Systems Perspective as a Differentiating Coaching Competency

Systems Perspective as a Differentiating Coaching Competency

Will the approach and perspective of a counsellor who is counselling a client who is an adolescent be different from the approach and perspective of a counsellor who is counselling a couple who are having marital problems? I certainly believe yes!

While the range of skills and the processes adopted by counsellors would be similar in both situations, the contexts of the two clients are very different. In the former, I believe that the counsellor must be cognizant of the challenges of adolescence, the role of the family, the impact of societal pressures, key relationships at play and so on to achieve effectiveness in the counselling relationship. In the latter, the counsellor must be cognizant of the socio-psychological drivers of marital harmony and discord, the role of economics or extended families, in addition to other critical contextual factors. This approach of seeing the client not in isolation but as belonging to a holistic system and understanding the impact of the various sub-elements of the system on the client is what is called a Systems Perspective. Some call this contextual knowledge.

What is relevant to the field of counselling is equally relevant to the field of Coaching. While coaches need to posses the right values and skills and adopt the most appropriate processes and use the most effective tools, they also need to have the right systems perspective in order to be effective in their coaching relationships. In an Executive Coaching context, systems perspective will mean knowledge about the Organisational and business processes, cultural and climate factors, strategic imperatives and the environmental factors and most importantly career life stage issues, needs and dilemmas that impact the client and shapes his or her behaviours.

The importance of a systems perspective for Coaches goes beyond mere effectiveness – it seems a prerequisite. It has been our experience in CFI that when Organisations seek out coaches they almost subconsciously seek out not just the most skilful coach but the coach who brings the greatest systems perspective to his coaching engagement. They do this be seeking our Coaches who have “been there and done that” – coaches who have experienced or witnessed all or some of these system issues and dilemmas. In this article I would like to examine the subject from a variety of perspectives so that Coaches are able to nurture and develop this dimension and also leverage it in their coaching engagements.

Systems perspective in an executive coaching context

Executive coaches are focussed primarily on helping executives in Organisations solve problems and achieve their full potential and through that make a difference to their Organisations and themselves. In that sense Executive coaching engagements are initiated for some very strong business and Organisational reasons that must be well appreciated.

It must also be understood that executives who are seeking coaching support function within the boundaries of an organisation and their performance, effectiveness and even their level of engagement is influenced by a multitude of systemic factors. For coaches to be effective they will therefore need to have a sound appreciation of this systems perspective.

Let us now understand the various dimensions of this systems perspective in an executive coaching context especially as it relates to CXO coaching.

a. Business perspective

Executives at the CXO level are very deeply concerned about and held accountable for the success of the businesses they are leading. The key business levers of growth, profitability, diversification, structural changes and so on impact the client and the client’s work quite often has a lot to do with impacting these dimensions. Coaches who are able to appreciate how these impact his clients are likely to understand their world better and be a lot more empathetic to their situation.

In addition to these key business levers, even business ownership patterns have a profound impact and influence on executives and their own performance and effectiveness. The ways in which a family business works is quite different from the ways in which a global corporation works. Coaches who are cognisant of these subtle differences are able to spot the impact of these contexts on their clients and help them, especially when clients have migrated from one ownership context to another and are struggling to cope.

b. Functional perspective

Closely linked to the business perspective is the functional perspective as it applies to the client. Clients quite often belong to some function or profession and as a result many of their beliefs, concerns and challenges are influenced by the function or profession they belong to. Therefore, when a Coach is dealing with the Head of Sales & Marketing, it would help if the coach had a broad appreciation of the contours of the sales & marketing function, how it works and what its key imperatives are so that he is able to ask him the right questions and gain a deeper understanding about his context at work.

Similarly, when a coach is speaking with a CFO client it would help if he had even a basic understanding about the role of a CFO and some of the typical dilemmas he might face in fulfilling his responsibilities.

c. Career life stage

As executives progress in their careers they pass through various career life stages and transition points. There is a large body of knowledge about the typical needs, issues and dilemmas at each of these career life stages.

For example a functional head who is taking on a cross functional responsibility would have a certain typical set of needs and concerns. A manager migrating from an operating role to a strategic role would have certain typical dilemmas. So also a first time CEO would have his own typical challenges and developmental needs.

Coaches who have experienced or observed these career life stages and transition points are likely to be very quick in understanding their clients and diagnosing the needs of their clients be a lot more empathetic in their interactions.

d. Organisational process

Clients work within Organisations and are most deeply impacted by a whole range of Organisational processes and behaviours. The way in which the Organisations plans, takes decisions, collaborates, manages and evaluates performance, rewards people, shapes careers, manages change, upholds values and so on has a huge impact on the effectiveness of the client. The client’s efficacy is also largely impacted by the extent to which these Organisational processes are aligned to his own values and beliefs and his professional way of working. The client’s dilemmas and development needs can easily be understood by coaches who have experienced these Organisational processes and can relate to it.

Leveraging the systems perspective

How does a Coach leverage his/her systems perspective?

Coaches can use their systems perspective to firstly empathise with their clients. They can ask better questions and help their clients tell their stories more completely and concretely. They can also use this insight to help their clients gain new perspectives and zero in on the agendas that will give true leverage. Most importantly, coaches are likely to establish a far higher connect when their clients experience them as someone who understand where they are coming from.

Developing and nurturing a systems perspective

Executives who have been there and done that tend to quite naturally find it easier to bring the systems perspective into their coaching engagement. Many executive coaches tend to be independent professionals and come from varying backgrounds. While some may have had held executive positions at senior levels, others might have held executive positions at a middle to senior level before having migrated to become trainers, facilitators and consultants.

Whatever might be the background coaches must find ways to constantly stay alive to business and Organisational realities all the time. Given the rapid changes in the business environment, even experienced executives must ensure that their perspectives are current and not outdated. From this point of view the right balance between consulting and coaching will ensure that coaches are able to bring insights from their consulting to their coaching conversations just the same way they would carry the power of their coaching skills into their consulting assignments.

CFI actively encourages it members to share coaching cases with their peers and learn valuable lessons about what their clients need and what their context looks like. By working closely with clients through its consulting practice, CFI ensures that it keeps its systems perspective alive and brings the benefit of this insight to its CEO Coach training.


The real dangers of a coach with a strong systems perspective is that he may end up telling his client what he has to do or might even be too prescriptive in his diagnosis. This is a watch out for all coaches in general but more so for those who have been there and done that.

I must also clarify that a system perspective does not mean that the coach must be familiar with the intricacies and business specific domain know-how of his client or even the nuances of the client’s role. What I am talking about is a very broad understanding which can be developed and nurtured through formal managerial education as well as through constant interface with those in business.

Coaches spend a lot of time and effort to become more and more skilful in their conversation, conversant with the right processes and proficient in the use of data to forward the coaching agenda. If they also have a sound systems perspective, they will make a remarkable contribution to their clients.

-Ganesh Chella