constructive conflict and productive levels of support and challenge (a perennial challenge for all teams) along with the “hard stuff” of handling high-stake business issues. In addition, the team completed fieldwork in between the offsite sessions to help ensure that the insights, outcomes, and new skills and behaviors from the offsite meetings were practiced and applied in the team’s day-to-day work. Real-time observation and coaching of the leadership team in action during its regular meetings helped provide additional feedback. Finally, training sessions helped build specific, critically needed skills among all team members — for example influencing skills to help team members better manage their stakeholders and engage their own staff.

Stage 6: Connecting with stakeholders

To be effective, the team members needed to be able to effectively manage their key stakeholders. We worked to develop a deep understanding of the answers to the following questions: Who are the most important stakeholders? Who are expected to be blockers or critics? Who are likely to be advocates and supporters? The coach worked alongside the team to prioritize and build plans around how each stakeholder would be actively managed by the team to achieve targeted business outcomes. The team was careful to include in its list of stakeholders the executive who gave this particular team its permission to exist in the first place — a person many teams overlook.

Stage 7: Transferring the coaching role to the team leader

The coach worked with the team to focus on how they learned as well as on what they learned. In this way the team could figure out what support it needed for its ongoing development. Transferring team coaching skills to the leader meant the team’s eventual independence from the coach, and self-sufficiency in taking its performance to higher levels. There are no magic bullets in this process and many things contribute to success. However during the period of coaching, the team managed to impressively push forward its business agenda. Their financial results improved and this gave them the breathing space to invest in building the underlying health of their organization for long term sustainability.

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As this example suggests, there will never be an easy “ABC” approach to developing high-performing teams in real life. There are too many moving parts, too many shifting dynamics, and too many hidden (and not so hidden) agendas being played out. Nonetheless, when teams find the right coaches and thoughtfully spend time and effort on developing the abilities of all team members, the odds increase of achieving breakthrough improvements in performance. In times of disruptive change, the ability to create, and nurture, and empower such teams can give an organization a lasting competitive edge.

Sidebar: To be effective, coaches must:

Be present and flexible to the emerging needs of the team. The coach needs to go with what the team needs and adapt agendas and processes jointly with the team. Teams learn best through self-discovery and practice in the context of real work — including any challenges the team is currently facing, such as an acquisition, a loss in market value, a change in regulation, or a new competitor from “left field.”

Have the bravery to say the unsayable. Good coaches are catalysts who force teams to have the conversations that must be had. It is the coach’s experience and skill that helps “escort the elephant into the room,” and then makes it possible for the team to grapple with the challenge transparently, and successfully.

Provide containment, safety, and structure. Dynamic work in teams is personal — very personal — and team members need safe places and processes and skilled facilitation to encourage them to be vulnerable and brave enough to have the quality dialogue that can move performance forward. Even the simple act of giving and receiving feedback needs strong facilitation.

Role model the change the team wants to achieve. Teams struggling to implement new behaviors need to be able to hold each other to account to live up to the standards they set. Having a coach that is able to demonstrate those behaviors in how they conduct themselves with the team is vital to that process.


About the authors:

Cathy Powell (cpowell@heidrick.com) and Sharon Toye (stoye@heidrick.com) are partners in Heidrick & Struggles’ London office and members of the Leadership Consulting Practice.

Related thinking

Senn Delaney, the culture-shaping firm of Heidrick & Struggles, works widely with clients on creating high-performance teams at the top. For related thinking, read the article, The Team at the Top, is it really a team?


Cathy Powell Partner +44 20 70754000
Sharon Toye Partner +44 20 70754000

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