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Systemic Coaching as a Leadership Approach

Leadership and culture drive every transformation. An organization will not accept structural or process changes without being open and ready for such changes, said Matthias Gebhardt at Agile Leadership Day 2019; the way to go with a transformation is to transform your leaders first.

Gebhardt described how they implemented systemic coaching as a leadership approach at Swiss RE:

I asked all of our line managers what their preference would be. As we looked at shared leadership with different roles, we had choices. Some managers wanted to move into people coaching, some felt more driven by product ownership and others by Scrum mastership. It is great to have choices, so we then also asked our team members to select their coaches themselves as we felt personal relationships matter to have a trusted coach/coachee system.

Twelve people of Asset Management IT’s former extended management team assumed the role of a coach in the new operating model. Future coaches were identified within the extended MT based on their aspired career path.

Employees were given the opportunity to express their preference of coach in their location. This process ensured a good working relationship and an open culture going forward, Gebhardt said. The previous line manager and coach organize the handover of information and responsibilities.

The main changes were:

  • The role of the traditional line manager moves from decision-making and delegating activities towards personal coaching and empowerment.
  • Systemic coaching takes the complexity of people and their context into account. It aims to reduce complexity in order for the coachee to understand more about her/himself.
  • A coach and his/her coachees are co-located to enable a trustworthy and transparent relationship.
  • A coach will support 5-10 people, which will take up to 50% of his/her time, such that additional roles in the agile organization can be assumed.
  • All future coaches participated in a multi-module systemic coaching training.

Gebhardt stated that culture and leadership are in the center of organizational transformation. These elements should be looked at from a holistic, systems perspective, trying to transform culture without looking at impediments from existing structures, and processes that will kill that change.

InfoQ interviewed Matthias Gebhardt, head asset management IT at Swiss Re, after his talk at Agile Leadership Day 2019.

InfoQ: What’s a first step that can be taken to move in the direction of agile leadership?

Matthias Gebhardt: The first step for me is to look at yourself. Learn your strengths and what impact they have on yourself and your relationships. Reflect on your insights and learn who you want to be. Then start a never-ending journey ;)

A simple way to move in the direction of agile leadership is to take inventory of your to-do list & evaluate it for items you are doing personally, leading others to get it done, or coaching others to take over additional responsibility or build competency.

InfoQ: How do the agile operating models around self-empowered teams at Swiss Re look?

Gebhardt: Swiss Re does not have one model for the entire company. We look at the different business architectures and ideate around how agility would fit the different systems.

In Asset Management IT we have simply copied the Spotify model as a starting point, as we know that we don’t know better. We did align it to our needs, however. We felt that a hierarchy-less model would empower our teams more, so we experimented with having systemic coaches instead of line managers. This enabled a shared leadership approach that tried to balance different perspectives within our organization.

InfoQ: How does the agile reward system look and what benefits does it bring?

Gebhardt: Quite frankly, we don’t have the answer yet. We are still experimenting moving from individual performance to team performance as well as adding elements of peer-to-peer recognition. Specifically giving our team members the opportunity to reward and recognize their peer’s performance seems to be fun and engaging.

InfoQ: What’s your advice for organizations that want to adopt agile leadership?

Gebhardt: I am not a fan of advice. That is the difference for me between coaching and mentoring.

You need to learn and experience (experiment) yourself to find out what works and what doesn’t work. I prefer to only listen and ask questions to coach organizations through a transformation.

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