Why executive coaching doesn’t work

Now that I have your attention,  I’ll hasten to add that I do one-to-one coaching under certain circumstances, and can refer people in other circumstances to my colleagues who specialise in this area.

Mostly, I use a Systems approach, which requires system coaching not individual coaching. This is one of the few models that explain most of the issues within organisations, using Pareto’s 80:20 rule. Where a model explains (and can fix) 80% of issues, by addressing these in one go, the remaining 20% dissolve. (A manager said to me yesterday: if we can get a 20% improvement in our communication alone, that will make a significant difference to how we function.)

Principles of Systems Theory, largely attributed to Biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy in 1936)

  • The whole is more than the sum of the parts
  • A closed system is one where interactions occur only among the system components – it can only maintain or decrease its organisation (entropy/disintegration)
  • An open system receives input from its environment. The result is the opposite of entropy i.e. evolution
  • Communication (information) and transaction (matter or energy) are the only vehicles for exchange between parts of the system/between systems
  • New information (feedback) from an open system’s environment allows a system to adapt, renew and reinvent (constant change)
  • Change in one part eventually creates change of the whole system
    A system tends towards equilibrium – it resists threatening  or jolt change
  • Tweak one problem (without treating the system) and another will replace it (if the system was not fixed.) An individual aligns with the system pattern.

Applied to business (a social and economic system):

  • When everyone in the business contributes fully for the collective good, the collective output is more than that of each individual (“teamwork”)
  • Where an individual, department, division or the entire organisation blocks feedback, the system entropies (weakens) and eventually dies. (Many organisations limp on in various forms of ill health.)
  • Where information is treated as a “thing” instead of an energy form, people leak information inappropriately according to individual agendas (In the human system this would be labelled a rogue cell, or “cancer”)
  • A closed system is the natural flow-on effect from the “dangling-box structure” of organisations. Many design organisations for disease then complain about the disease (and “rogue” individuals)
  • An open system means everyone is a link in a value chain with connectors throughout the system (like the human body)
  • Communication for the collective good comes from agreed “ways we communicate around here”
  • An open system is kept healthy with engineered/regular feedback among key stakeholders throughout the environment. (A simple health step is for the CEO to chat informally to everyone/anyone – this is just one sensor of the system’s health
  • No part of a system (individual or team) is non-influential
  • For health, change MUST BE CONTINUOUS – engineer one-degree-at-a time (iterative) change; like boiling a frog. Continuous improvement is the modus operandi  (what Buckminster Fuller called Ephemeralisation and the Japanese call Kaizen). It keeps a system commercially-relevant and avoids system-resistance to “jolt” changes.

Back to executive coaching: critical mass lies at the frontline, not with a single executive or manager. When you change the manager, the prevailing system pressures the person back into previous behaviours to restore equilibrium. When the system changes, the individual changes.

I work with a manager and his or her team – sort of like family therapy. Outcomes? The whole team interacts effectively, people do what they’re there for, you resolve rogue cells (sometimes over night; in one instance, within 3 hours), you make the manager’s job (everyone’s job) do-able and relieve stress.

Otherwise, the danger is you get the coaching target offside, and possibly make the situation worse.  Feel free to disagree!


About Cherri Holland

Fascinated with business, brains and how to use the brains on the payroll to make business buzz.
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