Archive | December, 2011

Second wave coaching and mentoring

10 Dec

Second wave coaching and mentoring

In the recent years and particularly in the past 18 months or so, many organisations have been taking a close look at the way they approach coaching and mentoring. They are driven by two reasons. One is that the economic climate has put every discretionary spend under the microscope of value for money and return on investment. The other is the recognition that, while coaching and mentoring do contribute significantly to performance, employee retention and other influencers on the bottom line, they could contribute much more.

“Second Wave” employers have taken a hard look at their coaching and mentoring provision and compared it with global good practice. The result is many cases is a radical redesign of their approach that emphasises:

  • Integration of coaching and mentoring – instead of being separate activities, they are now seen as mutually supportive elements in the developmental package, especially for high potential employees. Coaching tends to focus on performance and short-term developmental objectives; mentoring on career and longer-term career objectives. Providing opportunities for both coaching and mentoring is making a substantial impact on corporate strategies for diversity management, for succession planning, and for employee engagement and retention.
  • Integration of internal and external coaching – internal and external coaches, who have a professional qualification, have a lot to learn from each other. With appropriate support, internal coaches can be as effective as all but the top 10% of external coaches – and a lot more effective (and cost-effective) than the majority of externals.
  • Integration of internally-focused and CSR-focused mentoring – people, who are receiving mentoring from senior managers, can learn to be better mentees by becoming mentors to people in the wider community
  • Sustainable skills development for coaches and mentors, but also for coachees and mentees – training only coaches or mentors reduces the impact and sustainability considerably. If coachees and mentees understand how to manage the learning relationship, it delivers far more value for money.
  • Creating a coaching culture – increasingly, the focus for making this happen is a corporate level strategy that emphasises the work team as the place, where durable coaching and mentoring cultures are created
  • Measurement and quality control – Second Wave companies monitor progress towards a coaching and mentoring culture. Some seek accreditation under the International Standards for Mentoring Programs in Employment, both as a recognition of quality, but also as a means of benchmarking against evolving good practice.
  • Opportunities for continuous upskilling – proving a developmental ladder for managers, who want to become better as coaches and mentors. In some cases, this extends to the equivalent of a masters degree, for the small proportion, who want to become professional internal coaches
  • Program management – Second Wave companies tend to have a lead manager and support team, responsible for overseeing coaching and mentoring and ensuring that the entire HR team is confident in promoting a coaching mindset. Some of these program managers have undertaken specific training for the role.  A major challenge for them is preventing the purchasing function commoditising the hiring of external coaches to the point where it compromises quality.
  • Integration of multiple media both in how coaching and mentoring are delivered and in support platforms – major cost savings and improvements in efficiency can be gained by increased use of IT to motivate and inform participants
  • One to one direct support for leaders, as champions of coaching and mentoring – leaders are often reluctant to attend workshops, so customised individual support is an increasingly popular means of developing a coaching and mentoring mindset and role models at this level.

Joining the Second Wave requires HR to commit to creating and marketing a comprehensive coaching and mentoring strategy, based on evidence of what works and on a systemic perspective of how people learn and grow. The good news is that – in contrast to the enormous sums many organisations invested in the first wave – the Second Wave is relatively inexpensive, because we now have a much better understanding of which levers produce the greatest impact on both individuals and the organisation. 


Questions about questions

10 Dec

Questions about questions


If there is a question a coach can ask that qualifies as the most irritating to clients, it would surely be: “If you did have the answer, what would it be?” It’s probably ingrained, like the writing in a stick of rock, in the bones of robotic coaches. Of course, there are times when it’s appropriate and helpful, but with overuse it becomes a caricature of clueless coaching – “I don’t know what to ask next, but if throw the ball back to you, maybe you’ll have an idea.”


When I asked a group of coachees in a public sector organisation in Scotland, what they most appreciated and disliked about coaching, their response to the greatest dislike was managers, who bat every question by the coachee straight back, with “What do you think the answer should be?”


A more respectful and productive approach is to ask instead: “What thinking have you done about this already?”. Which can lead gently, if required, to: “What is it you are hoping I will be able to say that will help?” Sometimes the client needs the empathy of knowing that someone else has been through similar experiences. In which case, it is appropriate for the coach share, albeit with the caveat that his or her experience is not necessarily a template for anything the client may wish or decide to do. It’s important that the client feels the coach is being as helpful as possible, even if they are not providing answers.


I have observed that coaches and mentors, who are good at managing questions from the client – exercising delicacy, concern for the client and a gentleness in how they help the client refocus on their own thinking – also tend to be effective at asking questions about questions. Here are some examples:


  • How does this question      make you feel?
  • What would need to change      for you to find this question easier to answer?
  • What is the alternative      question that has meaning for you?
  • Who else has asked you      this question without being listened to?
  • Where does this question      lead you?
  • Who else does this      question apply to?
  • What prevented you asking      this question of yourself?


Asking questions about questions can take people to a much deeper level of reflection. In a sense, it’s like being in a hall of mirrors. Deconstructing a question can also be helpful in uncovering layers of meaning. Consider, for example:

  • Why do you care?
  • Why do you care?
  • Why do you care?
  • Why do you care?
  • Why do you care?


The words are the same, but the meaning a client may attach to them, depending on the emphasis given.


So what’s the lesson? Whether it is a case of responding to a client’s question, or of a client’s reaction to a question from the coach, sticking with the question and exploring its hinterland may sometimes be much more productive than moving on to a different one.


© David Clutterbuck, June 2011


It’s official – talking to yourself is good for you

10 Dec

It’s official – talking to yourself is good for you

Talking to oneself is both more common and more useful than we expect. Studies at the University of Nevada suggest that up to 80% of our mental experiences relate to conscious or unconscious, unspoken verbal conversations. Other research shows that the words we use have a substantial impact on what we observe. So much so that simply giving a name to an obscured object increases our ability to recognise it.[i]

Coaching and mentoring appear to work, in large part, by externalising conversations with ourselves and by helping us become more attentive to thoughts, observations and behaviours that we might otherwise have ignored. This suggests that certain questions can be particularly powerful in helping a client achieve insight. For example:

  • What are you noticing and not noticing about this issue?
  • What name are you giving this behaviour?
  • What alternative names can you give it? How does that change what you observe?
  • What could you do to improve the quality and usefulness of the inner, unconscious conversation you have with yourself on this issue?


[i] Robson, D (2010) The voice of reason, New Scientist 4/9/2010 pp30-33

Creating the environment for career alignment

10 Dec

Creating the environment for career alignment


In my researches into succession planning, one of the aspects I am exploring is how HR can build an environment, where honest, well-informed and continuous conversations about career opportunities can take place. Here are some of the ideas that are emerging:


  • Take risks with people, by giving them opportunities and encouragement to take on roles and projects, for which they may not be obvious candidate. If it doesn’t work out, it is a learning opportunity for both the employee and the organisation.
  • Try to build a greater balance between:
    • Authority of expertise and position. Sometimes the best person to lead an initiative may be relatively junior. The less emphasis on hierarchy, the more encouragement for talented people to seize opportunities to lead.
    • Reward for contribution and seniority.  Focusing reward more on what people contribute beyond their job description (and assuming that they achieve at least acceptable performance in their core role), encourages innovation and allows genuine talent to stand out.
    • Recognition for contribution and performance with regard to all the teams, of which you are a member, rather than just the one you lead. The risk of basing recognition and performance appraisal on behaviour in one role is that it rewards people, who are particularly competent in a narrow context, more than those who are more widely capable.
    • Develop the expectation of constant and honest exchange and forums, where it can happen. Internal social networks provide practical platforms, where employees can share career-related information. What’s lacking is similar openness and sharing by HR and business leaders about organisational plans. 
    • Invest in information, for example, by:
      • Making personal development plans (PDPs) more dynamic. Put them on-line, make them transparent, and encourage people to both blog about their developmental experiences and make comments to help colleagues put their PDPs into action 
      • Creating an employee business plan at both corporate and business unit levels. This kind of easily available, annually updated information can be invaluable in discussions about career options and direction.
      • Transparency of information from working parties, such as change teams. The talent wave can offer valid and insightful opinions. In return, they gain an understanding of the change team’s thinking, which they can use in their own career planning.
      • Actively investigate the career alignment process itself. In what circumstances is alignment between the employee’s ambitions and those of the organisation high and low? What barriers most commonly prevent people having in-depth, frequent and informed career conversations?
      • Make succession planning processes less opaque. The better people understand them, the more influence they are likely to feel they have over them.


HR can’t realistically expect to conduct regular, frequent, informed career conversations with the entire talent wave, let alone with all employees. What they can do is enable employees and managers to have the confidence and information to have those conversations. But that won’t happen without a radical rethink of both HR’s role and the impact of other HR processes on succession planning and career conversations.


© David Clutterbuck 2011

Time to trade in HR Bling?

10 Dec

Time to trade in HR Bling?

In recent decades, HR has accumulated a fearsome array of processes and procedures, all meant to make it more effective in supporting organisations and more respected for doing so. New methodologies are embraced enthusiastically, imported into the HR catalogue and imposed on increasingly wary line managers.

Like bling, many (perhaps most) of these processes look shiny, but do they actually achieve anything? Or are they the equivalent of the fake Rolex – flashy but worthless?

In my recent researches, I have been encouraged by how many thinking HR professionals have started to question the value of the processes they use. What, they ask, is the evidence that they work? And they feel a sense of relief when they realise that, where credible evidence exists, they don’t work. Take a few examples:

The nine-box grid, promoted heavily by the leadership pipeline movement, claims to be an accurate way of assessing talent and identifying high potential employees. Nice idea, if managers could assess performance and potential (the two axes of the grid), without bias or with any significant degree of accuracy. But the weight of evidence suggests that they can’t and that putting people into boxes does more harm than good – not least, because it creates self-fulfilling prophecies, which reinforce the illusion that good choices were made.

Leadership competency frameworks might be useful, if we could define what leadership is. After several tens of thousands of studies, books and articles, all we can say for sure is that it varies with context. Certainly, the concept of the single, heroic leader has little validity. If leadership is usually a collective activity, trying to assess individual leaders is largely pointless. Competency frameworks favour those employees most able to manipulate the system (including the psychopaths).

Succession planning. Surveys show that line managers, including top management, have little faith in succession planning processes. Here’s a simple example of how they don’t work. According to research, women outscore men on nine out of ten leadership traits. Yet men are twice as likely to be promoted at any point in their career than women.

Annual appraisals have little evidenced value and are generally seen as an irritation by both managers and direct reports alike. Forced ranking swiftly becomes “forced rankling”, as people react negatively to being told they “meet requirements”. What could be more patronising? There is some evidence, however, that continuous appraisal has positive impact. 360-degree feedback is often seen as a counterbalance to line manager bias, but the evidence base suggests that managers, who rule by fear, tend to score substantially higher than they should, while participative managers score lower than average, because others know they will value constructive criticism.

So should we throw all the HR bling away, recognising that, like the Emperor’s new clothes, they did little to conceal HR’s essential nakedness anyway? A more pragmatic approach, I suggest, is to adopt a three-part strategy:

  • Seek genuine evidence that HR processes deliver what they promise. Seek the perspective of people on the receiving end and question how your need to impress line managers might affect how you weight evidence.
  • Use processes not as decision-making tools, but as part of a much wider body of evidence about people and their abilities
  • Wherever possible, replace or supplement HR processes with high quality of dialogue

Here’s a quote from an HR director, who gained my immediate respect: “We spend a lot of time exhorting our leaders to be authentic. Then we try to convince them that we are in control, by blitzing them with statistics they don’t understand (and often don’t believe). If we took our own medicine, we’d place a higher priority on our own authenticity and we’d take a hard look at whether HR processes enhance or detract from that.”

© David Clutterbuck, 2011


Five levels of listening

10 Dec

When a coach is truly attentive to a client, they listen intently. They do so not just with their ears, but with their eyes and their intuition. Of course, being in that state of high attentiveness continuously isn’t easy – internal and external distractions constantly interrupt our total attention and cause us to drift away from truly listening.  To some extent, however, these distractions are what enable us to concentrate on the client – if we are aware of them, they are a recurring reminder of where our attention should be. A useful analogy is the way our eyes work. It used to be assumed that when we concentrated on an object, our eyes were still – but the opposite is actually the case. While focusing on an object involves stopping large eye movements, the eye is constantly making microscopic movements, called microsaccades, which refresh the messages to the brain. Without this constant minor shifting and renewal, we would see nothing, as the images in our minds would fade before we had time to acknowledge them consciously.

In much the same way, we the flow of sensory distractions can help us to retain our focus on the client. They provide a constant reminder to attend.

One way of improving our attentiveness is to assist this natural process of drift and refocus by making it more conscious. This in turn is helped if we recognise and acknowledge different types of listening as they occur. There are at least five types of listening:

  • To disagree
  • To respond (which includes framing a question) or record
  • To understand
  • To help the client understand
  • Without intent


Listening to disagree is the stuff of debate. This is highly selective listening – it involves identifying words, phrases and ideas that can be seized upon and used against the other person. It is often an ego-centric process, based upon the needs of the listener to be heard and valued. When a coach recognises that they are being drawn into this level of listening, the following questions to themselves can re-establish their focus:

  • On whose behalf am I listening?
  • What parallel process is happening for me, which I need to “park”?


 Listening to respond or record seems on the surface to be very helpful. However, it diverts attention to our own thoughts, experiences and stored memories. Finding a helpful question or suggestion may seem appropriate. But what often happens is that the client’s thinking progresses as they talk, making our intended intervention obsolete before it is voiced. Then the process of discarding our thoughts again diverts our attention. (Even worse, sometimes we make the error of voicing our thoughts anyway, with the result that we disrupt the client’s concentration as well!)

Taking notes as the client speaks is also highly distracting. The neural circuits for attending have considerable overlap with those we use to think about writing. Moreover, breaking visual connection blinds us to physical clues about what is happening for the client. I normally recommend writing nothing more than trigger words and leaving more comprehensive note taking to natural pauses, when coach and client can agree together what they would like to record from the previous segment of their discussion.

Listening to understand takes us into the territory of the more experienced, more confident coach. The coach focuses on intent (what is the client trying to say and why?) and meaning (what overt and hidden implications are there?)

Useful questions here are:

  • What is the client trying to say?
  • What are they trying not to say?
  • Are my own experiences and associations helping or hindering me in interpreting what they are saying?
  • What is the logic of what is being said?
  • What emotions are engaged here?
  • What meaning is emerging for me and for the client?


Listening to help the client understand goes a step further in shifting the coach’s attention from themselves to the client. The coach helps the client become more aware of their own thinking processes; the meaning that they attach to words, phrases, concepts and symbols; the emotional currents colouring their perceptions and behaviours; and the interplay between all of these. Many of the questions and techniques of CLEAN Language are appropriate here, because they redirect the client’s attention to their own internal processes of sense-making.

Useful questions include:

  • How aware is the client of what is happening within them and around them?
  • What would help them improve the quality of their thinking and feeling?
  • What do I need to avoid in order not to interrupt their growing awareness?


Finally, listening without intent aims simply to support clients in the conversation they need or want to have with themselves, with the minimum of intervention by the coach. Even when listening to help the client understand, the coach may be mindful of processes or specific questions than can call down from a prepared toolkit. By contrast, at this level of listening the coach aims to attend totally and holistically, with the minimum of intrusion from their own experience, processes or thoughts. It isn’t easy, especially when you let go even of the need to think about the next question. (Thinking about what to ask next can be a huge distraction.) Instead, the coach has confidence that, at the moment an appropriate question is needed, it will emerge of its own accord. And if, perchance, it doesn’t emerge straight away, then a period of silence, while the client reflects, usually does the trick.

This level of listening has more to do with unconscious, instinctive thinking processes than conscious reasoning. In some ways, it can be compared with sleeping on a problem and finding a solution when you wake up. The neural pathways that discipline and restrict our thinking under normal conditions become less active, allowing us to think more creatively.

Once within this level of listening, there are no useful questions to ask of oneself – doing so immediately breaks the spell! But there are useful questions that help to take us into listening without intent and these include:

  • What will help me achieve mental stillness without turning to my own thoughts?
  • Am I attending with all my senses?
  • Can I help just by being here?


When I have explored the levels of listening with highly experienced coaches and mentors, they typically admit to finding themselves in each of the five levels of listening at times. Their “centre of gravity” tends to be in listening to help the client understand, but they spend time in each session both above and below this level. There is some suggestion, too, that having shifts between these three levels is important in the client’s sense of being listened to, though it’s unclear precisely how this works. It may be that, in order to listen fully to their clients, coaches also need periodically to listen to themselves.


© David Clutterbuck, December 2011


Mentoring in acquisitions and mergers

10 Dec


Some years ago, a company, which I was chairman of, acquired its next largest rival at a time when the whole sector was in severe difficulties. The merged company survived and eventually flourished, while many other companies in the sector went out of business. Looking back on what we did right, one of the key factors was how the merger was handled –  the formal acquisition process took nine months, yet within a matter of weeks from the agreement in principle, collaboration between the two teams was near seamless.

Mentoring was the secret ingredient to this rapid and effective integration. The starting point was “What experience and knowledge do we each have and what’s the most effective way of sharing it?” Every employee in the acquired company was paired with a colleague in the main company. Who was mentor and who mentee wasn’t always clear and somehow it didn’t matter, because the agenda of the mentoring sessions was to learn from each other as quickly and efficiently as possible. Working together on client proposals and existing projects enhanced the process.

Shortly after the completion of the merger, we moved into smaller premises and about a third of the staff opted to work partially or wholly from home. The mentoring relationships already established were vital in helping these homeworkers continue to feel connected.

This powerful experience is very different from what happens in a typical merger and acquisition situation. There, people from the two organizations are discouraged from talking with each other until the deal is completed. And then they may be left to compete for their own jobs with a new rival. If mentoring is considered, it happens some time after the acquisition, in response to stresses that become apparent in the integration process. One of the most common of these symptoms is the loss of talented people from the acquired company, who do not feel that they will be sufficiently valued in the new environment.

Here are some of the lessons I have learned from observation and research in both M&A and mentoring:

  1. Even if it isn’t possible or practical to initiate cross-company mentoring before the completion of the M&A deal, mentoring within the public negotiation period can have a powerful effect on the job commitment and retention of talented employees. In the year or so that Glaxo and SmithKline went through all the due diligence processes of their merger, the European finance and IT department initiated a mentoring programme. Not surprisingly, during the period, there was high turnover of staff – more than a quarter left. Yet of the people in the mentoring programme, only 2% quit. HR tested the assumption that the people in the programme were there because they had always intended to stay. What they found was that a strong motivation was for mentees to make themselves more marketable in the outside world. However, mentoring opened up mentees’ eyes to the opportunities in the merger and gave them increased self-confidence sufficient for them to decide to stay instead.
  2. Whether initiated before or after the conclusion of formal M&A negotiations, cross-organization mentoring helps to build trust, identify cultural and process barriers to integration and create informal communication networks. This last point is of increasing significance as companies become more and more reliant on the quality and effectiveness of their internal, informal social networks. Getting people together face to face to learn about each other and to build relationships takes time. E-mentoring with colleagues in the other organisation creates instant networks for the acquired employee to latch into.
  3. Conqueror syndrome is a common problem in M&A. Employees of the acquired company are made to feel inferior, especially if their company was bought because it was not doing well. Developmental mentoring provides a series of two-person forums, where stereotypes and assumptions about the two organisations can be challenged in a psychological safe environment.
  4. Mentoring is closely associated in both academic and practitioner literature with cultural acclimatization. Where a small company is acquired by a large one, it’s typically expected that people in the small company will have to adopt the processes of the larger, and the cultural assumptions that underlie those processes. This can be a very uncomfortable period for these employees, especially if they have a strong psychological contract with their original employer. Mentoring can substantially ease the trauma of this transition. The mentor’s role should not be simply to educate the newly acquired employee into the mainstream culture – it is much more about how to help the employee work within the culture and align their own values to those of the larger organization. Or to put it another way, it’s about achieving the emotional engagement of the mentee with their new employer organization.
  5. Mentors and mentees both need continued support. Of course, this is true of all mentoring programmes, but the extent of support required is likely to be greater, because of the uncertain environment. Mentors and mentees from the acquired company often talk of feeling isolated.  Having an active mentoring programme manager, who keeps in touch with each mentoring pair, is essential. Also helpful  is creating a community of mentors and a community of mentees, so that that can also call on each other for support. Because the mentors are likely o be drawn from the middle and senior levels of the two organizations, this community provides a neutral ground, where trust-building can occur on topics, which are unlikely to involve task or process conflict. For mentors, sharing the goal of retaining and developing the talent in the combined organization can also provide an altruistic motivation, when they may be unsure of their own future.
  6. The integration teams that some frequent acquirers parachute into any new acquisition can also benefit from being trained as mentors and coaches. However, a challenge for them as mentors is how to keep the relationships going, when they have been swiftly moved on to the next assignment. E-mentoring skills come into their own in this context. Also relevant are the skills of handing over to longer-term mentors.
  7. Giving senior managers in the acquired company responsibilities for mentoring both within their own company and in the larger entity also has benefits. It reinforces the perception that the acquirer values them; it speeds up the process of knowledge transfer (especially important if they are expected to work their way out of the organization in the next one to three years); and it raises their visibility outside their own unit. If leveraging the business contacts of other divisions and subsidiaries is part of the rationale for the acquisition, then mentoring relationships outside their own unit can be valuable in new business acquisition via other subsidiaries.
  8. Group mentoring also has a role to play. Cross-organization project teams to tackle integration and issues, such as new product development often run into problems in evolving through forming, storming and norming, to performing. An effective mentor to the team provides a rational, empathetic guide through this process, speeding up the time for the team to become fully effective, valuing and building on each other’s contributions.

It’s noteworthy that there is no significant literature specifically about mentoring in the context of M&A. There are studies that suggest mentoring is a key skill in M&A environments[1], but Google Scholar identifies no direct empirical research. This is clearly an area, where case studies and research would be beneficial.


© David Clutterbuck, 2011






[1] Liz Thach, Mark Nyman, (2001) “Leading in limbo land: the role of a leader during merger and acquisition transition”, Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 22 Iss: 4, pp.146 – 150

Hello world!

10 Dec

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