Case studies

Leadership development for teams – a strengths-based approach

The challenge

The client, a large Further Education college, had faced prolonged challenges, including severe financial difficulties and poor Ofsted ratings. A series of restructures had resulted in an entirely new top team of leadership. At the same time, many of the second team of managers were suffering from low morale and engagement, having experienced a great deal of change over their time with the organisation.


The senior leadership team was keen to shift the culture of the college away from one of “fear and compliance” to one of ownership and personal responsibility for change. They wanted to help the tier of management below them, most of whom had been with the college a long time and whose roles had evolved during the restructuring, develop into a team of leaders who could help move the college out of its negative past. Traditional ‘training’ in leadership competencies had been tried and deemed to be largely unsuccessful.

What needed to happen

The college needed an intervention that would re-energise and reengage its wider leadership team, and help them become aware of, and capitalise on, their unique strengths and experience as leaders.

What did we do?

The programme started with two half-day workshops, during which we facilitated an exploration of the college’s view of leadership and the changes its current managers wanted to make to their leadership styles and behaviours. Participants were then given a brief introduction the concept of a strengths-based approach to leadership development, and to Strengthscope™, the psychometric that would be used to generate individual strengths profiles incorporating 360 degree feedback. The workshop also introduced participants to the concept of coaching, and what to expect during the 1:1 coaching sessions they would be offered.

Following the workshops, each member of the team completed an online questionnaire, and identified up to eight colleagues who could provide feedback on their performance at work. This generated for each team member a report outlining their unique strengths as leaders, with suggestions as to how they could best capitalise and build on these.

In the autumn term, each member of the top two tiers of leadership received two 1:1 coaching sessions. Working with their coach in a neutral and confidential space, each manager came to understand what their unique strengths profile meant for them, and explored how they could further develop their strengths, address their performance risks, and use this awareness more effectively to address challenges they faced in their roles as leaders.

As one might expect, there were similarities in the challenges faced by this passionate, hard working and increasingly stretched group of professionals. These included:

  • an inability to find ways to work strategically, as ‘fighting fires’ had become the norm;
  • a tendency to feel swamped by the perceived support needs of their increasingly large numbers of direct reports;
  • a sense that they didn’t always communicate as effectively as they would like to with some members of their team or peer group;
  • a perception that they were not able to influence strategic decisions that affected their team.

But although the challenges faced were often similar, the insights gained through discussing them, and the self-generated solutions as to how best to address them, were unique to each individual. That is the beauty of coaching. It is the ultimate in ‘bespoke’ training!

Outcomes for the client

Many of those involved in the programme experienced significant ‘ah-ha’ moments during the coaching conversations. These included:

  • recognising what was going on in their own heads when meeting with some of their colleagues, and using this awareness to shift how they felt, and therefore behaved, in these contexts;
  • observing how particular situations would regularly ‘trigger’ them into unhelpful behaviours, and identifying how to develop alternative response patterns that would lead to more productive outcomes – for them and their team;
  • identifying ways more effectively to delegate and/or let go of non-crucial tasks, in order to free up time for the ‘important’ rather than ‘urgent’.

Beyond the outcomes gained by individuals engaged in the programme, the team as a whole benefited from the experience. They recognised the importance of the sorts of conversations that were taking place with their coaches and committed to finding ways to help each other to think constructively about the challenges they will continue to face going forward.

Leadership teams – facilitating transition

The client was the senior management team of a marketing agency that had recently been created by the merger of two sister companies. The team members (eight people) were busy getting on with the day job of pitching for, winning, and delivering on contracts, but at the same time were getting to grips with what their newly merged entity meant for them as individuals and as a team.

Using ICS Connect, a Jungian based psychometric, each team member became aware of their own and their colleagues’ working styles and communication preferences. Through this they developed a common lexicon of working styles, and a realisation of how they could support each other to ensure that all aspects of their different strengths were drawn upon as appropriate to lead the new agency.

An externally facilitated off-site workshop helped the team reflect candidly on any regrets they had about what they’d ‘lost’ from their previous agencies, their hopes and vision for the new entity, and to co-create a way of working together effectively as a team through and beyond the agency’s transition.  Each team member also had three one-to-one coaching sessions following the workshop, as the new systems were embedded.

As a result, the team members each said they felt much more able to work effectively and openly together, and that they were able confidently to communicate a unified agency vision to their own direct reports.

Team leadership

Neha works for UNICEF leading a team of technical specialists in one of their country offices. Prior to this she worked for several years at HQ in New York. Her team comprises 20 staff from eight different countries. Half of her team members are younger than Neha and have been working in the country office considerably longer than she has.

Neha has excellent academic credentials and rose to senior position in the technical area of her background. The staff she currently manages are each technical specialists in their own fields, which are mostly different from Neha’s own professional background.

Neha is by her own admission a strong and determined personality. She is passionate about the work UNICEF does and is driven to produce results, quickly. She is astute, quick off the mark, and respected for ability to think strategically and creatively.

When Neha came to me for coaching, she was proud of the way she and her current manager had fostered a strong relationship of mutual trust and respect. This had led to her being given increasingly more freedom to take her team in the direction she felt was necessary to improve the outcomes they are expected to deliver. However, she was not finding her own team members as easy to work with. She was often frustrated by the extent to which her team seemed to look to her for motivation to perform at the high standard she expected of them, and with the extent to which they came to her with problems she felt they ought to be able to solve on their own.  A 360 Report completed prior to our working together suggested that some of her team members felt disempowered by Neha’s communication style, expressing a sense that she was quick to overrule them and unwilling to listen to their ideas and expertise in areas they felt better qualified than she to pass judgment on.  Neha also had the sense that some of them found it difficult to be ‘told what to do’ by someone younger than them, especially those from countries where deference to the wisdom of one’s elders is expected.

As we worked together, Neha became more aware of the way her own beliefs about what it is to be a ‘leader’ were impacting negatively on the way she communicated with her team. Her need to be seen as ‘in charge’, especially on front of those more senior and of longer tenure than herself, led her to feel that to ask others for their suggestions would undermine her authority. It also meant that she often felt it was her duty to sort out other people’s problems for them.

When she examined how she felt in interactions with many of her staff, Neha found she was often behaving as the parent (either in a critical or protective sense) and that this left her team little choice but to respond in a ‘childlike’ manner. Becoming aware of this, and finding ways to stick to facts, acknowledge the gaps in her own knowledge, and communicate with her team on a more equal footing, transformed the way she felt about them, which in turn led to more productive relationships and easier delegation. At the end of our coaching relationship, Neha’s manager commented on the transformation she had observed in the way Neha’s team spoke of her and was holding the team up as an example of good practice in collective leadership.

Developing young talent

Sophie was a young and promising professional, working as junior consultant at an International Development Consultancy firm. Sophie was seen by her employer as being very able and competent, and yet seemingly lacking the self-belief to stretch herself to her full potential. Offered coaching by her employer, she came to me saying she wished to develop her self-esteem and self-awareness, and to enhance her ability to communicate clearly with herself and others about her competencies, aspirations, and expectations from others. We worked together for six coaching sessions over a four-month window. Sessions explored her ability to generate internal validation for her work rather than always seeking external validation, her ability to be more assertive in her interactions with others, and ways in which to more effectively manage her heavy workload to allow a more balanced home/working life. Some weeks after the coaching had finished, Sophie got in touch to thank me for the work we had done together and letting me know that she had just been appointed as the youngest member of the board!

New leader

Rachael had recently been promoted onto the senior leadership team of the environmental consultancy she had worked at for three years. She was the youngest member of the SLT by at least five years, and was also younger than all but two of her direct reports. While naturally outgoing, confident and competent at the technical area of her work, Rachael found she had low confidence in her ability to lead her team and a sense that she was an ‘imposter’ at senior leadership meetings.

At the beginning of our work together Rachael received a 360-degree report on her unique strengths and qualities as a leader (using Strengthscope™) This formed the basis of structured conversations in which she was able to recognise and acknowledge her own strengths and how they complemented those of others on the SLT. She was also able to identify how she could best capitalise on these strengths to develop her own unique leadership style.

Working for a family business

Rebecca is a member of the Senior Leadership Team in a small but growing family business. When we started working together she had recently been promoted to take on wider responsibilities and to manage new staff. She was feeling under-confident in her abilities to demonstrate the leadership qualities required of her new role, and to initiate the changes she felt needed implementing for the benefit of the business.

We discovered early on that some of her reticence and self-doubt came from the difficulty she had with separating out her professional identity from her personal one. She is the youngest in the family, and has always felt like the ‘baby’. Colleagues at work, some of whom were family members or friends of the family who’d known her since she was a child, used her nick-name at work and, she felt, didn’t take her seriously as a professional.

We worked together over a six-month period, meeting once a month for an hour and a half. Using structured conversations and exercises we worked to help Rebecca recognise the thinking that was impacting on her confidence, experiment with new ways of behaving and communicating at work, and in so doing to identify and capitalise on the strengths and resources available to her to become more confident and effective in her role. By the end of our work together she was routinely chairing monthly staff meetings, had developed with her managing director (older brother) a framework for structured weekly meetings, and had initiated changes in staff recruitment and induction processes.

Performance management

When Simon began to work with me he was facing a challenging relationship with one of his direct reports, whose performance had taken a nose-dive over the past six months. Simon expressed a mixture of exasperation at the amount of his time being taken up managing performance, confusion as to what had led to the decline, and concern for his colleague.

Through structured coaching conversations we explored Simon’s beliefs about his own responsibilities and capabilities as a leader. We also carried out some exercises that allowed Simon to see his own leadership style through the eyes of his colleague. Simon came to a growing awareness that some of his own insecurities about his capabilities could lead him to be over-controlling and unable to trust in the capabilities of his subordinates, something that was exacerbated by a belief that the poor performance of a team member reflected directly on his own capabilities. He also realised that he was taking full responsibility for the performance management of his staff member, feeling it would be unprofessional to bring his own line manager into the process.

Through the course of our work together Simon felt confident to let go of some of the sense of responsibility he had, with the result that he communicated more effectively both with his line manager and with his team member. The team member responded positively to being shown more trust, but also felt able to be more honest about the situation outside of work that was impacting on his performance. In the end, the team member did apply for a new job outside of the company, but his performance during his notice period was back up to standard.

Senior leader

Hugh is the CEO of a UK based charity. When he came to me he was feeling unsupported by his board, tired of the responsibilities facing him at work and at home, and questioning how to bring more joy and purpose into his life. Hugh invested in a series of six coaching sessions over four months. Conversations and exercises helped him to him re-connect with his core values, identify his strengths (both realised and unrealised), and identify ways in which he could do more of the work that energised him and draw on support to help him address the aspects of his job he found de-energising. He also identified ways to communicate more effectively with the Chair of his board, with the result that what had felt like a hostile relationship once again became one of supportive challenge.

Career direction

Sarah works as a self-employed consultant in the international development sector. She came to me wanting to spend time thinking strategically about where she was going with her business, and to develop an enjoyable career path that was sustainable over the long-term.

We worked together over the course of a year. Coaching sessions were primarily structured conversations, interspersed with exercises and homework to help Sarah think in different ways about what she wants from her career over the long term and how she can best act in a way that is true to her personality and working preferences.

By the end of our eight sessions Sarah found she had greater clarity on her career direction and much more confidence that she was on the right path and has the tools and insights to make it more structured and sustainable in terms of work/ life balance.  On the question of setting goals for herself as she moves forward in her business, Sarah said “I have got something which is more likely to gain traction with me because It feels like it’s coming from a much better place, a much less punitive… a more compassionate and more realistic place that acknowledges me for who I am.”