Coaching senior managers: the first step toward organizational change

Pilar Rojo. Professor. IE Business School

16 January 2014

A change of mentality is the first step toward transforming an organization, and this can only be achieved by changing how people perceive and retain information they receive from the world around them. In other words, we are talking about observation.

Companies often introduce changes aimed at improving performance which ultimately fail to take off or to deliver the expected results, leaving senior management frustrated and collaborators skeptical.

There are many reasons for this, but I am going to focus on one in particular – the fact that the changes introduced do not change the way things are perceived by members of the organization, or, subsequently, the way they are done. Coaches refer to this situation as failing to achieve an “observer change” in the people who make up the organization.

 What exactly do we mean by observer change? This is the process whereby individuals, groups, teams, and organizations leave behind the way they were used to doing things and start to see things differently and consciously act in accordance with new patterns.

One of the premises for ensuring that a change in mentality takes place is that there must be a change in people’s mental representations of individuals, i.e. in the way a person perceives, codifies, retains, and accesses information from the world that surrounds them.

Without this initial change it is not possible to impact either your own behavior, or that of other people. This is one of the reasons that coaching is successful. It acts on the observer model.

It is always interesting to take a look at biographies of people who have managed to transform the organizations or countries they work in by bringing about a change in how people see reality. I could cite many examples of leaders who have managed to do this but I am going to talk about Nelson Mandela, as my personal homage to him in the weeks following his death. He was authentic and had a great capacity to be himself, even in the most difficult of circumstances. His behavior as a leader can also apply to a business organization. What were the keys to his successful style of leadership? He would probably have been able to give the right answers to the three questions a coach would have asked him:

What is the best idea imaginable that could transform South Africa into a country for everyone?

Who do you need to influence and who will you have to rely on to achieve your big objective?

Which of people’s perceptions or beliefs will you have to develop, modify or strengthen to succeed?

Mandela had the capacity to make an entire country see that it could be another kind of place, that it could be transformed, that it could be “as one”. And it is no less important to begin by transforming yourself. Start to see things differently. Go from being a victim to taking responsibility. Mandela did not resign himself to anything, he accepted it and then, as soon as he was able, he went into action to achieve his vision.

I was very impressed with the report on Executive Education drawn up by Stanford University with The Miles Group, published on July 31 of last year (,  based on the opinions of over  200 CEOs and senior managers from all types of firms based in the US. The main findings of this report were as follows:

1º- Scant assessment at the top: Almost 66% of CEOs receive no assessment from strategy coaches or external consultants, even though 100% would be willing to try to improve by working with coaches.

2º- CEOs are the ones who want Coaching: 78% of CEOs answered the question “Who decides if you can receive coaching?”, by saying that they themselves could decide, while only 21 % responded that it would depend on the Chairman or woman of the management board.

The first finding is therefore that CEOs want coaching and want to use it to change. This desire to transform oneself is essential when it comes to transforming the reset. That is what Mandela did.

So far so good, and now for the buts: If almost 80% of CEOs have the power of decision when it comes to working on improving themselves through coaching, and 100% say they are willing to do so but only 34% actually do it, what’s going on?

They have the capacity to recognize the value of a coach when it comes to developing talent, but do they recognize the enormous value of a coach as someone who contributes through their methodology to making senior management capable of bringing about an “extraordinary transformation of an organization?” This is the challenge we face, and the challenge facing senior management is to accept their vulnerability, and forget about the myth that reaching senior management means having all the answers. They have to ensure that they are not taking only half measures by only using coaching to look for remedies, when what they have to do is embrace it fully in order to attain excellent results. 


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