Leadership Coaching Tip

Graham Ward

The Power of Group Coaching in Developing the Self-Authoring Leader

Graham Ward

Graham Ward

According to one theory of screenwriting, there are seven basic plots. Any book you read, play you attend or film you watch, will likely fall into one of these archetypal narratives. So what are these plots that so easily define our human condition? There are rebirth (Silas Marner), tragedy (Macbeth) and comedy (Arms and the Man), likely to be familiar to most. Slaying the monster (most James Bond movies) rags to riches (Oliver Twist) voyage and return (Alice in Wonderland) and the hero’s quest (Indiana Jones) make up the balance.

People’s lives also typically follow a narrative arc, albeit complicated. Much of this narrative is driven of course our personal background. Who does not know the poor boy that scrambled over from the wrong side of the tracks overcoming the odds to make his fortune? More subtly, picture an executive, once bullied at school, now plotting his way to the boardroom by destroying those who get in his way. We see people sometimes who, irrespective of their efforts, are subject to the vagaries of ill fortune playing out in a tragic life. On the other hand we observe people who we might consider as spiritual beings, driven to a life of service or love.  Many of us embody a number of these different complex stories.

Yet we are arguably the authors of our own scripts. We are free thinking rational beings that can, if we choose, self-actualize, moving towards an ideal path. We don’t if born poor, after all, have to go after the money. For those who fail to monitor their own stories, that rags to riches narrative might end up as a tragedy, in the graveyard of workplace stress. There is nothing endemically heroic about rebuilding your parents’ bankrupt family business if in the end you are miserable. Do we not owe it to ourselves to choose happiness? Sometimes, like Jim Carrey in the Truman Show, we might have a feeling that the die is cast, and that we are locked into a world we did not create. Other people behave as though they are on a metaphorical train hurtling down a track to a predestined terminus. In order to take control of our destiny and to create alternative destinations some of us may need an external intervention.

For some years I have been researching a group coaching intervention developed by the INSEAD Global Leadership Centre at the eponymous business school in France. The intervention involves putting a group of four or five executives through a day and a half of intensive group coaching, using a psychodynamic framework as the basis. When the faculty noticed, back in 2003, that this intervention was not only receiving rave reviews from the coachees, but also was getting some astonishing results, I started to look into it in more detail. The findings will be published shortly and the full details of how the process unfolds can be found in the chapter I wrote entitled “Something from Nothing”for the book “The Coaching Kaleidoscope”, published in 2009.  There are, for the coaching practitioner, a few salutary lessons which when exercised with skill can help clients immeasurably to live more fruitful lives.

It is here I will return to my earlier analogy. It is said, in movie circles, that “character is action under pressure.” In any great story, the central character, hero or villain needs to be put under pressure, squeezed to make a decision. When we watch a movie unfold the critical scene is usually when the protagonist reaches a decision point. All the bad movies you ever watched fudge that critical issue. Either the decision was not relevant to the story or no decisions were reached. Those stories are the ones that have you leaving the movie theatre disappointed, ruing the price of the popcorn. In our group coaching process we try to move each individual coachee to a point of decision, a tipping point. How do we arrive there?

We put a number of things at stake to reach that point. Initially we ask the coachees to draw an image-based self-portrait, containing a number of different dimensions, on large flip chart sheets with multiple colors. These dimensions include things like the past, images of work and leisure and gut feelings. When combined, the portraits tend to make interesting viewing. The coachees however go a stage further in these sessions relating their back-story, key decisions in life, family history and roles. The group becomes immersed in this story and takes time to question and reflect back some of what they hear. When this is adequately explored, we move to the present. Using a 360-degree leadership instrument called the Global Executive Leadership Inventory as a proxy for a courageous conversation, the coach debriefs the coachee on the 360 findings paying particular attention to the qualitative remarks. The coach then turns back to the coachee and asks for their agenda: in the light of everything they have learned from the instrument and the other commentary, what are they minded to do?

What happens next is unusual in coaching. Once the coachee has set their agenda, we place a chair away from the main group and turn it to face in the opposite direction, seating the coachee in it. We then invite the group to spend 15 to 20 minutes discussing the case: what are their fantasies, worries, thoughts or advice given the nature of what they heard. This displacement of the coachee has a powerful effect. The group works to understand where the coachee truly is, exploring the effects of his or her possible mindsets, values, goals and capabilities. Because the coachee is sitting a little apart, the group typically feels more at liberty to open up. People talk as if the coachee was not there. The rule is that the coachee can listen to, but not participate in, this creative dialogue. Moreover, this arrangement precludes the opportunity for debate or defensiveness from the coachee. Of course they are usually feverishly taking notes. This is the moment of pressure. By the end of this intense session our protagonist usually has all the information they need to make a decision as to how they wish to move forward. We pose them the question “whom do you want to become?”

What we have noticed is that the effect can be very powerful. Often the coachee is astonished by the feedback from the room. They are surprised that so many people who barely know them are able to provide such insightful links and interpretations in such a short time. We invite the coachee to make a few high-level reflections and illuminate what resonated most strongly. They then select a person from the room whom they would like to be their support and learning partner and we then ask them to formulate an action plan, which they have 24 hours to prepare. Naturally they stay in the group session, contributing, until everyone has been through the process. Each person has time to ruminate on what they have heard. We are interested to see twenty four hours later, what has stuck.

In these group sessions we witness a number of archetypes coming to the fore. As in a good story there is usually an antagonist, a supporter, friend, joker or rival in the group. The important point is there is broad diversity of opinion. When facilitated well, coachees move a long way in their two-hour session. The combination of drawing, narrating, exploring the self and receiving some coaching from the group leads to a kind of cognitive restructuring. It has three key ingredients: The psychodynamic exploration of the self leads to holistic reflection. The coaching provides a future orientation – a commitment with the implicit acknowledgment that the coachee knows what it is they need to do. The change occurs from a combination of group pressure and group support. All that is needed is a group of peers who find themselves at the same transition point, a skillful coach and a desire to do something new.

Introvert or extrovert, we all need other people to provide context. It goes without saying that any good drama needs a cast. And as human animals, we are given to cooperation, collaboration and grouping. It starts in the family and is thematic through life. What could be more natural than working with a group when we need help? Yet it is not an easy construct to access. What I learned as I researched the key ingredients to this powerful intervention was that, empirically, group therapy works, individual therapy works and coaching works. When you combine aspects of these three disciplines in an intensive short term coaching process, then they still apparently work, and rather well. By going through this process, thousands of executives have self-authored new chapters in their stories, charting courses to different destinies. If we believe in the power of the group, we coaches can help people navigate paths to happier more fulfilled lives.

About the Author

Graham Ward is Adjunct Professor of Leadership at INSEAD Business School in France and director of the Kets de Vries Institute, a global leadership development consultancy based in London. His work involves development of CEO’s, country heads and members of executive committees of multinational companies. He is an executive coach and co-author of Coach and Couch, The Psychology of Making Better Leaders (2007) and The Coaching Kaleidoscope (2010) as well as two academic articles. He is a coaching practice director of the INSEAD Global Leadership Centre. From 2000-2003 he was head of leadership development for the Equities Division at Goldman Sachs in London. His remit was the development of senior managers, succession planning and diversity across three geographies. Graham joined Goldman Sachs in 1987 and from 1994-2000, was co-head of European equity trading in London. He holds an MSc from INSEAD/HEC in Clinical Organizational Psychology and is a PhD student of the same at the Vrije University in Amsterdam. He is based in Stockholm.