Executive Team Coaching in Multinational Companies
Michel Moral, M.S., Ph.D
Thirty years ago, most multinational companies were hierarchically organized by geography. Times have changed and today, most global enterprises are organized within a matrix structure where the driving forces are usually either the distribution channels or the business product units; selling being the prime corporate value in the first case, and innovating being the top cultural belief in the second. Furthermore, large companies are optimizing their costs by locating their activities where they will find the best financial and technical conditions. Executive teams with a dominant nationality are seen less and less frequently, and most are now likely to have three or more cultures represented. Cultural diversity and remoteness are two factors that characterize modern executive teams. The current challenge is usually to reach the highest possible level of effectiveness.
Team Coaching Methodology, phase 1: observation.
My own way of coaching an executive team invariably starts with observing the team in action during one of the regular executive committee meetings or an operational meeting. The theoretical frameworks and the different options on how to conduct team coaching have been reviewed by Giffard and Moral (2007). In my own practice, I am particularly attentive in identifying behaviors that are slowing down the team momentum. The feedback I give is strictly related to observation and formulated as a question like, “Why did it take so long to make a decision about this issue?”, “Are you going too fast into discussing details?”, and “Is there a reason for this?” Repetition of the same behavior is questioned, “I notice that this is the third time that you have delayed the discussion about this item? Why?” Of course, the fewer questions the coach asks, the more powerful the questions.All teams have different processes but highly effective multicultural teams share certain characteristics, particularly mutual respect. If the coach observes a perceived lack of respect among members emerging due, for instance, to conflicting conversational styles, this issue can be explored and a workable approach agreed that is considered respectful by all. During the observation phase, it is quite important to assess the following:
1. The maturity of the team
2. The level of demand
3. What and how?
(1) The maturity of the teamMany different team maturity scales have been created over the years (for instance Lewin 1946; Schutz 1966; Tuckman 1965; Whitmore 1992; Katzenbach and Smith 1993; Devillard 2003, etc.) and some automated tools are now available. But, all these approaches say roughly the same thing: a team starts as an unorganized group trying to work together, then establishes some kind of structure in order to gain efficiency and, finally, reaches an ultimate state of smooth functioning, providing both success and pleasure. Distilling the literature, I have found it useful to identify the six levels of team maturity described in Figure 1:
It is useful to assess team maturity because it defines the framework for team coaching: if the team maturity level is low (Level 1 or 2) then, of course, coaching must start by creating cohesiveness, using one of the existing team building methodologies. If the maturity level is already high (say Level 4 or 5), it is wise not to spend time on exercises which might be perceived as ‘amusement’, as the coach’s capabilities could be questioned. Instead, the coach should immediately address the real question: performance and, ultimately, success. Figure 2 lists several criteria to determine maturity.
Compared to the adult developmental models maturity levels of a team are much more fragile (1) because members may leave or enter and (2) because the ‘collective spirit’ is not something engraved in a unique coherent neuronal system like a brain. The circulation of information and emotions between the members of a team is not completely known. Nevertheless, there are some analogies between adult and team developmental models and similarities in how coaching can assist people and teams to move to higher levels of development through action learning exercises. Team maturity can be assessed using either Team Diagnostic (www.TeamDiagnosticAssessment.com) or TeamScan (www.teamscan.fr) which is based upon the work done by Olivier Devillard (2003). The figure 2a shows an example of the TeamScan output.
(2) The level of demand
We call ‘level of demand’ the category of outcome that the team is explicitly requesting. Based on my research and experiences with customers, it appears that outcomes typically fall into three categories or levels, each one needing the previous one(s) to be reached before being addressed:
A. Understand: the team is seeking help to either explore a domain, or share knowledge, or even to figure out who are the different members in terms of personality, culture or wishes;
B. Create: the team has to imagine new solutions, a new product, design a new structure or invent innovative offerings; and
C. Execute: the team has difficulties in deploying an action plan or transforming decisions into realities.
As an illustration, let’s take the case of a large banking institution that is creating a new division to open branch offices in China.
(1) In terms of team maturity, the members of this new executive team first need to work getting to know each other, especially if they come from different countries. Given that they have probably been selected due to their relevant experience and leadership potential, it is likely the team will progress rapidly from maturity Level 1 to Level 4. Thus, the real objective of the team coaching is to help them attain Level 5 or even Level 6.
(2) In terms of level of demand, this team has to understand the business environment (demand level A). Once the executives have shared enough knowledge (level A), they must then design a new organization (level B) and maybe even create new offerings for the Chinese market (level B). Eventually, they will execute by opening the network of branch offices (level C).
In real life, an executive team has simultaneously different levels of demand depending on the questions that arise. For instance: opening a plant, restructuring a division, or fixing the price of a product. Each one of these questions probably has a different level of demand: the plant is now built and production is about to start (demand level C), while restructuring a division requires creativity (level B).
(3) What and how?
When observing an executive team, carefully recording the ‘how’ is much more important than analyzing the ‘what’ and all possible attention must be given to the circumvolutions of the decision-making process. Mapping the different issues and their levels of demand usually highlights patterns indicating what the team needs to significantly improve if it wants to maximize the performance and the well-being of its members.
Team Coaching Methodology, phase 2: increase level of consciousness.
Once the coach has identified the repetitive mechanisms, he has to architecture the coaching journey. As for individual coaching, team coaching consists in a series of events (meetings, workshops) regularly spaced. A couple of months between events seem to be the optimum. During workshops, usually two days outdoors, the coach uses tools or facilitates exercises which are either analogical or symbolic. Analogies are simplified reproduction of the real life. In order to force the reproduction of dysfunctions, the natural constraints are exaggerated: for instance, time to prepare or execute is shortened or communication is limited to non verbal. At the end of the exercise, failures can be compared to those occurring in the real life. Symbolic tools, such as story telling or photo-language, are used to stimulate creativity or find new ways to fix the complex issues. Analogies have been used extensively by western coaches. Western teams are not offended to learn from a failure. Now that oriental and Asian executives have a significant role in occidental management teams, it is wise to favor symbolic tools because “loosing face” is quite difficult to manage for these cultures. Figure 3 shows a number of tools organized according to the logic of “understand, create, execute”.
Example of tool: the rope.
This analogical exercise is designed to reveal execution (level C) dysfunctions. Team members are asked to configure a square with a 25 meter-long rope - blindfolded and silent. Before the execution phase, the team is given a ten-minute preparation phase during which time they could see and speak. It is possible to modify this exercise to reveal team creativity (level B) weaknesses by introducing the following regulation: the manager may act as a resource but not as the leader of the team. The team must therefore find its own way towards the solution.
Example of tool: Breakthrough.
This exercise is also analogical and is designed to reveal and stimulate team creativity (levelB). The whole team is asked to stand on a tablecloth . The objective is to turn the cloth upside down without any body part protruding onto the floor. As with the previous exercise, the same regulation can be introduced: if the manager is not acting as a leader, the team reveals a different dynamics, generally more autonomy.On average, a group of fifteen persons on a 2.5 x 1.5 meter tablecloth can take up to ten minutes to figure out how to flip the sheet.
In these exercises, the team leader and his/her team are explicitly involved in the assessment and debriefing. The coach’s role is to share observations and help the team to develop meanings that make sense in the context. That is, exercises that flow from the initial observations and assessments are presented - and understood - as contextually appropriate. Otherwise, the risk is that the coach is perceived - and acts - as outside ‘expert’ whose sole role is to administer externally-sourced solutions.
In order to avoid the exercises being only “fun”, the coach must work with the leader and the team to ensure relevance. A fundamental element of briefing before and the debriefing after any team action learning exercise is to stress the connection between the activity and what happens in real business life for the team. Exercises can therefore be positioned with the team as a kind of laboratory where the team members can individually and collectively explore their functioning and growth.
Team coaching methodology, phase 3: build a new future
During the phase 2 the team members become aware of their own functioning (or dysfunctioning…). It is enough to trigger a short term reaction but the effect is not sustainable. What needs to be done is to transfer to the team what the coach is doing (Cardon, 2003). Especially, the key role to be transferred is the “meta position”, i.e. the ability to observe the team without being involved in its action.
A team can be considered from different viewpoints; as a:
1. set of people;
2. set of interactions; and/or
3. a system (see Figure 4).
In any case, a team is pursuing some kind of objective and usually has a leader who provides business directives or precise targets.
In Figure 4, the system is similar to an ‘us’, in which members say ‘we’ or ‘our’. Members are portrayed as circles, partially situated inside the ‘us’: this is what they contribute to the team. They also have a part situated on the outside, the part of their life where they say ‘I’ or ‘me’ or ‘my’ (e.g., commencing sentences with ‘I believe that’ or ‘in my opinion’). In Figure 4, straight lines between members represent mutual interactions. This way of representing interactions is an oversimplification that does not give the full picture. The interactions are more like twisted ropes, combining several strands, such as love, hate, indifference, complicity, respect, etc. But, let’s keep it simple for a while!
In modern matrix organizations, employees report to several management lines. This is depicted in Figure 4, with short line segments emanating from each member’s circle. It is possible that some team members are only moderately involved in the ‘us’ because they have responsibilities and loyalties to another group. A sales representative who belongs to a product division and also to a distribution channel might consider that his or her ‘real’ management line is the first one, where the salary increase is set. As shown in Figure 5, modern team members have to be part of several ‘us’ and still protect and grow ‘me’. When the team is multinational, some members, due to their country culture, are more or less inclined to engage in the ‘us’ of a team. Interculturalists, according to Geert Hofstede’s (2001) scheme, make a distinction between individualistic cultures, such as occidental culture, and collectivistic cultures, the Orient and Asia, where the group is more important than the individual. Within collectivist cultures, some are loyal only to their group, like the Chinese, while others are ready to adopt the values of any group. Commitment patterns are therefore quite complex, with a residual ‘me’ surrounded by several ‘us’ (family, national culture, corporate culture, professional culture, etc.). Usually, all these loyalties are prioritized according to the current activity: I am fully loyal to my football team when I am playing football. Back at work, I am loyal to the team, or to the group of my peers, accountants or sales representatives. Back home, my family comes first.
(1) The team as a group of people
The idea of the team as a ‘group of people’ has been at the source of a large number of tools, such as Brain Thinking Styles (Hermann 1978), Social Styles (Marston 1928.), Management Styles (Fiedler 1958, Hersey and Blanchard 1977, House 1971, Vroom andYetton 1973) and Role Analysis (MBTI: Myers-Brigg 1962, TMS: Mergerison and Cahn 1985, Belbin 1981). Collective mechanisms, such as corporate or country culture and related tools (Schein 1985), also view the team as a group of people.
(2) The team as a set of interactions
The idea of the team as a ‘set of interactions’ has instigated various approaches, depending on the kind of interaction that is being considered: power, information, emotions, conflict, love, hate, etc. Notions like cohesiveness or maturity are a function of the density and of the quality of interactions. Paul Watzlawick (1967) sees interactions as a series of messages. For many authors, there is no difference between interaction and communication: both are viewed an exchange of information. Gregory and Marie-Catherine Bateson (1987: 172) define information as, “a difference which creates a difference”, thus including non-verbal, attitudes and even implicit elements which need contextual rules to be understood.
(3) The team as a system
Lastly, if the team is considered as a system, not only the ‘whole theory’ developed by Palo Alto, known as ‘first systems theory’ (von Bertalanffy 1947) applies, but also its derivatives, called ‘second systems theory’ (Von Foester 1975) and ‘third systems theory’ (Varela 1991). Within the second, which includes concepts such as Nonlinear Dynamics (Kaufman 1995), Chaos-Theory (Lorentz 1996), and Sciences of Complexity (Langton 1992), the Catastrophe Theory (Thom 1972) is a specific branch of the ‘bifurcation theory’. It studies sudden shifts in behavior caused by small changes in the environment, and considers only the cases where the long-term stable state has a minimum degree of chaos, thus a minimum of the so-called ‘Lyapunov exponent’, a number which determines the system’s predictability over time.
All these different approaches are well known but it is quite interesting to note that, at a given period of time, most of the methodologies used by consultants were focusing on only one perspective: in the 60s and 70s, the manager was seen as the driver of performance, and many management style models were designed on this basis (by Fred Fiedler, Robert Blake, Jane Mouton, Robert House, Victor Vroom, Philip Yetton, James Burns, etc.). All these models originated in Anglo-American culture. Ten years later, with the emergence of the commitment paradigms (Kiesler 1971) motivation models appeared and were better adapted to European culture. Systems Theory helped to produce interesting new methodologies more fitted to holistic Eastern cultures. Currently, consultants are enthusiastically exploring the analogy between organizations and living systems, based upon the Second Systems Theory. These apply to organizations as well as to teams.
It is time now to discover new ways of combining these three different perspectives of teams, not only to bring team performance to its maximum but also to go beyond performance towards success. The different approaches need to be interfaced with internationalization and interculturalization.
Figure 6 shows that the various aspects of a team involve different branches of the Psychology and the same is true for Sociology and Management Sciences. Team coaching is probably more complex than what we thought.
We consultants and coaches need to refresh our toolboxes. It is true that modern management still shares some concepts as used by Roman, Huns or Mongolian armies. But, it is also true that concepts and technologies have made major strides during the last twenty years. The environment has also significantly evolved. Therefore, we need to exploit the opportunities that the information and communication systems currently provide as they will allow modern organizations to cope with the challenge. The role of the coach is to raise awareness about the issues going on in teams. The theory and tools above may provide some guidance and assistance to coaches in the challenging role of working with international teams.
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This subject is also developped in the chapter 17th of : Moral M. & Abbott G. (2008) The Routledge Companion to International Coaching, London: Routledge.
For instance : TeamScan (see figure 2a)
Many team building approaches have been developed: ‘goal setting’, ‘role model’ developed by Belbin, 1981, ‘problem solving’, ‘motivational’, etc. All are detailed in Driskell (2003).
Breakthrough has been invented by a French coach, Marc Guionnet, who holds a MCC accreditation from ICF.