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Case Study: Leadership Succession Coaching in Action

By Stephen Cowburn

Gordon is MD of a £24m turnover business. He is aware that in the next few years there will be a number of retirements at senior levels and there is an experience gap between Board members and the next tier down. He has identified Richard as possibly having the potential to step into a broader role over the next few years.

Gordon’s challenge

Gordon faced five immediate challenges:

  1. Is Richard the right person? Is he capable of stepping up?
  2. When is the right time to start the process?
  3. When are the other Directors going to retire?
  4. How do l sell the process?
  5. How do l manage the expectations of both Richard and others?

Dealing with these challenges

Answering these questions took a number of meetings over around 3 months. One of the solutions was to adopt the leadership profile developed by leading assessment company SHL, which could be used as a proxy benchmark of capability against a senior manager group. We also did a mapping exercise of current capability against future role to identify gaps and help identify the behaviours that needed changing. Finally we rehearsed the messages to be given in the three-way conversation that would launch the coaching process. This helped deal with ‘what if’ questions and deal with inconsistencies and any mixed messages.

The coaching process

This was a fairly typical process involving 6 sessions over 8 months starting and ending with a 3 way meeting between Gordon, Richard and myself. Each session was on the client’s premises lasting between 90 and 150 minutes. Although leadership development and succession planning are a specialism, this helps more to frame the relevant questions. For me, coaching is not about being clever, but is more about being the mirror, observing what is being said, listening to what is being said (and not) and reflecting back phrases and words that demonstrate assumptions and attitudes that may be getting in Richard’s way.

The first meeting

Gordon spent 45 minutes explaining the context for the coaching programme, highlighting the issues he had identified with Richard and so identified development goals and expectations from the coaching process. Gordon also mentioned that he was willing to act as mentor to Richard in the immediate future to help him with any organisational issues that he faced as his role was subtly changing. The remainder of the session, once Gordon had departed, was to develop the outcomes, add in any others Richard had, explore how we were going to work together and map out a rough agenda based on Richard’s priorities and the business needs.

Subsequent meetings

In between the first and second session Richard completed an on-line profile which produced a leadership report. The second session was spent reviewing actions agreed from the first session, reflecting on learning before exploring outcomes from the leadership report, getting agreement on any additional areas for development, apart from those identified by Gordon. The report identified that, on paper, Richard had the potential to step up. The coaching process enabled a sense check of whether the step up could happen.

Outcomes from the coaching process

Coaching accelerates development in a sustainable way through the intensive nature of the process.  The fact that we are worked on real development needs in real time meant there was an immediacy to the process. Particular outcomes were greater confidence in dealing with the current Directors, more time planning rather than doing (and feeling good about that) and developing others by delegating and concentrating on more strategic and whole-business activity. These and the comments below were shared in a 3 way meeting at the end of the coaching programme.

Gordon commented that he felt his decision to invest in Richard was vindicated reinforcing a view, with practical evidence, that Richard had the potential to step up. Gordon noticed that Richard showed greater confidence in developing others, handling situations and responding to questions. Richard brought more of himself into meetings and gave more considered responses to questions. Through more direct conversations, Richard was clearer in his views and what he wanted, so that Gordon felt that they were much more on the same page and dealing with more strategic matters.

Richard commented that as a result of this process he realised that he was very hands on and that this style may well be holding people back. He realised that the way he operated, which had been successful in the past, now needed to change for the step up in role in the future. Richard realised that he needed to be more accurate on communicating vision and plans, allow people space to do and then review learning rather than solve problems for people. The time Richard started to save enabled him to think and operate more strategically as well as test assumptions that, in reality, no longer proved to be valid.

Disclaimer: In this case study, all names have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

If you would like to explore how coaching might work for you or your business, or read a previous blog on how coaching can support leadership change click here or contact Stephen Cowburn use the Get in Touch link below. Stephen is a Professional Certified Coach, accredited by the International Coach Federation.

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