When Walter Isaacson asked Steve Jobs what was his most important creation over the course of his career, Jobs responded, much to Isaacson’s surprise, that it was building Apple as an enduring company and added that doing so was more difficult than building a great product (Source: Isaacson, W., 2012, The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs, Harvard Business Review, April). On a weekly basis Jobs gathered together his senior executive team to kick around ideas and did the same with his advertising and marketing teams. He was striking in in his ability to be centrally involved in a range of company activities ranging from facilitating yearly off-sites for his top 100 employees where they decided on strategic priorities, to designing office spaces that fostered creativity and collaboration, to getting involved in the most intimate details of product design. You all the know the results: Apple has become the most valuable company in the world by market cap. More importantly however, he and his team succeeded in a creating an enduring culture of leadership and excellence that pervades the company even a few years after his passing. In their Global Leadership Forecast 2014/2015 and based on a survey of more than 13,000+ leaders, 1500+ human resource executives and 2000+ organizations, DDI reported that only 15% of organizations rated their leadership bench as strong (a decline from 18% as reported in their 2011 forecast). They state: “Most organizations are not confident that they have the leadership to address current and future needs.” The question then is how can organizations best develop a leadership bench and culture that will help them succeed over the long term? Is Jobs’ approach replicable or are there other ways to facilitate such cultural transformation? In this post I would like to explore leveraging team coaching as one promising vehicle to build such a culture.
Leadership As A Collective Process
The challenges leaders face today are sometimes described as VUCA challenges (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity). Successfully adapting to environments marked by VUCA is unlikely if we try to rely on the old model of heroic individual leadership. Such contexts exert a magnetic pull or desire for strong leaders and many of us are eager to hand over our authority to such leaders in exchange for the security they promise to provide. However natural that response may be, we risk falling into the trap of “what got us here today won’t get us to where we are going tomorrow.” In other words while heroic individual leadership may have been sufficient to lead us to the promised land in the past, its unlikely to be sufficient for leading us there again in the present and the future. The VUCA environment requires collective thinking and leadership in order to respond and adapt successfully. Remember that even Jobs, who was a heroic leader in many ways, relied heavily on face-to-face meetings to leverage his team’s collective ability to respond adaptively. Jobs purportedly hated PowerPoint presentations in meetings because they inhibited people’s ability to think. He like free-wheeling meetings which allowed for more creative thinking to occur. In The Center for Creative Leadership’s 2014 white paper, Future Trends in Leadership Development by Nick Petrie, this shift from individual leadership to collective leadership is noted as one of four essential future trends in leadership development (Source: Petrie, N. 2014, Future Trends in Leadership Development. White paper published by Center for Creative Leadership).
One promising way to develop a culture or ethos of collective leadership is through coaching senior leadership teams. Combining individual coaching of leaders along with coaching the leadership team as a whole can help break down silos and fiefdoms and create a context that allows for collective thinking. Such thinking is essential for adaptation. Organizational cultures emerge through ongoing dialogue and interactions, especially among leaders who exert nonlinear impacts on the organizational system. These conversations shape collective norms and practices and weave core values into the fabric of the company. Jobs was adamant about the importance of face-to-face meetings and designing work spaces (e.g., Pixar, Apple’s new spaceship headquarters, Apple Stores, etc.) that facilitated serendipitous and creative interactions–prime vehicles that build and reinforce organizational culture.
In this week’s episode of The Team Coaching Zone Podcast (available here on iTunes, my guest Jean Frankel–Founder and Principal at Ideas for Action, LLC–shares some powerful stories of coaching leadership teams. In one of her stories (at the 40 minutes 30 second point in the episode), she discusses helping one University President and 14 Vice Presidents make a shift from an individual leadership culture marked by silos and fiefdoms to a team-based leadership culture marked by cross-functional collaboration. She notes that a collective “leadership culture” is beginning to emerge and that both one-to-one coaching with each individual leader as well as coaching the team as a whole is at the heart of the transformation. This transformation is now beginning to cascade down within each VP’s organization. While some leaders like Jobs may be able to take on the role of coaching teams themselves, in one of my previous blog posts on 2015 – The Year of Team Coaching! I cited Peters and Carr (2013) who note that “Many leaders and organizational decision makers remain ill-equipped to create the conditions that lead to high team performance in technical, professional, information and service industries.” In such cases having an external team coach can make all the difference.
In a offsite retreat I was facilitating last week, the executive leader and a large team of 25 participants were grappling with how to best adapt to an environment that was resulting in a decline in traditional sources of revenue. The leader and team alike felt that unless the team could adapt effectively to an environment marked increasingly by VUCA, their very survival as an organization would be called into question in short order. There was a keen sense that what got them to where they are today might not be enough to get to them to where they want and need to be in the next 5 to 10 years. The leader of the team made a passionate appeal about the importance of developing a “leadership ethos” throughout the organization and that while formal leaders such as himself could help with organizational adaptation, their success would only be assured if the team as a whole embraced “embodying leadership” as their new modus operandi. This appeal captured beautifully the challenge many of us face in our organizations: how do we develop a culture of leadership that pervades the ethos of the organization? The appeal also in a way communicated that “as your leader I’m willing to go all in but unless you go all in as well we won’t make it. My leadership is necessary but insufficient.” While I believe that strong heroic individual leaders are still part of the answer, what seems to be emerging is that we need to add more of an emphasis on collective leadership. It’s time to take our collective leadership game to the next level. Team coaching offers one promising vehicle that can help bring about such a leadership change and ethos.
For more information and resources on team coaching, visit The Team Coaching Zone at www.TeamCoachingZone.com where you can access podcast episodes and blog posts, register for upcoming webinars, download resources and more.
Isaacson, W., 2012, The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs, Harvard Business Review, April.
Petrie, N. 2014, Future Trends in Leadership Development. White paper published by The Center for Creative Leadership.
Sinar, E., Wellins, R.S., Ray, R., Abel, A.L., & Neal, S. (2014). Ready-Now Leaders: Meeting Tomorrow’s Business Challenges – Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015. Development Dimensions International.