Coaching can be an incredibly fruitful endeavour. One recent experience has left me with renewed enthusiasm for art of coaching a group to their full potential, even through critical times.
Overworked and understaffed
I was brought into a beleaguered department with an enormous, overarching mandate that affects every other department in its organization. The department is overworked and understaffed, its employees smart, dedicated, strong, and overwhelmed.
Their work was full of last-minute requests from the C-suite, and their tasks were piling up faster than they could ever hope to accomplish them. Their senior leader had been removed and their internal systems needed drastic improvements. The whole department was a mess.
If you’ve been in a similar situation, you know how demoralizing these working conditions are. No matter how brilliant you are, you can’t do the work of four people. You can’t restructure your overly complicated departmental structure by yourself. You can’t ever get ahead, and for a high performer, that’s an unbelievably frustrating position.
So what’s a department to do in this situation? Well, the standard response is to hire a consultant to analyze the situation, extract feedback from employees, create a template, work with management to refine solutions, and start implementing these solutions without much consultation of staff—which creates automatic resistance. The consultant walks away, the staff’s left holding a list of uninformed suggestions, and management doesn’t understand why, a year later, nothing’s changed and morale is worse than ever.
Help desperately needed: inquire within
Here’s where this department got something completely right: They ignored the standard response and looked within the department for the answers to their problems. They set up a small breakaway group of seven from the department of approximately forty to make recommendations on roles and responsibilities. They brought me as a consultant, but didn’t want me to direct; they wanted me to coach the group.
At first, the main feeling I got from this group was resentment. They were already incredibly overworked—now they were being asked to do yet another task? Something management should have already figured out?
But after long discussions, they began to see how vital their mandate would be. We talked about the hows of their task—how they could intervene, how they could get the information they needed, how to get management involved—but most of all, we talked about the bigger why. Why did this department exist? Why did this department need them?
Soon they were energized. They focused on making things better for themselves and all their coworkers, to overcome their workload, unclear responsibilities, and overwhelm.
Creativity is key
Not only did this group come around to the work, they had fun with it. Because they weren’t constrained by any formulas or existing processes, they were able to do whatever they wanted. They started by getting the full story from each of their coworkers—every single thing that wasn’t working, every single delay that seemed to happen over and over, every complaint. They also had their workmates describe how they’d love things to change.
Working together, they examined this information in the light of their own experiences and recognized the patterns that emerged. And they used an incredible amount of ingenuity and cooperation to get there.
They also reimagined their workplace. Some of the suggestions they made were:
- Remove two layers of approval to streamline processes
- Have people from their department attend executive meetings to remove the broken-telephone games
- Building a short q&a into the beginning of every project to eliminate redoing work after feedback
- Empowering admin staff to make small changes so that not everything has to travel all the way up to executives and back to the department every time.
Is any of this radical? No. And yet no one has ever made these simple suggestions to improve the workplace before. Not until this small, creative group got to work.
What went so right?
When people are given parameters and a purpose and are left to their own devices, they can get amazing results.
This breakaway group is well educated and enormously capable. They were able to cooperate and untangle a very complex workplace in six short months of working together.
Not only did they work together, they also engaged the rest of their downtrodden department and brought them on board with their solutions. They’ve created a compelling business case and a powerful way to present their ideas.
Their work will serve as a model to other groups in the department and the organization as a whole.
Why group coaching?
My role here was not to lead—if I’d tried, everything would have gone belly up. This group is so tired of leadership that doesn’t understand their specific concerns!
My role here was instead to be a coach. I asked questions; I provided guidance on best practices; I gave them an occasional nudge from the sidelines. I bore witness to and encouraged their hard work. This group just needed a little help to mine their own wisdom, just like an individual coaching client might.
Now they have a homemade, from-the-bottom solution that will be adopted sustainably by their department because it’s created by and for the people who need it. Some light-touch coaching allowed their efforts to bloom.
Have you ever worked with or as a group coach? I would love to hear more about your experience working from the ground up to effect sustainable change.
Read more about working with me as a group coach or facilitator here.