Using 360° to get a 180° turnaround

Once upon a time

(Actually, in January 2002) I arrived at a new job as a director of commercial activity to find the three teams assigned to me were seriously under-performing. I'm keeping the name of the organisation confidential, and the individual staff members unnamed - to protect the guilty as well as the innocent, as you will see!

What I found when I crossed the threshold was not a pretty picture. Dogged by years of "benign neglect", the 35 staff in three teams felt under-valued and detached from the rest of the organisation. Temporary staff filled a number of posts, morale was low and there was anxiety about what my "new broom" would bring.

To help them realise that I was part of the solution rather than a problem, I first turned to a 360-feedback process to help the staff understand the challenges facing them. When the results came back, it was clear that coaching would be crucial to raising performance - but I recognised my own weaknesses in this area. I used another 360 process to get valuable feedback on my obvious skills deficit. I then enlisted external support to help me become the kind of coach that would be needed to deliver the change programme.

Like all good stories, this one has its twists and turns. Just eighteen months later, we measured how far the teams had improved, and also reassessed my coaching skills, too. The good news is that team performance has improved, and my competence at coaching also showed a clear improvement. Perhaps more important, some of the team managers have absorbed the lessons and are now embracing the coaching style in their work with their teams. But will we all live happily ever after? Read on....

What did we do?

The first step was to get a shared understanding of just how the teams were working as units. Rather than make a subjective judgment, I wanted them to do their own diagnosis of what the problems were. The prevailing hierarchical culture made it difficult for staff to feel comfortable with communicating upwards their concerns. The teams had suffered in the past from being told what to do rather than coming up with their own solutions, so I was convinced that it would be important to get them actively engaged in solving their own problems.

Two months after I arrived, I asked all the staff in the three teams to complete a teamindex360© survey - an online confidential questionnaire. This asked them to assess how well they thought the teams were working in terms of four broad headings - purpose, resources, systems, and relationships by responding to 72 positive statements using a rating scale of 1 to 7, 7 being the most positive.

The results were stark - and quite different between the three teams.

In the case of Team A, the responses were very positive; this was clearly a well-managed and happy group. In the middle was Team B that had some clear strengths, but also a number of weaknesses. At the other end of the scale, Team C was clearly dysfunctional, with major issues about how they were being led, their working practices, and the degree to which staff felt valued and respected.

Coaching the managers

The differences between the teams' performance were also mirrored in the difference between the managers leading them. Let me introduce them to you.

Team A - the perfectionist manager- wields a "red pen", expecting perfection from her two team leaders and always chasing up the little details. Her days were spent fighting fires and solving niggles, micro managing and making sure that everything was delivered to the highest possible standards. She didn't trust her two team leaders to deliver without being chased and harried. The team leaders acquiesced and relied on her to solve their problems for them. The manager was becoming bored and negative, however, as she saw the team leaders not being able to "do their jobs" and meet her high standards. A "beloved" team leader had recently left to take on a bigger post elsewhere, and she was having trouble with his replacement, whose "laid back" style clearly irritated her. Her second team leader was reluctant to take on any new challenges, sure that she would not live up to the manager's high expectations.

Team B - the new manager- had come out of under another's wing to take on a managerial role, but then been landed with two of the biggest "problem children" to manage. Both of her team leaders were older than she was and confrontational- one was disorganized and emotional, the other lacked the self-awareness to know the difference between professionalism and bullying. While both were reasonably competent at their jobs, the new manager had to help them recognise their own failings and motivate them to address the problems. The new manager clearly worried that her lack of experience would undermine her authority and credibility with the "deadly duo", whose tempers were renowned throughout the organisation.

Team C - the reluctant manager- was a competent technician who had been with the organisation for years, and eventually had been appointed to manage a unit - without possessing any real commitment to (or aptitude for) managing. When pushed, the manager would confess "I'm just an accountant; I don't really understand all this management stuff". For years, he had relied on a team leader to handle all the "HR stuff", leaving him to work with figures. This team leader, however, would be eligible for retirement within eighteen months. Deeply analytical and uncommunicative, the reluctant manager saw me, the new director, as a potentially dangerous and threatening animal.

Getting buy in

Feeding the results back, I helped each team realise that a "one size fits all" approach would not work. Each team had to come to terms with their own diagnosis, and agree their own solutions, which would be appropriate for them but not the others.

By using the teamindex360©, I made it clear to staff that I was not "sitting in judgment" upon them and their performance. The results showed their own assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. Because it had been collected confidentially, the feedback provided an honest assessment - warts and all. Particularly for Team C, it was important for the whole team to accept just how dysfunctional they were. The feedback made it clear what the challenges were for each team, and from there it was easy to facilitate action planning. The action plans were the teams' own solutions - not a set of instructions imposed from above. This gave the teams more self-respect and autonomy. Rather than "doing what they were told", they had to agree the steps and then go about delivering. This helped to break the hierarchical culture, and instill an active commitment to the change process.

The change programme

In my view, the actions needed were clear - for Team A, a "light touch" would be all that was necessary, and greater encouragement of the team manager's delegation, allowing staff to develop. For Team B, some restructuring would be needed; greater clarification of roles, improvements to working practices, and greater recognition of their contribution to the whole organisation would be necessary. Fortunately for me, the teams came to similar conclusions themselves and put in action plans on how to get from where they were to where they wanted to be.

In Team C's case, while they agreed with the diagnosis of the problems, finding solutions was harder. Drastic remedies were needed, so I led a root and branch restructuring, with new job descriptions, new working procedures, and new systems - as well as the early retirement of the team leader who had been shielding the reluctant manager from his staff management responsibilities. A formal assessment process took place in the context of the new positions, and several of the positions that had been held by temporary staff were "regularised", and permanent appointments made with new joiners who did not share the legacy of the past. The key challenge here was to engage the reluctant manager in that change programme and get him to lead it - or at least not sabotage it.

My coaching challenge

The teamindex360 exercise had shown me just how different the teams and the managers running them were. If I were to make progress with them, I would have to flex my style considerably away from my preferred method of operating. I'm what Belbin calls the classic "shaper", and I was worried that I had neither the patience nor the coaching skills to help others work through the problems themselves. My normal style is to "fix" problems - assess the situation, devise a solution and then tell the client exactly what to do. I had little experience of actually delivering over time through other people. My normal style would only exacerbate the problems, but finding new ways of working would be tough for me.

To help the teams and their managers understand that I wanted to do things differently from the prevailing culture, I asked my direct reports to complete a coachingindex360© feedback appraisal. This asked them to assess my strengths and weaknesses when it came to coaching them into better performance. For most of them, coaching was not something they had experienced before from anyone, least of all a director. In the hierarchy, directors had directed, rather than facilitated. I was aware that all too easily the team managers would look to me to take the decisions and tell them what to do. Coaching would be working against the grain.

The results of the appraisal were interesting. I was all too aware of my own weaknesses - and perhaps harder on myself than the team leaders were. That said the areas I needed to focus on and the questions I needed to ask myself were:

  1. Do I spend enough time coaching? Am I enthusiastic about coaching? Does this come across to others? What more could I do to encourage learning and experimentation?
  2. There was clearly a need to spend more time planning and preparing. Do I put time aside specifically for this, even if only a short period? Agreeing roles, learning contracts and objectives with coachees should be a specific part of my sessions.
  3. Do I need support in thinking through and planning scenarios, which my coachees can use to practice their skills? How could I provide coachees with learning opportunities?
  4. Am I using appropriate influencing skills with each of my coachees, varying my approach for different coachees? How do I identify what is the best influencing style?
  5. My coachees would like me to be more ‘available at a distance' for coaching and advice. Do I make it part of my normal routine to keep in touch with my coachees and discuss matters with them informally? What could I do to make this happen more effectively?

I was relieved to discover that the managers were willing to be more positive about my strengths than critical of my weaknesses, but I knew that I would need help if I was to become the coach that they needed. Feeding back the results in a series of one-to-ones, I tried to get commitment from the managers to a programme of coaching meetings. The goal was to agree with each an explicit "coaching contract".

What happened next?

In fact, each of the three managers reacted differently to the coaching opportunity. The manager of Team C was hesitant - either because coaching was simply too alien a relationship, or because there was a lack of trust. Admitting that you need coaching can be seen as a confession of weakness in front of a superior, and being coached can be daunting when there are line management issues. Unfortunately, however, there were no other trained coaches to whom that team manger could turn as an alternative, so we agreed to carry on "as best we could" without a formal coaching relationship which he had interpreted as threatening. Building trust would be more important than formal procedures. Being an accountant by profession and deeply analytical and reserved in his communication style, he did not immediately warm to my expressive, humorous approach to issues, so a softly, softly approach was needed. He felt more comfortable in a line management relationship, so through it I attempted to offer some coaching.

Team A's perfectionist manager accepted the contract - and agreed to work on her delegation skills in principle. Tensions remained high however, as her reluctance to let go of the detail turned most coaching sessions into "nitpicking" and complaints about the failures of her team leaders to deliver to her standards of expectation. I would need a hefty dose of tact and diplomacy - as well as bags of patience! In her case, I had to keep the coaching relationship and my line management relationship entirely separate. Her attention to detail meant that if we talked about tasks, we never got around to the "people issues" even though these lay at the heart of her inability to let go from the hierarchical structures that were driving her mad.

Team B's new manager welcomed the coaching contract, and asked for it to focus on handling difficult people. The coaching relationship started well - mostly because there was mutual respect and a compatibility of communication styles. We quickly found that formal meetings were not needed, as day to day contact kept the issues alive and allowed us to respond when particular situations arose. The line management relationship itself became a coaching relationship.

Getting help

The above makes it sound easy - but in fact I needed help to make it happen. The coachingindex360 made me realise that I would have to have my own coach, if I was to be able to coach three such different people. So, I turned to an external consultant with considerable experience. Regular monthly conversations with this coach covered issues like flexing my communication styles and influencing approach to those more comfortable in the analytical than expressive modes. This helped me deal with the managers of Team A and C. I received advice about giving constructive feedback, and worked on my listening skills, and tried to pass these onto the Team B manager. Telephone contact with my coach between the formal sessions gave me support when particular situations arose, or coaching opportunities emerged that I needed advice about. Having the external coach also reminded me of the need to keep up with the programme of coaching meetings with the three managers, rather than slipping back into a task oriented performance management mode. Above all else, having to update an outsider on progress made between meetings meant that I was reminded to make that progress!

Applying the lessons

The coaching sessions with Team A's perfectionist manager focused on how she could loosen the reins, allowing others to make their own mistakes and learn from them. While our styles were very different, we did find that the coaching relationship was actually easier and more comfortable than our line management relationship. As coach, I had to help her see how flexing her communication style could yield results with her "laid back" team leader, and how easing up on the red pen mentality would help her hesitant team leader gain more confidence. We held regular monthly one to ones that were devoted to coaching. Part of the challenge was to help her become more aware of her own communication style and preferred working approach - and why this had led to frustration with her two team leaders.

I also managed to make monthly meetings with the new manager in Team B, and helped her work through some of the more difficult performance issues with her two problem team leaders. My role as coach was to act as a sounding board, and help her to recognize the obvious improvements occurring in the performance of at least one of the two. This helped build her confidence and supported her through several of the performance appraisal processes that were new to her.

With Team C's manager, more regular interventions were needed. I instituted regular fortnightly one-to-one meetings, which were not described as coaching, but in fact addressed many of the issues. I had to work hard to soften my usual ebullient style. He admitted later that he was convinced I "was out to get him" at the start, and it did take some time to help him see that this was not my objective. After several months of a "dialogue of the deaf", we started to find a common vocabulary. We worked together to address some of the issues in the team, and I helped him with some of the more "managerial" issues, providing support, guidance and encouragement - and above all else, I made it clear that I was not going to let the change programme get bogged down. No change was not an option, and eventually he realised that he would be better off leading it than trying to avoid it. Faced with the inevitability of change (and reminded about it every fortnight) the reluctant manager decided to swim with the tide. He was required to attend the same management development courses that all the other heads of function were taking - and some of these improved his skills and his confidence as a manager. He would never be a "natural", but he would do what was necessary to address the issues. He became more supportive and motivated, as a result- and real progress was made.

Seeing the results

After a year of working in this coaching mode with the three managers, I believed intuitively that real progress had been made. An all staff attitude survey for the whole organisation gave some comfort that we were headed in the right direction. This survey assessed the degree of team commitment and alignment with the organisation's goals. From being dismissed as an "organisational backwater" before my arrival, the three teams now outperformed every other team in the organisation. Whilst others in the organisation were surprised by the turnaround, they did not necessarily link it to the different style of my management and coaching - or, at least, not enough to want to emulate it themselves.

I knew that hard evidence would be needed if the rest of the organisation were to be convinced that coaching was the key to better performance. So I re-ran both the 360 processes in February 2004 to see whether progress could be measured against the previous benchmarks.

The evidence was clear.

The teamindex360© results showed an increase in all the key areas with a +7.5% overall improvement.

In Team A where I had highlighted the need for the manager to show more encouragement and delegate, allowing the staff to develop, this indicator showed +17% improvement.

In Team B the weaknesses I had highlighted showed clear improvement:

Greater clarification of roles+32%
Improvements to working practices+20%
Greater recognition to their contribution to the organisation+17%

In Team C there was an overall improvement of 30%, and a staggering +127% improvement in the response to the statement "the team is well led". Other significant improvements were in:

Regular meetings to review progress+95%
The workload is balanced across the team+87%

On my coaching, the evidence of improvement was also there.

I had improved significantly in every one of the indicators. My coach was delighted with the results and it bolstered my confidence in my coaching skills. The biggest improvements in performance were in:

  • Enthusiastically spends significant time coaching
  • Encourages constant learning and experimentation; tolerates well-intentioned mistakes
  • Agrees roles and learning 'contract' with the coachee
  • Jointly agrees challenging but achievable objectives for each session
  • Provides support to the coachee during their development
  • Adapts influencing style to each coachee
  • Is available 'at a distance' for coaching and advice - has frequent 'reviews' between sessions

These were the areas where my scores were generally lowest in December 2002. The feedback proved that the coaching I had received was paying off, improving my performance in my weakest areas.

Keeping it alive

All good tales need a twist - and this one is no exception. Just before the surveys were conducted, the Chief Executive announced a major organisational re-structuring. Two of the six divisions were to be abolished - and my division of three teams was one of the casualties. Two of the three teams would be transferred to another directorate three months after the survey was conducted, and one would remain under my direct authority for another nine months before being moved to an as yet un-named directorate. The departure of a coach can have a serious effect on team performance, particularly when there is no clear replacement to take up the coaching role. Other directors had not embraced coaching, and, in a survey of management skills across the organisation, the staff had scored coaching as the lowest of sixty separate competencies!

And will they all live happily ever after?

The test of coaching is whether skills transfer to the coachee. Ideally, one trains and supports the coachee to the point where they can be self-sustaining. Will the one year coaching experiment at this organisation be enough to ensure that the three team managers carry on with the lessons after I leave?

The prognosis is like the teams themselves - very different. For Team A, the benefits are already evident, as the perfectionist manager has accepted an internal secondment for six months. She now has the confidence to trust her team leaders to manage themselves with the minimum of direction. Her "red pen" mentality has been replaced by confident delegation, and a coaching relationship that helps them learn from their mistakes. Even after the transfer of the team to a new directorate, that manager has kept in touch with me - and carried on with the coaching relationship now made easier that there is no line management link.

For Team C, the coaching experiment is likely to be only a temporary blip. Now back in a hierarchical structure, the reluctant manager is reverting to old habits, and team meetings are a rarity. Some of the initiative and team spirit has already dissipated. One member of staff has departed, and several others are frustrated. Without regular reinforcement from the manager, it is likely that the team will not maintain the forward momentum. The director now in charge of the team is not coaching the reluctant manager, but rather giving orders in a hierarchical relationship. Having experienced a "better way", the team may be even more resistant and demoralised.

For Team B, the new manager has gone from strength to strength. Her own team members have given informal but very positive feedback to me about her skills development, and the performance of the two team leaders she manages is also improving. Her ambition for management is now tempered by a realization that it is not easy, but there is also a growing confidence in her own abilities to do it. In the likely re-structuring that will occur when I depart, I have every confidence that she will do well as her management reach is extended to more staff. Coaching plays an important part in her management style, and I am encouraging her to use the coachingindex360 process herself with her direct reports so she will carry on the good work.

The moral of the story

Few, if any, of the improvements would have been likely without the 360 processes, and it may well prove to be the reason why the improvements last beyond my departure. Because the teamindex360 results came from the teams themselves, rather than from me, they owned the results. The coachingindex360 results helped the managers recognise what they needed from their coach to deliver those solutions - again, independent of me. They can now seek that support from elsewhere in the organisation.

If there is a caveat to this "happy ever after", it is that the organisation will have to find ways to support their need for coaching. Clearly, the 360-feedback process had demonstrated that coaching can be the catalyst for improving team performance, but if you want the benefits to last, it needs be supported by the organisation as a whole. Team players who are well coached can go on to become good coaches themselves - but only if the organisation encourages them to do so. In the end, it's all down to the culture of the organisation and leadership from the top.

For further information on this Case Study and the index360 feedback process please contact: Valerie Heritage, The Communication Challenge Ltd on 0116 259 6896 or email her at: or visit website:

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