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Written by Claire Collins on 1 June 2014 in Features

Claire Collins explores team coaching and its impact on collective leadership

As Warren Bennis once said, “The days when a single individual, however gifted, can solve all our problems are long gone”. In sport it is often about the team.  Think of the Irish rugby team and their level of pulling together, or Andy Murray with support from his coach, physiotherapist, nutritionist and psychologist. So why not in management?

Collective leadership

The traditional view of leadership, whether in communities or in the boardroom has been influenced by heroic models of leadership. We usually think of leadership as the characteristics, skills or behaviours of a single person in charge of an organisation who exerts influence over others to achieve their own goals or ambitions.

There has been a move for the best part of 10 years to shift away from embodying leadership in a single person, ‘the leader’, towards a more inclusive model of leadership through relationships and to regard it as a process. Peter Gronn, in the early 2000s described the problem with leadership theory to date is that it is broadly divided the concept into two camps, leaders and followers. Rather than this, he built on the theory of emergent leadership, and suggested that leadership can come forth from anywhere in the organisation based on skill, innovation, experience or proximity. Leadership which, because of a set of circumstances such as during major change, emerges outside the formal connotations of power based on organisational position.

Gronn, therefore, suggested that we view leadership as a more distributed capability.  This offers the idea of leadership distributed throughout teams and organisations and suggests that leadership capability is not only embodied in the senior leadership team, but is spread throughout all levels of the business.

The theoretical literature presents this broad notion of leadership distributed widely in the organisation in a number of ways; distributed, dispersed, institutional, co-created, collective, shared, multi-directional, co-leadership (duopoly) and rotated leadership.  Although there are subtle differences between these, they all emphasise the same fundamental point, that the understanding of leadership in 21st century organisations is no longer the domain of ‘the great man’. 

Of course this does not mean that all organisations have become pure and ideal democracies. There will inevitably be hierarchies and politics to navigate in exercising and demonstrating this leadership. In these situations, sometimes informal leadership emerges, where the person looked to by employees is not necessarily the person in charge, but another who demonstrates personal qualities which enable them to influence a situation from an indirect position of power. Imagine a situation where the senior person in a team is, though highly talented and innovative, an introvert. For the organisation to thrive, it may be necessary for someone more comfortable with dealing with multiple stakeholders in a more proactive and communicative way to step forward and take the reins of ‘selling’ the company to those stakeholders. The example that springs to mind here is Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. Watching Steve Ballmer strut onto a stage and rouse the workforce into a frenzy of motivation and exuberance is not something one would picture Bill Gates even attempting. They may well be thought of as a duopoly, or co-leaders with very different and equally important talents. 

In academia, there is often a healthy team leadership culture in place.  Individuals may belong to a number of different working groups, based on research teams, teaching cohorts, supervision panels, projects or committees. In this collective leadership scenario, leadership for each element may be possessed by any number of different people and those in the followership position in one group may be the leader in another. 

In these days of virtual working, collective or shared leadership can be evident where a team is spread geographically and the team leader is based in the headquarters or another location. In this scenario, multiple teams may again emerge. There may be a line management relationship to a leader, but this could be supplemented by a leader-follower relationship in the local office which attends to different needs of the employee. Indeed, that employee may be the local leader. In their recent book, Studying Leadership, Doris Schedlitzki and Gareth Edwards suggest that we should think about leadership from a multiple identity and multiple belonging perspective, and that we might consider distributed leadership in relation to space and place and these very virtual communities that are technologically mediated.

Leadership shared more widely can harness a blend of individual talents to form a cohesive, motivated and productive unit. Collective leadership should, therefore be embraced as having the potential to build strength, capacity and capability leading to better decision making and stronger performance.

Leadership teams

By bringing these talented and highly motivated individuals together to form leadership teams, accountability is shared and this creates synergy driven towards organisational performance and competitive advantage. These high performing teams emerge when all the relationships between the participants are working well, where each member can play their part according to their strengths and where goals and values are aligned. 

In order for these teams to function at their best, the participants need to achieve a high level of openness and purpose and a shared sense of collective action will result.  This achievement is dependent on individual members raising their self-awareness and clarifying their intentions, values, beliefs and worldview. It is then necessary for them to share this information with each other; listen, reflect and support each other in making meaning of their individual experiences which should lead to better mutual understanding. Through this process, openness and trust are fostered and the team members are able to share frustrations and aspirations in safety with each other.

From this follows organising, where teams with a shared sense of purpose develop and engage strategies for achieving objectives.  This requires decision-making processes and communication pathways to enable setting direction, allocation of resources, engaging the skills of others and executing plans.

Knowledge generation is also a highly valuable product of team leadership.  Peter Senge stresses this point, saying “Knowledge generation... primarily occurs in working teams.  Individual learning is a by-product of what goes on in really innovative teams”.  Leadership teams offer a highly effective way of organising complex work and provide the bridges between individuals and to the organisation. They provide an environment for sharing effort, reward and risk and provide a forum for community and shared attitudes.

Unfortunately, sometimes leadership teams break down or fail to harness their collective capability. This may be the failure of structure or process, poor communication, internal conflict or lack of purpose or commitment. In this situation, an intervention may be needed to bind the team back together and refresh their idea of shared purpose and ideals.

Why use coaching?

According to the CIPD’s 2011 survey ‘The Coaching Climate’ some 77 per cent of firms who responded reported that they were actively engaged in offering coaching.  Eighty-four per cent of these stated that they are using coaching more than they were two years previously and that the amount spent on coaching was growing. The majority of this coaching is for individuals either by externally engaged coaches or by internal coaches employed by the organisation. It is very difficult to measure the success of coaching, but there is widespread acceptance that, given a readiness for change and an appropriate learning style, individuals and organisations can reap significant benefits from utilising this developmental intervention. Some of the selling points of coaching are its bespoke nature, its forward-looking perspective and its concentration on functioning participants who have a growth mindset.

However, coaching can be costly and organisations are very careful in how they select and utilise coaches in order to maximise return. This can often mean that any coaching offered is concentrated at the higher levels of leadership in the organisation and is offered on an individual basis as part of a personal development plan or around a specific requirement.

Team coaching

Individual coaching is now widely accepted, but team coaching is less well understood, though the characteristics of each process are quite similar. There is plenty of evidence around these days to substantiate the theory that coaching develops leaders. Now new research is beginning to show very clearly that team coaching develops highly effective, collaborative leadership teams.

Team coaching facilitates the development of healthy and well-functioning relationships between team members and allows common understandings to be developed. This is built on a greater level of self- and mutual-awareness.  The quality of interaction between team members is enhanced and the inter-relationships are strengthened as a consequence. As a result, engagement, transparency and trust all rise within the team. All of this flows on to more efficient and effective decision-making, better communication, better innovation of ideas, more streamlined processes and synergy between departments to allow for collaboration and overall enhanced performance.

In 2010, Henley Business School, working in partnership with Lane 4, the performance development consultancy, conducted research on the spread of team coaching in organisations and what benefits it brings.

The survey showed that 51 per cent of organisations using coaching as a leadership development tool, use only one-to-one coaching; 45 per cent used a combination of one-to-one and team coaching and only 4 per cent used team coaching alone. There could be a number of reasons why team coaching is not yet as common as individual coaching. The role of the coach in team coaching is quite different and where the coach may also be a team member, this becomes more complex still, requiring management of complex relationships and much self-awareness to accomplish the task. Other reasons given included lack of readily available training and incomplete understanding of the benefits that team coaching can bring. There is also a lack of clarity between facilitation and team coaching and, sadly, a reluctance of some teams to be coached. The underuse of team coaching is seen as a serious weakness in the capability of managers at all levels.

Lane 4 noted that in top-level sport it is expected that the elite performer will receive feedback from a variety of sources and that there will often be a ‘frank exchange’ on how to do better.  This approach has been less common in organisations where explicit feedback, whether positive or developmental, is underutilised by most managers. 

What kind of issues can team coaching address?

Team coaching can be used in many different ways; in building a new leadership team and embedding a sense of common aims, aspirations and purpose, to addressing specific issues within a team in order to strengthen one aspect of their performance, or to act in remediation to identify and resolve problems that have arisen which are resulting in dysfunction of the team in some way.  When the lens is opened more widely, from coaching individuals to coaching teams the level of complexity, of course, increases. According to David Clutterbuck, a coach in this situation can enable the harnessing of intelligence and curiosity to help teams think through what is happening and why, to help them work through any issues and rebuild relationships that may have      become jaded.

One of the most common ways in which a coach works with a leadership team is to develop better communication, establishing or re-establishing open and honest dialogue between team members to facilitate more efficient and effective mutual understanding.  This may be partly fulfilled by undertaking some diagnostic tests, such as MBTI™, so that team members have a better understanding of the working preferences of their colleagues and can accommodate or embrace alternative views to get the best from each other. Team coaching promotes a social dialogue that helps to build rapport and avoid negative conflict as well as building positive challenge for better decision-making and outcomes.

The use of coaching within the team environment has the potential to be a multiplier of benefits compared with coaching individuals.  Not only does each individual member of the team benefit from the interaction, but collectively they bring about synergy to build a strong, united organisation which drives towards the same goals and minimises conflict and disruption. 

The coach may deploy techniques which are valid for individual coaching, or adapt them for the team environment. One of the hardest things to establish can be the topic of the coaching session and the objectives to be achieved. Where communication is functioning poorly, this may be a challenge, but through a number of exercises, an experienced coach should be able to generate some talking points and tease out some of the issues from there. By using techniques to tease out information from team members a good amount of material should emerge which will then give the coach some sense of direction in order to create a highly productive coaching space. 

It is now time for organisations to embrace team coaching as a potentially powerful tool for establishing collective leadership teams and encouraging them to find their shared goals and purpose.  The cost of engaging an experienced executive coach to work with a team for a period of time would surely be recovered many times over through more effective working, better engagement, lower stress levels, less conflict and, of course, better performance and productivity.

About the author

Dr Claire Collins is an executive coach and a member of academic faculty at Henley Business School, University of Reading. She can be contacted at


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