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Thought Thursdays
Coaching: The real agenda

The next 30 years are the most exciting time to be alive in the whole of human history. For in that 30 years we will either discover how humans can be truly wise or we will join the fossil records. – Tim Smith, CEO, Eden Project for Biodiversity

Approaching the age of 40 has been somewhat of an inflection point for me, prompting a mid-life review. This has resulted in my questioning the meaning of coaching in my career. The coaching industry was very different in the early 2000s in South Africa. Coaching in those days was driven by pioneering advocates of a new orientation towards growth and development, inspired by an optimism in South Africa, which has waned significantly over the years. Coaching was for us then a movement, which gave birth to a radical new way of fostering change and development, and provided hope by contributing towards the transformation of our society. It felt like more than a career; it gave me an extraordinary sense of purpose.

I recall being inspired by what seemed to be extensive potentialities of peer coaching to support professional and personal development in a context where affirmative action policies created a fertile ground for social integration and for what we, naively perhaps, termed ‘accelerated development’. While much has been achieved, the gradual realisation of the magnitude of the social and economic transformation dawned on me.

Optimism continues to be foundational in my work, aided by a proliferation in neuroscientific research in neuroplasticity, demonstrating the immense potential of the brain to generate new neural pathways, showing that learning and development is possible throughout life. While it is useful to be optimistic, it is also important to take a serious look at what is needed to navigate the challenges that lie ahead.

While we South Africans wrestle with our vulnerable, young democracy, a bigger storm is brewing on the horizon. As the global population soared from two billion in 1950 to seven billion in 2010, pressure on ecosystem resources has grown at an unprecedented and exponential rate. “Human activity, predominantly the global economic system, is now the primary driver of change in the Earth system (the sum of our planet’s interacting physical, chemical, biological and human processes)”, according to a set of 24 global indicators provided by the Global Dashboard. The cumulative changes are so signficant that geologists talk of a new geological period, the Anthropocene, in which human activity now “equals or exceeds nature in several biogeochemical cycles”.

In social planning, this kind of situation was called a wicked problem – that is a problem that is difficult to solve because of incomplete, changing or even contradictory requirements. The problems lying ahead are so severe that they are being described by a new class of problem, super-wicked problems – where the absence of a central authority coupled with the time constraints create enormous challenges. The renowned theoretical physicist and metaphysical thinker Frijof Capra sees this situation as calling for nothing less than civilisation change.

While it is only one piece in a larger puzzle, it has always been my contention that coaching emerged as a result of a gradual experience of accelerated change, and an increasing need to develop the adaptive capacity of individuals, groups and organisations. Coaching has the advantage, as coaching author Nancy Kline so aptly puts it, of creating conditions which enable individuals and groups to think. Well-known political scientist and academic, Thomas Homer-Dixon warns of an increasing risk of an ingenuity gap, a world with problems that are too complex and fast-paced to manage. Coaching, in my experience, has the potential to catalyse ingenuity, thereby contributing to closing the gap between the supply and demand of ingenuity.

As custodians of the coaching movement, whether we are an executive coach, an internal coach or a leader using coaching to develop someone in a team, we need to take a careful look at what will be needed to bridge the ingenuity gap. Here are a few ways in which coaching can be used to prepare for what lies ahead:

1. Focus coaching on values, not just performance: While values will never be fully aligned across an organisation, coherence can be established across teams within organisations. Coherence implies that a group of leaders are able collaboratively to make sense of and productively to address problems in their environment. Values allow for performance to be wisely directed and for value creation to be sustained in changing contexts. When addressing performance, focusing on iterations and continuous feedback, rather than on final solutions, allows leaders to achieve innovative results. Tim Brown, CEO of global design company Ideo, calls this ‘thinking by doing’.

2. Develop networks of leaders, not just leaders: Think of leadership as distributed across the organisation, not simply as an individual’s set of capabilities. Renowned leadership academic Mary Uhl-Bien says leadership is “a problem of enabling intellectual assets through distributed intelligence, rather than relying on the limited intelligence of a few brains at the top”. Leader development masquerading as leadership development puts not only businesses, but society at risk. While coaching is useful and even necessary for developing individual leaders, this application is not sufficient for the challenges that lie ahead. 

3. Develop coaching as an internal competence: While external executive coaching is crucial for the development of leaders and teams, this is unlikely to be sufficient to meet the challenges lying ahead. For organisations to develop sufficient adaptive expertise, coaching capacity must be developed internally. As the rate of change increases and the nature of change becomes more turbulent, organisations must enhance their capacity to drive change from within. Daniel Goleman’s classic research into the effect of leadership styles on organisational climate and business performance demonstrated that coaching has a postive impact when used alongside a range of leadership styles. 

4. Harvest ingenuity from coaching: Translating coaching capacity into ingenuity which can be harvested across the organisation is becoming increasingly important. Design-thinking academic Roger Martin refers to the knowledge funnel, a process which starts with posing a question, and moves all the way through to developing knowledge for value creation. Embedding coaching in the organisational culture, as well as building a means of creating coherence between coaching conversations and the organisational values and strategy, can support a knowledge funnel. In this way, coaching is simultaneously about developing talent and thereby the adaptive capacity, and about contributing to closing the ingenuity gap. 

While the challenges that lie ahead are immense, so are the opportunities; and coaching can, I believe, make a real and signficant contribution. It is imperative that we, as South Africans, keep focused on the dual challenge of actively transforming our society and participating in the global transition towards a sustainable future. Much as in a mid-life review, this requires us to reevaluate what success looks like in our lives and work, and to renegotiate what is truly meaningful. What will be required is nothing short of radical. As the Welsh novelist Raymond Williams reminds us: “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing.” Perhaps the role of a coach, ultimately, is to make hope possible.

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Roger Maitland is a faculty member at USB-ED and visiting lecturer at USB on the MPhil in Management Coaching. He is a director of LifeLab, a coaching consultancy, and specialises in the building of adaptive capacity of leaders, teams and organisations through coaching and design thinking. Together with USB-ED, he has developed coaches in organisations across sub-Saharan Africa.



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