An iron hand in a velvet glove

Interview conducted by Gazeta Finansowa with Lidia Nwolisa, executive coach at Corporate Coach U Poland.

Gazeta Finansowa : Why do leaders need coaching skills today?

Lidia Nwolisa : One of my clients, the president of a large bank, at the beginning of the coaching process with me made up his mind that he wanted to be an “iron hand in a velvet glove”. His 360-degree feedback study confirmed that his levels of “iron in his body” were high enough. His iron hand was skilled in issuing orders, serving ready-made solutions on a tray and setting an example of perfect execution of tasks. As a coach, my job was to choose a velvet glove that was perfectly suited to his character. What glove could suit him best? We were going to make this breakthrough in a 12-month coaching process.

GF: What led to the breakthrough in the CEO’s transformation?

LN: The discovery that in the use of an iron hand has already met a wall. With this attitude, he was unable to squeeze a drop more innovation, commitment, and thus better results from his team. He was already bored and disgusted with waving results tables in front of the noses of subordinate directors and demanding better performance. Both he and they needed a new quality.

GF: What was keeping him be the old man when the old way didn’t work?

LN: Over the years, he built his authority as an expert who shoots solutions like a cannon. Lack of such activity made him think of business impotence.

GF: So what kind of new glove have you designed for him?

LN: Pearl white velvet. (laughs) It was distinguished by setting directions, participation and constant development. This glove is perfect for dynamic changes and transformations. A leader wearing such a glove stimulates thinking, opens a space for dialogue and searches for the best solutions together with people.

GF: This looks like the opposite of an iron hand to me.

LN: Right. And, in contrast, it requires a completely different set of competencies. Therefore, the second turning point in the CEO’s transformation was participation in our two-day Coaching Clinic training program. There, together with other leaders, he explored the secrets of the work of professional coaches, honed the skills of listening, asking questions, empathy and giving recognition. According to research, every third long-distance employee believes that his work is not appreciated. Appreciation is therefore a natural, completely free source of energy for employees. However, giving raises is an overrated tool of motivation. Works like a new handbag for a woman. It makes one happy for the first few months, and then becomes a commodity. This does not mean, of course, that the pay raises are not important to employees. They just don’t make us feel appreciated endlessly. Appreciation with words cannot be overdosed and you will not get used to it. It motivates every employee.

The other components of our coaching leadership development program are contextual listening, i.e. listening not only with the ears but also with the eyes, heart and even the gut. It is also asking discovering questions, i.e. questions that go to the heart and bring new answers and solutions. We practice all this on real business topics of the participants, thanks to which they return to their desks with a list of specific ideas and solutions ready for implementation. And most importantly, with the conviction that coaching works for them and that is why they want to share it with their teams. Although not everyone does it easily and naturally.

GF: What crises and obstacles awaited the president on the way?

LN: The first crisis came when some members of his team resisted. The CEO’s new leadership style had thrown them out of their familiar comfort zone. Instead of just receiving solutions and loyally implementing them, they were now expected to come up with and express opinions more often. It required activating creative thinking and taking responsibility for the effects of actions. One thing about resistance is that it occurs even when the change is beneficial for us in the long term. For the CEO, hesitant to use new styles, the resistance of some team members was a serious deal breaker. My role as a coach was to prepare him for this resistance so that he would expect it, wait patiently and consistently build his coach’s authority.

GF: Building the authority of a leader by sprinkling solutions like from a sleeve is quite obvious. Can you build authority just by listening and asking questions?

LN: Leaders come to the Coaching Clinic training with the same question . When we do a demo of a coaching conversation , we only listen for 15 minutes, ask questions and summarize what we heard. When we finish the demo, we see surprise and admiration that this is how you can come to innovative solutions and very specific actions. When we invite leaders to coaching, we find that asking groundbreaking questions needs to go hand in hand with the right attitude.

GF: What was the attitude required of the CEO to effectively implement coaching leadership?

LN: First of all, faith that people have potential and carry answers to questions. Without this faith, even the most sincere efforts to coaching people will fail. The president knew the limits of his people well before. He could find out about their potential only by asking for their opinion. It was for him like walking on a bridge, the consecutive spans of which appear only at the moment of taking a step. It required him to trust the process of coaching. His trust was built by the fact that he himself was coached by me and he wanted to give his people even a percentage of this positive experience.

GF: What were the CEO’s success factors in this transformation?

LN: Authenticity, transparent communication, intention to develop people, investing in relationships and strengthening trust. All the above factors built the team members’ openness to undergo the coaching process.

GF: What are the benefits of the CEO transformation?

LN: Agile teams and agile individuals. When people are allowed and given time to make their point, they begin to feel important to the company. They stop boycotting solutions imposed by the supervisor and start taking responsibility for what they come up with together. In the face of the obstacles they encounter, they do everything to prevent their “child” from derailing. International research shows that employees’ happiness is most often associated with a friendly atmosphere in a company that makes them feel good enough to express themselves and their views. People like to be asked for opinions, taken into account, and appreciated for their contributions. Research shows that appreciation is one of the company’s most appealing attributes. Then employees are ready to show more of their talents and engage in work more fully.

GF: Does the story of the bank’s president have a happy ending?

LN: Most of the time, the CEO manages to remember to wear his iron hand in a pearl white velvet glove every morning . Although there are times when he is under the pressure of business challenges and habitually goes to work with a naked, iron hand. It helps him a lot that during the coaching process with me, he started using elements of coaching at board meetings with his colleagues (peer-to-peer coaching). This style of conducting board meetings has become so well established that they cannot cooperate otherwise. In the meantime, coaching has also become an element of the culture of leadership in the company, which makes other employees even expect it from the president. Coaching is such a transforming experience that the CEO has become a more complete version of himself not only at work, but also outside of it. The happy ending is that he continues this path and does not turn back.

Lidia Nwolisa – is the first ICF-accredited executive & leadership coach in Poland, a licensed coach of Coaching Clinic – training offered in Poland for 15 years by Coach U. She is the founder and member of the first ICF board.