How a team became curious about leadership

29th April by Moira Nangle

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How a team became curious about leadership

Encouraging teams and leaders to become curious and learn about the system(s) within which they operate

Traditional team and leadership development courses are not the only way of unlocking a team’s potential. Classroom-based team and leadership development has a role. It’s often just not the solution you need. Unlocking the leadership potential within a team can happen just as effectively in the workplace too. This is just what happened when a CEO wanted to change the leadership culture of his organisation and asked for me for help.

How a team of directors became excited about leadership learning

‘I want our culture to be more collaborative and creative. And I want to reduce silo working and truly take steps to engage our people. I think we need a leadership development programme.’ In a nutshell, this is what I heard from the CEO at our first meeting following some earlier work on team purpose. It’s great when a CEO is serious about leadership development. But I’m always keen to not jump to solutions. Encouraging a team to become curious and find out more about how they are seen and what changes might be helpful can really help with that. My question to self is often, ‘how can I help them become knowledgeable about the system within which they operate and encourage the connections?’

I suggested that together we might find out was needed. I wanted to get this team of directors curious and engaged about leadership, to enable their own creative thinking, because that way the insights would have more of a chance of sticking, and of encouraging behaviour change.

In the short space of two meetings, each director agreed and planned to carry out some form of investigation about leadership. Three of the seven decided to interview each other’s teams on the subject of what good leadership ‘looked like’ and what was needed, with one literally holding ‘skip-level’ conversations. One created the opportunity to engage with board members whilst one also went out and spoke to customers. Finally, one watched a number of TED talks and did some reading and one spoke to leaders in other organisations. Three weeks later, they reported back enthusiastically to share what they’d learned. And, more importantly, how they could apply the learning to their own organisation.

The team together made sense of what they had heard. We grouped their findings into key themes and assessed them against the organisation’s strategy. We then distilled these themes into a group of potential leadership behaviours for the organisation and for this team in particular. But these behaviours needed to be tested if they were to have real impact and last. So feedback from the wider organisation and directors’ direct reports in particular was vital. The next step we agreed was to hold a meeting with a ‘diagonal slice’ of the organisation, all up this was only 30 people, to sense check the work. Using a process of conversational rounds, participants added colour to the behaviours by way of specific examples, playing some behaviours up, and spotting something else that was important.

Changing behaviours

What was interesting about this work was the increased level of engagement between directors and their direct reports and how all parties began to change their behaviour in response to what they were hearing. Without any programme of development, the mere act of finding out and sharing encouraged a real shift. It reminded me that often teams know what needs doing or how they need to change. They just need a process that encourages them to ask good questions and that enables the right kinds of conversations.

All too often as team coaches we are asked to help ‘fix’ issues inside the team such as interpersonal relationships. By looking outside and connecting with a range of stakeholders and bringing data back in, the team can learn a whole lot more not just about stakeholder needs but what good performance, and indeed collective leadership, looks like. As team coaches we should ‘never know better, never know first!’ 

Our sincere thanks to Moira for allowing us to share this. Moira is part of our Faculty on the Systemic Team Coaching programmes and will be delivering the AoEC Ireland and Northern Ireland’s first Systemic Team Coaching Certificate in June. You can learn more here.