Organisations and leadership are changing – what does this mean for leadership coaching?
Every second business article I read these days talks about accelerating change in the business environment. Thinking about all that rapid change, uncertainty and ambiguity, turbulent markets, demographic upheavals, digital revolutions, relentless innovation and so on is enough to make a person hyperventilate. I do wonder sometimes if this repeated rhetoric can become a self-validating agent of corporate panic!
Rapidly changing business context
Is business changing any more rapidly than it used to? I’m no historian but I suspect that there have been many periods of turbulent change, with obvious examples being various agrarian, industrial and technological revolutions. Certainly at the moment we are facing accelerating change via digital and social innovation, globalisation and anthropogenic climate change.
It is however important to think critically about assumptions and rhetoric around the pace of change. For example a 2016 Deloitte report on future trends in organisational design cites 'Moore’s Law' as evidence of exponential change in business generally. Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, in 1965 projected a doubling of integrated circuitry components per year for at least the following decade. However Moore and others went on to correctly predict a slowing down of this rate of change by about 2013. I do wonder about the extent to which one can extrapolate from Moore’s observation about circuitry components to claim accelerating change as 'law' in the business environment in general.
Change is eternal
The thing is, change has always been there: businesses and industries have been appearing and disappearing for centuries. In living memory we’ve seen brands disappear (think Pan Am, Ansett; Nokia, Ericsson) while their industries (commercial aviation; mobile phones) have gone from strength to strength. We’ve seen old business models (taxi cabs and hotels) under threat from new business models (Uber and AirBnB). We’ve seen old distribution models being decimated by by digital technology (Blockbuster overtaken by Netflix; print newspapers decimated by online news formats). And we see whole industries that are on the way out, such as coal mining and coal-fired power stations.
However there are some industries and business models that surprise us with their resilience. Everyone predicted the death of the bookshop in the face of online retailing. Some book retailers did hit the wall, but those who have creatively reinvented themselves are doing well, and I love browsing in the new breed of boutique bookshops that have appeared in my hometown Sydney. The Australian wine industry manages to keep going, adapting to changing climatic conditions and global market forces. Thank goodness for that!
Don't get me wrong: I’m not a change denier. The world is full of change, and we need to be always alert to improving our fitness for change, and our ability to anticipate the future. I’m just suggesting that we take a few deep breaths and don't panic! As the French say, plus ça change, plus la meme chose.
Changing organisational design
The same Deloitte Report was focused on the need for organisational redesign as a response to changing externalities. Their comprehensive global survey positioned organisational design as the top priority for senior executives, followed by leadership, culture and engagement.
The report envisaged the ‘new’ organisation as a flattened structure, with a paring down of middle management. What replaces the traditional pyramidal chain of command is a network of interconnected teams, assembling and disassembling in an agile project-based response to opportunities and challenges in the environment. Enhanced collaboration, empowerment and innovation are seen both as results of organisational design and then enablers of business success.
This sort of organisational redesign is adopted to make the organisation more adaptable in an environment of increasing complexity, and can certainly work well in the right context. One example of this approach might be cross-disciplinary teams of medical professionals collaboratively project managing patient-centred care. If you are a hospital professional reading this, you’ll say “oh, this has been around for a long time”. As I said, plus ça change…..
The shape of leadership is changing
What are the implications for leadership and leadership development? How do we lead flattened organisations, self-driven project teams and collaborative work cultures? People don’t really know what these new organisations and new leaders will look like. The future is emergent. But then it always has been! So we need to focus on a leadership process, developing fitness for a future that is still emerging. It's a bit like a football team....
The Australian Women’s Rugby Sevens did a great job of anticipating where the play was going next. They came home with the gold medal.
What does future-focused leadership look like?
Long time leadership coach Marshal Goldsmith notes that while there are some universal leadership characteristics, such as vision and integrity, there are also some attributes that are characteristic of future-focused leadership. He talks about global thinking; cross-cultural appreciation; technological savvy (not expertise but rather strategic understanding); building alliances and partnerships; and shared leadership, as being vital. His Youtube explanation is well worth the 6 minutes to watch it.
From horizontal to vertical leadership
Nick Petrie builds on these ideas, talking about vertical rather than horizontal leadership development as a shift from ‘what’ to how’. It’s a shift from competencies or skills acquisition within the scope of leadership at one level, to moving through developmental leadership stages defined by relationality and values. In our company we talk about this as a shift of focus from I to We to You: and there are various leadership pipeline models in the marketplace. Both Petrie and Goldsmith mention the importance of collective or shared leadership and the development of a pervasive leadership culture in the new organisation.
We need to reimagine coaching
So where does this leave leadership coaching, which has long been focused at senior levels of organisations?
In our company we’ve been doing a lot of work on reimagining coaching. We like to think we’re anticipating the direction of play! In order to build a leadership culture and shared leadership, we are scaling coaching for every level of the organisation. My colleague Rob has talked elsewhere about hybrid models for coaching frontline managers, with some great feedback from participants. A judicious mix of virtual, digital and real time connection can create transformational leadership shifts for employees at every level.
Perhaps one of the key skills for both leaders and coaches is as Petrie says, moving from single-loop to double loop learning: from improving on what we’re doing to questioning the assumptions about what we’re doing. In our company we try to do both: improve on our current services, and reimagine for the future.