Africa is always interesting. The continent’s richness in minerals and diversity is matched only by its complexity: there is no one solution to the challenges faced by its nations, and my native South Africa is no exception. Known as the birthplace of global entrepreneurs (Mark Shuttleworth, Elon Musk), iconic leaders (Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu) and creatives (Charlize Theron, Dave Matthews, Trevor Noah), we are also a nation swimming in State debt and an ocean of inequality as we strive to overcome years of poor governance. Political tension is also a reality, with poverty and broken promises warring against reconciliation and, at times, logic. HR (which often oversees L&D) finds itself mostly concerned with Labour Law, payroll and recruitment activities, and “strategic HR” (L&D, coaching, mentoring) is often outsourced to consultants.
Given this context, it is easier to adjust one’s expectations upon meeting South African clients, enabling more probing questions to be asked. Without context, organisational coaching may easily become soft, nice to have, or even irrelevant – not critical to the plot. Prof. Michael Beer (HBS) and colleagues found that context “sets the stage for success or failure” and it’s important to “attend to organisational design and managerial processes first and then support them with individual development tools such as coaching…” 1. Coaching is most effective, when it is built upon tangible efforts lived out by senior leaders. If it is combined with insights gleaned from line managers and employees concerning barriers to effectiveness, even better.
In my own experience, my best coaching sessions have been those where the coachee is not just willing and able, but also allowed (with deference to Malcolm Lindsay2). Self-determination theory would call these autonomy, relatedness (belonging) and competence, perhaps. These are universal motivators, not African ones, as are the enablers of employee engagement: authentic, envisioning communication combined with organisational living of values, employee voice and engaging managers3. Carolyn Taylor, author of Walking the Talk, found that more than 70% of organisational culture is tied to leadership behaviour (she splits the other 30 into symbols [customs] and systems). It seems that William Glasser was right when he wrote in Choice Theory, that “all we ever do is behave.”
We are being called back to business kindergarten: show, don’t tell; live your vision, and ask, rather than assume. This closely parallels research on leadership style, where Transformational Leadership is known to support engagement, which catalyses productivity, retention and innovation. This doesn’t make execution easy, as I’ve found when applying coaching techniques with our sons. It’s somehow more difficult to empathise, summarise and delay my input when being stared down by an angry teenager for whose development I feel responsible. However, when I do get it right I get hugs instead of hysteria.
Business leaders may not be ready to embrace the shifts necessary to align strategic me and operational me either. Understanding the organisational dynamics and constraints, along with the year’s priorities, will ensure that we, as coaches, have valuable data with which to bridge this knowing-doing gap, which will help us support our clients’ effectiveness, since our success is linked to theirs. We will still need to reflect behaviour in the session back to the coachee, be fully present and self-aware, and let them discover appropriate solutions and actions (via options and choices).
What is increasingly important is that we are grounded in the roles, responsibilities, business realities and relationships facing our clients. In this scenario, coaching could be aligned with organisational strategy, role mastery and talent management: recruiting, developing and retaining the right people – and we would not coach in a vacuum and find ourselves irrelevant, on our own continent or others. Also, our coachees would not be developed in isolation – where the individual out-grows their organisation, but instead, explore fresh ways to be impactful within it, as much as it depended on them.
Bridging Knowing and Doing; Sustaining Advantage