Coaching

How coaching aligns the psychological contract

How coaching can strengthen the relationship between millennials and employers

The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2020

How coaching aligns the psychological contract

How coaching can strengthen the relationship between millennials and employers

By Chantelle Solomon and Prof Salomé Van Coller-Peter

  • AUG 2020

15 minutes to read

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Millennials: changing the face and pace of work

Every new generation of workers brings fresh perspectives and skill sets to organisations. This infusion of new blood can be energising, but it can also present challenges – particularly when looking for a comfortable fit between older and younger workers whose life experiences, attitudes and professional expectations differ.

Millennials (born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s), also known as Generation Y, will soon outnumber their Generation X predecessors (born between 1965 and 1980) in the global workforce. In fact, it is predicted that Gen Y will make up 75% of the global workforce by 2025. Once referred to as the leaders of tomorrow, millennials have become the leaders of today. Organisations are under pressure to find ways to productively meld younger, millennial mind-sets with more traditional corporate values and work methods.

Organisations are under pressure to find ways to productively meld younger, millennial mind-sets with more traditional corporate values and work methods.

During millennials’ formative years, the world was more prosperous than it is today. Also, the internet was coming into its own, which explains the ease with which millennials adapt to the latest digital devices and technologies. While often viewed as innovative, adaptable and confident, millennials have also been labelled entitled, demanding and emotionally shallow. It has been suggested that over-protective parenting and the pressure to measure up to unrealistic standards of success (often inspired by social media) have left many millennials with underlying anxieties and an inability to cope with stress or failure. Millennials expected to get “good” jobs and live a good life. Parents and teachers set the expectation for millennials that if you work hard, then you will be successful when you grow up. Additionally, they pushed education. That is why millennials are the most educated generation yet, which further elevates their expectations when they start working.

It has even been postulated that millennials have lower self-esteem than earlier generations and require constant reassurance. Influenced by the power and speed of technology, they also tend to be impatient and in need of instant gratification. Easy access to real-time information via YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, for example, helps to feed this need. As a result, millennials are often considered ‘tough to manage’.

Millennials are known for their technological shrewdness and ability to use technology to enhance their efficiency and productivity in the workplace.

Common characteristics of millennials

Millennials constitute the largest segment of the global workforce today. Although one should not generalise too much, millennials tend to have some common characteristics.

  • Millennials are smart when it comes to technology. Having grown up with the internet, millennials are more comfortable with technology than many of their older peers. This generation could not conceive of life without digital devices and online services. Millennials are known for their technological shrewdness and ability to use technology to enhance their efficiency and productivity in the workplace. The downside of millennials’ technological proficiency is that they prefer to communicate electronically rather than face to face, often at the expense of personal relationships.
  • Millennials are used to disruption and change. Although millennials grew up in a comparatively prosperous era, they have nevertheless experienced periods of disruption and uncertainty, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the bursting of the dot-com bubble in the early 2000s, the bombing of New York’s Twin Towers in 2001 and the subsequent war on terror, and the global financial crisis in 2008-2009 and its lingering aftereffects. They have also witnessed the collapse of major corporations (such as Enron, Arthur Andersen and Barings Bank) in the wake of unethical leadership, which has robbed scores of hard-working people of their jobs and livelihoods. In many ways, these events have taught millennials to anticipate and accept change, and to be adaptable. However, they have also made them less trusting of, and less loyal towards, their organisations.
  • Millennials are ambitious and achievement-oriented. Millennials are known to value meaningful, challenging and varied work. They expect their superiors to set high standards and to provide clear direction, but they also want the flexibility to do some things their own way and to learn by trial and error. Millennials seek self-actualisation and a progressive career path, supported by appropriate training and development. They take responsibility for managing their own careers and building skills that will enhance their employability.

Millennials understand the value of a healthy work‒life balance. One could say that they work to live, not live to work.

  • Millennials need support and recognition at work. Despite their assertiveness, millennials need their superiors to provide guidance and regular feedback, as well as recognition for good work. Some would say that they require constant reassurance, which could reflect a cosseted upbringing. They also thrive in teams, where colleagues support and cooperate with one another. Like previous generations, millennials view their salary package as an important indicator of their perceived worth, but they also prize assorted perks and bonuses.
  • Millennials are prone to job-hopping. Millennials have a reputation for hopping from one job to the next, particularly in emerging markets. They often decide to move on after working for an organisation for only a few years, seeking new professional challenges and more attractive remuneration packages. A short tenure can be disruptive and costly to an organisation, particularly if large sums have been spent on employees’ training and development. Currently, the Covid-19 pandemic has a significant impact on young workers as they struggle to find jobs and to pay for their accommodation, healthcare, education and childcare.
  • Millennials value a good work-life balance. Millennials understand the value of a healthy work-life balance. One could say that they work to live, not live to work. They often prioritise family over work and value flexible work schedules that allow them to balance their professional and personal commitments. Such an attitude might be mistaken for a lack of commitment or loyalty towards the organisation. Yet, it might actually encourage better results from the employees in question, and longer tenures.

Can coaching help to forge greater alignment in the psychological contract?

The expectations of employers and employees regarding their reciprocal obligations in the employment relationship form the core of their ‘psychological contract’. For example, employees are expected to perform to a high standard and manage their time efficiently; in return, employers are expected to provide employees with support, fair remuneration and opportunities for personal advancement. In short, there should be mutually beneficial outcomes for the parties.

A psychological contract in the work environment is more likely to be successful if there is alignment between an employer’s and employee’s expectations regarding job scope and content, quality of outputs, professional development, rewards and job security. The greater the alignment in their psychological contract, the more harmonious and productive their relationship is likely to be, to the benefit of the individuals concerned and the organisation as a whole. Conversely, a lack of alignment or mutual fulfilment could disrupt the working relationship and negatively affect an employee’s performance.

Achieving mutuality in psychological contracts can be difficult, particularly when employees’ and employers’ world views are shaped by different forms of upbringing and life experiences.

Achieving mutuality in psychological contracts can be difficult, particularly when employees’ and employers’ world views are shaped by different forms of upbringing and life experiences. Professional coaching could play an important role here. Coaching helps people to recognise their particular strengths, weaknesses and latent talents that need nurturing. It also teaches people to acknowledge the importance of diverse views and capabilities, and how employees can find their particular niche in an organisational context.

Although extensive research has been conducted on the consequences of breaches of psychological contracts, much less attention has been given to how psychological contracts are established and maintained over time, while almost no research has been done on the benefits (or otherwise) of coaching millennials. The study on which this article is based sets out to address this research gap by investigating how coaching might help to align the psychological contract between young millennial professionals (YMPs) and the organisations for which they work.

The study sample comprised a selection of YMPs who had undergone coaching in their organisations (‘coachee participants’) and individuals who had been their coaches (‘coach participants’). The coachee participants were all under the age of 30 and had either just entered corporate life or were already building their careers in various organisations. Most of the coach participants were professionals with their own consultancies. Interviews were conducted with the coachee and coach participants to establish whether and/or to what extent the coaching experience had contributed to a better alignment in the psychological contract between the coachee participants and their organisations.

What the study revealed

The coachee participants reported that they had benefited from the coaching in three key respects:

  • Enhanced awareness. They said they had acquired deeper self-awareness, a greater sense of personal responsibility and accountability, and a more realistic sense of the value they brought to their organisations. They came to recognise both their strengths and the areas needing improvement, how their behaviour influenced their personal interactions at work, and what they wanted from their lives and careers. The coaching imbued in them a clearer sense of purpose which, they said, would help them plan their careers with greater precision. One coachee participant came to the realisation that the organisation (and the world, for that matter) did not owe them anything; rather, they themselves had to demonstrate their worth and add value.
  • Improved confidence. They also said they had become more confident, which made it easier to ask for help or to challenge decisions or instructions. Their new-found confidence also enabled them to speak up about what they expected of the organisation in terms of their immediate working environment and longer-term career prospects.

Coaching has the potential to positively influence millennials’ perceptions of themselves, their value to the organisation and their prospects of professional success.

  • Enhanced ability and motivation to engage in tough conversation. Engaging in conversations to establish or review an employer‒employee psychological contract can be challenging as it might reveal the parties’ conflicting aspirations and expectations. Yet it is for this reason that such conversations are crucial. The coaching had helped some coachee participants approach tough conversations with greater confidence and conviction, which in turn had led to more mutually beneficial outcomes. Regular communication was seen to be useful in defusing potentially contentious encounters between coachee participants and their superiors.

A win-win for millennials and their organisations

Coaching has the potential to positively influence millennials’ perceptions of themselves, their value to the organisation and their prospects of professional success. Such revelations might persuade them to stay longer in their jobs and to strive for stronger and more enduring partnerships with peers and superiors alike.

Importantly, the study has shown that coaching helps today’s employees and their employers find themselves and each other, and that generation gaps can be bridged more easily than many would think.

  • Find the original article here: Solomon, C. & Van Coller-Peter, S. (2019). How coaching aligns the psychological contract between the young millennial professional and the organisation. SA Journal of Human Resource Management/SA Tydskrif vir Menslikehulpbronbestuur, 17(0), a1146. https://doi.org/10.4102/sajhrm.v17i0.1146
  • Prof Salomé van Coller-Peter lectures in Management Coaching and Managing Transformation at USB.
  • Chantelle Solomon is an MPhil in Management Coaching alumnus of USB.

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The potential role of coaching for executives dealing with the impact of a retirement transition

The potential role of coaching for executives dealing with the impact of a retirement transition

The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

July – December 2019

The potential role of coaching for executives dealing with the impact of a retirement transition

The potential role of coaching for executives dealing with the impact of a retirement transition

By Tessa Deighton

  • DEC 2019

17 minutes to read

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Retirement: a welcome relief or a shock to the system?

For many people, work is an intrinsic part of life. Besides being a source of livelihood, work can afford people a daily routine, an opportunity to interact with other professionals, an environment that encourages learning, personal satisfaction for a job well done, and prestige. When people stop working as a result of retirement, their lives often change dramatically.

For some, retirement represents a welcome next phase in their personal journey as they are free to spend more time with their families or engage in long-neglected leisure activities. They may even move into a new occupation that involves fewer or more flexible working hours. For others, however, retirement induces uncertainty and fear. Not only does it herald the loss of a regular income, but it can also rob people of their social status and sense of self-worth. When people’s personal identities have become intertwined with their professional pursuits and achievements, retirement can be a rude awakening.

Retiring at the age of 60 or 65 is no longer a foregone conclusion. Many people, either willingly or otherwise, take early retirement which might see them exit their companies in their 50s. With many companies under pressure to make way for new generations of employees, the early retirement provision is gaining ground. In contrast, some people who reach their companies’ official retirement age are asked to stay on, possibly under a contractual arrangement. While no two people’s reactions to retirement are the same, studies have shown that corporate executives – given their level of responsibility, visibility, earning power and social status – often find the transition to retirement particularly challenging. Having given so much of their time and energy to their corporate duties, they are often left wondering who they are when their high-profile professional life comes to an end.

When people’s personal identities have become intertwined with their professional pursuits and achievements, retirement can be a rude awakening.

It is becoming increasingly evident that coaching has an important role to play in preparing corporate executives for retirement. Coaching helps executives to view retirement as a natural phase in their lives, which is full of promise and not simply the sad conclusion to the illustrious career that once defined them. It shows them how to reflect on their attributes and aspirations and to repurpose their lives so as to find new forms of enjoyment and fulfilment. Little research, however, has been conducted on the transition into retirement from an executive coaching perspective.

The main purpose of this study (which formed part of the researcher’s Master of Philosophy degree in Management Consulting) was to address this knowledge gap by exploring the benefits of coaching to corporate executives who are making the transition to retirement. The study, which was qualitative in nature, comprised an extensive literature review and personal consultations (using semi-structured interviews) with six retiring corporate executives and five coaches with experience in working with retirees from the corporate world.

The transition to retirement: a three-phase process

Retirement is neither quick nor simple. It is a transition, which can be emotionally, psychologically and financially challenging and can even affect people’s physical health. Involuntary retirement (in the face of retrenchment, an early retirement policy or ill-health) can be more difficult for an individual than voluntary retirement because an unwelcome early departure can trigger emotional and financial distress.

The transition to retirement can be seen to have three main phases: pre-retirement, retirement and post-retirement. The pre-retirement phase relates to the period in which individuals are still working but considering or facing the prospect of retirement. This is when they should start thinking about what life will or should be like once they leave formal employment. Of particular importance are the financial resources they will need and how they will spend their time. In the retirement phase, individuals face the end of formal employment head-on and may even take on some sort of bridge or volunteer employment to extend their working life, albeit in a less intense form. The post-retirement phase sees individuals putting financial and other plans into effect, thereby cementing their transition to a different type of lifestyle.

It is during the post-retirement phase that the appropriateness and thoroughness of earlier plans are put to the test. Factors such as financial and physical health, personality, gender, age, education, leisure pursuits, status and family support structures all need to be considered when charting the way forward. In this regard, pre-retirement support can go a long way towards ensuring optimal results.

Do men and women react differently to retirement?

There is no hard-and-fast rule in this regard. Men often have higher earning power than women and are more likely to carve out a personal identity from their status at work and their professional achievements. Thus, the prospect or reality of retirement could be more stressful for men, particularly if they occupy or once held a high-level executive position.

Owing to their varied responsibilities (work, child-rearing, caring), many women do not experience the same level of anxiety as men when retirement approaches. Anxiety aside, women who have not progressed to the upper echelons of management because they have had to balance their responsibilities at work and home (which can be career-limiting) may find that their pensions are not big enough to sustain an adequate lifestyle after retirement. Where women have had unbroken corporate careers, though, retirement generally induces as much emotional upheaval as it does for their male counterparts in the corporate world.

A good education generally has a positive effect on how men and women adjust to retirement and encourages them to engage in other profitable or cognitive pursuits after they retire, which can contribute to their general well-being and longevity.

Coaching for a smoother transition to retirement

Planning for retirement should ideally start early on in people’s careers. Financial planners have long advocated this practice, although the psychological impact of retirement is frequently overlooked. All too often, the opportunities associated with retirement are obscured by a heavy veil of fear and uncertainty.

Those who are preparing for retirement need to banish from their minds the idea that their knowledge, experience and advice will be enthusiastically sought once they have left formal employment – otherwise their ego is likely to be seriously bruised.

Coaching can help corporate executives, who have become accustomed to driving productivity and shareholder value, to embrace a different and potentially more powerful purpose in life. Through coaching, they learn to confront their fears, consider various lifestyle choices and implement realistic plans that will make retirement a reality they can actually look forward to. Coaching helps people to look at their lives holistically, define their short- and long-term needs and aspirations, and decide how they would like their pathway into the future to be paved. ‘Owning’ the process will allow them to make necessary adjustments along the way, which will minimise the risk of difficulties and disappointments later.

In a nutshell, the act of coaching promotes self-awareness through a collaborative, outcomes-driven approach. Self-awareness is a key ingredient in building mastery, which gives retirees a sense of being in control and facilitates a smoother transition from retirement planning to actualisation. While goal-setting is advisable, squeezing too many goals into a concentrated period is counter-productive as there is a strong risk that they will not be achieved. This could trigger disillusionment. Moreover, goals need not be staid. They could, for example, be the result of creative visualisation of coveted ‘bucket list’ items. Retirement coaching could straddle one, two or more years and span multiple sessions, although there is no prescribed time frame or format. Circumstances will dictate what interventions are desirable.

One participant spoke poignantly of his descent from “hero to zero”. He used his authority and influence in his corporate role to make things happen, but upon retirement he became nobody and had to sort out his own problems.

Various models have been developed to support transition or retirement coaching, but all – to a greater or lesser extent – focus on building individuals’ self-awareness and self-confidence so that they are better equipped to embrace change. For example, Bridges’ Transition Model recognises three distinct stages relating to retirement: (1) letting go of current circumstances; (2) coping with the ‘neutral’ zone when confusion or uncertainty often peaks; and (3) embracing new beginnings. These broadly mirror the pre-retirement, retirement and post-retirement phases discussed earlier. Often it is beneficial to combine retirement coaching with financial coaching because there tends to be a strong link between financial know-how and security and emotional well-being.

What the interviews revealed

The corporate executives who were interviewed for the study were retiring for different reasons: one was leaving at the normal retirement age stipulated by the company; three were facing involuntary, early retirement; one was opting for voluntary early retirement; and one was pursuing a voluntary extended retirement option. All had had some retirement coaching. The coaches who were interviewed had all once been corporate executives or directors and had strong coaching credentials. The most common issues raised during the interviews were the following:

  • Control over the exit conditions

The circumstances giving rise to the executives’ retirement prompted different reactions. Those executives whose impending retirement was involuntary showed signs of being in denial and were very uneasy about the prospect. Those facing more favourable exit conditions (where retirement was voluntary) had a much more positive attitude. Although participants were in favour of receiving ‘step-down’ or contract work from their companies, they acknowledged that in most cases BEE policies were an impediment.

  • Control over resources

It was evident that the level of comfort or anxiety that the executives experienced was directly linked to how much control they had over resources like finances and time. For example, the thought of having more time on their hands but less money raised their anxiety levels. Anxiety went hand in hand with feelings of insecurity about the unknown.

Coaching helps executives to view retirement as a natural phase in their lives, which is full of promise and not simply the sad conclusion to the illustrious career that once defined them.

Some participants admitted to being in denial – not wanting to accept the inevitability of losing their corporate responsibilities and status. They also feared that after operating in a high-pressure environment, their days would feel empty. While travel and hobbies could consume retirees’ time, more often than not they were looking to devote time to ‘meaningful’ pursuits.

Money was a major concern. Although one might expect retiring corporate executives to be well provided for financially, extraordinary expenses (such as second marriages and additional children later in life) could erode their capital base and leave them with insufficient resources for a comfortable retirement. Health was identified as a factor that inevitably becomes more important with the passing of years and can be a stress trigger if not properly managed.

  • Identity, status and ego

Some participants spoke of the challenge of having to accept that, after a long and distinguished career, they were seen to the door with a small box of possessions – as if their contribution to the company over the years had been of little consequence. It is common for retirees – particularly those who have lived energetic lives in the corporate fast lane – to think that they have become indispensable to their companies. But this is rarely the case. Even the most revered senior figure tends to be forgotten within a relatively short space of time and the company moves on.

Those who are preparing for retirement need to banish from their minds the idea that their knowledge, experience and advice will be enthusiastically sought once they have left formal employment – otherwise their ego is likely to be seriously bruised. Another important finding was that retirement is generally associated with old age and a reduced capacity to work. Such a perception can damage people’s sense of self-worth.

  • Inter-relational considerations

The loss of work-related networks and friendships was another area of great concern, as was the loss of corporate support services such as software technicians, accounting officers, financial advisors, and so on. One participant spoke poignantly of his descent from “hero to zero”. He used his authority and influence in his corporate role to make things happen, but upon his retirement he became nobody and had to sort out his own problems. Retirement also impacts family relationships, particularly the spousal relationship. Newly retired corporate executives and their spouses could find themselves having to renegotiate their roles at home to ensure a smooth transition, particularly if retirees have more free time but finances are stretched. Couple coaching might be beneficial in such a case.

Final thoughts

Providing retirement coaching to executives is not something that any person can do. It calls for a professional who is mature in age (and has experienced life’s knocks), well educated, experienced in retirement dynamics, skilled in coaching techniques, and a good and empathetic listener. In addition, for coaching to be effective, there must be buy-in from the retirees themselves. Even if they are harbouring feelings of insecurity or resentment about having to withdraw from corporate life, they should be open to the possibility of their post-retirement life being enjoyable and even empowering. Corporate entities in turn can play an important role by introducing a retirement coaching programme as a standard offering. People should ideally join the programme about five years before their anticipated retirement date to allow sufficient time for personal reflection, scenario planning and the crafting of a well-considered retirement strategy.

Coaching can help people to look at their lives holistically, define their short- and long-term needs and aspirations, and decide how they would like their pathway into the future to be paved.

Engaging the services of newly retired executives to mentor younger staff members on their developmental journey would provide added benefits to the company and would also help the retirees in question to make a more confident and comfortable transition.

  • This article is based on the research assignment of Tessa Deighton – an MPhil in Management Coaching alumnus of USB. The title of her research assignment is: The potential role of coaching for corporate executives dealing with the impact of a retirement transition.
  • Her study leader was Dr John Morrison, a Senior Research Consultant at USB, who specialises in project management, research methodology and research coaching.

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Using drawings and stories to enable reflective learning

The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2019

Using drawings and stories to enable reflective learning

By Jane Robertson, Dr Heidi le Sueur and Dr Nicky Terblanche

  • June 2019
  • Tags Coaching

12 minutes to read

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Business-driven action learning: turning theory into practice

With companies facing increasing competition and other challenges, the need for effective leadership, supported by well-informed and well-crafted strategies, has never been greater. In today’s highly charged business environment, more and more companies are recognising the value of business-driven action learning (BDAL), a dynamic process aimed at arriving at solutions to real-life problems through teamwork and honest enquiry and debate.

Assisted by a facilitator, the BDAL process brings together colleagues in an organisation to deliberate on challenges and opportunities, and collectively arrive at new and more effective ways of doing things. Yet the benefits of BDAL are perhaps even more profound at the individual level. BDAL gives people the intellectual tools and the emotional courage to assess their purpose, performance and (as yet untapped) potential.

‘More and more companies are recognising the value of business-driven action learning (BDAL), a dynamic process aimed at arriving at solutions to real-life problems through teamwork and honest enquiry and debate.’

The vital role of reflection in business-driven action learning

It is not surprising that a key element of business-driven action learning (BDAL) is reflection. It is through reflection that people are able to gain a deeper understanding of the issues and challenges facing their company and how, as individuals, they can become positive agents for change by tapping into their innate aspirations, values and strengths.

There is much scope for action learning practitioners to use reflective learning in management development programmes that embody BDAL principles. BDAL is experiential in nature which, when combined with systematic and candid reflection, can produce valuable insights into a company’s and employees’ strengths and shortcomings. In a corporate setting, the type of learning that reflection facilitates goes beyond technical systems and procedures. It also allows people to recognise and make sense of the economic, social and political dynamics that permeate a business operation. Despite the significance of reflection in action learning, little formal research has been conducted on how reflection is taught in higher education and skills development programmes.

‘Business-driven action learning gives people the intellectual tools and the emotional courage to assess their purpose, performance and (as yet untapped) potential.’

Background to the study

In this study, the power of reflection in business-driven action learning (BDAL) was put to the test in three management development programmes (MDPs) which formed the basis of this research. The programmes were organised at the request of sponsoring organisations in different industry sectors which had called for the MDPs to focus on enhancing leadership and management skills and to include BDAL. Each MDP was made up of three study schools in which five or six participants worked together in groups. Each group was given the same business challenge and had an external action learning facilitator or action learning coach. The action learning facilitator (who was also the lead researcher in the study) guided each group in practising reflection throughout the MDP. To this end the facilitator set out to foster strong teamwork built on trust, stimulate dialogue and debate, and create a supportive atmosphere that would be conducive to participants sharing ideas and opinions.

The participants, who were selected by the sponsoring organisations, were drawn from a number of African countries, including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and Senegal. All the participants had attended a previous MDP in 2016 (also based on BDAL principles), one year earlier than the study in question. This time gap was considered necessary as the participants would have had the chance to implement practically what they had learned in the previous MDP, both at work and in their personal lives, which they would then reflect on in the context of the research study.

‘It is through reflection that people are able to gain a deeper understanding of the issues and challenges facing their company and how they can become positive agents for change by tapping into their innate aspirations, values and strengths.’

While the participants had had the opportunity to apply reflective techniques during the previous MDP, three additional dimensions of reflection were introduced into the research study: first, participants were asked to hand-draw images of their BDAL experience; second, they had an in-depth interview with the action learning facilitator/lead researcher in the study; and third, they read aloud and commented on their personal experiences (including momentous ‘a-ha’ moments) in the form of an ‘interpretive story’ which flowed from their personal interview.

Using drawings and stories to stimulate reflective learning

The value of reflection was clearly demonstrated when participants were asked to hand-draw images of, and talk about, what they had learned since their exposure to the BDAL process in the previous MDP.

One of the participants, Sandy, had made great strides, as evidenced in her drawings and personal story. One of the things that used to hold Sandy back was the fact that she did not have a tertiary-level degree and she felt inadequate alongside more qualified colleagues and business associates. The BDAL approach followed in the MDP that she attended in 2016 helped her to shed her self-limiting beliefs, develop more confidence in her own capabilities, and engage more proactively with others. In the drawing exercise, Sandy first drew a pair of glasses symbolising her new-found ability to look at things from different perspectives and to accommodate other people’s points of view. She then drew a mirror as an acknowledgement of the importance of reflection in general as well as the need to look critically at and understand herself. Her final drawing was an open door which represented the whole new world that was opening up to her.

‘Drawings can be particularly powerful because they offer a snapshot of accumulated experiences and emotions. The story approach, in turn, serves a valuable purpose as it allows possibly jumbled, unarticulated thoughts to be verbalised in a coherent manner and shared with others.’

In her interview, Sandy explained that the BDAL process had been a turning point for her, from which she had not looked back. She said it had given her the confidence to change her behaviour and she was now on a carefully considered, personal growth path. Being able to explain her metamorphosis in images and words as part of the research study helped to crystallise and reinforce her earlier experiences.

Drawings can be particularly powerful because they offer a snapshot of accumulated experiences and emotions. The story approach, in turn, serves a valuable purpose as it allows possibly jumbled, unarticulated thoughts to be verbalised in a coherent manner and shared with others. Everyone likes stories, not only because they are interesting or entertaining, but because they often resonate with their audiences. It is not uncommon for people to learn more from personal accounts and stories than from theory because the former reflect things as they really are and not simply as they should be. Drawings and stories can also be shared repeatedly, thus constituting important learning material for other people embarking on a BDAL journey.

How easily can reflection be learned?

 Anyone can engage in reflection, but it is likely to be most effective when activated in a business-driven action learning environment under the guidance of a facilitator or coach. The study showed that when participants were coached in becoming mindful, in shutting out distractions and in focusing on the task or problem at hand, they were able to reflect deeply on important and/or pressing issues and contemplate possible solutions.

‘Reflection is difficult. It is not something that happens during idle moments; it is a skill that must be learned and periodically refreshed.’

For many people, reflection is difficult. It is not something that happens during idle moments; it is a skill that must be learned and periodically refreshed. Some of the participants in the study, for example, reported that devoting time to reflection seemed almost wasteful, considering how busy people are and how many priorities compete for their time and attention. However, others were of the opinion that reflection, far from being a waste of time, was an investment in time which would pay dividends down the line.

  • Find the original journal article here: Robertson, J., le Sueur, H., & Terblanche, N. (2019.) An account of practice: employing drawings and stories to enable reflective learning. Action Learning: Research and Practice, 16(1). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14767333.2019.1562702
  • Jane Robertson is a director of Training Partners in Cape Town.
  • Dr Heidi le Sueur is a senior lecturer and head of Teaching and Learning at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.
  • Dr Nicky Terblanche is head of the University of Stellenbosch Business School’s MPhil in Management Coaching programme. He lectures in Management Coaching and Information Systems at USB.

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How coaching skills can help leaders to deliver on the SDGs

The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2019

How coaching skills can help leaders to deliver on the SDGs

By Dr Dorrian Elizabeth Aiken and Dr Salomé Van Coller-Peter

  • June 2019
  • Tags Insights, Coaching

18 minutes to read

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The call for ethical leadership and sustainable corporations

In September 2015, the United Nations adopted an agenda that sets out a plan “to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and protect our planet” (Principles for Responsible Management Education, 2016). The plan includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aimed at addressing challenges such as poverty alleviation, management of resources, economic reform, environmental and ecological sustainability, and ethical leadership.

Responsible Management Education (RME) and the Sustainable Development Goals are clearly linked to the role that business schools can play in the development of potential leaders. Although there is a stronger focus on ethical leadership and sustainability in corporations, a recent McKinsey interview says that CEOs cannot deliver at the speed and scale required of them. Hence, this study focuses on the challenge for business schools to develop future leaders who have the ability to meet some of the SDG commitments.

Business schools are ideally placed to prepare future leaders. However … are business schools providing the leadership and management skills that translate into positive impact on employees? And can these leaders help to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?

Various researchers have pointed out that to lead effectively in the 21st century, business leaders require technical excellence and experience, as well as the ability to understand and respond positively in terms of the complex range of human experience. They face a business world fast becoming unpredictable – often described as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. We argue that business schools can contribute to ethical, resilient leadership that can meet the Sustainable Development Goals when these schools equip potential leaders with coaching competencies.

Setting the leadership development context

A case study of an international retail organisation with an enviable reputation for quality and customer service illustrates our theme of developing relational leadership competencies to serve the Responsible Management Education agenda. In 2012, senior executives of this organisation became aware that the South African organisation struggled to retain staff and decided upon remedial action: leadership development workshops. Staff members were to give frank feedback to their leaders on their conduct annually. Each year since 2012, in spite of costly training, staff members’ opinions of leadership have become increasingly critical and distrustful, and the retention of good staff continues to be poor.

There is no doubt that the organisation’s investment in leadership training was well-intentioned. However, after the training, nothing changed. Leaders returned to their teams, under pressure to catch up after the off-site training, and their default management and leadership behaviours kicked in. And so the disillusionment, distrust and disengagement of team members increased until it reached a crisis point in 2016.

The reality is that this is happening to organisations all over the world.

… neuroscience has found that acquiring sustainable new behaviours … is primarily a limbic brain function. This requires learning stimulated by experiential insight into self and continuous practice.

What’s going on?

It seems, then, that leadership development workshops do not always succeed in changing behaviour.

Business schools are ideally placed to prepare future leaders. However, the following questions arise in the literature: Are business schools providing the leadership and management skills that translate into positive impact on employees? And can these leaders help to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals? Business schools have been criticised by some, especially since the 2008 financial crisis, for their dedication to business management theory where students are encouraged to adopt an attitude of self-interest and material enrichment. Some researchers have pointed out that business schools have lagged behind in introducing team-building and leadership skills into the curriculum.

Is it fair to say that business schools neglect the human element? We find this critique somewhat harsh and certainly not entirely true of the content we facilitate at our own business school. MBA students are increasingly incorporating leadership theory into their programmes. However, the problem word here is theory. Students gain insight into the importance of establishing positive relationships and ethical values-based interactions, and they incorporate this into their assignments. The issue is that the learning mostly remains fragmented and at a cognitive level.

Research on neuroscience has found that acquiring sustainable new behaviours, for example to support values-based innovative leadership, is primarily a limbic brain function. This requires learning stimulated by experiential insight into self and continuous practice with others.

… we argue that leadership is a basket of skills that would benefit from the inclusion of coaching competencies – a practice that should begin at business school.

The degree of experiential and self-reflective learning, and the regular practising that is required to master leadership behaviours, seems to be notably absent from mainstream MBA studies. The achievement of these leadership competencies depends on ongoing self-development – not likely the outcome of a short leadership course. Thus, we argue that leadership is a basket of skills that would benefit from the inclusion of coaching competencies – a practice that should (and in some places, already does) begin at business school.

To return to the above-mentioned case study, leaders in the troubled organisation cognitively understood the connection between the quality and consistency of positive engagement with their teams and their performance. However, the translation of this cognitive knowledge into daily practice of behaviours on the job with their teams has not yet become a non-negotiable requirement. Now, in support of the RME agenda, business schools have the opportunity to integrate coaching practices as a non-negotiable part of leadership behaviour along with technical business skills in order to meet volatile, unpredictable relationship challenges.

A coaching approach towards leadership development

On the University of Stellenbosch Business School’s MPhil in Management Coaching we aim to develop leaders and managers who are competent coaches. We believe that coaching skills help to grow more awareness of complexity and ambiguity, and consequently build more resilience in leaders. A core focus of the programme is how the students discover subjectivity, or the ways in which their views of reality have been constructed. Construct development theorists have provided frameworks that illustrate constructs at the different stages of adult development, from limited complexity and perspective-taking to multiple ways of seeing and engaging with the world.

Vertical growth refers to growing a person’s ability to think in increasingly complex ways, to be comfortable with multiple perspectives and to connect meaningfully across differences.

Vertical learning

We believe that business schools can create environments that are conducive for potential business leaders to grow awareness of more complexity and perspective-taking, particularly at an emotional and interpersonal level. Increased conscious awareness, which is the process of vertical learning, may enable leaders to inspire teams and find solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, as set out in the Principles of Responsible Management Engagement.

Both horizontal (translational) learning and vertical (transformational) learning are important in leadership development. In this context, horizontal learning refers to the process of increasing knowledge and competencies – what leaders should know and do. It is primarily a function of cognitive (neocortical brain) intelligence. Vertical growth refers to growing a person’s ability to think in increasingly complex ways, to be comfortable with multiple perspectives and to connect meaningfully across differences.

It has been shown that when individuals are surrounded by colleagues who hold more complex views of the world, they feel safe enough to reflect on conflicting points of view.

Holding such complexity with ease is a function of emotional and interpersonal intelligence, which can be enhanced by coaching training. In a white paper entitled The Future of Leadership for Conscious Capitalism, Barrett Brown claims that vertical learning is a natural stage-development process that can be accelerated under the right conditions. He cites the Centre for Creative Leadership as naming vertical learning the number one future trend in leadership development.

It has been shown that when individuals are surrounded by colleagues who hold more complex views of the world, they feel safe enough to reflect on conflicting points of view. This means there is a strong likelihood of a shift to embrace multiple perspectives. These capabilities can indeed help to meet the challenges of the SDGs. Also, when employees are managed by leaders who engage with them in more complex ways, and whose behaviours are respectful and inclusive of all levels of staff, overall performance improves.

However, such leaders first need to know how to include and elevate others to the required level of thinking and operating. Indeed, the model or framework suggested for implementation of the SDGs emphasises, among others, top-down commitment from leadership and bottom-up commitment from faculty and staff. We believe that leaders with a skilful coaching style stand a greater chance of harnessing the positive commitment of employees because of the fundamental principles of coaching: listening attentively, building trust, encouraging potential, and ensuring accountability.

The process of developing leaders with a coaching style

Becoming a coach requires accepting who we are, what we think and how we behave. Undoubtedly, the skill that facilitates the most transformation during the process of becoming a coach is that of reflective practice. The MPhil in Management Coaching students’ reflective practices are built on various models. One such model asks these questions: What came up for you during a learning activity that caused an ‘aha’ moment? So what? How is it significant for you? What did it trigger within you that is worth exploring? The final batch of questions asks: Now what? How can you capitalise on the new insight to further your thinking and practice so as to enhance your competence in providing a richer coaching experience for both your client and yourself?

We believe that leaders with a skilful coaching style stand a greater chance of harnessing the commitment of employees because of the fundamental principles of coaching: listening attentively, building trust, encouraging potential, and ensuring accountability.

Thus, insight is deepened by developing awareness of our own processes of learning and thinking, as well as becoming intrigued by the sense-making of others. Becoming aware of constructs and meaning-making is significant for coach training if leaders are to help others recognise their own constructs as well as the possibility for multiple ways of making meaning.

Good coaching skills focus on how leaders consistently engage with stakeholders, colleagues and staff, along with the technical competencies of what they are expected to achieve. Good coach training translates leadership development theory into positive engagement. We have already described the practice of self-reflection. Neuroscience emphatically confirms that sustained behaviour change takes place only with iterations of practice, with practical experiences that challenge beliefs, values, emotions and habits. Reading a book is unlikely to bring about sustained behaviour change. The many leadership and self-help books that abound are testimony to the impotence of cognitive intelligence (a neocortical brain function) to influence emotional and interpersonal intelligence (a limbic brain function) in the absence of direct experience. Neuroplasticity, the ability for new neural pathways to develop in the brain in response to sustainable new learning, is possible for everyone – the caveat is that it requires practice.

Critical skills for ethical leaders with a coaching style

Leaders require particular skills to function optimally in a volatile, fast-changing world. Here we focus on the art of listening, building trust, and engaging the power of the limbic brain.

The art of listening: The practice of truly listening without allowing the intrusion of one’s own thoughts and without interruption or asking leading questions is a powerful discipline in developing vertical altitude. It requires more mature egos: such leaders are less prone to knee-jerk reactions or acting on split-second judgements, and more capable of impulse control. The benefits for the thinker are numerous: the positive impact of being heard, of having uninterrupted time to think and, as a consequence, feeling valued as an employee, team member or colleague. Our MPhil in Management Coaching students begin with three-minute practice sessions, in pairs, giving perfect attention to a fellow student. At first, this is difficult. With ongoing practice during the course of the year, the emotional and interpersonal maturity of the listeners increased significantly. This increased the quality of their attention to the thinker. It also increased their ability to hold silence and create the conditions to keep the thinker deeply engaged with the topic. The impact on the thinker is unfailing appreciation for the depth and richness of the experience.

  • Trust and the power of the limbic brain: In a 2016 global CEO survey, PwC reported that 55% of CEOs think that a lack of trust is a threat to their organisations’ growth. But most have done little to increase trust, mainly because they are not sure where to start. Our MPhil in Management Coaching students are introduced to David Rock’s SCARF, a model that describes five key triggers to the limbic brain. The students are able to engage emotionally with the positive and negative impact of these five triggers – status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness – drawing on their own experiences. Research shows that emotionally intelligent leaders build trust, engender loyalty, and enhance motivation when they consciously affirm status, give certainty and autonomy, and assure fairness. The ability to build positive relationships with SCARF in mind is an important component of learning to lead effectively by making use of coaching competencies.

Using coaching skills to create resilient business environments

This article focused on developing coaching skills that emphasise reflective awareness in potential leaders studying at business schools.

Our belief, based on our own experience at University of Stellenbosch Business School, is that business schools can play a powerful role in accelerating vertical learning by training potential business leaders to use coaching skills to create more resilient business environments.

We therefore draw the following conclusions about the mindsets that professional ethical leaders need, and the experiential practices that business schools need to instil in order to fulfil the RME agenda by 2030. In considering the theory and practices, and in particular the concept of vertical learning, we suggest that the leadership ability to implement the RME goals can be facilitated by including coaching skills at business schools to increase developmental consciousness and complexity through experiential learning. Such leaders will raise the standard of trustworthy, innovative and resilient leadership in the pursuit of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, leading to the improved wellbeing of all.

  • Find the original journal article here: Aiken, D. E., & Van Coller-Peter, S. (2018). Developing leaders at business schools with coaching skills aligned with the goals of responsible management education. Philosophy of Coaching: An International Journal, 3(1), 38-50.

https://philosophyofcoaching.org/v3i1/00.pdf

  • Dr Dorrian Aiken is a lecturer on the University of Stellenbosch Business School’s MPhil in Management Coaching. She is also a highly regarded consultant, lecturer and leader in the field of coaching, organisational transformation and leadership development.
  • Dr Salomé Van Coller-Peter is a senior lecturer in Management Coaching at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

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leadership coaching

Using existential leadership coaching in a medical partnership

The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

July – December 2018

Using existential leadership coaching in a medical partnership

leadership coaching

Eric David Spencer and Dr Ruth Albertyn

  • OCT 2018
  • Tags Insights, Coaching, existential leadership

22 minutes to read

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Eric David Spencer and Dr Ruth Albertyn

Leading in a partnership with no corporate hierarchy

How can leadership be developed in a dynamic partnership context where the usual corporate or public institutional rules of hierarchy and power do not apply?

When specialist physicians partner in private practice, do they perceive each other as leaders equally? Are some seen as subordinate to others? Do they function as teams, or do only some take the lead?

This case study explored the use of existential leadership coaching in a private medical partnership of specialist physicians. The unique context of physician partnerships calls for alternative approaches to leadership development. Applying the tenets of existentialism to coaching for leadership development involves reflecting upon oneself in a given context, relatedness to others, and aligning choices towards purpose.

Leadership in a medical partnership, as in any organisation, involves situational choices that rely on the interactions and relationships with others in the context. One possible developmental mechanism for such a context is that of leadership coaching. Coaching interventions have been described as individualised processes that involve working with personal meaning, allowing individuals to reflect on the way they see themselves engaging in the world, and the way they make meaning in their situations. If approached from the philosophical perspective of existentialism, coaching interventions can focus on individual choice as an exercise of free will in an interrelated world. Existential coaching can provide physicians as leaders with time for reflection, as well as a chance to “unplug” from their busy lives and find a quiet internal environment in which to consider the best way to lead and contribute to their organisation.

Applying the tenets of existentialism to coaching for leadership development involves reflecting upon oneself in a given context, relatedness to others, and aligning choices towards purpose.

Existentialism applied to leadership coaching

A number of existential philosophical assumptions underpinned the coaching of the physicians: all humans are unique; free will exists; humans choose for themselves; inquiry is intrinsic to being human; understanding of reality is constructed and de- or reconstructed; humans are shaped through potentialities and possibilities within contexts and situations; situations in turn require interaction and dialogue with others; and humans further choose to become themselves/create themselves through such encounters and dialogues.

Existentialism holds that by being conscious, individuals are free within the constraints of their wider context, as long as they are able to envisage alternative worldviews and alternatives to the situations in which they find themselves. It is argued that realisation and reflection through a process of coaching in a partnership context can bring a change in the construction of the self and relationships with others, and the organisation as a whole. Existentialism provides an argument that if, while engaged in self-reflection, individuals discover aspects of themselves that are not pleasant, they will reorient their attention towards uncovering past unpleasant events in an attempt to solve the problem. If, however, in self-refection they recall pleasant things, they are more likely to self-reflect constructively and enhance their self-worth. Thus, existentialism, with its tenet of self as construct, provides a means for self-improvement through conscious choice.

In a private partnership, unlike in a public institution or corporate entity, hierarchy and power are not fixed but are relative and negotiable within the collective.

Relatedness in context and the link to leadership

In a private partnership, unlike in a public institution or corporate entity, hierarchy and power are not fixed but are relative and negotiable within the collective. Recent thinking on leadership has a number of implications for such a context. Some researchers refer to leadership as a social activity that involves engagement with the world, and consider it a collective resource, not an individual property, because it involves a symbiotic relationship between leaders and the given context. Other researchers say leadership calls for a collaborative understanding of others and a commitment to motivate rather than control. Leadership is therefore about encouraging colleagues to contribute towards improvement; it is about building relations with others. Leadership needs to embrace new forms of leading that recognise and build on the contributions of all members of a group – an inclusive approach rather than self-aggrandisement. Collaboration and connectivity are essential components of leadership in a partnership.

Through relating to others, we come to encounter and test our surroundings and ourselves, and begin to form shared meaning. It is mainly through dialogue that we relate to others. Consensus building is another critical tenet of a humanistic approach to leadership. Therefore, a holistic perspective approach is called for in a partnership that gives others the opportunity to see their contributions to the organisation within a context. Leaders are only leaders through their relatedness to others. Leadership is thus a result of perceptions from others. Only through awareness of self and others can one develop leadership, and this is especially so in the case of partnerships.

Coaching with perceptions and choice

Viewed from the perspective of existential philosophy, and considering the implications of leadership and relatedness in the context, working with perceptions and choice becomes valuable in the coaching conversation. Leadership has been said to be a process of being perceived by others as a leader, and studies suggest that leaders should indeed understand how they are perceived by others. Such awareness has been shown to be beneficial to leaders, and the encouragement of leader self-reflection has been linked to increased skills that positively affect others.

Humans exist in particular situations and contexts. Our identities are ever-forming in response to these situations and contexts, and we are ever-choosing our situations and contexts. In the process of becoming, we are influenced by our surroundings and others, and we construct our realities as we encounter others and form our truths and biases.

Leadership empowerment has been said to arise when one is perceived to be effective, when the work being undertaken is meaningful, and when one believes one has the power to make decisions and a positive contribution. Trust enables one to be empowered for one’s own development, and being more involved in an organisation can enhance a sense of ownership.

Applying a leadership coaching intervention in a partnership, which works with perceptions and choice, has the potential to raise the awareness of partners about how perceptions influence their choices, and how they can choose to be more empowered to contribute more to their organisation as leaders.

Leadership needs to embrace new forms of leading that recognise and build on the contributions of all members of a group – an inclusive approach rather than self-aggrandisement.

How was this study conducted?

The aim of the study was to explore, in a qualitative case study, how existential coaching conversations that focus on perceptions and choice might facilitate a leader’s awareness of how she or he could contribute to leadership development in a partnership. To gather data, four individual structured coaching sessions of one hour each were conducted with four purposively selected specialist physicians over a period of eight weeks.

The coaching conversations, which were central to the research process, were conducted through the application of the coach’s five-phase existential coaching model: focus, own perceptions, alternative perceptions, imagined perceptions of others, and choice.

Multiple sources of data were collected during this study. Prior to and after the coaching intervention, data in the form of reflective questions were collected from participants in their own words. During and after each session, note-taking using index cards were completed by participants in their own writing. Furthermore, note-taking and participant observations made by the coach/researcher were collected as data and captured in the researcher’s journal. Data collection commenced prior to the start of the coaching sessions using eight guided reflective questions to be completed in a written format. These questions spoke to the existential nature of the inquiry using existential vocabulary to describe perceptions concerned with being, meaning, freedom, anxiety, purpose and choice. The following questions were included:

Q1: What does it mean to be a leader?

Q2: What is the purpose of having leaders?

Q3: What characteristics and values should leaders possess?

Q4: How should leaders relate to others?

Q5: What anxieties (stresses) can result (in you and others) from a lack of leadership?

Q6: What characteristics or values for leadership do you personally possess?

Q7: How could you contribute more to the organisation as a leader?

Q8: What personal choices could you freely make to develop as a leader?

Directly before their first coaching conversation, each participant was requested to respond in writing to the eight pre-coaching reflective research questions. The written format was selected rather than interviews in order to establish the boundary between the verbal coaching conversation and the written data collection. During the conversations and at the conclusion of each of the first three conversations, participants were also asked to write down any matters deemed important to them on index cards. This included any thoughts clarified, any new ideas, new revelations, things they would like to remember, quotes from the conversations or summative words about the conversation. Immediately after the fourth coaching conversation, the participants were requested (not earlier known to them) to respond in writing to the identical set of guided reflective research questions in the same manner as at the start of the process. It was deemed important to document the participants’ perceptions at the end of the process in a consistent way for the data to be as credible and consistent as possible. The written data was analysed using thematic content analysis to identify themes.

Findings and discussion

The argument of this article is that working with perceptions of leadership in existential coaching conversations, and particularly the process of imagining the perceptions of others, can provide a mechanism for specialist physicians in a partnership to realise how they can contribute to leadership development in their organisation. The study’s findings are underpinned by the following assertions:

  • Partnerships are voluntary collectives, and thus leadership contribution therein is unique and a matter of individual free choice.
  • The process of trying to imagine the perceptions of others provided the greatest learnings/realisations in the context of the study.
  • Choices for contributions and hence leadership development can perhaps be made through conscious consideration of “the other”.
  • Purpose and meaning may also be discovered in such an imaginative, reflective and conscious process.

Collaboration and connectivity are essential components of leadership in a partnership.

Unique leaders in the partnership context

When explaining their own and subsequently alternative perceptions of leadership, the participants initially offered lists of characteristics and values that apparently mattered most to each of them. As the conversations progressed, questions of the meaning and purpose of leadership, as well as the underlying meaning and purpose of their individual lives, their responsibilities and obligations, and futures, were discussed. Themes that emerged during the review of the data included the concepts of self and self-awareness as related by the participants, their stated identities and backgrounds as influences on their perceptions of leadership, and leadership purpose and styles. It was clear from the conversations that the participants saw each leader as unique and were aware of the self in leadership. However, their use of self-dialogue and their degrees of self-awareness varied.

The participants chose to draw on their identities and backgrounds as influences on their perceptions of leadership.

The data from the conversations lends support to the existentialist and constructivist views that we are influenced in life and that we can choose how we respond to these influences. The study, although limited in a specific context, supports the concept of self, identities and worldviews that are unique to every individual and his or her personal learning journey, and how exploring these influences are part of the quest to know oneself. It was noted that the views expressed also support the view that leadership is an individual person-based, self-affirming construct. Partnerships are constructed by unique individuals, and leadership in such a context is also unique.

The imagined perceptions of others

The phases of the coaching conversations about imagining others’ perceptions, and especially others’ perceptions of the participants themselves as leaders, were usually more contemplative, serious-toned and introspective. Most of their uncertainties and extended thinking pauses occurred when considering others’ perceptions. These phases of the conversations often stalled or even came to a complete halt for a time. It was also noted that body language, gestures and facial expressions were often nervous or strained. Alternatively, there were bursts of embarrassed laughter. Participants began to fiddle with objects at their disposal, kneading their hands, breaking eye contact and looking around the room or out of the window. Hands scratched heads, rubbed chins or caressed thighs. All four participants expressed at one time or another that the process of imagining the perceptions of others was the most challenging part of the conversations for them.

Researchers in this field do believe that leadership coaching has the potential to generate new understanding and to challenge the values and attitudes of leaders. They believe that knowing oneself is accomplished by also investigating the other, and that we create our perceptions of ourselves via the social world.

Choices for contributions

Themes that dominated the conversations about leadership in the specific context were physicians as leaders; structure and role demarcation; and power and profit. All four participants introduced the matter of physicians as business leaders, even though it was not in response to any specific question, indicating that it was a matter of concern to them. The participants acknowledged that they were trained as doctors, not as business leaders.

The participants were not sure whether they should be running the business or not, or whether they should even be considered leaders. For the most part, there was an acceptance of de facto leadership, and a feeling that they should at least be partly running the business. It was a moot point. They also acknowledged that playing a leadership role in the business, or not, was a matter of choice.

As the conversations progressed, the participants moved from speaking of choice as merely a concept and to specifying how they would choose to contribute to the organisation.

According to the participants, the process of imagining the perceptions of others was the most challenging part of the conversations.

Purpose and meaning

The coaching conversations, in addition to leading to tangible choices being expressed, also saw the participants grapple with deeper questions of purpose and meaning in their lives, and how this related to leadership in the organisation. For instance, overall sustained financial success did not seem, according to the participants, to equate entirely to levels of satisfaction. Three of the four participants expressed concerns that they were perhaps not caring enough. Two could be said to be suffering from a form of existential guilt for, according to them, not caring enough for others and giving back to others. It was interesting to note that caring and a lack of caring appeared to be major factors for the participants, as were concerns around their business profits.

The use of existentialist vocabularies naturally emerged and increased during the coaching process. It was noted that the older participants used more existential language in their discussions, and also indicated choices that were more aligned to meaning than to organisational tangibles. The younger participants, on the other hand, expressed more tangible and more operationally related contributions. Whether this was as a result of age, experience or other factors is not known. The participants began to speak of internal struggles and battles, guilt and shame and matters of individual consciousness. The later conversations particularly saw an increase in such dialogue, and what appeared to be a deeper search for meaning by all four participants.

Evidence from the study speaks to the four assertions stated earlier. The limited application of existential leadership coaching in the unique context of a particular medical partnership illustrates that leadership is merely a figment of the collective imagination that only really lives in relationships with colleagues and their perceptions of each other. Leadership coaching involves an acceptance of relational and social constructivist features of leadership processes and acknowledgement of the potential for growth and development, challenge and change.

This small exploratory study lends support to the views of those researchers who believe that leaders should examine the meaning of leadership in their own lives and contexts, and ask why and for what purpose and on whose behalf leadership should be developed. This calls for a relook at the way leading and following are understood. Therefore, a holistic leadership development perspective approach is called for that provides leaders with opportunities to see their contributions to their organisation in context.

Finding a better way to lead together

Existential leadership coaching can help to address the leadership development needs in a unique partnership context.

Existentialist philosophy was applied as a theoretical base to a coaching intervention, and the findings support the philosophy’s tenets in that the participants acknowledged themselves as unique individuals with an ability to choose. The study was concerned with a particular model of dialogue: one in which a leadership coach conversed with a limited number of specialists who already exist in a specific leadership situation and context. The existential coaching conversations facilitated self-awareness with regard to leadership issues and contributions in their specific context. Their relatedness to others clearly informed their perceptions. The process, conducted within a safe space, also brought to the surface personal battles, frustrations and struggles. Participants indicated choices for pragmatic operational contributions and personal developmental choices.

According to the participants, the process of imagining the perceptions of others was the most challenging part of the conversations. When the participants were encouraged, however, their imaginings allowed them a space to think carefully, and an opportunity to change their perceptions more markedly. These imaginings resulted in new insights and changed perceptions, which led to tangible choices for action.

The study indicated that through a process of structured conversations the participants were able to identify those areas where they can develop and assert themselves, and where they can more actively contribute to the partnership collective and the success of the organisation.

The identification of their developmental areas could then lead to a refocus and further conversations to address specific developmental objectives. This process can be applied in leadership development in partnerships where usual hierarchies do not exist and where leading, or not, is a matter of choice within the context.

In essence, working with perceptions of leadership in existential coaching conversations can provide a mechanism for members of a partnership to find greater purpose, and to choose how they can contribute better to leadership development in their collective. Also, the process of imagining the perceptions of fellow partners can unlock the identification of and choice for developmental actions and contributions to the collective. Leadership coaching, therefore, has the potential to generate new understanding and to challenge the values and attitudes of leaders.

  • Read the original article here: Spencer, E. D., & Albertyn, R. (2018). Existential leadership coaching in a medical partnership. Leadership in Health Services. https://doi.org/10.1108/LHS-04-2017-0023
  • Dr Ruth Albertyn lectures in Research Methodology at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.
  • Mr Eric David Spencer is a PhD student at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

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Why newly appointed senior leaders need support

The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

July – December 2018

Why newly appointed senior leaders need support

Dr Nicky Terblanche, Dr Ruth Albertyn and Dr Salome Van Coller-Peter

  • OCT 2018
  • Tags Insights, Coaching, existential leadership

17 minutes to read

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Dr Nicky Terblanche, Dr Ruth Albertyn and Dr Salome Van Coller-Peter

Managing expectations in the case of new appointments

The fast pace of corporate change requires executives to move to new leadership levels at increasing speeds. While many attempt the transition bravely, many fail to do so or underperform.

When leaders transition into senior positions they face a magnitude of personal and systemic challenges. The consequences of failure can be disastrous both personally and for the organisation.

The South African policy context of fast-tracking transformation and rectifying imbalances filters through to corporate level. While transformation at corporate level is laudable, it can also hold negative consequences for both the intended beneficiaries of change and the organisation if the individual’s transformation does not accompany the transition to a new leadership role.

However, whether through transformation or the individual’s own ambition and desire to succeed, newly appointed senior managers are expected to perform in high-stress contexts, often without clear direction or formal support from the organisation.

When leaders transition into senior positions they face a magnitude of personal and systemic challenges. The consequences of failure can be disastrous both personally and for the organisation.

When people are promoted to leadership positions they are expected to ‘hit the ground running’, deal with higher levels of complexity and uncertainty, exhibit a higher level of emotional intelligence, work with longer time horizons, and step out of the comfort zone of a specialist to take on strategic challenges.

These challenges could at times lead to management derailment and have negative consequences for both the individual and the organisation.

Studies have found that the scope of organisational support given to transitioning executives has a significant impact on the success of their transition. This support allows them to spend their time and energy understanding the issues they are able to influence, not wasting precious time trying to figure things out.

What does it take to fulfil a new role?

What are the experiences of leaders during transition into senior positions? To find out, the researchers of this article interviewed eight recently transitioned senior managers, five coaches, two custodians of coaching in organisations (human resource managers in this case) and one line manager of a recently promoted senior manager (a CEO in this case).

The new position challenges how they have known themselves to be. It is not a case of adapting but transforming into the new role with changes to appearance, knowledge, behaviour, attitudes and values.

Studies have shown that a sense of anxiety can creep in when newly appointed senior leaders do not know what is expected from them in their new position. This can lead to a lack of confidence in their competency, fear of whether they would be able to fill the shoes of their predecessors, and uncertainty about the support they will receive from their new teams and the organisation.

The harsh reality of trying to clarify the new role could lead to emotional suffering and personal distress. This can be exacerbated by a lack of support from the organisation during the transition, the expectation to show results, a lack of skills, a lack of understanding the organisational culture, power plays and finding work-life balance.

This uncovered a number of new realities that are the key deal breakers for new leaders across industries.

Perhaps as a result of their uncertainty, or in combination with the need of highly successful people to show their mettle, the fairly newly appointed senior leaders had the desire to show results. And fast.

However, here too they faced challenges such as not having access to the necessary resources, focusing on the wrong goals, and not doing enough to harvest the low-hanging fruit or early wins. One of the most important activities of a newly promoted senior leader is to identify where to secure early wins. But the need to show results early can cause leaders to move too quickly, not fully understanding the ecosystem, with negative political results. It would therefore seem that a balance between speed and patience is required.

New senior leaders face a triple challenge of having to decide which aspects of their previous roles they need to let go of, which to preserve and which to build on.

To be effective in their new role, participants expressed the need to understand the systemic context of the role. They needed to understand the strategic intent of the organisation, the culture and politics, how decisions were made and who had power in the system.

When a person is promoted from outside the organisation, understanding the culture of the new organisation is even more difficult. This may be compounded when the person has moved from a different industry.

There are of course advantages and disadvantages to internal versus external promotion.

An internal promotion has the advantage that the person has prior knowledge of the organisational culture, internal politics and power bases. The benefit extends to networking and relying on existing relationships initially to get off to a flying start.

However, these very established relationships could come at a cost.

In their new roles leaders take on new responsibilities that may put strain on existing relationships. Continuing certain existing relationships can come across as favouritism with destructive consequences. Also, new leaders could struggle with former peers now reporting to them. The answer is to view the relationships from the perspective of the new role and to redefine where necessary.

Internally promoted leaders are often neglected in terms of organisational support because the assumption is that they ‘know their way around’.

Being promoted externally brings with it the luxury of a settling-in period – a honeymoon period of 60 to 90 days during which new leaders are allowed to find their feet, enjoy an element of forgiveness and the liberty to experiment. This does not last indefinitely, however.

Studies have shown that a sense of anxiety can creep in when newly appointed senior leaders do not know what is expected from them in their new position.

Ultimately, the organisation has an expectation that leaders will bring new ideas. Building a new network, getting to grips with the organisational culture and influencing people are also more challenging to external promotions.

For many participants, stepping into a new role came with the realisation that they did not possess all the necessary skills to perform the job. This is to be expected because promotion is associated with the need to acquire new skill sets. Managers in transition who rely too heavily on skills and strategies that worked for them in the past are setting themselves up for failure.

Some participants, especially those who had previously performed the tasks themselves, struggled to delegate or to develop the trust required for delegating.

The shift from being part of a team to leading the team and the interpersonal dynamics that accompany such a change are the most challenging aspects of a promotion, along with no longer having the time to think.

Perhaps as a result of their uncertainty, or in combination with the need of highly successful people to show their mettle, the fairly newly appointed senior leaders had the desire to show results. And fast.

Overcoming challenges and making your mark

A testimony to the resourcefulness of the participants in this research, and arguably partly the reason for their corporate success, was their ability to overcome the challenges presented by these shifting realities, despite the lack of organisational support in many cases. They had to gain an understanding of their new environment, show what they stood for, learn, build a network, and manage complexity.

The participants said that if, while trying to make sense of how the organisation functions and how the power plays work, you are unsure of what is expected of you, then insist on defining key performance indicators to gain insight into what is expected of you. It is imperative for senior leaders to produce long-range strategies and it is important to move from operational to strategic mode.

To cope with a perceived or actual skills gap, set out to acquire knowledge. Learning and adaptability are considered the most important actions associated with career success at any level. While learning is an important aspect of growth, most companies find it difficult to address this learning dilemma or are often not even aware that it exists. Senior leaders must have sufficient domain knowledge because if people think you do not know, they will take advantage of your ignorance. Be honest about your lack of domain knowledge and surround yourself with a set of trusted advisors in a transparent manner.

Managers in transition who rely too heavily on skills and strategies that worked for them in the past are setting themselves up for failure.

Executives with the most successful transitions spent more time than others preparing for their roles by researching the organisation, evaluating how top performers in the world managed in similar positions, framing their roles against what a world-class executive would do, and reading blogs and articles written by successful people.

Once in the position, build a strong network with the right people to help you navigate the new environment that comes with the promotion. Find out how decisions are made, who the key stakeholders are in such a department, who shouts the loudest, who should be listened to when they shout, and who should not be given an audience.

A network can span beyond the confines of the organisation. Enlisting the services of external experts such as consultants could help with performance while establishing a network of colleagues as sounding boards could equally be effective. If promoted internally, form a network with previous peers to share concerns upfront.

Deciding who to include in one’s network should not be limited to senior people or people with important titles. Include also the informal influencers who have more power in shifting support levels than many would want to admit. Head-hunt trusted subordinates from your previous organisation to create a strong network in your new environment. But be conscious of the danger of selecting the wrong support networks. If you side with a prominent senior person who gets side-lined or who leaves the organisation, the support structure effectively falls away, leaving you exposed.

Rely heavily on your initial team and listen to them to get to know them. Clarify the team’s role within the larger organisation. When things go wrong, take the hit and be the face of the non-delivery. This will help to unite the team and deepen mutual trust.

The shift from being part of a team to leading the team and the interpersonal dynamics that accompany such a change are the most challenging aspects of a promotion, along with no longer having the time to think.

It is about support

In the current South African organisational context, change and transformation are imperative and a reality. For sustainable development and transformation to occur, strong leadership is required. When leaders are promoted into senior positions they are vulnerable and face the possibility of failure, with negative implications on both micro (individual) and macro (organisational) levels. For leaders to transition successfully, organisations need to understand what challenges transitioning leaders face in order to provide adequate developmental support.

This study highlighted the challenges transitioning leaders face on a personal and systemic level. It also exposed the general lack of organisational support and clarity on what is expected of newly promoted senior leaders. This lack of support seemed to have contributed disproportionality to the anxiety experienced by the participants in this research.

Be honest about your lack of domain knowledge and surround yourself with a set of trusted advisors in a transparent manner.

The findings of this research have implications for organisations and transitioning leaders. Transitioning leaders could prepare themselves for the career move by educating themselves on the types of challenges they are likely to face, seeking clarity on what is expected of them in the new role, and actively building a support network.

Organisations, in the form of line managers and HR representatives, could support transitioning leaders by providing the relevant information they require to navigate the new role, explaining the cultural dynamics of the organisation, exposing transitioning leaders to tailor-made leadership development programmes, providing coaching and mentoring support, and assisting them to set realistic expectations of delivering early results.

For responsible and ethical transformation, it is crucial to address both micro-level and macro-level aspects and to ensure development and support. Ensuring the successful transition of organisational leaders into senior positions may provide the glue on a micro level to ensure sustainable developmental success on the macro level.

 

  • Find the original journal article here: Terblanche, H. D., Albertyn, R. M., & Van Coller-Peter, S. (2018). Developing leaders by supporting their transitions into senior positions. South African Journal of Business Management, 49(1), a12.
  • Dr Nicky Terblanche lectures in Management Coaching and Information Systems at USB.
  • Dr Ruth Albertyn lectures in Research Methodology at USB.
  • Dr Salomé Van Coller-Peter is head of the MPhil in Management Coaching at USB.

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The toughest leadership challenge

The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2018

The toughest leadership challenge – career transition

  •  width=Dr Nicky Terblanche, Dr Ruth Albertyn and Dr Salomé van Coller-Peter
  • MAY 2018
  • Tags Insights, Coaching

12 minutes to read

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Article written by Dr Nicky Terblanche, Dr Ruth Albertyn and Dr Salomé van Coller-Peter 

The fast pace of corporate expansion requires leaders in organisations to move to more senior leadership positions at an increasing speed. Previous research has already raised the alarm with its finding that 46% of incumbents in senior positions underperform in their new positions. It has further been found that 87% of human resource professionals view promotion (also termed career transition) as the most challenging event in climbing the corporate ladder.

‘46% of incumbents in senior positions underperform in their new positions.’

 

Career transition happens when a leader is promoted to a more senior position with additional and different responsibilities. Transitioning thus entails stepping out of an existing comfort zone with accustomed day-to-day commitments and into a new position with unaccustomed challenges and demands. Such transitions bring about numerous challenges – not only to the individual, but also to the organisation as a whole. The new incumbent is expected to hit the ground running and to accomplish the transition smoothly at the fastest possible pace. But, since senior positions have higher levels of task complexity, they often bring uncertainty. From an organisation’s perspective, the existing level of sure-footedness in the leader and strategist echelon needs to be preserved or improved. The assurance that new leaders will cope in their elevated positions is therefore crucial.

To empower promoted leaders, organisations draw on various support strategies – such as leadership development programmes, mentoring and coaching. However, although coaching has proved to be an effective leadership development tool, the use of transition coaching for leaders promoted to senior positions has received little attention and support to date – with only a single empirical study on record.

‘The use of transition coaching for leaders promoted to senior positions has received little attention and support to date.’

 

More research needed

Further research regarding transition effectiveness in the South African workplace was inspired by the following:

  • South Africa has a shortage of skilled senior leaders in the corporate space.
  • Coaching has been found to be an effective leadership development tool to support recently promoted leaders in making the transition to their new positions and responsibilities.
  • With only one empirical study on transition coaching done to date, more evidence is needed, particularly about the design and application of coaching programmes.
  • The well-known leadership pipeline model shows that there are different levels of leadership within an organisation, and that each level requires different skills. Recently promoted leaders must let go of certain thinking and behavioural patterns and adapt to new ones.
  • With daunting challenges associated with career progress, and evidence that coaching is a powerful support tool to deal with these challenges, it is clear that a custom-designed transition coaching intervention is needed for recently promoted senior leaders.

The purpose of the present study

Clarity was needed on this question: How should an effective coaching intervention be designed to support and empower leaders promoted to senior positions? Two research objectives were formulated to find an optimally designed transition coaching intervention:

  1. Gain an understanding of how and when coaching must be initiated during a career transition.
  2. Gain insight into which aspects must be included in the coaching processes to provide optimal support to recently promoted senior leaders.

The research method used

An interpretivist qualitative study with a constructivist-grounded theory approach was used. Many social researchers believe that an interpretivist approach is appropriate to uncover social truths. In addition, a grounded theory methodology was chosen because of the lack of existing theory on transition coaching. A grounded theory is a specific process whereby a theory evolves during the research process – it is the outcome of systematic data collection and a constant interaction between the recorded data and analysis thereof.

The 16 participants, selected from various organisations, consisted of persons who had recently been promoted as senior leaders, coaches who practised transition coaching, coaching custodians in organisations, and line managers of recently promoted senior leaders. The participants included respondents who had already displayed signs of distress in their new roles. Face-to-face and telephonic interviews were conducted with all participants.

‘Recently promoted leaders must let go of certain thinking and behaviour patterns and adapt to new ones.’

 

Findings

The findings were grouped into two themes, subdivided into sub-themes, in line with the research objectives:

  • Initiating coaching during a career transition:
    • Timing of coaching
    • Duration of coaching
    • Selecting a coach
    • Logistics
    • Contracting
  • Coaching processes to provide optimal support to promoted senior leaders:
    • Managing the coaching process
    • Using theory
    • Consulting external parties
    • Networking.

 

Table 1: Findings – initiating coaching during a career transition

 

Sub-theme Key insights
Timing of coaching Coaching starts too late.
No explicit transition coaching is visible.
Coaching is used for remedial effect.
Coaching must start before the transition.
Duration of coaching Interventions are too short (less than six months).
Coaching is expensive.
More frequent coaching is needed immediately after the transition.
Less frequent sessions are needed for up to 18 months and three years later.
Selecting a coach The incumbent must be given a choice of coaches.
A personal connection between the coach and incumbent is important.
Logistics Coaching away from the office premises is preferred.
Both the coach and incumbent must be pragmatic and flexible.
Contracting A triangular contract is needed between the incumbent, coach and organisation.
Confidentiality between the coach and incumbent is important.

 

Table 2: Findings – coaching processes to provide optimal support to promoted senior leaders

Sub-theme Key insights
Managing the coaching process It is important to set goals to keep incumbents accountable.
Goal setting must focus on the intervention.
Coaches must keep record of sessions for reflection and referencing.
Coaches must encourage incumbents to reflect and experiment with thinking and behaving differently between sessions.
The incumbent must reflect on experiments in sessions.
Using theory Coaches sharing frameworks, theory and models help incumbents to understand their new roles and themselves.
Psychometric assessments help to create self-awareness.
Consulting external parties Support from the line manager helps the incumbent.
HR must keep some distance but may intervene if coaching results are not evident.
Involving a mentor is beneficial.
Involving the incumbent’s team assists the team to understand the changes taking place.
Networking The incumbent’s network must be mapped.
Network improvements must be identified.
The incumbent’s network must be expanded, both formally and informally.

 

New insights into transition coaching design

The main aim of this research was to investigate how a transition coaching intervention must be designed to support leaders who are promoted to senior leadership positions. Two main themes came to light:

  • Key aspects to include when the coaching process is initiated
  • Issues to be considered when facilitating the transition coaching process.

This research provided empirical evidence of the need for transition coaching and the present lack thereof.

Coaching per se can provide effective support to leaders. If coaching is customised for career transition, as suggested in this research, transition coaching will provide essential support for ambitious, talented individuals when they face significant challenges on promotion to senior leadership positions.

The findings provide practical solutions for designing effective transition coaching interventions.

 

 

Dr Nicky Terblanche is Senior Lecturer in Coaching at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

Dr Ruth Albertyn is a visiting local faculty member of UBS. She lecturers on the MPhil in Management Coaching.

Dr Salomé van Coller-Peter is Head of USB’s MPhil in Management Coaching. Her research interests include coaching, managing transformation, executive mentoring, and value alignment in executive teams.

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Project Managers

Adaptation is required as project managers find themselves between a rock and a hard place

The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2018

Adaptation is required as project managers find themselves between a rock and a hard place

Project Managers

  • Songezo Nkukwana and Dr Nicky Terblanche
  • MAY 2018
  • Tags Insights, Coaching

13 minutes to read

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Article written by Songezo Nkukwana and Dr Nicky Terblanche

Information system development projects have a reputation for failing to stick to the budget, to meet deadlines and to fulfil expectations.  Only 29% of worldwide information system projects achieve project management success, according to The Standish Group International. This failure rate is high in comparison with other high-tech projects, and this is a reason for concern because information systems are increasingly seen as a critical strategic and operational tool in organisations. Furthermore, within the knowledge economy, software is a source of knowledge and information systems development a source of knowledge creation. By creating knowledge, organisations create the opportunities to gain and sustain competitive advantages.

‘Information system development projects have a reputation for failing to stick to the budget’

 

In an attempt to address the failure of traditional approaches to information systems delivery, organisations are turning to agile methodologies. Agile software development differs from the traditional waterfall approach where a formal, sequential process of planning, analysing, designing, implementing and maintenance is followed. Opting for agility, on the contrary, is characterised by fast and flexible results based on iterative delivery, frequent feedback loops and the constant involvement of the customer.  The widespread adoption of agile implementation methodologies is attributed to their ability to respond to fast-changing business requirements, market conditions and technology innovation.

From a project management perspective, the move to agile implementation has brought about a number of challenges. Project managers can no longer be concerned only with planning, organising and controlling.  They must also be sufficiently skilled to facilitate and coach to encourage collaboration between team members in line with the agile model. Project managers must furthermore play an active role in project knowledge management which contributes to successful projects.  

A further complication is that agile software development encourages autonomous, self-organising teams who are meant to share project management tasks and responsibilities such as estimation, planning and progress tracking. This new focus encroaches on project managers’ territory and raises questions about their roles.  To complicate matters even more, many (especially large) organisations struggle to make the transition from traditional to agile information systems implementation methodologies. In fact, it is more likely that large organisations will employ both traditional and agile information systems implementation practices in what is termed an ambidextrous approach.  This duality presents additional and complex challenges to the project manager’s role.

Given these team-related and organisational challenges faced by project managers, the question arises: How should project managers adapt to fit into an agile implementation environment within large corporates? This research explores the question from the perspectives of two important project stakeholders:  the management team and the implementation team.

Answers were needed for these research questions:

  • How do these two teams view the role of a project manager in an agile environment?
  • What do the teams require from a project manager to complete information systems implementation projects successfully?
  • Should project managers adapt their strategy to strike a balance between the old (traditional waterfall approach) and the new (agile approach) way of working?
  • Are project managers still relevant in agile delivery environments?
  • Should project managers adapt to remain relevant?

‘Only 29% of worldwide information system projects achieve project management success.’

 

Information system implementation and project management challenges go hand in hand

The global business landscape has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Access to data, disruptive technological advances and the speed of innovation are some of the key drivers fuelling this revolution.

Information systems development forms a crucial part of technology innovation, and businesses have become even more aware and critical about the success of their information systems projects.  Information systems are crucial strategic and operational pillars – institutions want to see a return on their investment in information systems and they have become more mature in their understanding of the nature of information systems and related projects.

Over the past few years, a significant amount of effort has gone into making sure that information systems implementation meets customers’ value expectations. Yet, many software projects still fail to deliver value. More resources than originally planned are being used, less functionality at a lower quality than expected gets delivered, and the completion of projects takes longer than anticipated.  

Some reasons for these failures include badly defined requirements, unrealistic expectations from businesses, poor reporting on the project status and poor management of risks.  Risks can only be managed if knowledge is managed, and project knowledge is considered as one of the most powerful tools in managing risk. Project management can play a significant role in knowledge management and therefore naturally in risk management as well.

Most information systems professionals believe that using information systems project methodologies will improve the project management success rate. However, project managers face various challenges that limit their success:

  • Unrealistic project deadlines
  • Handling multiple projects simultaneously
  • Ineffective use of project management software and a lack of knowledge about project management methodologies.

The nature of information systems projects has also changed in recent years with an increase in technical complexity, rate of technology change, importance of security, business changes involved in projects, prevalence of virtual teaming, organisational instability and interdependence between organisations. As a result, these factors contribute to information systems project management becoming increasingly challenging.

‘Organisations are moving towards agile project implementation methodologies’

 

Looking at perceptions and experience

This research followed a qualitative case study approach. The design was chosen to extract descriptions of phenomena (perceptions held by management and implementation teams) within the relevant context described by the participants (based on their experiences).

Purposive sampling was used to identify 13 participants working within the information systems department of a business unit in a large insurance company in South Africa. Five of the participants belonged to the management team while the remaining eight were part of the information systems implementation team. Members of these teams had been part of both successful and failed agile projects within the organisation.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with all participants to elicit deep reflection about their experience during information systems implementation projects. This approach allowed participants to share their understanding of the challenges they faced and specifically the role that project managers played.

‘Are project managers still relevant in agile delivery environments?’

 

The lessons learned

With the disappointing track record of information systems implementation projects, organisations are moving towards agile project implementation methodologies, where reduced formality and increased individual autonomy and self-organising teams get preference. This shift encroaches on the territory of the traditional project manager’s role and raises questions about how project managers should adapt to remain relevant.

This case study provided insights into the desired behaviours of an agile project manager by exploring the different needs of the management and implementation teams. It looks as if project managers are stuck between a rock and hard place when it comes to fulfilling management and implementation teams’ expectations. On the one hand, they are required to fulfil the traditional project manager’s role: both the management and implementation teams require project managers to adhere to traditional project management governance functions such as project delivery, risk management, reporting and budgeting. On the other hand, when it comes to the management of the implementation team, the management team preferred a more traditional command and control style project manager. However, the implementation teams preferred a more agile approach expecting a project manager to earn their trust, refrain from micromanagement, allow the team to self-organise, and act as coach and facilitator.

The conclusion is that project managers will remain relevant if they move towards a more agile information systems implementation environment.  They must be aware of the different expectations from various stakeholders and adapt their behaviour accordingly. They have to engage openly with their stakeholders to understand their needs, acquire new skills (such as coaching and facilitation) in the agile environment and strike a balance between employing traditional and agile project management skills depending on the agile maturity of the organisation.

  • Original article: Nkukwana, S. & Terblanche, H.D. 2017. Between a rock and a hard place: Management and implementation teams’ expectations of project managers in an agile information systems delivery environment. South African Journal of Information Management, 19(1), a806.
  • Link to original article: https://sajim.co.za/index.php/sajim/article/view/806/1137.

 

Songezo Nkukwana is a former MBA student of the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

Dr Nicky Terblanche is a senior lecturer in Coaching at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

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