By Ann Paul – Executive Coach and Principal Consultant at Q5 Partner
Coaching has long been recognised as an effective way of supporting leaders in their development. Working with a coach can increase a person’s effectiveness by providing time for reflection, building self-awareness and helping them plan their actions to increase their impact. Coaching can be a catalyst for change and also a support during change. Often it is most effective when introduced at a time of professional transition or transformation – on starting a new role, picking up a challenging project, working with a new team, moving to a new organisation – times when the individual can’t necessarily rely on their established playbook. When encountering a new situation or set of challenges, what they did before may not be what they need now and might actually be what they don’t need.
So how does that play out in a global pandemic? Arguably everyone in society is going through a period of transition or, based on my personal experience, a series of waves as we adjust to a one ‘new normal’ after another. The demands on leaders, already often high, have reached new heights as they have had to lead their teams through unprecedented uncertainty with no clear end in sight. During this time much of the playbook is no longer relevant and they are having to manage their own personal adjustment whilst others are looking to them for the answers.
Over recent months I’ve noticed a shift in the work I’ve been doing with my coaching clients. Whilst we’ve continued to work on their established coaching goals, the context has changed, the certainty provided by a known environment has disappeared which has led to a shift in our conversation. Here are some of the things that I’m noticing about leaders during the pandemic:
- The pandemic has had a levelling effect. Leaders are still responsible for providing context and direction, but this has become visibly more difficult. Their human struggles, often masked by seniority and deference, have become more obvious because they are the same struggles everyone is experiencing. This has had a humanising effect. The distance between leaders and their teams has reduced. They are more like us than we thought they were. You might argue that this is a good thing overall – people working together more as people rather than as different levels within an organisation, and for some leaders this has been welcomed – they have been able to bring more of themselves into work (aided by Zoom calls interrupted by pets, kids, and the next Amazon delivery…) For others this has felt de-robing. The leadership mask has slipped, and this creates a sense of exposure and vulnerability.
- The pandemic has made all of us experimenters. It might be a hackneyed term, but we are in uncharted territory. The experience of previous recent pandemics in Asia can no doubt provide direction and insight, but nothing has been experienced on this scale before. This makes all of us learners. The default position of the people at the top of the organisation having the most experience or knowledge and the best ideas is no longer as relevant as it has been in the past. Leaders are less able to rely on their tried and tested methodologies. This means they need to take more risks, try things out when they don’t know if they are going to work – experiment. For entrepreneurial leaders this is their natural space and some organisations are grasping the pandemic as an opportunity to be disruptive, but for others this is deeply unsettling. Many leaders are no longer able to predict with some certainty and confidence the results of their actions. Will this work? They just don’t know. And this uncertainty can create a paralysis, a reluctance to take action driven by a fear of failure.
- The pandemic has necessitated an increase in trust. I don’t think we’re in any doubt that many organisations will exit this situation with a vastly different and arguably improved approach towards flexible working. Most (if not all) of the old arguments that jobs can’t be done from home, at different hours of the day, in pyjamas, have literally been obliterated. All of this is pretty exciting but there is a deeper level at play. The old argument that if I can’t see people, they won’t do the work no longer stands. We have been forced to trust each other and it’s kind of working. But for some leaders this shakes their purpose. For the leaders that believe their role is to drive work, monitor progress and direct output, what is their purpose when they can no longer do these things?
So, whilst my coaching work continues to address the areas that were established at the beginning of the coaching relationship, the topics above are creeping (and sometimes leaping) in to our conversations. How can I lead remotely? What is my purpose now? How can I lead the team when they and I know I don’t have the answers? How am I exposing myself if I trust my team? Of course, coaching doesn’t have the answers to these questions, but it does provide the headspace for these issues to be held up and examined, for different hypotheses to be considered and for various actions to be experimented with – some of which will work and some of which won’t, but all of which will lead to learning and growth.