(This case first appeared in Coaching at Work magazine, February 2017)
A. Coaching Scenario – ‘The Problem’
Simon is MD of a mid-sized business with 500 employees, and 18 months into his role. Although his business has a globally recognised brand, and some good products, he feels that the business has become ‘stagnant’ – both in terms of its culture and its sales performance. There is a problem with ‘low morale’ among the staff, which is manifest in a steady revolving door of people entering and joining the organisation.
In particular, he and the Board have trouble filling a senior position. A particular role – that of HR Director – has had many occupants in just a few years and the role seems somehow incapable of being occupied, even by seemingly well-qualified candidates. The current incumbent, who Simon chose, is also struggling in the role.
Generally, Simon intuitively feels that there are ‘skeletons’ – and unfinished business – in the organisation that are holding it back, but a) he can’t put his finger on what they are and b) doesn’t know what to do about it. Attempts to improve the situation, through coaching the current HR Director, a new strategy process, and attempts to create a more open, transparent culture, have as yet yielded little benefit.
B. ‘The Solution’
Problems such as Simon’s are typically ‘solutions in progress’, from the perspective of Systemic Coaching and constellations. In other words, what we find – viewed through this mapping lens – is that problematic patterns are often reactions to something that happened, and the attempt of the system to find a solution. Taking a slightly different approach, the question we systemic practitioners therefore ask ourselves is: “For what phenomenon is this problem or pattern a solution?”
We might begin with a fairly typical contracting process that includes: deeply listening to Simon, exploring feedback from others on his leadership style and also the outcomes he wants from the coaching process.
However, our systemic perspective might then encourage us to ask some slightly different questions, such as: Which earlier or present member(s) of the system was excluded, devalued or forgotten? Has anyone been dismissed in an unnecessarily disrespectful way?
In this case, these questions yield answers from Simon that have a certain energetic charge, which the systemic coach is trained to pick up. These include the facts that there was a ‘brutal cull’ to one business division 10 years previously, and also that a previous HR Director had been bullied and then fired for underperforming by Simon’s predecessor as CEO four years previously.
The next step is to take Simon to a bespoke constellation workshop – attended by a business champion or two plus neutral representatives – so we can see the hidden systems dynamics at play.
This process reveals the real issue that the prior incumbent in HR had been mistreated, disrespected and effectively excluded from the firm’s institutional memory. It also revealed the difficult pattern for that person’s successors as they assumed this “ejector seat” role, and – through identification with the prior incumbent – were also expelled from the system.
This helps us find the resolution that the system is seeking: to remedy the prior imbalance by recognition of the earlier incumbent. Simon is happy to do this, and the follow-up coaching explores how this ‘re-membering’ can be embedded in the organisation through conversations with the HR Director and collective ritual (and dialogue) – while helping him navigate all his other challenges!