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Hand over the keys and let your novice leaders drive


Teaching people to drive in slippery and unpredictable conditions is a useful coaching analogy for improving the competence and confidence of would-be leaders, says Alan Ward.

As snow in the UK has resulted in schools being closed and offices being depleted of commuter workers, my Canadian friends have mocked our collective inability to cope in conditions that they find very ordinary. Unless you have been brought up to experience and expect icy driving surfaces, the world suddenly looks and feels like a very different place, requiring new and untried skills behind the wheel. How can novice drivers gain competence and confidence under such conditions?
Perhaps the first instinct of the more experienced driver is to be rescuer/protector – let me do the driving. This is one way to protect my precious car and cargo. It can also keep the novice ‘safe’ and play to the hero role many of us invent for ourselves. No one wants to risk handing over the keys at a time like this. If you take the wheel, you might show a novice that it is indeed possible to negotiate snow covered roads and you might even be able to demonstrate a few techniques.  However if the novice driver remains simply a passenger, he/she is unlikely to gain the necessary confidence or competence needed to be able to drive off unaccompanied into the great white yonder.
It strikes me how similar this is to the imposition of sudden change in the workplace. Especially non-negotiable change that has been forced upon us and relies on inexperienced employees to implement. It can feel very slippery and unpredictable in such circumstances. Are you tempted, whether as manager, coach or colleague, to tell them exactly how it is done or more simply just to do it for them? There are immediate rewards for this strategy, of course. Apart from rescuer/hero role-playing, it ensures things get done your way, quicker and more effectively. And most importantly, with less risk of things going wrong and blame being showered around.
I was recently coaching a client with just such a dilemma. The organisation has grown rapidly, requiring competent managers to step up to leadership roles in the new structure. My CEO client diligently called meetings with his top team and their top teams, fronting presentations and scripting messages for the troops, personally dealing with objections and resistance from the shopfloor. He wanted it all to be perfect, believing that this was the one chance to get everybody on board and aligned. How could he possibly leave the newly promoted to cope? Exploring this behaviour in our coaching sessions, it became apparent that he was driven by fear of failure and an overwhelming sense of responsibility: who would get hurt if it all went wrong and whose fault would that be?
We discussed the benefits and disadvantages of this approach, including an analysis of the real risk factors. His ‘do-it-yourself strategy’ had no more guarantee of success than delegating might have done and it clearly did little to raise competence and confidence among the would-be leadership team. Reality struck when I challenged him to describe the desired leadership role, the timescale he had in mind and likelihood of this being achieved. Unless they are to be permanent passengers, he has to let them do the driving at some stage! Besides, he could drive only one vehicle at a time when six were needed.
Of course you wouldn’t choose to send a novice driver along narrow alpine passes pulling a caravan in the snow. So, how can you hand over the keys to your shiny new car (business/product/client) and guarantee the desired outcomes without so much as a scratch? Take a deep breath because the answer is … you can’t. At least not without creating such close control, a protective bubble or another inhibitor that removes all autonomy from the driver. What you can do is implement a strategy for learning that increases competence and confidence to the point that they can operate independently within certain risk limits. For example:
  • Identify a relatively safe environment. E.g. if they are an experienced driver but unfamiliar with snow/ice driving, consider professional skid pan training.
  • Allow competence to grow through raising awareness. E.g. what do you notice when you accelerate / brake / steer sharply?
  • Create a test environment to rehearse. E.g. how to react/recover from a skid or slide.
  • Provide support and encouragement.  E.g. sit alongside them on early drives but refrain from commenting unless to raise awareness, especially by asking questions.
This analogy worked well for the CEO. These are the steps he now uses with his managers/leaders. Safe environment in small groups, awareness raising by reviewing after the event, rehearsing key points and message beforehand. Support and encouragement now takes less time as the new leaders are more confident to perform their role. The CEO acknowledges that there might be some bumps and scratches along the way but at least significant progress is now being made across the organisation, which is moving forward cautiously but with confidence in multiple directions.

So, what’s it to be? Will you hog the wheel or hand over the keys?

Alan Ward is a director of Performance Consultants, the coaching and leadership development specialist which runs university-backed coach education programmes accredited by the European Mentoring and Coaching Council. He also chairs TrainingZone’s Coaching Discussion Group, a network of coaches and managers who coach and train managers who employ specialists. The group is a forum for questions and debate on all aspects of coaching, including qualifications, supervision, marketing, coaching methods and building a coaching business.

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