Written: Lim Wee Teck

For the past two year, the world went through a once in a century pandemic. And we are still trying to get back on our feet. Business leaders are facing a crisis that no amount of training, experience or even those extensive business continuity plans that had been set-up – could have adequately prepared these leaders to respond to. Leaders in all organizations face massive challenges, and just to name a few: how to handle themselves from being overwhelmed, how to motivate others, how to plan for any number of likely scenarios, how to think strategically while still handling the daily fires, how to develop new ways of doing business and how to still take care of oneself with limited time and sleep. Whether during or after the crisis, leaders want an objective sounding board, a safe place to vent and share concerns and fresh perspectives.

Executive and leadership coaching can effectively navigate through these crisis. It can unlock the greater potential of these leaders by raising his/her self-awareness and changing the mental frame from disempowering to activating an empowering frame.

For all of these reasons, it motivates me that now is a good time to be a coach. The coach can help leaders to be more productive, lead more effectively and find the higher purpose goal. Afterall, I had always associated myself with the identity of a people developer.

Right now nothing is known. No one really knows how long the crisis will last or how it will unfold. This is good news for coaches who come from an executive or management background. At least that is what I thought. Being a beneficiary of executive coaching myself, albeit in a casual form I embarked on my professional coaching certification during the pandemic. The passion in people development, to be an architect for someone’s success, to play a part in uprooting our own belief system that no longer serve us or that which is holding us back from reaching our goals or life purpose, that was my higher life purpose.

The coach doesn’t have the deep business insights nor background to step in and offer advice, or steer the conversation where they (CEO, VP or Directors) think she/he should go. Almost everything is unknown. That is not what coaching is.

As a coach, we are the master of the process so all we do are to apply the coaching skills. Pure coaching skills – listening, empathy, and asking powerful questions based on what is being shared. To have trust in the process is what all coaches learn from the start.

In such uncertain business condition like right now, these leaders’ minds are like a mechanical clock that is wound too tightly and ticking too fast. A good coach can help the leader to regulate this, to create the self-awareness that he/she is in control of the clock key. A coach does this by listening, empathizing, and letting the leader guide the conversation. Have the leader determine when his/her clock needs winding and unwinding. The client feels less stressed out, and is able to generate new ideas and perspectives.

The first and most difficult step, in coaching leaders through a time of crisis is to get them to take time for a coaching conversation at all. It is not hard to argue that surviving the crisis takes top priority, in fact this presents the perfect time for coaching. Leaders could use a few minutes to unwind, prioritize, share their own concerns and develop a plan to move forward — even a little. Spending just a little bit of time in a coaching conversation could help them find ways to be more productive, recharge and cope. The trick is to know how to get the leader to agree.

How might one get the leader to welcome coaching? Following is my personal account of the first encounter of coaching a business leader.

Just the other day – “These are really challenging times for our organization. With the new CEO on board. We have to increase the value of our manufacturing locations to the company.” lamented Jerome, my factory General Manager. That’s a coaching opportunity that just presented itself. But how do I start a coaching conversation with Jerome who runs the largest revenue manufacturing location?

Coach: What is in your mind?

Jerome: I feel overwhelmed with all the expectations of running this factory. We got to meet our deliveries pandemic or no. We are under tremendous cost pressures with all these restrictions and not to forget that our people is the last thing that I want to touch, be it to reduce cost or adjust for the reduced demand.

Coach: Why does this concern you so much, Jay (short for Jerome)?

Jerome: I want to make this a great factory. But right now, I don’t think I am good and I am doubting my ability.

This is when I shared with Jay about executive coaching. He was open to the idea and was keen to have me being his coach. I applied the SEE-SAY-DO coaching model from CCA (Corporate Coach Academy) and used the 7-step protocol. Putting my trust in the model and the process, this was how it went.

SEE stage
This stage comprises Trial, Contract and Discovery. In Trial, the key result area (KRA) is acceptance where the coaching case and suitability of the coach-client is established. During Contract, the KRA was to get agreement. Here is where the goal, the scope of the goal, a goal name and the roles & expectations for both coach and coachee are agreed.

Coach: What is the goal here, Jay?

Jerome: I want to bring automation to this factory. This will make us competitive and ensure that the factory will be here for the next 20years.

Coach: How will this automated factory look like?

Jerome: The current manual tasks like the movement of material will be handled by robots. The work of retrieving data from operations for the daily, weekly and monthly required by manufacturing and process engineering will be automated so that the team can put the time freed up to work on real improvements which are badly needed now. So it will be something like this – our operators in the factory floor will be able to skill up to do what the Technicians are doing. Technicians will be trained to do Engineers’ work and Engineers, they will be focused on real improvements that fixes our chronic issues and bring cost and productivity gains. In short, operator do Technician’s role, Techs do Engineer’s tasks and Engineer do improvements.

Coach: And what does this mean to you as the GM of the factory?

Jerome: Me? *long pause*… I will be….. I will be coaching and mentoring my staff. Working with them to bring this factory to its full potential. I am transforming this place. I want to be the one that make this factory part of the Industrial Revolution 4.0 that’s happening around this country. That is what this means to me.

Having get to Jay’s real goal, we came up with a goal name – “J the change agent”. At Discovery, getting insights is the KRA. A significant amount of time of the coaching journey is taken by this stage to delve deeper into Jay’s story and get to understand his goal better. With that, then move towards identifying the key areas of that goal and get the desired outcome.

Coach: Jay, recall our earlier conversation and the doubt you have. Why?

This is when Jerome started to share on what was really bothering him. Jerome had just been promoted to the factory General Manager 3 months ago. Our previous GM, Daniel had made such a positive impact having doubled the size of the factory operations and in the process of this, developed a core team of leaders in this factory. This resulted in Daniel landing the role of the right hand man to our COO.

Coach: What have you learnt in the past 3months as GM?

Jerome feels that he now has large shoes to fill and is not sure he can do this. To check, I asked why is this important. That’s when Jerome shared his inner thoughts that he had been known to be competitive and excel in what he does. In his younger days, he had always been good in sports, had played squash at the State level and nearly enrolled in the national squash players program. At work he is known to deliver results. In his last company, he setup the probe center (wafer testing operations) and developed a self-directed team that built a cost effective operations that attracted the consolidation of 3 probe centers to Malaysia. Now, he has sleepless nights thinking what he can do to excel as the next GM of our factory.

I came to realise that it was not doubt but that Jerome was having a significant frame. How to get Jerome from this frame to be Game?

Coach: Jay, to be the change agent what should you be considering?

Jerome: I like challenges. That’s why I gave up my job even when I am well established there, what more during this COVID-19 uncertainties. I felt that I was not going to go much farther in my last company. Even now, as the GM here I still think I can go farther.

Coach: Farther… meaning?

Jerome reiterated his goal, that he wants to excel as the change agent of this factory. There was such enthusiasm when he talked about this that it was evident that he is Game. We arrive with 3 main pillars and each with a desired outcome as below:

  1. Automation (in-line with Industry 4.0), to set-up an automation group. This group is a core team consisting of a team leader and two engineers focus on eliminating the manual handling of products in the factory within 9 months.
  2. People skill up, this is towards a thinking organization. Have a standard 3-week training plan targeted at the operators in 6 months time, by 31-Dec.
  3. Improved Jerome’s well-being, a schedule that consist of 30 mins of meditation on weekdays (Mondays to Thursdays) and 60mins of bicycle exercise on weekends (Fridays to Sundays)

SAY stage
SAY consist of Deep Learning and Action Confirmation protocol. The KRA for Deep Learning is Deliverable. He we get deeper into the actions that makes the three desired outcomes a reality. A series of efforts to help stretch the person on each of the 3 identified outcomes. Being a hands-on person, this is like second nature to Jerome. Concepts such as SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) goals, phrasing each action with a ‘From X to Y by Z’ was a breeze for a veteran like him. All I could do was just admire at how smoothly this went as I facilitate while Jerome generates all the ideas and actions towards his Big Goal. He was so confident and in control of the actions leading towards each deliverable.

All the coach had to do was just occasional reminder that Jerome is to take ownership and responsibility for each outcome. This is to address the intrinsic part of Jerome, not just focusing on the extrinsic ways to meet the outcome. It also serves as a reminder to myself that I may share opinions or past experiences to facilitate but not tell the incumbent on what he/she should do. In Action Confirmation (KRA – ownership), what was finalized and documented were as below.

Automation: Jerome had broken it down systematically on how he plans to resource the core automation group right down to the detailed work flow this group will be doing on the two business processes that he wants to automate first. While the time frame of 9 months is aggressive, he has confidence that he can get some help our local academic institution to support us as well.

People skill up: As for the standard training plan, we worked out on how to engage the local labour office skill development agency can assist. Since the pandemic, the government had been supportive in skilling up the workforce to get the economy back on track.

Well-being: Being a sportsman in his younger days, it was straight-forward for Jerome to have the discipline to do the weekend bicycle routine. His challenge was working on his mental strength. Meditation was not something he was inclined on practicing. He has a lot on his mind and has difficulty concentrating. Jerome would request to his wife to partner his and serve as a reminder and support for this.

DO stage
In the next few sessions, we reviewed Jay’s progress (Tracking protocol with Progress as the KRA). On these regular sessions, Jay provided updates and we tracked his progress. We worked together on how his future actions can further be improved. As the same time, the protocol Auditing (KRA Value) was occurring where we reflect and assess the coaching relationship.

Every time I reflect on my coaching journey with Jerome, it reminds me of my naiveté and eagerness to apply what I had learnt then. Coaching had taught me that I don’t need to be a leader nor have all the know-how to do the leader’s job or for that matter how the incumbent’s business/industry works, unless of course, I am giving technical advice. Whatever I think I know probably doesn’t bring the required impact or may not be applicable. There is nowhere to go with a conversation with these business leaders except into the unknown. “What is it that I can contribute to the conversation with the General Manager or the CEO?” I often find myself asking. My greatest value – is that I bring up this conversation in these times of crisis with one of these 3 approaches below.

First, a pitch or persuasive argument. I apply the “That is why…” approach: “That is why we need to spend a few moments right now. While things seem out of control at the moment, by spending even a few minutes talking about what’s going on, you might find you get more ideas and can get more done in less time. Would that be okay with you?”

A second approach is simply to ask permission: “Well, while we are in this meeting, would you find value in talking about what’s going on – even for a few minutes?”

However, the best approach I find is to coach without letting on that you are coaching. Listen. Let them share. Use appreciative, high-level questions. Encourage them to keep talking. Empathise – but authentically and without coming across as performing “check-out the empathy box.” I have found that when I, and other coaches as well, do this, the person starts talking and a coaching session begins organically.

Some of the questions that I keep in mind to keep the calm in the storm are as follows.

  • What is your greatest fear here?
  • What is one thing that is in your control which can make a difference?
  • What is one strength you have that can help in this?
  • Who can help you here?

And oh, did I mention that coaching is a relationship? It is mutual and we learn from those that we coach as much as we provide a value to this relationship.

So, the next time a business leader tells me their problems during their moments of frustration, disappointment etc., I will put on my 6-star listening ears. Listen well, reflecting back what I am hearing and letting them lead the conversation – it makes all the difference especially in these times of crisis.

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