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CoachWorks International, Inc.

Conferences where you can hear Smith and Sandstrom speak

Linkage Inc.’s Coaching and Mentoring Conference. April 30-May 3, 2001 (Arlington, Virginia)

Coaching 2001: Worldwide Coach Training Conference. June 28-31, 2001 (Kona Hawaii)

Wonderful Books

The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization T. L. Friedman. (Anchor Books, 2000)

The Leader of the Future: New Visions, Strategies, and Practices for the Next Era. F. Hesselbein, M. Goldsmith (editors), R. Beckhard, P. F. Drucker (Jossey-Bass, 1997)

Visionary Leadership: Creating a Compelling Sense of Direction for Your Organization. B. Nanus (Jossey-Bass, 1995)

Results-Based Leadership. D. Ulrich, J. Zenger, N. Smallwood (HBSP, 1999)

Now, Discover Your Strengths. M. Buckingham, D. O. Clifton (Free Press, 2001)

Coaching for Leadership: How the World's Greatest Coaches Help Leaders Learn. M. Goldsmith, L. Lyons, A. Freas (editors). (Jossey-Bass, 2000)

Legacy Leadership: The 5 Best Practices. L. Smith, G. Ritcheske, J. Sandstrom (CWI Press, 1999)

Professional Foundations for Masterful Coaches: Expanding the Ordinary to Achieve the Extraordinary. L. Smith, J. Sandstrom (CWI Press, 1999)

Great Articles

Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve.” Jim Collins, Harvard Business Review, January 2001.

“Executive Leader Coaching as a Strategic Activity,” by Lee Smith, Ph.D. and Jeannine Sandstrom, Ed.D. Strategy and Leadership, Fall 1999.

White Paper: “Summary Findings from the International Executive Coaching Summit: A Collaborative Effort to Distinguish the Profession,” Lee Smith, Ph.D. and Jeannine Sandstrom, Ed.D.

Favorite Websites

Harvard Business Review

eCompany Magazine

Learn more about finding a coach or becoming a coach

International Coach Federation: A non-profit credentialing organization setting standards for competency and performance. Provides coach referrals.

Coaching Training Programs

Corporate Coach University

Coaches Training Institute

The Hudson Institute

The Newfield Network

Academy of Coach Training

Remember the times when you’ve been out on a precarious limb wondering what your next decision should be as you lead your organization? Remember how, just when you thought the complexity of leading a company couldn’t get any greater, it did? Where did you get the wisdom to move forward? What did you do? What did you need to stop, or start doing? How quickly did you rally? How soon were you able to discover the best option(s) for what to do next?

We remember these situations every day, working with business leaders, leading our own organization, and focusing on how to learn from everything we do. We have concluded that leaders individually, or teams of leaders collectively, live in what we call the Zone of Not Knowing™. This zone is an unpredictable place ripe with opportunity, yet extremely uncomfortable for some who believe they need to know everything before they get out on the proverbial limb. As human beings, we are equipped to be learning machines, but often we can’t learn fast enough to stay ahead. We say we either don’t have the time, or can’t wait until we know. In today’s world, leaders need to quickly discover the big picture of a situation, rapidly create a plan, and immediately follow through with the necessary strategic options and actions the plan produced.

We have seen two kinds of learning in the zone: fresh learning and old unlearning. This learning and unlearning often need to happen in a heartbeat, in real time: not after you’ve taken a class, or studied a book, or gotten your MBA, just in case you encounter a particular challenge.

What if you had someone guide you with this real-time learning (or unlearning), who could point out new opportunities to learn life’s lessons, or who could help you recognize a mental model that no longer suits your situation?

We have faced those same situations and developed a wonderful solution—the field of Executive Coaching. And we’re not the only ones who consider this a good solution.

With a coach, leaders can accomplish more in a shorter period of time. Jeff Kellogg, President of Chateau Communities in Denver said, “We engaged executive coaches for leadership integration when we created our new company through merger three years ago…[O]ur coaches helped us accomplish in two days what would have taken us five days on our own. And those five days most likely would have been drawn out over six months. So our coaches not only helped us save time, but they accelerated the impact of our leadership actions.” [1]

An Executive Coach is a leader’s learning partner who helps with just-in-time discovery, and just-enough innovation to implement the plan. A coach is a master in the “zone of not knowing,” who prefers unpredictability to predictability because that’s where the greatest growth occurs for leaders. A coach brings into this zone the tough, thought-provoking questions for a leader’s discovery, procedures for stabilization, ways to gather data from people inside and outside the organization, and, most importantly, accountability for integrating the learning into action.

What Leaders Encounter in the Zone of Not Knowing

Every day the leader wakes up in a new world. Overnight, it seems, things have happened that affect the way business will be done today. The Zone of Not Knowing has settled like dust over his or her world. A sense of urgency ensues, change must occur because it’s a brand new world. As a result, we need a radical change in the way we learn.

Rapid learning is the strategic answer for not just the issues of today, but for staying ahead tomorrow. There is information to gather from the core of human capital as well as written data. More importantly, there are intentional processes to put in place to transform information, once gathered, into action.

Gathering data, answers, and solutions for action is imperative. The leader is no longer expected to know it all, but to have strategies and processes that assist in knowing the necessary. Where will these answers be found?

A coaching partnership may be the answer. We have experienced a dramatic shift in the way leaders learn when they partner with a coach. Together they design an intentional learning environment and processes for gathering needed data. In the process of collecting the data, rapid learning can occur. The leader’s learning comes not only from their executive teams but from employees at all levels; not just from customers but from all stakeholders, and not just from their own industry but from markets of business all over the world. During this time of collecting information, a coach can guide the leader to understand it from new and optimal perspectives.

Learning from Executive Teams and Today’s Employees

Human capital, after all, carries a wealth of diverse information and knowledge. People now are more connected to global conversations and more interested in news around the world. Their expectations have changed from days past—they expect to be involved, to be valued, and utilized for their strengths. In essence, they want to contribute their brainpower and offer their wisdom. They are stakeholders with a vested interest in the success of the organization.

An ideal method of gathering necessary data is by having collaborative conversations with groups of stakeholders. EMC CEO, Michael Ruettgers, knows how important it is to gain information from organizational stakeholders. Ruettgers speaks about gathering groups of top EMC engineers and savvy customers for intensive two-day gatherings for the purpose of exploiting the next big thing. EMC portrays itself as a farmer who harvests and silos data. That metaphor works for leaders of all kinds in harvesting the learning they need to succeed from their organizational human capital. [2]

Learning can also be accelerated in collaborative conversations when the leader enters a gathering of employees, or in conversations with individuals, with the intent of asking tough discovery questions—questions for which he or she has no current answers. Such an approach works if the leader has created an environment in which all participants are collaborative and trust that innovation is acceptable, that there are no wrongs or rights, only newly developed options. It is about creating a comfortable creative tension in the Zone of Not Knowing where every response is valued, respected, and optimized.

The leader in such collaborative sessions functions just as his or her coach does in private coaching. Modeled by a coach, the leader rapidly helps surface new information, so both thinking and learning accelerate beyond what any one person might have done without learning partners.

Learning from Customers and Stakeholders

We find that with this group, the learning is reciprocal: leaders learn from customers and stakeholders, customers, and stakeholders learn from leaders. These constituents want to participate in the organization’s success and will let you know what they currently require and what they want. But they also want to know the scope of the leader’s direction and values. They want to know where you are going with your products and/or services. To facilitate learning here, the leader must have a strong vision that sets direction for the viability of the product or services along with a set of values that states how the organization will conduct its business. Then, customers and stakeholders will collaborate with leaders to share information.

A coach can make sure a leader’s direction is clearly developed and communicated and that guiding principles for doing business are in place. Once done, learning accelerates and can focus around the hub of vision and values against which all decisions are measured. Without vision in place, the leader could wander around in the wilderness of not knowing and without gaining the insight from this constituent group. Once the direction is in place and well communicated, it creates an environment of collaboration that accelerates learning.

Learning Inside Your Industry and in Diverse Global Businesses

Industry information is loud, but not always clear. In a highly competitive world, it is difficult for leaders to keep their heads above water to see trends and possibilities. Simultaneously, global occurrences greatly impact both friend and competitive foe when the economy of even one country takes a downturn. In The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, author Thomas Friedman says, “What is new today is the sheer number of people and countries able to partake of today’s globalized economy and information networks, and to be affected by them… People in barbershops actually talk about the Thai baht (currency).” [3]

The wealth of information that contributes to leader learning is overwhelming and chaotic. We know it is critical to have processes in place for gathering the most important data. In a recent conversation, a leader said to us that trying to keep his finger on the pulse of information was “crazy making.” With the aid of technology today, the information is there, but what are we to make of it within a given window of opportunity?

Those we work with often say that a conversation with the coach is a “sanity check in an insane world.” With so much to learn and so little time, a coach not only can keep a leader centered and focused on what is important to the strategic direction of the company, but also on how new learning applies. Leaders learn to ask themselves the focused questions that lead to gathering applicable data that contributes to just-in-time success.

Three Steps for Accelerated Leader Learning

Being coached is about gaining knowledge and getting into action in half the time it would normally take. John Seely Brown said, “Learning has to do with integrating information into your own internal framework so you own it…That means you have to engage in some kind of action with the knowledge being transferred to you.” [4]

Brown also talks about “social scaffolding,” meaning that learning happens more quickly on a platform of conversation and relationship. The coaching platform is just that: conversation and relationship. The three steps of Discovering, Strategizing, and Implementing (seeing, planning and doing) provide structure for the platform. Because leaders need to learn rapidly and then actualize the learning, coaching provides an environment of rapid response with simple and elegant discovery. Such a learning partnership can create a focused and accelerated way to help you shift to new ways of thinking to get the job done.

The Three Steps

1.   Discovering is a process for listening, and then asking tough and evocative questions. This approach is about finding barriers and removing them, expanding the knowledge base or unlearning something, mining for innovative best answers and softening the complexity of information into a collection of possibilities.

2.   Strategizing is the method used for transforming the new learning into a platform for action. This includes establishing direction, identifying focus, outlining processes, structures, reviewing options, and developing plans and milestones that turn the Zone of Not Knowing into a zone of getting results.

3.   Implementing is the process for integrating the learning into a new Zone of Knowing by getting into action. A coach and a leader establish and monitor accountability and milestone activity, anticipating that smaller not-knowing zones face the troops as they carry out the plan.

How do these steps accelerate leader learning? Every coaching session enters a Zone of Not Knowing and exits with real-time knowledge to face the complex global world of business. Because of the conversational nature of the relationship and the coach’s skill and comfort with not knowing (but discovering the answers), the leader and the coach use this structured process to build a new platform of wisdom, which creates new possibilities and successes.

Learning with Agility

No leaders or coaches we know have the luxury of a long learning curve. Just like being out on that precarious limb, as soon as you determine what works best, you must finesse the follow through. A coach intervenes and can help you cut through the maze of complexity to get to the heart of the issue. Once there, something miraculously different can occur.

While we can name many examples of leader learning that occurred within the coaching relationship, we’ll share two examples. The first is about accelerating the transition of new leadership. The second discusses accelerating accountability.

Accelerating the Learning Curve for New Leadership

Coaching is critical for a new leader (either experienced or new to leadership), and when an organization experiences leadership changes (for instance, during mergers or acquisitions).

In our work, we start by using the three steps. Then, we begin simplifying what needs to be learned, identifying observable patterns or systems that can lessen the complexity, asking the tough “end of game” questions, calling leaders on blind spots, and inspiring leaders to follow through and complete their action items with others. This process accelerates the transition. Having a learning partner is the key to success.

We find that most new leaders want to do a “listening campaign,” spending the first six months on the job gathering information. Doing so would be a very long learning curve and generally not possible.

Our clients have found that when the leader and coach develop a strategy for listening to constituents, what would have been scattered bits and pieces of information become an intentional discovery template of data. The difference is that while getting to know the people and the landscape, the leader is encouraged to be intentional about noticing patterns and systems. Such data can then be immediately available for shifting strategy in order to maximize the leader transition.

Another example of coaching during transition comes when we discover that the methods, which previously made a leader successful, may not apply in the new position or new organization. A coach could pose questions such as: “What type of leadership is needed for the job?” “What successes from the past can you build upon?” “What does the organization and the industry need most from you?” “What are your strengths and what are the strengths of your people?” And, “Where are the roadblocks?”

With a learning partner, everything discussed is subject for learning so that issues are immediately addressed or changed in order to accelerate the curve.

Accelerating Accountability for Results

Leaders and their teams are most vulnerable in getting the results they want. That’s probably because we often see accountability for reaching or completing milestones as an area within leaders’ responsibilities that lacks focus. The accountability curve has to be as rapid and agile as possible with strategies and consequences for breakdowns.

A typical example of coaching an accountability issue is when a leader and his or her team has done a good job of developing vision and values, but has little to no strategic follow-through. In one case, we found a leader and team that had made small laminated cards that spoke of their vision, but the team literally “sat on” the cards (in their wallets and purses) for a year so they did not make much progress. With the help of a coach, they refocused their efforts from dealing with everyday “fires” to holding everyone accountable for results for tomorrow following the vision they had developed. A faulty start had a quick turnaround after doing so.

Such examples seem simple, yet we find that leaders often miss seeing the roadblocks because they are so close to the situation. When this happens, they lose precious time. A coach has an objective view and can point out the roadblocks or blind spots and then help put in place an intentional process to circumvent future roadblocks. Coaches do this by asking leaders to revisit milestones more often and hold themselves and their teams responsible for getting things done.

Coaches don’t just focus on a leader’s talents and skills. They also focus on leadership accountabilities. David Ulrich, in Results-Based Leadership, supports coaching that focuses both on the attributes of the leader as well as achieving the desired results. “ Results-based coaching should begin with dialogues focused on results and on helping the aspiring leaders become clear about turning strategy into results…The leader (then) maintains the constant interplay between attributes and results by answering, at the insistence and with the help of the coach, ‘so that’ and ‘because of’ queries.” [5]

We, too, believe that coaching must focus on both strengths and attributes of the leader and the leadership team as well as the accountabilities and results expected of them. Focusing on both accelerates success; learning and coaching about one without the other decelerates the curve.

So Much to Learn, So Little Time….

Leaders have to be life-long learners in this fast-paced chaotic world. They often find themselves, however, in the uncomfortable Zone of Not Knowing. They face countless challenges that require quick responses, yet they alone may not have the answers. Learning can be fast paced when the leader knows he or she can gather knowledge from many places outside of one’s self—from employees and stakeholders around the world as well as from a learning partner, the coach.

Partnership with a coach can make the complexity of learning simpler and faster. A coach is comfortable being in that not-knowing zone. In the Zone, coaches assist in removing blind spots, roadblocks, and barriers to learning that keep leaders from seeing success. As a result, coaches actually create a more rapid learning environment because they get to the essence of issues, ask questions that pull out the best answers, and get the leader into action for rapid change and response.

So, the next time you’re out on the proverbial limb without the answers you need, accelerate the learning curve with a learning partner, the Executive Coach.

Dr. Jeannine Sandstrom, CEO and founder of CoachWorks International, Inc. is an internationally known Executive Leader Coach. For over 20 years, clients have recognized her as a valued resource in accelerating their leadership development and organizational effectiveness. Her mission as a “possibility generator” is to unlock the leader potential so that they make a positive difference in the lives of others while creating organizations with sustained vitality. You can reach her directly at

Dr. Lee Smith, Executive Leader Coach, is President of CoachWorks International, Inc. headquartered in Dallas, Texas. She is considered a pioneer in the coaching profession and her primary work is in the area of equipping leaders for high levels of performance, both today and in the future. Smith’s mission is to serve as a partner with leaders who want to transform their leadership abilities to Legacy Leadership and bridge the gap between professional achievement and personal significance. Reach her at



[1] “Executive Leader Coaching as a Strategic Activity,” by Lee Smith, Ph.D. and Jeannine Sandstrom, Ed.D. Strategy and Leadership, 1999.

[2] Managing for the Next Big Thing: EMC’s Michael Ruettgers,” Paul Hemp. Harvard Business Review, January 2001.

[3] The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, Thomas L. Friedman, Anchor Books, 2000.

[5] Results-Based Leadership. by Dave Ulrich, J. Zenger, N. Smallwood. Harvard Business School Press, 1999.


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