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Creating the climate for growth


With the economy returning to growth, the new leadership challenge for organisations is to create a motivational work environment that will attract and retain employees. David Whitaker says coaching can help.

Having survived the downturn, the last thing your organisation needs - as it gears up for growth - is for key employees to jump ship. To grasp the green shoots of recovery, you need to retain your best people but they’re the ones who are most able to take advantage of opportunities elsewhere. Whether or not they’ll stay depends to a large extent on the quality of leadership in your organisation, the environment your leaders create and the perceived opportunities available in-house.

The psychological contract (the perceptions of the employee and employer, of what their mutual obligations are towards each other) will shift as the external climate improves. During the downturn, employers have the upper hand, as employees are more focused on keeping their jobs. However as the environment improves, arguably the highest performers have the upper-hand as they become highly marketable. If you fail to re-engage people around their psychological contract, you risk losing your best people.
Coaching can play a significant role in helping leaders to re-engage with their staff, in a more meaningful way, and to build a renewed sense of commitment. Being coached can help leaders understand their impact on others, give them time and space to step back, reflect on their actions and respond to this new leadership challenge. Also, offering coaching support to their staff can help enhance relationships, reinforce the connection with the organisation and raise awareness of the opportunities available and how these might align to the needs of the individual as well as the organisation.

Here are ten considerations that every leader should reflect on:

1. Be realistic in what you expect from people

Employees may have worked long hours to get the organisation through the credit crunch. Don’t expect them to continue at this level in a growth stage. They need time to recuperate. You don’t know what they gave up, to get you through the downturn. They’ll want to know that their effort has been appreciated and that ‘future efforts’ are likely to be worthwhile. Expecting them to continue to perform at the same level can drive them out of the door. Just because you played football doggedly with 10 men, and survived the game, doesn’t mean the team should continue to play with 10 men in the next game!

2. Understand what engages people

Every reputable psychological study has shown that money is a very poor motivator. However, a reward system that is perceived as unfair or unjust is a massive demotivator. So first ensure you are scrupulously fair, open and honest and then consider the factors that have been shown to be key intrinsic motivators. People want interesting work that makes a difference, they want their contribution to be recognised and they want a promising future, work/life balance and the opportunity to grow. When you understand what people want from their employment, you can try to balance meeting their needs with meeting the needs of the business. If you can’t do this, they might look for someone else who can. 

3. Create the right environment

For an organisation to move successfully through recession to growth, there has to be a change in the ‘emotional state’ of employees - typically from one of fear, stress and anxiety to one of optimism, independence and entrepreneurialism where staff feel engaged and positive. Leaders have to recognise that they cannot truly motivate other people (the only person you can motivate is yourself) but a leader has a significant influence in creating an environment in which people can feel involved, inspired and supported.

4. Show you value individuals

Employees will only care about the organisation if they feel the organisation cares about them. We all need to sense that our work has value and that it makes a difference in some way. A wise leader will ensure that all key staff have someone who takes a real interest in their development and progress and makes the individual feel that they’re a key component in the business. The key leadership challenge in this area is not how you treat the group, but rather how you treat the individual. Everyone is an individual, and if employees see someone being treated badly, subconsciously they know that tomorrow it could be them!

5. Set the right example

If the organisation had to retrench in the downturn, the leaders may be drained and lacking in enthusiasm. It’s very difficult to motivate, support, praise, inspire and empathise with employees if you’re worn-out or jaded. But be careful. The mood of the leader cascades down to affect the rest of the organisation. Develop high self-awareness to know how you are feeling because if you want to inspire the people around you, you have to project confidence, high energy and a positive attitude but this has to come from an authentic place. People will sense any disconnect between what you project on the outside and how you truly feel on the inside. It is your responsibility and gift as leader to find a new vision that inspires and motivates you and which will inspire and motivate others. If you aren’t engaged, why should your staff be?

6. Use your emotional intelligence

Leaders have to understand that it matters how employees ‘experience their leadership’. Do you treat people as a valued resource or as a disposable commodity? What messages are you sending in your interactions with others? What impact are you having? An emotionally-intelligent leader has self-awareness, self-confidence (to be assertive and comfortable taking responsibility for their decisions), self-control, empathy, the ability (and willingness) to listen and an ability to sense what is really going on around them. By engaging with people in the right way, you can make a real difference to the culture of the organisation.

7. Provide an inspiring vision

Leaders should have an optimistic and inclusive vision of the future that they’re happy to be identified with and that they feel passionate about. In the downturn, the strategy may have been just to survive and people may have been ‘working away’ from a situation, for example working to stop the company failing. Now, a new strategy for growth will be needed that ‘works towards’ a goal that will engage the hearts and minds of employees.

8. Communicate openly and frequently

Leaders have to be honest in telling people what’s happening, good or bad. Trust is developed when you are open with people. Have the courage to speak it as it is but be empathic to how people are likely to receive the message. Be clear about the impression you want to leave and communicate in a way to ensure you achieve this. 

9. Ensure people have the necessary skills

Certain skills are needed in times of growth, such as marketing, business development, networking, time management and assertiveness. Employees may already have these skills but they may have lain dormant in the recession. Provide or refresh the necessary skills and give people the confidence to use them. Employees will feel frustrated and unfulfilled if they are not given the chance to utilise their skills.

10. Let go

In a downturn, leaders often go into survival mode. They become more ‘hands-on’ and they focus on the outputs (sales, profits, lower costs) and lose focus on key inputs (people) to ensure that the job gets done. As more opportunities present themselves, leaders need to empower and enable others to step up and take initiative. Instead of constantly checking up on people, set the principles, guidelines and boundaries for what’s needed and then challenge and support staff to achieve. This can be a real challenge for leaders. Part of the skill in creating a climate for high performance is being able to ‘let go’ at the right time. Bear in mind that high performance is the gift of the performer, not the demander. Let go and give others the chance to succeed.

By encouraging your leaders to reflect on these considerations, as part of a coaching framework, you can not only help them to improve their performance but you can also help to create a nurturing and supportive environment where employees will want to stay and give their best.

David Whitaker OBE is chairman of Performance Consultants, the executive coaching, leadership development and coach education specialist. He coached Great Britain’s Olympic gold medal-winning men’s hockey squad in 1988 and was the National Coaching Foundation’s Coach of the Year in 1985 and 1988. Author of three books, he can be contacted at or via

This article was developed in collaboration with Neil Twogood and Steve Knight, who are both partners art Performance Consultants.

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