Category Archives: Coaching

Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership

Leadership books can be turgid, full of unsupported assertions, difficult to read and extremely dull. Too few really engage with the daily messiness of leading, the acute uncertainty many leaders experience or the fragile loyalty offered by  team members. It is a real pleasure, therefore, to recommend Dr Eve Poole’s creative and encouraging book “Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership” (published, March 2017, by Bloomsbury Business. ISBN: 9781472941237).

Poole’s conviction is that real leaders learn their craft the hard way: through “critical incidents” that test their mettle. This conviction is based upon 2003 research undertaken to develop the simulation-based Ashridge future leaders programme. Eve Poole, on the way to explaining what she means by “leadersmithing”, contends that the seventeen critical incidents are the apprentice-pieces of the leader’s craft. Having engagingly introduced and argued the case for each of these apprentice experiences, Poole then explains how capable leaders really learn before defining and exploring the contribution of the leader’s character.

The second part of this immensely readable, good humoured and literary book provides a whole year’s worth of support for any leader who is really serious about their own development. As a leadership coach who often supports organisation’s rising talent, part two of Poole’s book has rapidly become my reference source of choice. Truth to tell, part two is too rich to be fully savoured in one short year: this is a playbook for a lifetime’s apprenticeship.

Naturally, Dr Eve Poole recognises that some of her readers may be drawn to the first part of the book where the theory is beautifully and succinctly explored whilst others will gain most from the more practical part two. Whatever your preference, I would urge you to read both parts because, developing leader, experienced leader, leadership facilitator or coach, the pearls of wisdom to be found here are well worth savouring.

Managing Two Careers At Once

Why do organisations manage their talent in ways that fail to take account of spousal careers? What happens as a result? What additional thinking and practices could assist organisations to manage talent located within a dual career relationship better? What do findings about what is valued in mid-life career counselling have to say to those involved in career coaching?

Spousal Careers

Writing in the May – June 2018 edition of The Harvard Business Review (“Talent Management and the Dual-Career Couple”) Jennifer Petriglieri, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, shows how companies invest significantly in grooming their star talent — but then fail to take account of marital situations and responsibilities.

This failure, which involves seeing the high performing employee “one dimensionally”and not appreciating their familial context is surprisingly common. Many corporations with relatively enlightened talent management programmes haven’t, according to Petriglieri, “figured out how to manage the growing population of employees who care deeply about their partners’ or spouses’ careers at the same time that they want to advance their own. As a result, many high potentials are heading for the nearest exit.”

Outdated Ideas About Career Progression

Jennifer Petriglieri has seen this happen time and again across a range of sectors and says the crux of the problem is that companies “tend to have fixed paths to leadership roles, with set tours of duty and rigid ideas about what ambition looks like. That creates flexibility and mobility challenges for employees—and recruitment and retention headaches for employers.”

In referring to these “fixed paths to leadership roles” Petriglieri signals that the companies concerned are likely to be practicing that, rather exclusive, form of talent management that Victoria Campbell and Wendy Hirsh (in their Institute of Employment Studies report “Talent Management: A Four-Step Approach”, 2013) dubbed “accelerated skill development for high potentials” (type A). An alternative, and more inclusive, form of talent management, based upon the conviction that every employee has talent, usually drives anemphasis onorganisational capability building throughout the workforce” (type B).   

That some corporations still use models for talent development that are based on fixed paths, set tours of duty and rigid ideas about what ambition looks like might be thought remarkable. That they often struggle with last minute realisations about the importance of spousal careers is perhaps predictable. It does not need to be so.

Two Sides Of The Same Coin

As Global Practice Leader for Integrated Talent Management at World Vision International I was constantly reminded that talent management is but “one side of a coin”. The coin’s “two faces” are talent management and the individual’s career. Talent management is that side of the coin seen from the corporation’s perspective. The other side of the coin is built progressively through the career – and other – decisions made by individual employees. Where they are in a relationship with another person also managing career decisions the two people will characteristically, and increasingly, take these decisions together.

Campbell and Hirsh found, through their case studies of 23 organisations, drawn almost equally from the private and the public sector, that between the “type A” and the “type B” approaches to talent management, there was “a more career‐oriented definition of talent management.”This “places more emphasis on establishing career direction (relating to individuals’ interests and ambitions), as well as deploying and mobilising talent across the organisation, by offering different career experiences and using talent populations to fill key roles.” I will call this approach “type C”. It is important to our current discussion because it has the potential to allow talent managers to understand “the other side of the coin”.

Understanding this important symbiotic relationship between the two sides of the coin has taken some organisations a while. If type C practices were more commonly used this might not be true but experience in the disparate financial services and humanitarian development sectors suggests this is not the case: the type A approach predominates. Predictably, organisations are in a comfortable place, for them, when it is clear that their decisions have impact on individual’s careers. It is less comfortable when the organisation becomes aware that individual’s career decisions can – and do – have organisational effects. When the conditions are right these organisational effects can be very significant indeed. Two examples from my financial services sector experience illustrate this point.

Example 1: In the ten years from 2000, there was considerable actuarial and insurance consulting firm consolidation resulting in the emergence of a smaller number of global organisations with considerably enlarged headcounts. This led to some professionals in this sector becoming more and more specialist and, consequently, their roles being ever more narrowly conceived. For the organisations concerned the opportunity was created to build teams of dedicated experts with niche consulting expertise. By the end of the decade however, employers and specialist recruiters were recognising that the individual career decisions of these business critical experts were having a determinant and sometimes limiting impact on organisation’s business strategy.

Example 2: Merger or acquisition based growth also created opportunities for individuals and teams that employers may not initially have anticipated. A range of firms lost talented specialists to their rivals as the result of a legal loophole meaning they were technically unemployed at the point of M&A transaction. In some cases, individuals or even intact teams were changing jobs and being recruited without serving their notice periods. Remedies were, of course, found (sometimes known as “golden handcuffs”) but constraining career choice often proved both complicated and expensive.

Petriglieri’s work highlights a further complication for corporations that have not got used to flipping the talent/career coin and appreciating, as we have seen, that in dual career partnerships, career related decisions are commonly made by the couple thinking and acting together. The decisions the couple jointly make address career choices in the wider context of family values and goals and give expression to their views about the overall well-being of the couple and the family. In doing so their decisions, taken for the good of the couple and/or the family, are at least as subtle as those taken by the employing organisations. My experience in talent management and coaching would suggest that these familial decisions are often much more nuanced than corporate talent managers contemplate.

Simply put, when managing their talent, organisations need to match the levels of subtlety found in spousal decision making. Expressed this way, that may appear to be a “corporate nice to have”: unfortunately the associated risks can have big price tags attached. Indeed, failing to recognise the relational aspects of career decision can be as expensive as not considering the talent aspects of a merger or an acquisition. The “golden handcuffs” mentioned above were, for example, sometimes resorted to precisely because the level of corporate talent risk management had earlier been inappropriate.

The challenges associated with having these types of career development conversations are significant. Creating the environment of trust, establishing the agreed ground rules, preparing the agreed summary of the discussions, taking time to plan and hold the conversations at the appropriate frequency all require significant maturity, planfulness, sophisticated data management, excellent communication and commitment to coaching behaviours.

Today’s Dual Career/Talent Management Context

The context for both corporate talent management and individual career choice is shaped by the hugely important ways in which our working lives are changing. These changes are well known: people are living longer, the labour market is shifting as a result of technological change and globalisation, employees may be caring for children and parents simultaneously whilst they manage and evaluate their paid work and consider their own second-half-of-life options.

As a consequence of this, people may see the need to change jobs and retrain; they may be having debates about their own and their partner’s careers; portfolio working lives are now a reality for many and retirement is being experienced as a more flexible reality with less of a ‘cliff edge’ between working and not working.

These changes indicate that organisations should approach the relationship they have with their key talent in much more subtle and responsive ways than in the past. “Indicate” seems the appropriate word here because, of course, employers have choices to make. Enlightened employers that operate talent and succession management processes that respond to these significant technological and socioeconomic changes – and recognise the importance of spousal career decisions – are more likely to retain their high performers. Those that don’t, increasingly will not.

Career Coaching Agendas

Employers may or may not invest in coaching for leadership and emerging talent. The extent to which career development looms large in that relationship will vary. My executive coaching experience suggests that career planning and development are increasingly important issues for coachees. Corporations purchasing developmental executive coaching variously recognise – and often support through other initiatives and programmes within which coaching may be located – the fundamental notion that the coachee is the captain of their own life and learning[1].

This recognition creates the context within which the coachee’s goals “are the foundation of the work, although in executive coaching the line manager’s and organisation’s goals are also fed into the agenda” as Jenny Rogers deftly expresses the situation (in “Coaching skills: The Definitive Guide To Being A Coach”, May 2016). Many coaches, including myself, influenced by the cognitive behavioural coaching school and the work of Carl Rogers, approach this type of development coaching with the belief that the coachee is infinitely resourceful and that their work is necessarily holistic in nature and scope. The individual has choices.

Outside of paid coaching, support for the making of those choices, some of which may relate to what Cadbury has dubbed the individual’s “crazy paving” will vary. In many countries individual adults do not have ready access to advice on what to do to make the most of their opportunities. The results can include premature retirement for some, a lack of fulfilling work for others, and insufficient saving for retirement for many.

However, evidence from a UK study (“Mid Life Career Review”, July 2015) evaluated by the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE) showed that valuable mid-life career review opportunities helped people take stock of where they were and who they are, and what they wanted to achieve for the rest of their lives. The pilot projects not only helped to determine the variety of possible agendas for such a career review but they also illustrated the range of career-related topics that a coachee may be considering.  The study showed that some or all of the following might feature in a well-regarded review:

  • Understanding life expectancy, and its implications for work, leisure, finance and health: many people underestimate life expectancy.
  • Reviewing changing aspirations for work and life over coming decades.
  • Making informed decisions about retirement timing and phasing (since working longer is likely to improve the quality of life of most people, as well as being good for employers and the economy).
  • Undertaking training likely to sustain the individual longer in rewarding activity, including paid work.
  • Reviewing the implications of working longer for personal health.
  • Reviewing the individual’s long-term financial situation including saving for retirement.
  • Developing strategies for overcoming age discrimination.
  • Understanding rights in relation to retirement timing, flexible working, and caring responsibilities, and developing strategies for negotiating adjustments to the individual’s and the working patterns of any spouse.
  • Realistically assessing options for job change and self-employment.

This NIACE research points to the level of sophistication that an informed mid-career review may need to achieve. Looking “around” and “behind” the bullet points above it is also possible to see the work/life considerations that dual-career couples are, increasingly, managing. This provides an indicator of what excellence in career coaching will increasingly look like and it should act as a wake up call and a compass to organisations whose talent management is as sadly one-dimensional as Jennifer Petriglieri found. Talent management should be aiming at least to understand the questions that are being asked by “the growing population of employees who care deeply about their partners’ or spouses’ careers at the same time that they want to advance their own.” This understanding can help to minimise something that talent managers are often said to want to avoid: unpleasant surprises.

[1]Sir Nicholas Cadbury expressed this well: “There is no such thing as a career path.  It is like crazy paving and you have to lay it yourself.”

References

Petriglieri, J. (May – June, 2018), ‘Talent Management and the Dual-Career Couple’, in Harvard Business Review, pp.106–113. Harvard University Press, USA.

Watts, J. et al. (July 2015), ‘Mid Life Career Review Pilot Project Outcomes: Phases 1, 2, and 3 (2013 – 2015): Final report to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’. National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education, Leicester, UK.

Rogers, J. (May 2106), ‘Coaching skills: The Definitive Guide To Being A Coach.’ Open University Press, Milton Keynes, UK.

Campbell, V. and Hirsh, W. (2013), ‘Talent Management: A Four Step Approach.’ Institute of Employment Studies, Brighton, UK.

Mid-Life Career Change?

As people look back over their working lives it is not uncommon to find them asking questions about service, achievement and satisfaction. Some may be in positions where the opportunities for development through work are limited and they may increasingly identify with the view that there’s a considerable difference between twenty years of experience, and one year of experience relived twenty times! Unsurprisingly, this feeling can be expressed in employee’s engagement with their work. Gallup, for example, has found that the percentage of actively disengaged workers tends to be highest among those aged 40-49. Workers in this age group were almost 1.5 times as likely as those aged 18-29 or those aged 60 and older to be actively disengaged (15% for both the youngest and oldest age groups).

Faced with the evidence, Gallup concluded that, once employees are past early adulthood – the years when many are learning their chosen profession – they become significantly less likely to strongly agree that their workplace is a source of personal development.

Evidence from psychological research confirms what shared experience would suggest: that life goals and motivation tend to shift, as people grow older. As many coaches would confirm, mid-life is a time when people re-evaluate their goals and make changes accordingly.

Sometimes the incentive to make these career changes may be fuelled by a sense of dashed expectations. Hannes Schwandt, an economist at the University of Zurich found that young people overestimate their future happiness, and so feel disappointed as life goes on. But as people approach 60, they start underestimating their future happiness, and then are pleasantly surprised by reality.

For many, accumulated wealth, relative security and a desire to really make a difference or to “give something back” propels individuals in mid-life toward something of a career crisis. E B White captured their quandary: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

“My Career Development Plan” is a practical guide to career development for those considering a change of career direction. It was written by John Evans, a qualified career development practitioner, executive coach and former global practice leader for the world’s largest child focused humanitarian development agency. John was previously head of Hewitt Associates’ European Organisational Development practice. Your copy is available here.

A Career With Impact?

Impactpool is a unique career platform aiming to provide the best possible support to people who want to pursue a career within mission-driven organisations. Impactpool (previously UNjobfinder) was founded in 2015 and is a social enterprise with headquarters in Stockholm, Sweden. Its founders were aware of the need for a qualified, customer oriented and user-friendly service covering the global employment sector of mission driven organisations.

Impactpool’s own mission is to support highly qualified and motivated individuals by helping them grow professionally and to develop successful careers within organisations that contribute to a sustainable world. In just three years Impactpool has become the world’s fastest growing career website with a focus on talents and organisations who are striving for and contributing to a sustainable world. The service gathers opportunities from hundreds of international organisations around the world including all UN organisations, international financial institutions, the European Union and the most influential intergovernmental and Non-Governmental Organisations.

For talent seeking to break into this niche global marketplace, Impactpool provides a “shop window” on approaching 2500 daily-updated entry, mid-career and executive level appointments across (currently, and growing) 156 organisations. A single portal provides unique job search functionality. This is complemented by a dedicated and independent career coaching service provided by coaches with successful career records in the industry; I am honoured to be a part of this network. The organisational coverage is impressive covering an ever-expanding range of international, governmental, medical, justice, faith based, peacekeeping, and humanitarian and development organisations with current vacancies across the globe.

Alongside this dynamic slate of opportunities those who sign up to Impactpool have access to invaluable career guides. “Start Making a Difference” is a must-read providing an introduction to a career in international development. Experienced recruiters and HR specialists explain how to start your career in the sector, including what you need to know about educational requirements, relevant skills and experience, the differing organisation types, career tracks, and remuneration. The Impactpool authors share concrete, honest advice on how to approach your career strategically—from choosing the right jobs to apply for to positioning yourself in the best possible way for growth and advancement.

For experienced talent, “The Senior Assessment Guide” is an invaluable “preparation kit” to use when facing a UN assessment centre.  The eBook describes the different UN pools, how you get into them, how you are assessed, and how you finally get selected. These pools primarily target senior internal staff at the UN, but the Guide also describes how external leaders have successfully gained access to pools in the past.

Complementing this targeted Guide, Impactpool also publish general interview guides and question banks for those applying for international organisation careers, humanitarian and development sector roles. Regular summary articles highlight the beginning and flag up the closure of recruitment campaigns. Click for further information.

(The writer is an Impactpool Fellow).

Information sharing, pathos and apologies

It is widely believed that leaders should share information with those they lead. The arguments to support this as ‘best practice’ draw widely on studies of staff engagement. These repeatedly show that, by explaining the connection between employees’ individual jobs and the organisation, leaders and managers can greatly increase employee satisfaction with their day-to-day work. The commitment to communication also rests on the belief that, whilst trust evolves, ebbs and flows it is essential to staff engagement and motivation. For leaders and managers, the evidence shows that employees who trust them are most likely to follow through on goals set. Trustworthy leaders and managers are also more likely to get a flow of honest feedback on the challenges their staff face: which is invaluable.

At the strategic level, as Alkhafaji stated (1997), “no matter how brilliant the strategy may be, unless the business team understands and accepts it, performance will suffer.”

The “terms” of understanding and acceptance depend on leaders being able to communicate relevant information credibly. Leaders typically base their own judgements on both hard data and softer information. Many will take the view that the data is easier to communicate than the softer information. Of course, what is easier for one leader to accomplish may be more challenging for another and track records certainly play a part in creating the foundations for each call to action. Agreeing, perhaps instinctively, with Aristotle, many leaders I have worked with know that credibility depends upon a rather subtle demonstration of competence, good intention and empathy.

Modern business communication has tended to elevate the attention paid to what Aristotle terms “logos”. This is often, and to a great extent rightly, associated with logic, the hard data and the apparent proofs of our case. Business leaders, perhaps because they are business leaders, will often avoid paying attention to “pathos” in their communication. However, as we will see, this failure to consider the emotional impact of communication can have catastrophic impact on how it is received and responded to. More generally,  and perhaps through a fear of being seen to be overly emotional, much business communication appears leaden, stilted and impassive: not the tinder that lights fires of commitment as Henry V did on the Feast of St Crispian. (As Richard Olivier explains so eloquently in his book “Inspirational Leadership”, 2007, ISBN: 978 1 905879 00 7).

The dangers of a failure to attend to engage emotionally with people are well illustrated by the response of the CEO of United Airlines to an airline-overbooking situation on April 9, 2017. This resulted in a fare-paying passenger being dragged bodily off an internal US flight. When the gruesome video footage went viral and the CEO, who had previously been named U.S. Communicator of the Year, failed to apologise he was widely criticised. In avoiding emotional response and failing to give a profound and heartfelt apology for the terrible manner in which the passenger had been treated on a United plane the CEO stoked fear. He did not appear to understand or to respond to the fact that relationships between United, its public, investors and actual and potential passengers were breaking down. His initial communication did not include an effective apology that would right these collapsing relationships. He did appreciate that passengers felt unsafe at the hands of United. Later attempts to correct the impression given were seen as too little and too late.

An example of a generally well-judged communication style that combined logic and emotional intelligence comes from Steve Jobs. Jobs appeared to completely understand the need to marry logos and pathos when sharing information with Apple’s market. His style was typically as calm, enthusiastic, and confident when launching high stake products as others might be in their living room. The author and Associate Professor of Management Garr Reynolds put it this way: “His style is conversational and his visuals are in perfect sync with his words. […] He is friendly, comfortable and confident (which makes others feel relaxed), and he exudes a level of passion and enthusiasm that is engaging without going over the top.” Sometimes this was no mean feat when the subject matter might have been a little dry!

In making the judgement call about the use of the hard data and the soft information, Blanes I Vidal and Moller (2007), call attention to the importance of the leader’s belief about the accuracy of the soft information available. When a leader strongly believes (and is self-confident about) her/his judgement about the available soft information she/he is more likely to share it and this, Vidal and Moller show, can increase the organisation’s surplus.

Conversely, Blanes I Vidal and Moller’s work suggests that information sharing can help to reduce the autocratic predisposition of self-confident leaders. Information sharing can help organisations to avoid overconfidence-driven courses of action. This happens because, when workers have access to information, for example about a possible merger, they are able to form opinions about its potential viability. Because this opinion affects their motivation, the leader can find themselves effectively constrained from pursuing courses of action that are unduly based on her/his ‘gut feeling’ or instincts.

This is not what is generally thought of when “the flow of honest feedback to the CEO” is being discussed but it can certainly be powerful.

References

Alkhafaji, A.F., 1997, Strategic Management: Formulation, Implementation and Control in a Dynamic Environment, New York: Haworth Press.

Blanes I Vidal, J., and M. Moller. 2007. “When Should Leaders Share Information with their Subordinates?” Journal of Economics and Management Strategy, 16, pp. 251-283.

“Post-truth”: Word Of The Year

The FT reports that Oxford Dictionaries has made “post-truth” its word of the year for 2016, citing a surge in the frequency of its use in the context of Britain’s EU referendum and the USA’s presidential election.

Dictionary compilers say that the word was probably first used in 1992 – though then it was used to mark the time when the truth was known – “post-truth” was the “after the truth was known” situation. In 2016 the word is coming to denote “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

Truth is a comprehensive term that, in most of its nuances, implies accuracy and honesty. Truth is also the currency of our analytical mind. A tension has however been created both through our frequent use of “truth” to refer to the idea of being authentic (or “true to oneself”) and the now widely accepted qualifications that truth may be subjective or objective, relative or absolute. Thus, “truth” involves both the quality of faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty, sincerity, and veracity and that of “agreement with fact or reality”. We are increasingly confronted by the living reality that an individual may be sincere – and yet wrong – at the same time.

Trust is, however, an emotive “currency” of the heart. In organisational life it may be part of the foundations for the individual’s faith or belief in a mission or the value of the common good. Trust has both a prior evidential aspect (in that it is developed over times past) and yet it is also closely associated with expectations about the future (particularly the behaviour of another person). It may deliver an accompanying feeling of confidence and security depending on the degree of trust and the extent of the associated risk.

Without truth and trust built into the gears of the organisation it may grind to a halt. There is much discussion about the individual leader’s and manager’s trustworthiness. This is sometimes fuelled by the results of employee engagement surveys and, of course, a trustworthy leader/manager is of great value. Yet it is also true that employees want to be able to trust the whole managerial system. They want to believe in the organisation as a result of the quality of its leadership, its consistent application of sound managerial practices and the equity of its people systems. This type of systemic trust arises when all managers use the same management framework and are held accountable to and act consistently within the values, systems and practices of the organisation. It does not therefore rely exclusively on personalities or on individuals, who may be here today and gone tomorrow.

Organisational action planning to address poor trust scores identified through an employee survey sometimes focus too narrowly on the behaviours of leaders and managers and may overlook organisational design and work processes. This is shortsighted because each of these impact on the working environment for all employees.

Effective organisational design engenders trust by creating the conditions where there can be work clarity and relationship clarity. This good design passes the test of being easily and consistently explained and understood. It fundamentally enables managers and staff to be clear about how work is organised and delivered.

Systems of work are the organisation’s policies, procedures, forms and information and communication technologies. They operate all day, every day. They never take holidays – unlike managers. Some work processes may rankle initially and require improvement but when they are sound, known and repeated employees will eventually get used to them and follow them. There is rare skill in designing and implementing light systems that reinforce legislation, policies and what is valued in the organisation and embed required behaviours in processes. Almost anyone can create a heavy system that wastes time, creates confusion and burns money!

The recurring challenge in volatile, uncertain and complex environments is to hold to truth, build trust, grow leadership and use effective organisational design and work systems to engender engagement.

Development Planning & Snakes

In this article we explore some factors that may help to explain why some people create and then actively work on development plans and others don’t! In the course of the discussion we will be looking at the role of snakes in shaping our understanding of the topic!

Generally, the aims of personal development planning are, first, to document a process of self-analysis, personal reflection and honest appraisal of strengths and weaknesses and then to help the individual to “take charge” of their own learning and development. The process of taking charge is usually encouraged through documenting a plan that typically lays out goals, timelines, interim achievements and the methods of goal achievement. 

Commonly a plan will outline areas of learning and development activity that are reasonably considered likely to enable the individual to either acquire new or develop existing skills and behavioural attributes. The end goal may, helpfully, be rather precisely identified and the whole process is often aiming at enhancing performance, addressing anticipated changes in a current role or laying out a developmental pathway towards a future role.

What is considered relevant content in the planning process – and the content of the plan itself – will clearly be influenced by the purpose to which the plan will be put. Development planning of this type is now, of course, widely used in educational, relationship, leadership and career contexts.

When the purpose of the plan is personal, an individual may want to retain to himself or herself the function of assessor of improvement or of regression. Where some validation of objective improvement is needed that will require assessment using standard criteria. These might include goals or benchmarks that define the end-points, strategies or plans for reaching goals, measurement, and assessment of progress, levels or stages that define milestones along a development path, and a feedback system to provide information on changes.

Much practice in this area has been influenced by psychologist Albert Bandura’s work – and here come the snakes! Bandura, investigating the fear and behaviours of people afraid of snakes, found that those who believed that the snake would not hurt them and/or that they would be able to manage the situation with the snake and to control their own rising fear would, in fact, succeed. This self-efficacy belief enabled the phobic individual to manage both their fear and their own behaviour.

According to Bandura, self-efficacy, or the individual’s belief in his or her own abilities to deal with various situations, can play a role not only in how people feel about themselves – but also whether or not an individual successfully achieves their goals in life. Indeed, since Bandura published his seminal 1977 paper, “Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change[i],” the subject has become one of the most studied topics in psychology.

But why has self-efficacy become such an important topic? As Bandura and other researchers have demonstrated, self-efficacy can have an impact on everything from psychological states to behaviour to motivation.

Bandura’s research on success in reaching goals suggested that self-efficacy best explains why people with the same level of knowledge and skills get very different results. According to Bandura this self-confidence functions as a powerful predictor of success because it enables those who have it to expect to succeed; it allows these people to take risks and set themselves challenging goals; it motivates them to keep trying if at first they don’t succeed, and, it helps them control emotions and fears when the going gets tough.

Coaches will be familiar with such people and also with those who lack this self-confidence. It is in the context of working with this second group that it can be helpful considering the four major sources of self-efficacy, according to Bandura. Each source provides an inventive coach with an indication of ways in which self-efficacy might be strengthened:

  1. Mastery Experiences

“The most effective way of developing a strong sense of efficacy is through mastery experiences,” Bandura explained. Performing a task successfully strengthens our sense of self-efficacy. However, failing to adequately deal with a task or challenge can undermine and weaken self-efficacy. Bandura’s perspective underlines the importance of providing clients with opportunities to practice in a “safe” and reasonably supportive environment and not necessarily “biting off” too much at the beginning of the development process.

  1. Social Modeling

Witnessing other people successfully completing a task is another important source of self-efficacy. According to Bandura, “Seeing people similar to oneself succeed by sustained effort raises observers’ beliefs that they too possess the capabilities to master comparable activities to succeed.” The key features of this observation relate, of course, to the phrases “similar to oneself” and “sustained effort”.

  1. Social Persuasion

Bandura also asserted that people could be persuaded to believe that they have the skills and capabilities to succeed. Consider a time when someone said something positive and encouraging that helped you achieve a goal. Getting verbal encouragement from others helps people overcome self-doubt and instead focus on giving their best effort to the task at hand. Whilst this is by no means universally true, it is my experience as a coach that many leaders rarely receive encouragement and that this, where appropriate, can be a very valuable coaching input.

  1. Psychological Responses

Our own responses and emotional reactions to situations also play an important role in self-efficacy. Moods, emotional states, physical reactions, and stress levels can all impact how a person feels about their personal abilities in a particular situation. A person who becomes extremely nervous before speaking in public may develop a weak sense of self-efficacy in these situations. The coach can serve to assist a client really understand particular situations through sensitive questioning and by helping their client to put a single experience into an appropriate context. Doing so can help the individual pay attention to the totality of their experience and prepare for subsequent opportunities in a more rounded and holistic way.

As Bandura notes “it is not the sheer intensity of emotional and physical reactions that is important but rather how they are perceived and interpreted.” A coach who helps to bring these perceptions to the surface and to understand what truly was happening on that prior occasion can facilitate invaluable learning for the next time.

[i] Bandura A. Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review. 1977; 84, 191-215.