3Jan/130

Benchmarks Are Dangerous

Posted by WABC

By Howard Morgan and Cathy Swody

As leaders and coaches, we recognize how important it is for people to understand how they are performing. To increase understanding, we encourage the use of assessments and 360-degree feedback as tools for providing insights into leadership. Progressive clients even use employee surveys to inform leaders how well they are engaging their teams. We hope that these tools will provide a better understanding of the current situation in an organization and form the foundation for positive personal/organizational change.

Regardless of the type of assessment or feedback process, leaders frequently want to know how their scores compare to everyone else's scores. "Is this a good score?" "How do other people typically rate here?" These questions come as no surprise to any of us. People want to compare their results to a known standard or benchmark. Basically, we are all competitive and like any other competition, we want to perform at the highest level.  As companies, or individuals in companies, we want to know how good we are doing compared to the competition. But do we really want to know? If we do, relying on benchmarks from other companies to interpret a person's results can be problematic. In our own experience, we have seen the following three pitfalls in making these dangerous comparisons:

1. Benchmarks are ambiguous.

Uncertainty about what benchmark numbers truly represent limits their value. Benchmarks, in many ways, are a "black box." What goes in the box? The selection of companies represented in the benchmark is often biased. Benchmarks are not necessarily the best companies.  Rather, benchmarks typically reflect a sample of convenience-the best clients of a particular consulting firm, for instance. Even if details such as the industry, geographical location, and organizational size are supplied, the benchmark may not be a useful referent point. Such factors as the type of instrument and the commonality of the questions can also be challenges in uniquely different companies. Many times, it is unclear when the benchmark information was collected. For example, leaders are comparing their current performance to how other companies performed years ago. When it is unclear who exactly is in the benchmark andwhen the information was collected, making fair comparisons is nearly impossible.

2. Benchmarks are in the eye of the beholder.

When leaders score better than the benchmark, we have found that the benchmark serves as a "pat on the back" rather than a catalyst for better performance. Scoring lower than the benchmark is not a recipe for motivation either, as leaders often then criticize the validity of the benchmark. This draws away from the important question: How am I doing against my fullest potential?

3. Benchmarks distract people from real work.

Leaders do not improve by virtue of knowing how others leaders are doing. A focus on how everyone else is performing takes attention away from pursuing real results. Benchmarks add noise and are not actionable by themselves. Benchmarks don't offer solutions. They don't explain how to improve performance. At best, benchmarks encourage people to catch up with competitors, but not surpass them; benchmarks encourage mediocrity, but not superiority. This is similar to "teaching to the test" rather than fostering real learning.

Moving Beyond Benchmarks

If leaders and their coaches avoid the trap of benchmarks, what can be used instead to help leaders understand their results and motivate improvements? Our advice is to simply focus on information that provides real value. Within an organization, the best comparison numbers are inspirational. How does the person compare to the best leaders in the organization? What do scores look like in the parts of the organization with the best business results? Comparisons like these can provide leaders with context and help them understand their relative performance.

More importantly, it's time to remind ourselves why leaders ask for feedback from the people they work with. People ask for feedback as a way to hold a mirror up and see themselves as others see them. Let's forget about how leaders at unnamed companies were rated years ago. It doesn't matter. Instead, let's focus on the behaviors we see in the mirror and make the changes necessary to be successful.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (June Issue 2010, Volume 6, Issue 2). Copyright © 2013 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.

Howard Morgan and Cathy Swody are with the Leadership Research Institute. They specialize in helping leaders see the connection between their behavior, their efforts, and business performance metrics. Contact Howard and Cathy.

If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.
29Nov/120

Everyone Has a Passion

By Dr. Annette Fillery-Travis

When we last met I was walking off into a rather damp and grey Norfolk sunset with my soapbox tucked neatly under my arm. Well, it wasn't long before I was packing my bag and taking the train to Heathrow Airport. What adventure could possibly persuade me to board an airplane and face my flying phobia for 11 solid hours? Well, kind reader, you will not be surprised to learn it was to work with nearly 30 coaching practitioners eager to engage in practitioner research for the good of their community! How could I refuse!

It all started with a call from Sunny Stout Rostron from South Africa who had volunteered to host the 2010 Global Coaching Convention, which they have designed under the title the Rainbow Convention. A central core of the convention program will be the outputs of groups (or pods) of coaches coming together to actively research a shared passion or concern. They had a year to do it and wanted support in setting up their activities.

The trip showed just what can happen when a community works together. Annual leave granted from my company, the Professional Development Foundation, flights paid for by donated air miles, kind hospitality at homes instead of hotels, and people giving their time and energy pro bono allowed three two-day workshops to be run in Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town for the smallest fee to the participants.

I had designed the workshop to enable the coaches to "work" their research from initial idea straight through to proposal. We shared a lot of hard work, laughter (and chocolate) and I was truly impressed at the innovation that was brought into the room. I would like to take this space to share my reflections upon those fabulous days spent in such excellent company.

Everyone has a passion: All of us have a question that current books and journals can't answer but is important to us. We research because we care. We care about getting the very best for our clients; we care about our colleagues and our profession. We are blessed to be at the beginning of the profession with such opportunities for enquiry and discovery.

Everyone has a unique perspective: This perspective is akin to a spotlight that reveals a dark corner that no one else has seen. An area of coaching I thought reasonably well described would suddenly come alive as a research topic when coaches revealed just what was still missing for them and their clients.

Everyone is researching already: When we shared our experience, every person in the room was undertaking research in some form during their normal work. Coaches read, reflect, and experiment with new approaches and tools. They share best practice with each other and are constantly on the hunt for better understanding of the coaching intervention.

Everyone knew what they wanted and needed to produce: One of the real discriminators of practitioner research is the focus on an output that has a direct benefit to real practice. These outputs ranged from new models and workshops to toolkits and evaluation criteria.

Everyone wanted to share their knowledge: Researchers and coaches share many similarities and one of the most important is the joy in sharing their discoveries and seeking feedback from their peers. We all need to protect our intellectual property, but there are ways of sharing that that reduce the risk of theft.

Everyone can contribute to research: All of the practitioners are full-time working professionals, but their passion and their research are part of the day job. They are bringing them real market edge and also providing their clients answers to the questions they have today. Whether their contribution is as a leader of a pod or as a critical friend, their work will impact the final output.

The range of research people are doing is really breathtaking. We discussed coaching within townships to achieve sustainable change and how work with other vulnerable groups in Europe and America could inform this type of coaching and how to research it.

We looked at the dominant coaching agendas in the public sector and I realized how much coaches I know in Local Authorities in the UK shared similar concerns. Coaching in education was a hot topic, as it is in the UK, and dialogue with others globally will add value here. Although the issues are larger in South Africa, the commitment of the people and their vocation are shared. We looked at evaluation in the private sector and this research will really add to our global conversation of how context impacts delivery.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (June Issue 2010, Volume 6, Issue 1). Copyright © 2012 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.

  Dr. Annette Fillery-Travis is a senior researcher and education coach with the Professional Development Foundation. The author of more than 60 research articles and studies, her recent book The Case for Coaching, presenting a literature review with research case studies and interviews from over 20 organizations on coaching efficacy, was published in 2006 by CIPD, UK. ContactAnnette.

 

If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.
22Nov/120

Global Gifts to Coaching Practitioners

By Dr. Sunny Stout Rostron

I have recently experienced some of the gifts offered to coaches worldwide to enable them to develop their discipline. These include practitioner research, international conferences, and research grants. This article discusses the importance of these gifts and how we can make good use of them.

Practitioner Research and Reflective Practice

What do we really know about how coaching works, exactly how well it works, and when it works best? In essence, not much. Our "knowledge" is based mainly on what coaches say they do, or on what they think makes sense-rather than on observation of what they really do, or on research into coaching outcomes experienced by individuals, teams, and organizations. As a coaching practitioner, it is essential to continually research your own practice, ultimately developing your own professional competence through reflective practice.

David Peterson (2009) suggests simple ways to do this. For example, try different techniques in your coaching, i.e., with alternate clients do a background interview that is only one third of your normal interview; see what happens and take notes on what you observe. Secondly, you can generate a list of experimental ideas for your coaching from reading about new techniques, new types of questions, or new processes. Try one new thing every coaching session and record your findings. Thirdly, you can ask your coaching participants what was the most effective thing you (as coach) did in the session, and why was it helpful.

Also ask what was the least effective thing, and why was it not helpful? Record your feedback, looking for patterns, and substitute new processes for the least effective things. Think about participating in coaching research studies, or finding clients from your own practice to participate in such studies. Most importantly, think critically about and read current coaching research, trying to incorporate findings into your own practice.The general characteristics of practitioner research are that (Fillery-Travis, 2009):

  • The research questions, aims, and outcomes are determined by the practitioners themselves;
  • The research is usually designed to have an immediate and direct benefit or impact;
  • The focus is on the practitioner's own practice and/or that of their immediate peers;
  • The research or enquiry is small scale and short term;
  • The process may be evaluative, descriptive, developmental, or analytical.

Coaching Conferences

Coaching in Medicine and Leadership

In late September 2009, I attended and spoke at the second International Harvard Coaching Conference on Coaching in Medicine and Leadership. Coaching has emerged as a competency dedicated to helping individuals grow, develop, and meet personal and professional goals while at the same time building personal and professional capacity and resilience. Although every year coaches are servicing a US$1.5 billion market, the most developed market segment is leadership coaching in organizations-less than 20 percent of professional coaches are from the mental health or medical fields. The Harvard conference was therefore a groundbreaking event, with lectures and workshops by world leaders in coaching and coaching research. There were three tracks: Overcoming the Immunity to Change; Coaching in Leadership-Theory and Practice; and Coaching in Health Care-Research and Application.

ICRF2 London: Measuring Results

In November I participated in the second International Coaching Research Forum (ICRF2) held in London, sponsored by the IES (UK Institute for Employment Studies) and the International Coaching Research Forum (ICRF). ICRF2: Measure for Measure looked specifically at how to design coaching measures and instruments, with the ultimate aim of discovering what makes coaching effective. Researchers from around the world met to discuss three major topic groups: process measures, outcome measures for executive/leadership coaching, and outcome measures for health, wellness, and life coaching. The format for each discussion was:

  1. Discussion of what inputs should be measured;
  2. Identification of aspects of the coaching process to be measured
  3. Identification of outcomes to measure, based on coaching purpose;
  4. Specific suggestions on how best to measure areas of greatest interest.

Critical issues in measurement and methodology were discussed, the biggest concerns relating to:

  1. How do we evaluate instruments and measures? What are the important considerations, such as reliability, validity (quantitative research), and trustworthiness (qualitative research)?
  2. How can we incorporate measures into our research? What are the issues and considerations in research design and methodology for incorporating measures and interpreting results?
  3. What qualitative research issues have arisen in recent coaching research?
  4. What are some of the most compelling coaching topics and challenges and how can they be measured?

A final report will be made available on the websites of both the International Coaching Research Forum and COMENSA (Coaches and Mentors of South Africa) early next year. All of the group forums were recorded, and key points from each discussion will be included in the final report.

GCC Rainbow Convention-Cape Town 2010

These recent conferences have implications for all coaches worldwide, and particularly for the work being carried out by the Global Coaching Community (GCC), an international dialogue aimed at furthering the development of coaching. The GCC's last convention took place in Ireland in July 2008 and produced the momentous Dublin Declaration on Coaching. The declaration was supported by recommendations from the GCC's ten working groups, and has been endorsed by organizations and individuals representing over 15,000 coaches around the world.

It is now South Africa's turn to host this pivotal event and help take the dialogue forward, and so the GCC Rainbow Convention will be held in Cape Town during 10-16 October 2010. The convention will showcase the results of pioneering practitioner research being undertaken by "pods" of coaches around South Africa. It will also continue the development work undertaken by the GCC's ten working groups, as well as host specialist workshops on aspects of coaching practice.

Grants from the Institute of Coaching

Another boost to the professional development of coaching practitioners is an endowment of US$2,000,000 from the Harnisch Foundation to the Institute of Coaching based at Harvard Medical School/McLean Hospital. The Institute is able to translate this generous endowment into grants totaling US$100,000 per year to fund rigorous research into coaching, thereby helping develop the scientific foundation and professional knowledge base of the field.The Institute offers four types of grant, with deadlines for applications on the first day of February, May, August, and November each year:

  1. Graduate student fellowships of up to US$10,000 for high-quality research projects. To qualify, applicants must be Masters or Doctoral candidates looking for financial support for dissertation research on coaching.
  2. Research project grants of up to US$40,000 annually for individuals who would like to conduct empirical research in coaching.
  3. Research publication grants of up to US$5,000 to assist with the writing, editing, and publication of coaching research in  peer-reviewed journals.
  4. Travel awards to cover travel expenses related to presenting coaching research at the annual Harvard Coaching Conference.

Please visit http://www.instituteofcoaching.org/ to learn more about the Institute's various grants, membership programs, current research, and publications  and for information on the recent Harvard Conference. As a Founding Fellow of the Institute of Coaching and a member of its Research Advisory Board, I am keen that all practitioner researchers in coaching are aware of these research grants. It is crucial that we begin to build the body of knowledge on what is working and what still needs work within the discipline of business coaching worldwide.

How Can You Play a Part in the Development of the Field?

Our goal in developing reflective research and enquiry is to make a substantial contribution to the emerging practice of coaching worldwide (Stout Rostron, 2009). Your gift to our emerging discipline is to play a practical part. For example, you can:

  • Participate in WABC activities to develop the field;
  • Offer to participate in coaching research studies (see box below);
  • Continue to develop your own reflective practice;
  • Write up your own cases studies for coaching journals;
  • Apply for a research grant for one of your studies through the Institute of Coaching;
  • Attend conferences and stay abreast of current research practice.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (June Issue 2010, Volume 6, Issue 1). Copyright © 2012 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.

References

Fillery-Travis, A. (2009). Practitioner Research Workshop, GCC Rainbow Convention, notes.Peterson, D. (In press). "Executive Coaching: A Critical Review and Recommendation for Advancing the Practice." In Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, edited by S. Zedeck. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Stout Rostron, S. (2009). Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: Unlocking the Secrets of Business Coaching. Johannesburg: Knowledge Resources. Available from http://www.kr.co.za/.Wilkins, N. (2009). "Countdown to the GCC Rainbow Convention!"COMENSAnews, November. Available from http://www.comensa.org.za/.


1Hawkins, P. and Shohet, R. (2007) Supervision in the Helping Professions.United Kingdom: Open University Press.

 Dr. Sunny Stout Rostron, DProf, MA is an executive coach and consultant with a wide range of experience in leadership and management development, business strategy and executive coaching. The author of six books, including Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: Unlocking the Secrets of Business Coaching(2009), Sunny is Director of the Manthano Institute of Learning (Pty) Ltd and founding president of COMENSA (Coaches and Mentors of South Africa). More about Sunny in the WABC Coach Directory. Contact Sunny.

If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.
13Sep/120

Job 1 for Leaders: Aligning Rhetoric to Reality

By Dr. Albert A. Vicere

Scan typical corporate mission statements and you'll note that most companies aspire to be some combination of innovative, customer-driven, market-leading, employee-focused, performance-oriented, and of course, profitable. Although admirable, most leaders would agree that living up to those traits consistently over time is incredibly demanding and extremely difficult. That is not to challenge corporate aspirations, but simply to make an obvious observation: declaring aspirations is much easier than actually achieving them.

My research, coupled with my years of experience as a consultant, has convinced me that the key to resolving this perplexing challenge is rooted in the ability of leaders to reconcile the rhetoric of corporate aspirations with the reality of corporate operating environments. Organizations need aspirations, and as Jim Collins reminded us in his book Built to Last1, people seek the exuberance of being part of an organization with Big Hairy Audacious Goals. But if the organization's declared purpose and aspirations are out of synch with its operating environment, if people within the organization experience a culture that is very different from its stated purpose and aspirations, the organization is headed for disaster.

That's because, regardless of the strategy statement or CEO speeches, the way an organization's leaders actually behave, coupled with the things they ultimately measure and reward, combine to shape employee thinking and behavior across the organization. In effect, they shape what I call "organizational DNA."

Through careful research and discussions with thousands of leaders and managers worldwide, I have built a framework for organizational DNA, the Direction and Alignment (DNA)® Model [Figure 1]. The model is based on a visual metaphor, the DNA double helix. The biological double helix is comprised of a backbone—the two intertwining strands that frame genetic character. These strands are connected by a four-letter code comprising the instructions for a person's genetic profile. Each letter of the code is comprised of essential chemical elements. Those elements combine into sets of base pairs within which one's genetic code resides.

Figure 1: The Direction and Alignment (DNA)® Model

In the Direction and Alignment (DNA) Model®, the backbone of organizational DNA is comprised of two intertwining strands—an organization's roots or its history and operating capabilities, and its wings or its ability to change and innovate. Those two strands are connected by a three letter code—SLC, the first letters in the words strategyleadership, and culture. Each letter of an organization's genetic code is comprised of three essential elements. Strategy is comprised of perspectives toward innovationtalent, and infrastructure. Leadership is comprised of perspectives toward hindsightinsight, and foresight. Culture is comprised of perspectives toward aspirationaccountability, andinitiative. As indicated in Figure 1, each of these nine essential elements can be defined by a set of "base pairs" or essential viewpoints held by leaders that guide their interpretation of organizational strategy, leadership, and culture.

The DNA Model®, as described above, has been operationalized in a survey instrument, the Strategy, Leadership, Culture Questionnaire (SLCQ)®.Respondents indicate their perceptions of their organization with regard to each set of base pairs. The data generated by the SLCQ® reveal the way members think about strategy, leadership, and culture and the potential impact those perceptions have on member behavior, organizational performance, and strategy execution.

The SLCQ® has been used by a variety of major organizations and in a number of settings over the past six years, resulting in a database of nearly 12,000 respondents representing all levels of organizations, though the vast majority are in middle- through senior-level leadership positions. An analysis of the database paints a compelling picture of the challenge faced by leaders as they attempt to align their organizations with a desired future state.

Despite the fact that the economic environment has had its ups and downs over the period that data have been collected, an analysis of the overall database generated a "typical" or average profile of an organization that has remained consistent over time, despite economic fluctuations and changing business conditions.

In terms of strategy, respondents indicate that their organizations are followers/perfecters slow to develop new ideas or approaches to business, staffed by take-charge people complemented by technical experts, who are trying to work together but feel like they are operating in silos.

In terms of culture, they indicate that their organizations are prospecting for and reacting to opportunities, in order to generate improvements, for the purpose of extracting as much return as possible from their current asset base.

In terms of leadership, they indicate a passion for their organization and feel challenged by their jobs. However, although a majority feel energized by their work situation, over 30 percent indicate that the organization's reward system is not tied to performance and that there is little certainty about pathways for advancement in the organization.

It is worth repeating that this overall profile emerged early and has remained consistent over the years that we have collected data. Individual organizations can vary dramatically from the norm, but the norm itself has remained consistent. Respondents indicate that the "typical" organization is exactly as described above.

The vast majority of respondents to the SLCQ® are from large, established companies. As those companies have grown and become successful, their culture, as defined by focus, metrics, and rewards, has evolved from the creation of new products, services, and business models to a focus on maintaining share and margins and driving profits. The typical organization is profiled as having limited openness to new ideas and making limited effort to divine new opportunities for growth and development.

If that's the case, how likely is it that a new strategy statement, even one rolled out with town meetings, speeches, and training programs, is really going to make an impact on the way respondents think and behave on their job? It's a safe bet that respondents will keep working as they always have until leaders not only generate the rhetoric of a change in focus and emphasis, but also take steps to align that rhetoric with the reality of the operating environment by changing the mental models of organizational members. And they do that by changing metrics, adjusting rewards, modeling new behaviors, and demonstrating that the organization actually means what it is saying.

Like many key elements of leadership and strategy, it may seem like common sense that to achieve organizational performance and longevity, leaders must align the rhetoric of an organization to the reality of its operating environment. Yet, my research and experience suggest that for most organizations, this connection is fleeting at best. Data from an SLCQ® analysis make rhetoric-reality gaps clear, and therefore addressable.


1 Collins, J. and Porras, J. (2004). Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. New York: HarperBusiness.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (June Issue 2009, Volume 5, Issue 3). Copyright © 2012 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.

If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.