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Coaching for Capacity

Rosie Sweetman, Director of Sweetmans and Partners
July 5, 2021

Major life experiences are often cited as triggering a new-found wisdom or perspective. I expect many of us can think of such a moment in our own lives where it feels like our previous way of life, or understanding of how the world works, is thrown up in the air and lands in a slightly different position; leading us to question where we fit and how everything relates together. The pandemic could be one such example of a shared major life experience (or ‘heat experience’ as Nick Petrie of Centre for Creative Leadership describes them) that for many has shifted our lens on the world, calling into question some previously accepted truths about ‘how things work around here’. However, sometimes the ‘heat experience’ that prompts such a shift can be “smaller”, or more subtle than a pandemic, but just as meaningful.  

For example, imagine a situation where ‘Ben’ (not his real name!) receives feedback that is at odds with previous feedback. Ben’s sense of his identity - i.e. what he has understood over many years that makes him valuable, unique and great at his job - is challenged as he’s no longer being perceived in the same way as before. He’s being prompted to question his sense of self, his impact on others and his place in the team and organisation. All fundamental aspects to how he makes sense of the world.

Adult development theory refers to this experience (of seeing and making sense of the world differently) as a ‘growth edge’. We’re ‘knocking up’ against a new way of making sense of ourselves and our environment. Our previous perspective, and sense of a ‘truth’, isn’t working so well for us, and this can feel really uncomfortable. So how might Ben and others respond to this ‘growth edge’ opportunity?

Traditional L&D approaches have often focused on the development of skills and expanding our knowledge to build our competencies as leaders. This is sometimes referred to as horizontal development and can be really useful, to a point. However, let’s return to Ben who, in response to the feedback, decides to invest in his development and attend some training to build some new leadership skills and increase his knowledge. Meanwhile, his mindset and resulting behaviours remain unchanged, and continue to impact the culture and performance of the organisation and get in the way of making changes and getting the results he wants.  

Vertical development, on the other hand, focuses on building our capacity to lead – changing the way we think and behave. Ben decides to access some executive coaching and challenges himself to raise his awareness, consider alternative perspectives, and identify how else he might make sense of and respond to his situation.  

Ben is developing his capacity to lead as he is seeing afresh, from a different angle, the way he perceives the situation, his values, purpose and strengths and what success means to him. In other words, Ben’s perspective and mindset have shifted, enabling him to recognise how he might adapt his approach.  

Heifetz and Linsky describe one such shift in perspective as being a dancer on the dancefloor at a night club (remember those days!) to ‘standing on the balcony’ being aware of all the dancers, their different interactions and how our moves connect and impact others. Sticking with the dancefloor metaphor, here are some questions that could be useful for Ben to access different perspectives and build his capacity:

  1. When are you on the dancefloor (in the midst of the action) and when are you on the balcony (paying attention to the bigger picture – the patterns and connections)?
  1. What are the benefits and costs of being on the dancefloor? What are the benefits and costs of being on the balcony?
  1. What helps you move between the two?
  1. How might you lead in a way that supports you to be aware of both perspectives at the same time?
  1. What other perspectives are there?

Vertical development encourages us to explore and embrace new ‘heat’ experiences and access different perspectives to reveal new insights about ourselves, others and how we make sense of the world. It is these new insights that enable us to access different options as to how we respond, giving us more capacity to lead in the increasingly complex, ambiguous and uncertain world in which we now all live.  

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