In conversation with Mark Powell

25th October by Lee Robertson

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Mark Powell is the AoEC’s lead consultant coach in the Asia Pacific region and is working with organisational clients on leadership, coach training and executive coaching engagements. Describing himself as a ‘seasoned’ leadership and performance consultant, he brings a unique mix of experience as an Australian who has lived and worked across Asia. Here, he talks about the AoEC’s consultancy services and the positive change coaching is making in Singapore and beyond.

You have experience of working in the banking and oil and gas industries and a strong entrepreneurial track record in setting up four businesses in three different countries. Can you talk us through your journey to working in coaching?  

Well, I actually started work life as an educator. I was teaching economics to students aged between 16 and 21 at both school and then subsequently at university. Development is really a core character strength for me. However, early in my career I took advice from mentors which was to get some commercial experience, so I ventured into business and product management roles first with Shell, and then into institutional and business banking at Macquarie Bank and Citibank.

I always knew that these careers were not the end game, and perhaps intuitively I knew this exposure to powerful and reputable international organisations would help set me up for executive coaching in the future. And it has worked out well for me to have the combination of a deep commitment, dare I say “passion” for developing self and others, whilst also understanding many of the nuances and organisational dynamics at play in large international organisations.

You describe yourself as combining your ‘well-lived’ experience with a keen interest in human psychology, creative thinking, and group behaviour. How does this help you deliver breakthrough coaching and facilitation?

People are complex and the work lives we lead, are increasing complicated. My experience is that many frameworks and dimensions are important when working with this complexity. The diversity of my experience both personal and professional, has given me a practical “lived experience” of a complex life. However, I also realise that the lens of personal experience is coloured and biased, so it needs to be supplemented with thorough training in coaching psychology and group dynamics to ensure that as a coach I bring an agnostic and robust approach to my work. Transformational work with leaders and teams needs both theory and practice and both breadth and depth of knowledge.

What is your assessment of the key trends and challenges facing business leaders and organisations right now within the Asia Pacific region and what should they be doing to address them?

There is still positive growth in many parts of Asia (India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines) whilst Europe, the UK and the US slow down. There is also a realisation that the Asia century is into full swing, and this creates an optimism and energy for ongoing change that may be absent in other parts of the world.  

Some parts of Asia (India, China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan) have a lead in providing a highly educated tech savvy workforce to support both the digitisation of business and the other advances in technology.  And there remains an appetite for skills like coaching, as these skills marry well with an adaptive approach to leading fast and emergent growth through empowerment, EQ, emphasis on effective team dynamics, etc.  

My sense is that there is also a respect that coaching culture provides a counterbalance to the potential coldness of tech. The principles of balancing human issues with organisational growth seem to be intuitively understood in Asia. 

How can coaching skills or a coaching style of leadership make positive change within an organisation?

For many, coaching conjures up the image of an individual advisor, like the tennis or golf coach working with the leader to improve their “game”. And many organisations will continue to use executive coaching in this way, which is not wrong, just limited.

The smart leaders and organisations are realising there is a systemic power in the underlying principles of coaching that bridge traditional leadership structures and practices with a “new way”. A bridge that allows traditional leadership to transition into a more generative, creative, and adaptive leadership without any “revolution” or massively expensive restructure. 

Coaching expands possibility and creates resourcefulness and innovation, all of which are now critical to effective leadership. Coaching democratises contribution and “value add” without huge structural change. It empowers people to bring more of themselves, so that their work is more fulfilling, and the organisation gets greater value out of them.

It is a quiet and subtle revolution that works with expanding human capacity rather than restructuring power or separating task from people management. For those organisations that understand this possibility, the transformations are huge and at a very modest cost.

What coaching solutions will you be offering organisations within the Asia Pacific region?

Over recent times, three key interventions stand out for me, and we are looking to bring our experience in these areas to more businesses and organisations in Asia:

  1. We have partnered with Asian businesses that are going through a digital and tech focused transformation. Coaching skills and capabilities provide these businesses with the “human software” to facilitate the way work will be done in the future.
  2. The way we work effectively in teams is changing. The complexity of decision-making makes teamwork even more critical than ever. In response to this, some of our best work has focused on providing team coaching frameworks and practices to build an underlying organisational capacity to work effectively in any team. This work also helps leaders to build a new capability as a team coach as well as business leader.
  3. Asian organisations are often keen to build an Internal coaching capacity. Having internal coaches gives the organisation comfort that the important cultural aspects or organisational values and ways of working are well understood when applying coaching across the middle layers of the business. We train these cohorts of internal coaches, supervise them whilst they further develop, and we partner with their key stakeholders to build and sustain their internal coaching offer and platform.

    How are you measuring the effectiveness of the client engagements you are working on?

    When we work with organisations, we are looking to create some relationship shifts and changes in the patterns of leadership and human to human interactions at the workplace.

    We want to see the green shoots of more systemic change. So, we need to look for subtle but important behavioural changes and mindset shifts. Does our work change the team dynamics? And the relationship that the team has with other teams? Does it change how leaders make sense of their work and their relationships with key stakeholders (both internal and external)?

    These key questions should be a core focus of measurement and can only truly be assessed through expert observation and qualitative feedback gathered through multiple touch points.

    AoEC has a team 360 tool, and this can be a powerful way of measuring before and after changes that occur in a team as assessed more broadly by the team’s stakeholders. The other established measurement tools that fit with current organisational practice, include shifts in employee engagement scores, in culture or values surveys, and through individual leadership 360 processes.

    How have you seen the need for coaching change as we have gone through the coronavirus pandemic? How do you think the role of coaching will develop in response to the future of work?

    The pandemic has accelerated the change towards more nimble adaptive leadership and has raised the stakes on a broader evaluation of employee satisfaction and engagement to include physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. This has helped push coaching fully into mainstream awareness. 

    It would be interesting to see actual data points, however my impression is that most organisations are either using coaching or in the planning stage of how they best use coaching to either support leadership or change how leaders think and behave.

    The need for both collaborative mindsets and creativity to solve increasingly complicated or even complex, personal and organisational challenges has never been greater.

    The need for support continues to increase as complex demands and tech driven change is placing extra stress on both leaders and employees. The deeper transformational aspects of executive coaching can become very powerful in helping leaders and their team change beliefs, connect to new motivational drivers and raise both the emotional and physical resilience of their teams.

    What are your hopes for the use of coaching in the Asia Pacific region and what can we expect to see from you next?

    Coaching is still something that is done. I would love to see it sink deeper into the psyche of who we are “being” in our roles of colleague, leader, team member. I would also hope for a better marriage of coaching and OD.

    Over the last decade I have been engaged as a coach to support many OD interventions or programmes. I am wondering if coaching could be used in a different way? I don't have the answers however, it would be great to see a more robust collaboration between traditional OD approaches and coaching.

    My hunch is that there may be some really powerful new approaches to help deal with change and wellbeing beyond what we currently have in mind. Some of these will be enabled by tech and some may be the by-product of tyranny of tech. I am certainly keen to be involved in these ideation conversations.

    What would you like your professional legacy to be?

    I will continue to help others with their development pathways. To do this I know I need to further deepen my own self-awareness and look beyond my current mindset. I am curious what different possibilities exist for accelerating self-awareness, for providing genuine feedback, and for enabling reflective practice so it can become a collective habit.  

    My own practice of psychodrama has left me with an intention to show up as a better “auxiliary” or supporter of others. So, the question I continue to ask myself is “How can I play a constructive and creative role in growing both individual and collective wisdom?”

    Whether this commitment generates anything worthwhile for the future, is outside of my control.  

    Our deepest thanks to Mark for sharing his expertise and insights into coaching and coach training in the Asia Pacific market.