Imagine a CEO who is new to an industry sector, yet charged with providing strategic insight and direction. Or an aspirational leader who doesn’t have a firm grasp on organisational politics. Both these leaders need to orient themselves – and quickly – to how their sector and organisations work.
Being able to read one’s environment is a core leadership capability, also called situational intelligence. Those who don’t have it are slow off the mark. They miss opportunities and are soon by-passed when new appointments are made.
Coaches play a key role in building situational intelligence. So much so, that I would argue it is impossible to coach leaders in isolation, without reference to the context they work in. Well it’s probably possible, but I believe it’s irresponsible.
As coaches, it’s imperative that our work with the individual – as they present in front of us – is informed by a deep curiosity about how they operate within the systems they live and work in. GCI coaches ask questions not just of the individual and their own aspirations, feelings and thought patterns, but actively enquire into the dynamics of the system.
We want to know how leaders read their environment, what they pay attention to and what they minimise or ignore. We want to know what is likely to trigger a clash of ideologies or assumptions and how they adapt their style and messaging in order to bring others with them on the journey.
It stands to reason that the clearer and more incisive one’s questions about the system, the better the data the individual can give you.
However, only having the individual in front of us can be a challenge. Unless our coaching is embedded in a wider organisational change initiative, we often don’t have access to the full system and the insights that direct observation can yield. We rely on the coachee’s representation of their organisation, department or the team they work within. Inevitably, our clients view will have blind-spots. How then do we best serve them?
As coaches our role is to help them build a rich picture of themselves within the system, their relationship to it, and their impact upon it.
Coaches, therefore, need insights into system dynamics. This empowers us to ask questions wide ranging enough to extend the client’s own enquiry.
Some useful questions to open up our client’s understanding of their systems are:
- What are the founding stories and myths that shape the organisation’s identity?
- What does the formal structure of the organisation convey? How is it enacted?
- How would you describe the flow of information within the system?
- Who holds power and influence? How is this negotiated?
- What key events live on the organisational memory? What has kept them alive?
- What experience and expectations do people bringing to their roles?
- What is unique about this environment? What is familiar?
- What may prove deceptive about this situation?
- What is as yet unknown to you?