Coaching political quagmires

Executive coaches know the problem: large organizations come with their own politics. There are various groups with differing interests and the executive is in the middle of it. If an executive is new to an organization navigating the politics can feel quite daunting. Here is where coaching can help.

I want to start with a fictitious case example which is amalgamated from several executive coaching processes that I was able to lead:

Thierry, a French general manager in an Indonesian company was facing a difficult time. He needed to collaborate with various departments to be effective on his job, however, he felt like he was being hindered by company politics. The way things were working in this environment was simply not transparent to him. For example, Thierry would ask for crucial positions to be filled relying on the support of the HR department and very seldom received suitable candidates. When he went outside to recruit candidates, he would find that the organization rejected them, and they seldom stayed longer than their probation period. Also, some department heads would not cooperate with other department heads as there seemed to be a history of misunderstandings and conflict which was not spoken about. Instead of bringing the organization forward, Thierry was bogged down in trying to keep the organization afloat.

Coaching was very helpful in several ways. First, Thierry profited from someone believing his story of the events. It can be very hard to live in an environment where you think that you cannot trust your perceptions. Having a coach at his side who believed his perceptions, yet still invited him to check and shift where necessary, was highly appreciated him. He started feeling like he was regaining a firm ground rather than feeling like a goldfish in a shark tank.

Secondly, identifying what Thierry could change, what he could influence and what would likely not change quickly was a useful exercise. Through coaching, he was able to define clearly what his goals would be for the next months: who to influence, what to change, how long to try to change his relationship with HR and how long to try to fix the collaboration between the department heads until he would accept the situation and decide whether it was worth spending his time in this place or whether he wanted to make changes in the department heads.

Thirdly, discussing what kind of leader he wanted to be, how Thierry wanted to show up in the company and which culture he wanted to further, helped him to stand on firm ground. He realized that for him, a culture of transparency was very important and that, now, his environment was not conducive to that. In the coaching sessions, he developed a culture-change plan focusing on where he could lead by example and what he could do to influence the system.

In my experience, executive coaching is often more like a conversation between intelligent adults than a full coaching session (see the post on executive coaching). The main difference that I perceive between executive and “normal” coaching is that the “partnership” between coach and client is assumed and not overly visible in what is said. I don’t need to say “please push back if I am wrong” to someone who is used to pushing back. We make the agreement that the executive will be responsible for their own choice of actions early on (and check in between), so that a joint brainstorming and exchange of ideas becomes possible without the executive becoming dependent on the coach or losing accountability for their own decisions.

Executives are often “lonely at the top” because they do not have anyone to discuss their plans with inside the company. This is why the first point of the coach acting as someone who believes the client’s perception and helps them check whether the perceptions are helpful and accurate is very important when dealing with executive in political quagmires. Here, it is so helpful that you are a “neutral” person as a coach — there simply won’t be many other “neutral” people around the client.

Focus, prioritization and agency are also important topics. Executives can potentially focus on so many things that choosing where to focus their attention to maximize effectiveness is crucial. A coach can be very helpful here.

Identifying which kind of leadership fits with the client and how they want to show up as a leader is also helpful. Our identities are fluid and we are slightly different people in different environments. Global executives are faced with many different environments every day. Inviting them to tell stories about what they value and believe strengthens them and offers them a compass for their actions in an otherwise volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

If you want to learn more about leadership and executive coaching, maybe our EMCC (senior practitioner) and ICF (Level 2, ACTP, PCC) course is for you? If you just want to hang around, discuss cases, learn about our programs, why not join a free meetup and exchange?

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