Backbone And Heart

Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart

Coach and author Mary Beth O’Neill describes in her book, Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart: A Systems Approach to Engaging Leaders with Their Challenges, a coaching engagement “is a continual dance of balancing backbone and heart,” requiring coaches to speak not only with kindness, but also truthfully and courageously.

The Balancing Act

Bringing both backbone (honesty and accountability) and heart (compassion) is not always comfortable.  Most people fall on one side of the polarity or the other. For some, the natural emphasis is on compassion, leading to soft-hearted communication that may leave the toughest and truest things unsaid, to the detriment of the other person.  For others, “telling it like it is” may seem more important than communicating with care for the other person. And they may leave a trail of hurt feelings in the wake of their conversations.

In coaching, navigating these polarities means practicing finding the most effective and authentic ways to demonstrate compassionate and courageous communication.  Sometimes coaches avoid the “backbone” side of coaching for fear of “triggering” a client to feel defensive or ashamed.  Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst on whose work the Myers-Briggs personality assessment is based, described these defenses as emanating from the shadow or unconscious part of the self. Clients themselves may be surprised at the strong reactions or shame responses that exploring certain areas in coaching may evoke. But seasoned coaches know that when a client is “stuck” or consistently not following through on a commitment that they felt was important, there is often something deeper and more important to explore together.  

A Collaborative Approach

Coaching is a collaboration in which coaches serve as both cheerleaders and accountability partners while holding the view of their clients as resilient and whole, not as damaged souls needing to be fixed. Good coaches will ask powerful and seemingly simple questions that help clients get to the heart of their issues and allow them to choose effective actions.

When a coach’s approach brings both backbone and heart, clients feel respected, engaged and trusted to find their own solutions.  This frees coaches from the desire to rescue their clients. And, when coached with compassion, leaders experience a model of communication that can help them learn to bring that same balance to other areas of their leadership and lives.

A summary of the book’s content

Backbone and heart is a great metaphor! Backbone refers to one’s ability (and willingness) to state one’s position, whether popular or not. Heart refers to one’s ability (and willingness) to stay in relationship and to reach out to other people even when in conflict. Backbone and Heart work together.

Each of us has a dominant area (backbone or heart). We are more comfortable with one than with the other. As executive coaches, we’ve got to do both and do both well. Our job as coaches is also to help an executive track his own ability to show both backbone and heart. There is much to learn about both backbone and heart in this major book, written by one of the leaders of the Executive Coaching field.

Mary Beth O’Neill sets the stage for her insightful analysis of the executive coaching process by declaring: “leaders hold a special position in the landscape of change.” She defines executive coaching as “helping leaders get unstuck from their dilemmas and assisting them to transfer their learning into results for the organization to turn the leader toward his team.”

O’Neill suggests that coaches bring a trained, yet natural curiosity of a journalist or anthropologist to the leader’s work situation. They also share conceptual frameworks, images and metaphors with executives and encourage rigor in how leaders organize their thinking, visioning, planning and expectations.

In adding to this list, O’Neill suggests that executive coaches should challenge executives to their own competence or learning edge and should help build the leader’s capacity to manage their own anxiety in tough situations. Effectively being comfortable with being uncomfortable and “stretching the boundaries”.

Building on her years of experience as an organizational consultant and executive coach, Mary Beth O’Neill suggests that executives (top and upper levels in organization: CEO, VP, Exec Director, plant manager) inevitably must perform three functions:

  1. Communicate the territory (vision, purpose, goals and outline opportunities and challenges).
  2. Build relationships and facilitate interactions (leading to outstanding team performance).
  3. Produce results and outcomes — more through others’ efforts.

In our definition of change leadership, we talk about articulating the vision clearly and effectively, creating the environment conducive to performance and leading them to the new reality. This basically implies that we lead people to motivate themselves into a high performing team.

She suggests that an executive coach can use these three functional areas as a checklist that enables the coach to determine the leader’s ability in each of these areas and to determine the amount of attention that should be given to each area. According to O’Neill, executive coaching becomes a process for increasing a leader’s skill and effectiveness in these three functional areas.

Mary Beth O’Neill’s background in organization development (OD) is evident in two additional ways. First, she seems to be borrowing from the OD literature in her description of the processes that are engaged by executive coaching.

She proposed that executive coaching is a four-stage process:

(1) contracting, (agreeing outcomes)

(2) planning, (designing the future and how to get there)

(3) live action intervention (taking action and managing the process) and

(4) debriefing. (feedback)

One of the other ways in which O’Neill utilizes the OD literature is somewhat unique in the literature on executive coaching.

O’Neill places great emphasis on a systems perspective regarding the functioning of executives. She urges executive coaches not to focus too narrowly on the personal challenges being faced by their clients. Executive coaches should instead stay focused on the fundamental processes operating throughout the organization. This form of systems theory is effectively treating the organisation as a complex, interrelated organism, a concept which is articulated in other autors’ writing as well (for example Peter R Scholtes’ “The Leadership Handbook”).

As a coach, O’Neill keeps an eye on the system of a leader and the individuals and groups in the midsize spheres around that leader. Why? Because leaders naturally look outward and with a future perspective.

O’Neill suggests that skills at the midsize spheres are underdeveloped. Coaches can help leaders see their role in this mid sphere and can help them adapt their way of interacting in this mid-sphere.

She suggests that those executives who are operating at the very top of the organization must attend to both the mid-and upper spheres of their organization. They must truly be systemic thinkers and actors.

This suggests additional challenges for these men and women. The top-level executives must be responsive to the needs of stockholders or partner ownership. They must also be concerned with issues associated with succession, organizational loyalty, strategic alliances, and their organization’s positioning in the marketplace.

With these additional demands, the senior executives are faced with yet another situation that ultimately is even more challenging – loneliness — they can’t (or won’t) ask for help. O’Neill’s impression is that the biggest difference in coaching between top and mid-level executives concerns the nature of the communication between coach and client. She suggests that one must be more direct and blunt with those at the top. The executive coach must be more bottom-line oriented with these high-level executives and must get to the point sooner. Here, we also need to consider the executive’s personality and communication preferences.

Regardless of the level at which one is coaching, there are four essential ingredients in O’Neill’s model of executive coaching.

  1. First, one must have a results orientation to a leader’s problem. (outcomes based)
  2. Second, the coaching relationship should be established as a partnership: the coach and client stand side by side as they unravel dilemmas. The coach inquires, stimulates and challenges executive to perform at an optimal level. (peer to peer relationship)
  3. Third, an executive coach should engage their executive client in an in-depth exploration of the specific leadership challenges that the executive faces. The coach should help his client identify hurdles and the forces that pulls him off course. The coach helps his client see his impact on others. O’Neill evokes the image of a boater creating wake in water and not looking back to see what impact the waves have had on the lake. (boat metaphor)
  4. Fourth, O’Neill suggests that an executive coach should help his client link the behavior and performance of his team to specific goals and help his client set specific expectations for team. It is in this interface between leader and team that O’Neill makes his most important and unique contribution to the field of organizational coaching. (this is pure performance management, correctly applied and relates to the organisational and operational aspects of the business)

Three core principles guide Mary Beth O’Neill’s analysis of effective executive coach­ing.

First, an executive coach must bring his own, unique signature presence to coaching. We can identify this signature presence when we ask ourselves three fundamental, (and penetrating) questions as coaches:

  1. “Why am I doing this?”
  2. “Is it truly good for the client?”
  3. “Am I only trying to lower my own stress?”

These are three remarkable questions that each of us as coaches should ask ourselves frequently.

O’Neill goes beyond just suggesting that we must identify our signature pres­ence. She proposes that this presence is itself a major tool of intervention. When “present” the executive coach is authentic, integrated and engaged in carefully crafted (rather than cookie cutter) techniques.

When a coach is present, his val­ues, passion, creativity, emotions, discerning judgement, and resourcefulness are available to his client. By identifying our signature presence, we as coaches are better able to tolerate the ambiguity of any coaching relationship, as well as the daunting challenges, and associated anxiety, disapproval and stress of our client (as well as our own anxiety, disapproval and stress).

The “present” coach is a true partner with his client. Coaching relationship must be built on trust. Trust, in turn, is built on the ability mutually to get and receive feedback, to learn from one another’s experiences, and to be present.

Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart is written in a very informative and accessible manner. Each chapter ends with a synopsis of key information; and has cases and stories — making the con­ceptual information real.

O’Neill’s style is to “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them.”

O’Neill’s format and accessible writing style lends itself to that practice of being a teacher and coach at different times.  The coach can share concepts with them and de-mystify the process of coaching.

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