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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