How to make yourself suitable for coaching

I recently wrote a column on the coaching style of leadership, and today I return to my favourite current topic by looking at what it takes to be “coaching ready.”

Ironically it is often those most in need of such help that are least likely to want it or to benefit from it. Such people, for whatever reason, are simply not suitable candidates for coaching.

It may be that they suffer from excessive yet misplaced confidence, as they go through life with an “I’m OK, You’re not OK” mindset. It could stem from a sense of such gnawing insecurity – a deep down “I’m not OK” ego state – that they couldn’t handle their inadequacies being revealed to a coach. Or it could simply be that they have reached their peak and that therefore they and those around them must simply live with them as they are.

So leaving aside the uncoachables, how can we assess someone’s openness to benefit from linking up with a coach? The first challenge is that everyone is simply so busy these days that making time for it is far from easy. Even many who get going with a coach and find they are enjoying major benefits can fade out just due to being swamped with work.

Sometimes it takes a crisis to stimulate the demand for help, or perhaps a looming opportunity that risks being missed. Either way, are you up for confronting what you need to be doing more of and less of to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be? Are you relaxed and confident enough to learn and to grow, to expand your comfort zone?

Vital to the process is being completely open with your coach, not hiding any awkward truths that could impede how you benefit from your relationship with them. Equally necessary is following up time spent with the coach by putting into practice what you have committed to doing – including not allowing yourself to succumb to having “got too busy”, or to lacking the courage to have a go.

It is by experimenting boldly and by mitigating downside risks through behaving with emotional intelligence that you will reap the benefits of being stimulated into action by a coach. Doing so will allow you to celebrate breakthrough successes with them; to mourn together over initiatives that fell flat; and with the latter to regroup and relaunch.

Now let me move to the organisational level. For even if an individual is coaching-ready, if the leadership of the organisation is not then coaching is unlikely to deliver on its potential. I cannot stress strongly enough the need for those in board and senior management positions not only to be the sponsors and champions of coaching but also to consider engaging coaches themselves. After all, it’s for good reason that people say “it’s lonely at the top”, with no one with whom to share one’s inner hopes and fears, one’s aspirations and preferences.

For leaders to embrace a coaching culture they must first believe in the need and the possibility of developing their people. This in turn requires that employees are trusted and empowered, and that they are engaged and ambitious, innovative and responsive. It also supposes that coaching is but a component in a learning and development strategy; that rewards and recognition come through merit; and that those selected for coaching are neither merely the stars nor just the underperformers.

Next, does your organisation do well with its performance management? Most do not, and in particular they suffer from ineffective appraisal systems and inadequately thought through performance indicators – including in relation to the effectiveness of development initiatives such as coaching.

So time and effort devoted to coaching will be infinitely more effective in the context of robust performance management environments. Not to mention that coaching can play an important role in nurturing exactly such cultures.

My parting shot is that more so in the fast-paced relentless contemporary world we must step back and find time to reflect – at both the individual and the organisational levels. And there’s no one better placed with whom to indulge in such exploration than a coach.

Meeting Kenya’s great potential in agriculture

We keep hearing that young Kenyans just aren’t attracted to farming, and that the average age of a farmer here is 60. For years too, we’ve been worrying about the fragmentation of land into smaller and smaller plots, and about the absence of collaboration between farmers so they can benefit from economies of scale. We witness the deep conservatism of many of them, as they merely emulate their predecessors.

Also, given the widespread dispersal of our small-scale farmers it’s been hard to bring them together into a strong national members’ organisation, or even to form local sustainable cooperatives. Marketing boards for different crops have more likely fleeced than nurtured farmers in their sub-sectors, and our agricultural research institutes have been insufficiently demand focused. Never mind that the research bodies haven’t been working closely enough with either the universities or the national or county governments. Let’s not even talk about sectors such as sugar and maize and coffee, and how and why producers of these crops have suffered so badly.

But having said all this, there are many sources of optimism for agriculture. And not just because food sustainability is one of the Jubilee Government’s Big Four agenda. One only has to scan the Saturday agriculture supplements in our dailies to see how much exciting knowledge is being shared, and everywhere I go these days I hear about ambitious yet realistic ways of transforming this sector – where before, unless we were talking about horticulture or dairy, we’d be hard pressed to come up with such enthusiasm.

Just in the last few weeks I was told by one professional about his high-productivity onion farming that’s going to scale in Laikipia; by another of an equally impressive initiative in Tana River with sorghum; and by my good friend Florence Wambugu, the CEO of Africa Harvest, about their successes in spreading sustainable new approaches to small-scale agriculture. Important too are large private sector players in agribusiness such as Bidco, Nestlé, Unilever and East African Breweries, who stimulate healthy demand from farmers and help them deliver consistent quality; and those who offer inputs, such as Elgon, Bayer and Amiran.

Then there’s so much happening with technology support for transforming agricultural productivity, including with Safaricom’s knowledge-sharing DigiFarm platform and APA’s one for insurance; through GODAN (Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition), that helps farmers make use of digital information; and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, based in Nairobi.

The Kenya Private Sector Alliance(Kepsa)’s Agriculture Board is a very lively one, and numerous other sub-sector boards feed into it; we benefit from the Society of Crop Agribusiness Advisors of Kenya (SOCAA) that promotes professionalism in agribusiness; and several development partners are working hard to support our farmers too, typically in helping with the strengthening of supply chains.

One interesting new initiative I have been supporting is hosted within GIZ’s Agriculture Programme, which focuses on stimulating employment opportunities in agri-business for youth in rural areas of western Kenya by strengthening selected value chains. Last week I moderated an event that brought together private sector players to share what they could contribute to support existing youth groups active in farming so that they become exemplars for self-motivated and self-reliant profit-generators who understand whole value chains, from market demand backwards to high productivity production.

There are so many organisations offering help to farmers, not least to young people, so they can build their capacity, link up with others and access everything from inputs to technology to finance to markets, while others work on creating an enabling environment.

There’s no shortage of passionate missionaries reaching out all over Kenya to show our youth how to make a very viable career in agriculture through sound ways of increasing their revenues and reducing their costs.

Now what’s left is for us to see more youthful role models who can demonstrate their success as farmers as they go to scale, and so attract others to join them. For this to happen we must continue to bring together those who are contributing ideas and resources so that there is synergy between them and sustainability for the beneficiaries.

While the agriculture cup’s nowhere near full, at least it’s begun to fill much faster than before.

Why coaching is the best style of leadership

In the last few weeks I have paid several visits to Western Kenya, and in different ways they all revolved around the topic of leadership. I spent time with members of the County Delivery Units in the lake region; with a group of DTB bankers based in western Kenya; with staff of the Kisumu branches of Davis & Shirtliff and of Occidental Insurance; and with the faculty of KCA University’s Kisumu campus, and in each case I was helping them handle the non-technical challenges they face in their work.

Whether they were technocrats or bankers, whether they were offering pumps or insurance policies, or as academics, they were all leaders, responsible for influencing how those around them performed. The county officials drove service delivery on behalf of their governors; the bankers and the others in their branches had to see their office colleagues work smoothly together and serve their customers well; and the faculty members’ lives were dedicated to developing their students to do well in the workplace.

At the core of each engagement, in one as a consultant for the World Bank, with one as a faculty member of the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications, and with others as a director of the respective organisations, I had the participants explore ways of aligning the energy of those around them to pursue common goals so that desired outcomes were achieved. That, after all, is what leadership is about.

In each case we spent time examining how to communicate in ways that influence their colleagues and customers positively, including by developing their emotional intelligence and their negotiating skills. They learned how to overcome undue resistance to change; build consensus to apply common approaches; and reduce the wasting of time and energy that comes from indulging in profitless conflict.

The word that captures the essence of the style I apply is “coaching”. And the “coaching mindset” that underpins it involves developing trust and hence strong relationships, through for instance asking more than telling, and encouraging rather than criticising.

The mission those with whom I interacted were challenged to adopt was to become champions of such a “coaching culture”. So that not only do they apply the coaching mindset in the way they operate but to nurture it in others too. For it is through the spread of the coaching style of leadership that an organisation can be uplifted.

We have had enough of the Big Man, know-it-all approach to leading. It may deliver results in the short run, and it may well be necessary in times of crisis. But generally speaking it is more likely to inhibit through the fear on which it relies, suppressing creativity and innovation, and making it much harder to orchestrate succession.

By contrast, a coaching culture promotes candid and respectful conversations among staff that foster reflection, self-awareness and empowerment.

It integrates coaching approaches into the everyday mindsets and interactions across functions and between all levels. Where a coaching culture is present, feedback is valued as a form of ongoing development, conversations are engaging, solutions are collaborative, and mistakes are viewed as opportunities to learn.

The whole concept of coaching is still in its infancy in Kenya, and not least in the public sector. Indeed I have yet to come across any government entity where a budget exists for funding coaching programmes. And what a shame that is, as so many leaders – in government at least as much as elsewhere – could benefit greatly from working with a coach to transform their effectiveness.

So I issue this plea to all our leaders and to those responsible for leadership development: please consider introducing coaching as a normal part of learning and growth. Think deeply about developing a coaching mindset as a central characteristic of leadership, and this within a broader coaching culture.

Before concluding this column I wish to pay tribute to Nick Muriuki, whom I first got to know fifty years ago when he worked with my father in London with Shell, and who passed away a few days ago. He was a true role model for great leadership, filled with humility and humour and always willing to share his great wisdom.