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?
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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
Leaders Encounter in the Zone of Not Knowing
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Inside Your Industry and in Diverse Global Businesses
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).” 
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
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
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.” 
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
the Learning Curve for New Leadership
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).
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
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.
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
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?”
a learning partner, everything discussed is subject for learning
so that issues are immediately addressed or changed in order to
accelerate the curve.
Accountability for Results
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
So Much to Learn,
So Little Time….
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.
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
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