Change Partner as Coach: A Crucial Role in Change Transformation

  |  March 20, 2019

The change partner role is a pivotal one in change transformation. A change partner is a person (often an HR professional) who is set up to support leaders in various ways as they attempt to effect change or oversee a transformation in a business. This person may come from within or outside of the organization and may or may not be formally appointed to the role. Regardless, there are four primary ways in which a good change partner helps an Alignment Leader® keep their organization on track during the complex and challenging process of organization change:

  1. Tools and processes: Change partners come to the table with tools and processes to help lead an organization through the transformation.
  2. Diagnostics: They are good diagnosticians, and can help leaders determine the best ways to effect change.
  3. Thought partnership: They act as a sounding board to enable the leader to bounce ideas around in a safe environment before introducing them to the organization; and
  4. Coaching: Change partners are able to anticipate what’s coming next and help guide the leader forward much as a tour guide charts the course for his or her charges.

In past articles, we’ve discussed change partnership from an overview level. Now, we’d like to delve a little deeper into the change partner’s role as a coach for change transformation leaders.

The Coaching Role in Change Partnership

There come moments when even the most experienced leaders hit uncomfortable moments, where the people they are leading question their decisions: “Are we really going to go through with this?” or, “You realize that affects my job, right?”  At times like these the leader is forced to decide whether to backpedal or go forward. A good change partner will anticipate these uncomfortable moments before they come up, and be prepared to help coach the leader through it in advance.

A few weeks ago I was doing some organization design work with a client. We were moving forward as if we were going to play it out, but the leader I was working with (I’ll call him John) kept saying to the group, “This is just a possibility, we haven’t decided anything yet.” Finally, at lunch time on one of the last days of our design sessions, I pulled him aside and said, “We’re getting to  the point where we have to shift the tone from ‘this is just a possibility’ to either ‘we’re going to do this and figure it out,’  or ‘this was just a fun exercise and we’re not going to pursue it.’

He agreed, and I said, “John, let’s think about how this is going to play out.” I told him that there would come a point where I would say, “The next step is to start to plan how we’re going to move forward with the next steps in the process.” I told him that at that point his team would look to him to confirm whether we would indeed be moving forward. I asked him, “How do you want to address that?” and he said he would reinforce to the group that they would be moving forward with the changes.

When the time came that is just what he did, and the project moved forward smoothly. But, if I had not sensed that moment coming, pulled him aside, talked to him about why it was an important moment, coached him through how to approach it, and made sure it happened in the session, we could have had a very unsatisfying ending to our design sessions as people walked away wondering “Is this really going to happen?” or “Are we going to do anything?”

Two Effective Coaching Techniques for Change Partners

There are two tactics that I have found to be particularly effective for change partners to use as coaching techniques.

The first is to use stories. In the example above, I could have simply told this leader what to do. Instead, I prefaced it with a story about a similar situation another client had gone through. The story was relevant, but it also had several layers to it: it showcased how another leader had handled a similar situation with her team, and it showed how another organization was able to get through a pivotal change moment. It helped generate ideas for different ways he might approach his own situation. Telling a story was a more nuanced way to coach, and I believe a more effective one because it empowered him with a better understanding of the situation and how he might choose to handle it.

A second tactic that I think is helpful is to ask thought-provoking questions. I used this tactic with him as well:  “John, what is your plan? How would you like to approach this issue?” Without putting him on the spot, these questions forced him to project ahead and plan how he would act when the pivotal moment arrived.

In playing the part of the coach, it’s important for the change partner to stay in the supportive role. Rather than just telling them what to do, find ways to empower them to make the decisions. Stories and questions help them choose what they think is the best alternative.

For example, the other day a couple of clients called me up before a big executive retreat. I thought at first that they were going to ask me what I was going to do in the session. Instead, they asked me to tell them what they should do once the session was over. Rather than giving them a direct answer, I asked a few questions and relayed a couple of stories and experiences. Then I asked, “now that we’ve discussed it, how are you feeling about this?” Putting it back on them helped them come to their own conclusions.

Why Coaching is Critical for Change Transformation

While coaching isn’t the only thing a good change partner does, it’s an essential part of the role. For instance, as John’s change partner in the first example above, I’d already fulfilled all three of the other aspects of change leadership – I’d provided him tools, helped to diagnose the situation, and was doing my best to be a thought leader in their design sessions. But, without that final aspect of helping him navigate what was coming next with his team, it could have all stalled out.  By asking good questions and relating appropriate stories and experiences, a change partner can help leaders make the best decisions to keep their organizations on track to successful change transformation.