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Case Study: Optimizing Results through Coaching & Facilitated Conversations

Posted March 9, 2017 • Case Story,Change,Conflict Mastery,Leadership,Organizational Culture • by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D.

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The problem: The CEO and Head of Talent at a hot start-up healthcare company approached us with a dilemma: how to provide leadership development for their senior leadership team while responding to a quickly changing external environment on a senior leadership team (SLT) with some sticky interpersonal dynamics that were beginning to fester among some members of the team.

The underlying problem: The senior leadership team was comprised of an incredibly diverse group of executives with respect not only to race and gender, but also with respect to age, education, experience and expertise. Approximately half of the executives, including the CEO, were in their 20s, had recently graduated from some of the nation’s top Ivy league MBA programs (think: Harvard and Stanford), and had recently gotten other start-ups up and running. Some of them had become good friends in business school or at other start-ups. The other half of the executive team had been working in the healthcare industry for close to three decades. While their educational backgrounds were not of the same caliber as their younger colleagues, their many years of experience, expertise and deep knowledge about the field was sharp and vital to the success of this start-up.

Given the stark differences between the backgrounds, organizational cultures, and types of expertise these two sets of executives were bringing to the senior leadership team, conflict amongst them was inevitable.

Another tricky dynamic was that the Head of Analytics had taken on an informal role as “right hand man” to the CEO. While he was young and inexperienced, he could outsmart anyone and had more passion and drive to help the company succeed than perhaps anyone else on the team. As a result, he had formed the habit of checking up on how the various parts of the company were doing, and would informally (often after hours, over drinks) report what he learned to his friend, the CEO. While the CEO knew this wasn’t the best way to find out what wasn’t working in the company, he found the information invaluable, and relied on it and on his friend to help him work out the kinks throughout the company. The other members of the senior leadership team were, understandably, furious over this behavior, calling it collusion between the CEO and the Head of Analytics. However, no matter how many times they asked the Head of Analytics not to do this, they saw no change.

The solutions:

Team Diagnostic: In order to transform the dynamics on the senior leadership team, we began by conducting a team diagnostic to understand each executive’s perspective on the strategic and interpersonal issues at hand. This involved interviewing each of the nine members of the team one-on-one to understand their nuanced perspectives on the strategic issues facing the company, their hopes and concerns for the company and for the senior team in particular. We asked them basic questions like, “What are your hopes for the company? For the senior leadership team? What are your concerns for the company? For the senior leadership team?” The executives were promised anonymity so they could speak freely without being worried about their words coming back to haunt them later.

In the interviews, the executives talked passionately about their hopes, dreams, concerns and worries for the company and for the team.

We analyzed the data, not only looking for common themes across the interviews, but also for places of tension, where different people were holding important and opposing viewpoints that needed to be surfaced but as of yet, had been undiscussable, wreaking silent havoc on their working relationships and on their ability to move forward regarding strategic decisions.

While protecting the anonymity of each executive, we delivered a detailed Feedback Report directly to the CEO and Head of Talent including six areas of concern, six hopes/aspirations, and four recommendations for the team to consider based on the themes in the report. Each theme was supported by actual quotes from the interviews, with all identifying information removed so that the quotes gave color to the themes, but did not implicate any particular executive in any way. In a three-hour meeting, we walked the CEO and Head of Talent through each theme and recommendation, and discussed each point together.

The CEO and Head of Talent agreed that the recommendations were spot on. They agreed that the next logical steps were to deliver the Feedback Report directly to the senior leadership team and to enable the team to have facilitated discussions both about strategic business issues and about how they wanted to work together as a team going forward.

Facilitated Offsites: We agreed to design and facilitate the team’s next SLT offsite. We worked iteratively and collaboratively with the CEO and Head of Talent to determine the meeting purposes, desired outcomes and agenda, and we put drafts of those in front of all team members asking for detailed feedback to ensure the design of the days would meet the team’s needs and to ensure buy-in to how we planned to spend the days.

We spent the morning of Day One walking the executives through the feedback report, answering questions and collaboratively generating ideas. The rest of the time at Offsites 1 and 2 was spent discussing team culture, roles, responsibilities, boundaries and two issues of strategic importance to the company that the team had been putting off and knew it needed to tackle.

We moved in and out between large and small group conversations, all with the purpose of recording clear commitments and requests for which each team member would be held accountable going forward. Over the span of the next year, we continued to lead monthly and then quarterly offsites for the SLT.

Executive Coaching + 360: Concurrently with the work at the team level, to foster greater self-awareness and individualized leadership skill-building for both the start-up-savvy and seasoned executives alike, we provided each member of the team with an executive coach. In individualized one-on-one settings, the team members worked with their coaches to outline their own leadership development goals and strategies for achieving them. As part of the beginning of each coaching engagement, the coaches delivered 360-degree feedback directly to each executive, interviewing 6-8 people surrounding each executive regarding leadership strengths, areas for development, and recommendations. The coaches and executives used the 360 process to inform their leadership development goals for their six months of work ahead.

3-way Facilitation: In order to optimize the large group conversations at the SLT meetings, after Offsite 1, we held a series of three private 3-way conversations between the coach, CEO and Head of Analytics, interspersed by one-on-one conversations between the coach and CEO and between the coach and Head of Analytics. The purpose of the 3-way conversations were to enable the CEO and the Head of Analytics to address their colleagues’ suggestion that they were colluding with one another. In those meetings, they each confessed to being “guilty as charged” for their own part in the unhelpful dynamic. While they acknowledged that the CEO did need to hold all team members accountable for their own teams’ work, they agreed that the Head of Analytics should not continue to supply the CEO with information. The Head of Analytics took responsibility publicly with the team for his contribution, and promised to stop. They both remained open to hearing other ways in which their own behavior might be counterproductive to the new team culture they were seeking to create.

The results: As a result of all the work described above, the team both individually and collectively made huge strides in their capacity to successfully surface, identify, and deal with natural tensions as well as interpersonal conflict situations as they arose. Rather than letting them snowball as they had in the past, now the team had greater ability to call each other out on unacceptable behavior, take responsibility when needed, and get back on track efficiently.

While the natural tensions between the start-up culture and the healthcare culture didn’t go away overnight, all the team members were better able to manage their expectations of one another and appreciate what one another brought to the table.

This work enabled them to have significantly more productive strategic conversations about the future of the business. Together they developed a compelling vision for the company, identified the company’s top three strategic goals, and made efficient decisions about the next markets to break into.  The SLT was finally able to put their focus where it was needed most: on skillfully growing the business.