How to build a better multi-agency leadership team through group coaching

First posted on LinkedIn June 7, 2016

Last week, I was working with a multi-agency leadership team comprising local government, health, police, private and third sector partners.  They are grappling with some particularly acerbic social issues; those so-called ‘wicked’ problems that defy linear, planned change and disregard ordinary leadership techniques.

Strategic focus

This group seeks strategic alignment across multiple agencies each with its own agenda.  They want to agree ways of integrated working and to shift their collective mindset to build their understanding of a very complex issue.  The fledgling team are building the capability to deal with it across organisational boundaries and, most importantly of all, they want to build trust to lead a borough of several hundred thousand citizens towards a brighter future.  They are operating at the cutting edge of societal leadership.

Group coaching

Colleagues and I have offered several coaching sessions.  We commenced with exploring how the members of the group would work together and quickly, possibly too quickly, moved into detailed action planning.  As coaches, we noticed how the group all too readily opted to work on a detailed, task focused agenda; one which was probably too ‘safe’.

Thankfully, we recognised and surfaced what we had observed and challenged the group to occupy a more strategic place; one of challenge and support; one of leading complexity.  Our coachees then started to experience a sense of togetherness.  At last week’s session, the fifth in the series, agreed no less than 27 individual actions focused on what they want to achieve, how they are going to progress them and how they will build trusting relationships between themselves.

Breakthrough performance

I have seen this group grow through the forming-storming-norming-performing stages of Bruce Tuckman’s famous teamwork theory (Tuckman, BW, 1965, Developmental Sequence in Small Groups, Psychological Bulletin 63, pp384-399) in a matter of weeks.

This I believe vindicates the approach the coaches took in the early days of focusing on the ‘how’, resisting moving into tasks until the group was ready.  It also goes to show the importance of a group coach whose presence is at once essential to the group’s development and is also irrelevant to the group’s purpose.  This is because (s)he is but one who facilitates the discussion.

Undisciplined problems disrespect conventional leadership development.  Group coaching is far from conventional and I believe offers a disciplined focus that is most appropriate to such wicked issues.

Jeremy J Lewis


I am both absolutely essential and totally irrelevant

First posted on LinkedIn May 19, 2016

Tomorrow I am facilitating an Action Learning Set for a group of managers and senior managers who are in the middle of a partnering skills developmental programme.  They will have been practising partnering techniques they have learned.  They are coming to share their progress and blockers, and help each other build confidence in their new skills.

What is action learning?

Action learning is a process by which participants study their own actions and experiences in order to improve their skills and performance.  This is done in conjunction with others in small groups called Action Learning Sets.

Research has shown that action learning develops real-world wisdom rather than traditional educational processes that tend to focus purely on knowledge.  It is particularly suited to leadership and management development in organisations.  This is because participants are working on real problems in the real world that affect real people, rather than solving individual puzzles (such as developing budgets on spreadsheets).

Both learning approaches require taking action, reflecting on that action and making practical changes to the actions to be taken next time to improve performance.  However, action learning in groups propels the individual further and faster in the real world.  This is because their peers are helping them see the results of their actions on other people.

The role of the facilitator

And as facilitator of this process, my role is to intervene as little as possible, so that the participants do as much of the work as possible.  I will hold the space on behalf of the group so they can focus on helping each other.  I will ensure ground rules are observed and I will manage the process of the session.

Arguably, I am totally irrelevant to the group, who are quite capable of running this for themselves.  Equally I am absolutely essential… my presence will create the right conditions for the group to maximise their learning.

If I do my job well, they will hardly notice me, they will feel confident they can run the next session themselves, and then my continued presence will be totally irrelevant…

I will know my presence was absolutely essential.


Jeremy J Lewis


Three tips to give effective performance improvement feedback

First posted on LinkedIn April 15, 2016

Let’s start by busting a commonly held myth.  Here is how NOT to give effective performance improvement feedback:

  1. Butter them up – find some platitudes or feedback on what is going well
  2. Give the ’difficult’ message
  3. Say “But…” and then reinforce the positives.

Let me be clear… this method of ‘sandwiching’ developmental feedback between two piece of good news DOES NOT WORK!

In a study at the University of Chicago, behavioural science professor Ayelet Fishbach conducted a simulation in which one half of a class gave negative feedback to the other half.  The half receiving feedback thought they were doing great.

Why did they walk away with a positive impression of their performance when the students giving feedback set out to let their them know that their performance was unsatisfactory?

“Negative feedback is often buried and not very specific,” according to Fishbach.

According to Kurt Lewin in his seminal work undertaken in the 1940s, effecting change is like an ice cube: you unfreeze it, change its shape, then re-freeze it to lock in the change.  Change guru Ed Schein suggests there are three critical components to the unfreezing process:

  1. Disconfirm worldview
  2. Create a level of guilt or anxiety
  3. Provide a psychological safety net.

As an example, one of my team members failed to deliver a report on time and even when I followed this up with her, it was subsequently not written to the required quality.  I looked her in the eye and explained clearly and succinctly what the likely outcomes would be.  I reinforced it was her responsibility to ensure those outcomes were positive (step 1).  After a little resistance and further discussion, I could see in her eyes that she understood and felt responsible.  She was for sure a little guilty at having let me (and herself) down (Step 2).  I closed by offering her my support by way of a review of the report before it was finalised (Step 3).

So, when it comes to giving difficult performance management messages, remember Ed Schein’s advice.  Here’s some tips from me:

Step 1: Disconfirm worldview
  • Do you have the authority and leverage to be able to tell people their current performance is below par, that it is not meeting its objectives and that change is needed?
  • Have you instilled a clear view of the outcome (i.e. changed behaviour) that is sought, and over what time-frames?
Step 2: Create a level of guilt or anxiety
  • In disconfirming the worldview, are you able to pierce through the person’s current perception of themselves that has created a defence against criticism and locked them into their current behaviour?
  • Doing this demonstrates there is guilt and anxiety through the feedback you have given, and crucially that this anxiety is located around the specific area of behaviour that is problematic.
Step 3: Provide psychological safety net
  • How can you offer support to the other person so that they feel safe in working on changing their behaviour?
  • What do they need from you in order to be able to work on it?
  • Be explicit about how you will both work on this together and check progress together within the agreed overall timeframe for change.


Jeremy J Lewis


A two-step programme to give yourself time to #JustBe

First posted on LinkedIn March 16, 2016

Busy, busy, busy

It strikes me that we fill our lives with stuff to do: reports to write, meetings to attend, emails to send, phone calls to make, presentations to prepare, endless lists of things to do…  And when we’re not at work, there’s endless lists of things to do too: our fitness regimes to maintain, our food to cook, our homes to clean, our children to drop off, our children to pick up, other people’s children to pick up, …

We allow ourselves to self-persecute; we allow our diaries persecute us; we allow our to-do lists persecute us.  I know people who love making to-do lists.  Their to-do lists even include “Get up” and, “Have breakfast” so that they can tick them off with a sense of achievement.  This I fear is a step too far.  You know it’s really gone too far when you start off a new to-do list with the item, “See other to-do list”.

Striving for efficiency

And even when you know this self-persecutory doing behaviour has gone too far, the only solutions out there appear to be aimed at doing things more efficiently: Smart Phone Apps that get you organised so you can do more, books that help you create an efficiency programme so you can do more, methods to take control of your email inbox so you can do even more…

I remember one of those personal efficiency type training courses I attended as a junior manager many years ago; we were shown how to categorise tasks into three types: ‘A’ tasks – those that our performance was measured against, ‘C’ tasks – those that were just stuff that came across our desks and ‘B tasks, which covered pretty much everything in between.  Then we were told that personal efficiency sprang from scheduling ‘A’ tasks into our diaries.  Who knew?  A colleague and I were paired up at the end of the course to keep in touch and check in with each other to see how we were getting on with scheduling ‘A’ tasks into our demanding work schedules.  So, I rang him a few weeks later to inquire into his progress.  “I’m far too busy to start with all that crap,” he replied.

We become victims entirely of our own making.

Finding time to #JustBe

What if you could find a way to balance all this doing with more of the being we need to rediscover ourselves.  It is said we are human beings after all, not human doings.  What if you could find the time to #JustBe.  Then you might just discover your life’s purpose, your Dharma.  This requires us to reject being a victim and to choose being vulnerable instead.  To choose our own potency over self-persecution.

And this starts with giving yourself permission to #JustBe.  There is a time to do and a time to be.  I like to think of each day as having three parts – a morning, an afternoon and an evening.  That’s 21 parts to a week.  Many of us are contracted to work for 10 of those, that’s less than half.  In reality, many of us are conditioned into working a lot more of them.

Step 1: Make a list of the things that help you #JustBe.  My list includes go for a walk, take a bath, play music.  Then schedule some #JustBe time in your diary.  Your diary will still be full of things to do, but now there’ll also be space to be too.

Step 2: Here’s the biggie.  Clear your diary.  I dare you.  Just thinking about doing it can be scary, vulnerable.  Liberating, isn’t it?  Your diary becomes an ocean of space to #JustBe.  You now have the choice to schedule in some things to do.  A choice.  All life is a choice.

Choose wisely.


Jeremy J Lewis


Three things The West Wing taught us about passion and resilience

First posted on LinkedIn March 11, 2016

I had the great privilege of working with a health sector client this week, where I will be facilitating a learning programme in business partnering skills for a newly formed professional finance team.  This was a launch event and the Finance Director, as sponsor of the programme, addressed the participants.  He spoke from the heart about what he’s looking for from his team, using series one of The West Wing as inspiration.

I have never seen The West Wing, however I am aware of Aaron Sorkin’s work through the films A Few Good Men and The Social Network, and the wonderful TV series The Newsroom.

Spoiler Alert: Series one of The West Wing is set mostly in the White House as newly elected Democrat President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) goes about running the world’s most influential superpower (the series was aired before 9-11).  There are a ton of political and personal issues to deal with and the series ends in an assassination attempt.

What does this have to do with finance, business partnering and developing great teams?

1. A clear sense of purpose

In The White House, the President hand picks his team.  This is everyone’s personal, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do good.  Furthermore, the presidential team may only be together for four years, eight maximum.  In the show, they throw themselves in 100 mph.  Unlike some politicians – our speaker noted the series would not work in the UK as nobody would believe our PM cold be a hero –  Bartlet frames the team’s purpose as not to get re-elected at any cost, but rather to do good.  To set the direction they want to go and then to lead them on that path.  It is journey-based leadership rather than a destination-based goal

2. 100% commitment

This is about delivering on your promises.  There is a scene where it is getting late, near to midnight, and an aide has not prepared a brief that was promised ‘today’.  When challenged, he replies, “The day’s not over yet”.  Only if you deliver what you agree to deliver will you have the authority to advise and to influence others.  It requires 100% commitment.  It’s about being credible and reliable.

3. Challenge is crucial

You can imagine the behaviours that sometimes ensue in the pressure cooker environment of high Politics.  This is somewhat true for any workplace environment where power and politics play a significant role.  In The West Wing there is no animosity, however there is high challenge between senior leaders such as The Chief of Staff and the President.  In fact, Bartlet welcomes challenge to the point of hiring a Republican to bring challenge ‘up stream’ into the policy setting debates.  It’s business, it’s not personal, or as a colleague of mine often says, “Be tough on the issues and gentle on the people”.

And all of this is done with team members showing the utmost respect and support for each other.

So there it is – create passion and great teamwork through clarity of purpose, demanding 100% commitment and creating a climate of high challenge and support.  Easy to say, harder to do.  My goals for this team’s learning and development are clear, and we can work with that.

In The West Wing these three things went a long way to developing and inspiring the team, and helped to build the resilience the team needed in the face of everything the job threw at them, even bullets.

And as President Bartlet’s personal aide reflects later, “If they’re shooting at you, you know you’re doing something right.”

Jeremy J Lewis


When did this journey truly begin?

First posted on LinkedIn March 2, 2016

There’s an old folk tale of a tourist visiting a monastery, where he was greeted by an ageing monk and invited in for tea.  While the old man prepared the tea, the tourist asked about the monk’s humble lifestyle – a simple bed, chairs and a table, a few books and a prayer mat, a basic cooker and no fridge.  “How do you manage to live like this?” asked the visitor. “No telephone, only a few clothes and no radio, let alone a TV or computer?”

The old man replied with a question of his own. “Where are your possessions?”

“Oh, I’m travelling”, the man responded.  “I’m just passing through.”

“We are all just passing through,” replied the monk.

I chose to spend much of the day today walking and reflecting.  With my partner by my side, I trekked through the moorland near my home, setting down some fresh tracks in the snow.  We had an idea of where we were heading, but the snow obscured the footpaths and we took several wrong turns as we passed through the glorious Yorkshire countryside.  We eventually descended the moor, found a pub for some lunch and later took a train back home again.

I feel blessed to be able to take a day out every now and again and just be.  Pause.  Reflect. Are we following our own path or someone else’s?  When did this journey truly begin?

And so it seems there are no such things as wrong turns, only paths we never thought we’d take.  And in the end, we’re all just passing through.

Jeremy J Lewis