Coaching for Strategic Thinking

Coaching for Strategic Thinking

One of the most common coaching needs is this – to help a leader think and act more strategically.

Now, the moment one is presented with such a need, one is naturally drawn to connect this with the cognitive ability to think strategically.

In fact most competency frameworks focus on the “thinking dimension” of being strategic.

Viewed in this manner, we as coaches are likely to run into some rough weather.

The first question that might confound us is this – can we as coaches actually help someone develop their thinking skills? Is it not something that needs to be taught over a long period of time? In fact, the various skills associated with thinking are seldom taught in school or college. While we have so many subjects in school and college, there is seldom a subject called “thinking”.

So, given one’s upbringing, exposure, personality preference, intelligence and work exposure, one may or may not develop a wide range of thinking skills.

Also, in the early days of one’s career, the emphasis is on doing – doing lots and doing well. And unfortunately, we lead ourselves to believe that good doing means no thinking.

Given all these complexities, when someone steps into leadership, one can often be found wanting in the thinking dimension – and more specifically in the strategic thinking dimension. When organisations refer to “being strategic”, they are also referring to focusing on what is important and vital rather than just exigent.

Having witnessed and seen several hundreds of coaching engagements, my conclusion is that it is not the job of a coach to teach thinking, even strategic thinking. Defined in this manner, it can be a long and complex and even difficult expectation.

What coaches can certainly do is to help the leaders nurture a strategic orientation. A strategic orientation by leading them to develop habits that aid the process of being strategic – that aid them to behave in ways that are more strategic. Challenge beliefs that prevent them from being strategic. Dealing with aspects of emotional intelligence that if nurtured can support the cognitive process. (like being impulsive, not regulating one’s emotions in problem solving and decision making, not being grounded, not being empathetic).These are things that a coach can certainly work with their coachees on. But they cannot make them more strategic thinkers. They can help them become leaders who can be more strategic in what they do and how they do it.

Based on my experiences and the experiences of my fellow coaches, here are a few things that coaches do to promote strategic orientation or good habits to be strategic. I present them in the form of eight questions that coaches can get their coachees to ask themselves.

1. Do I have the time to be strategic or do the strategic or important things? How do I spend my time?
Coaches often find that the manner in which leaders spend their time needs change. They might be spending time doing things that are best done by their team members. This is one reason why the ability and willingness to delegate is often linked to the ability to be strategic.

This is one area that coaches engage in quite often, in order to promote strategic orientation.

2. How much of my time is spent thinking?

Many leaders grow up to believe that a packed day busy “doing” things is the best sign of being effective. The limiting belief that working hard is necessary and being seen as working hard is important is often common. So, having empty spaces in one’s calendar and using it to think can often be seen as a sin.

Overcoming this limiting belief and getting into the habit of reflection is another thing that coaches work with their coachees on.

3. Am I able to view my role and my work situations from perspectives broader than they are today – perspectives that are broader and more holistic and keep the context in mind?

Quite often, in conversations that a coach has with a coachee, the coach will be able to spot views that are somewhat myopic, narrow, or just limiting. They might define their roles in a certain way, they might fail to read the context, they might miss certain facts or choose not to see them. They may not even feel empowered to think about larger matters – that is not my job; tell me what I should do. So, the sense of agency can promote strategic orientation.

As a result, their perspectives may not be strategic. In other words, one’s language defines one’s world. Coaches can help coachees change their language in a way that they are more expansive, holistic and broad.

Altering beliefs, world views and ways of looking at one’s role and the world can help.

It can also be about understanding the strategic plans of the Organisation and seeing what role one can pay to achieve it.

4. Am I articulating in ways that are far sighted, inspiring, clarity promoting or do I end up muddying the waters, talking only actions and what is in front of my nose?

The manner in which one communicates reflects the way one is processing things. It is this communication that gets picked up be key stakeholders and used as pieces of evidence to judge if the leader is strategic or not. And often in a somewhat hasty manner.

Coaches often help their coachees be more thoughtful and prepared and deliberate in the way they communicate so that they elevate conversations, bring clarity and lead to inspiration.

It could be about describing the future of one’s industry, one’s function, asking questions that promote thinking, speaking in a way that others listen, being reflective so one can bring much needed clarity. It could also be about being more intellectually rigorous.

5. Do I solve problems symptomatically or structurally? Are my solutions single loop or double loop? (https://hbr.org/1977/09/double-loop-learning-in-organizations)

Leaders solve problems in ways that are different. Some do quick fixes. Some go to the root cause. Others question fundamental assumptions and start by saying everything is up for questioning.

Coaches may be called upon to help coachees solve problems in ways that are befitting their positions. This might call for challenging assumptions, asking deep questions and overcoming fears.

6. Can I plan for the long-term?

Planning for the long-term calls for reading the environment, spotting trends and opportunities, making assumptions and seeing patterns.

Coaches are often called upon to help coachees make long-term plans for their businesses. This may call for a certain level of coaching and a certain level of mentoring too.

7. How well am I able to build and maintain relationships?

Building and maintaining relationships calls for the ability to step back and view things in perspective – what battles should I pick up, what relationships matter, what is the political landscape, who are my well wishers and who should be and so on. When do I be candid and when diplomatic. When is the truth best not told?

Being naïve about relationships is not being strategic.

8. Am I able to make complex and balanced decisions considering various factors

Making major decisions like redefining business models, go to market strategies redefining purpose and direction are all complex and call for a lot of clear thinking.

This is yet another expectation for leaders and entrepreneurs. Coaches and mentors often support these decision-making processes by asking the right questions and bringing in the right perspectives.

You can see that coaches and sometimes mentors can help their coachees develop a certain strategic orientation, a certain set of habits in thinking and acting and communicating that can push them in the path of being more strategic.

The idea is to not teach them strategic thinking but to support them to act in ways that are strategic.

-Ganesh Chella

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