The disruptive effect of readily available and affordable technology alone has opened up numerous opportunities that the current generation of leaders may never have imagined possible in their lifetimes. However, to a younger generation of leaders, these possibilities are merely the norm and the interconnectedness that technology affords is an intrinsic part of their lives. This enables them to view the world with fresh perspectives and allows them to engage globally however they want, whenever they want, and for whatever reasons they want. With an abundance of creative potential ahead of them, how can we prepare and equip the future generation of leaders to navigate this world of constant flux, uncertainty and opportunity?
Quintessential took on the challenge of equipping future leaders with the basic employability skills to navigate this world. We helped to design and deliver an innovative program at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) with support from Engineers Australia – College of Leadership & Management Queensland (EA-CLMQ).
Called Harnessing the Power of Teams, the program was designed to equip fourth-year construction engineers with leadership skills derived from solution-focused coaching methodology, which importantly sought to enhance their employability skills. Through a combination of interactive workshop learning, task-based activities, and ongoing coaching and development support, the program provided them with realistic experiences in developing people and teams, fostering collaboration, and being adaptable as the environment around them changed. It prepared them for the challenges that they will face when entering the workforce for the first time.
To demonstrate the power of coaching we had the engineers undertake a ‘design and build’ task. The task was based on the famous ‘Marshmallow Challenge’ where teams competed to build the tallest structure possible with nothing more than 20 spaghetti sticks, 1 metre of sticky tape and 1 metre of string. The team with the tallest structure would be the winner, providing that it could support the weight of the marshmallow when place on the very top.
We pitted the engineers against the teaching team consisting of organisational psychologists and research officers. There was one distinction: we coached the teaching team in the true sense of coaching, i.e., we were not allowed to offer solutions and we could only ask questions related to their thinking around the design and build process. After 20 minutes…success for the teaching team! As for the budding construction engineers…well, they gave it a good shot, but unfortunately their grand designs were unable to stand unaided and therefore failed the success criteria. It was, however, a profound way of demonstrating the power of coaching to the engineers.
When designing the program, we coupled the solutions- focused coaching approach with some basic principles of complexity in order to leverage the inherent benefits of team diversity, natural ways of working, and the phenomenon of small changes resulting in large effects:
- Diverse approach. In order properly to address complex problems, a repertoire of responses is required that is at least as diverse as the problems being faced. The Leaders-as-Coach facilitated the exploration and appreciation of the different points of view, thereby enabling the benefits of shared leadership to be realised. The students were taught that highly effective teams are rarely in unanimous agreement. They are, however, able to leverage the diversity of their views and construct pathways forward.
- Observe & Learn. This approach enables the formation and observation of evolving patterns with which to learn. Human systems such as teams are complex and, over time, ways of working are developed from the cumulative effect of the individual contributors. The Leaders-as-Coach fostered emergence by sharing, integrating and mobilising the diverse contributions of their team members, allowing them to learn, evaluate and adapt their way of working to the changing landscape. These outcomes are not attained through deliberate actions, but rather by creating an environment that cultivates a natural system of working.
- Small changes – big impacts. This is a powerful change lever. Small, well-placed changes can lead to large effects, creating ripples through the team and/or organisation (similar to the famous ‘butterfly effect’). The power of these small changes is often far more effective than large-scale change programs. Coaching works at the individual level. The Leaders- as-Coach challenged their coachees’ mindsets and belief systems. They discovered freedom from the assumptions that constrained them from fully utilising their talents, skills and experiences, and this opened up new possibilities and pathways that led to better opportunities.
Why coaching? Well, we knew that the essence of solution- focused coaching is in its power to identify and co-create a range of options to be explored with the coachee. We provided the fourth-year engineers with a leadership mindset of ‘encouraging others to create solutions’, which challenged the dominant engineering mindset of ‘creating solutions for others’. By asking powerful questions, we encouraged the coaches to invite the coachee into a dialogue of clarifying, discovery and action at a whole new level, which revealed a range of potential pathways that had been previously unrecognised and/or unexplored.
Follow initial pilots of this approach, the program has now been running for over 4 years at the QUT Science & Engineering faculty. Mentors from Engineers Australia regularly participate in the program, offering their guidance, knowledge and wisdom in helping develop employability skills.
The constructive nature of solution-focused coaching is derived from positive psychology. We adopted this approach with a view to overcoming the personal and professional challenges the coachee faces in everyday life by leveraging their values, strengths, virtues, talents and skills.
Coaching enabled this by:
- Exploring and appreciating the challenges we face from a variety of perspectives
- Creating an environment that allows solutions to emerge through discussion and discovery
- Appreciating when to take deliberate action and knowing when to allow a natural evolution of events to occur
- Leveraging small changes for a big impact through a process of co-creation.
What is really exciting and hopeful about the solutions- focused approach is the affirmation that transformative change can emerge from very small shifts in behaviour.