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Questions for collaborative leadership

Real Conversations podcast | S5 E10 | May 18, 2023




Laura is the COO at Notion, the co-creator of the STAR(r) model and the STAR(r) Manager program and co-author of The Answer is a Question. She's an expert thought leader on how to leverage Operational Coaching(r) behaviors across organizations to drive commercial results and improve productivity and engagement levels. Laura learned about the power of coaching from her early childhood career in international sports and was coaching others by the time she entered Oriel College, Oxford (as one of the first females in that college). She gained not only an MA but also an "Extraordinary Full Blue." She has over thirty years of international business experience, living and working in the USA, Europe and Asia and is recognized as one of the UK's top executive coaches and as one of the 40 outstanding global women of 2023.

Collaboration is difficult both inside and outside companies. Yet the answer could be as simple as asking the right questions. Laura Ashley-Timms has perfected a model to achieve this, tested it with the London School of Economics, and is coaching Fortune 500 companies on the approach. In the second of this two-part collaboration special, she discusses her lessons from sport, scalable leadership coaching, and the secret to collaboration everywhere.

Below is a transcript of this podcast. Some parts have been edited for clarity.

Michael Hainsworth: Asking the right questions fosters collaboration. Collaboration increases engagement. And increased engagement increases productivity. Laura Ashley-Timms is the co-creator of the STAR Manager Program, the co-founder of performance improvement consultancy Notion, and co-author of The Answer is a Question. So naturally, my first question was about where she got the initial inspiration for the life she's built today. The answer? Ping pong.

Laura Ashley-Timms: When I was a young girl, I was fascinated by a comic, and I was reading a comic and there was this story about a girl that went to play for her country in sport and it just got me fascinated. I turned around to my dad one day and I said, this girl's got a coach. I would like a coach. She plays for England; I want to play for England. And I was nine and that's what I did.

MH: And what did you play?

LA: It was table tennis.

MH: Really?

LA: And the story was about a girl called Ping-Pong Paula. There we go. That's the story.

MH: What was your favorite lesson from your childhood career in international sport that you apply to your work today?

LA: That is a really good question. In terms of what the application for my work, I feel there are probably two major lessons. I've just told you that story about Ping-Pong Paula, and I think the first lesson was there was a very specific but a very big end goal right at the start of that journey. And I made that my goal as soon as I started my sports career. And if I think about business, we've always set really big goals too. We work to one standard, which is world-class, and right now we've set a mission to actually transform management capability globally, which is a huge goal. This ambition is about creating epic workplaces by developing a million star-managers. I'm not sure we'll talk about this a little bit more later, but that's not a small goal. That's a huge end goal that we're aiming for, and I think that comes from my sports background.

The other thing that strikes me about sport and business is you have to put the hours in. You're not going to become good at anything and certainly not good enough to get to international level if you don't really put the hours in. I think everyone in sport understands that. I think that dedication and that hard work ethic has really come into my business life as well and, probably my kids will tell you, I'm a workaholic. It's not the healthiest, maybe, mindset to have when you are juggling so much in a career with work and business and all those responsibilities and also with three children. However, I really believe that anyone in any business where you've got really good success and when you've achieved really great things has always come with a huge amount of hard work, and that is the reality of success.

MH: And you went on from being a child athlete to being a coach in the world of ping pong?

LA: I did. My coaching career wasn't the same level as my sporting career, but it was a catalyst and a journey that I went through, and then taking sort of the coaching mindset into my business career as well. But yeah, I did do coaching right through university. Coaching university teams at Oxford University, and county teams and things like that.

MH: So then, what is coaching like working with the Fortune 500 companies that you're dealing with today?

LA: Well, I think as a coach, the first thing you're doing is you're enabling others. When you're a player and when you're in it for yourself, it is about you and your success. But when you are a coach, you're really looking at how to develop other people's potential rather than doing the actual work yourself. And it's about really helping people build confidence in their capability. There's lots of different ways you're going to do that. It's about the power of micro activity rather than the big goals we were talking about earlier that you might make for yourself. And that's true in business as well. If you are working with Fortune 500 companies and you're talking about coaching, it's really about focusing on the people you're working with, it's not about you. I think it's really important that we're clear about what we're talking about.

We've just been talking about table tennis and sports and we're now talking about Fortune 500 companies and we're using the same word: coaching. I think we just need to kind of clarify that coaching means lots of things to lots of different people. And when many of your listeners are maybe hearing this word, coaching, and the Fortune 500 in the same sentence, they're probably, they've got different things in their heads so it's probably worth just talking about it. Many of your listeners are probably thinking about executive coaching because, in most large organizations, senior leaders will have, at some point, had an executive coach in their career. And just for clarity, executive coaching is fantastic. It really supports individuals, and it helps them develop really great results. But it only really works at an individual level and it's not scalable and it's never going to impact the culture of an organization.

But when we're talking about working with Fortune 500 companies, and certainly from our perspective in the role we do as a company, we're not looking at just those individual leaders. We're looking at how you develop the capability and the performance of every manager in the organization. And the coaching we're talking about is something we call operational coaching, which is a style of management that's about developing a coaching mindset that all managers can adapt to in the moment every day, even when they're under pressure. It's not about that structured calm time when you're spending time with an executive coach. It's completely different. It's about fast-paced, stressed managers utilizing some of those coaching technologies and abilities in the everyday.

MH: You once told me that most managers are accidental managers.

LA: This is really a frightening statistic. That's right. 70% of managers, or 70 to 80%, are called accidental managers. And what we mean by accidental managers is somebody that is a technical expert. I'm sure, in this podcast, many of your listeners are technical experts. They are really good at what they do and suddenly someone says to them, well, the next step in your promotion is to become a manager and, by the way, you're now managing these people. And that's what we mean by accidental managers. They never set out to be people managers, but suddenly part of their responsibility involves doing these people things that they're not really trained for, they're never really necessarily wanted, and it wasn't part of their technical expertise that got them to this level. And in the US that would mean there's something like 17 million accidental managers and it's about just under three million in the UK. We're talking about a lot of people and most of us have been managed or are managed or are an accidental manager.

MH: When it comes to managers trying to ensure that there's collaboration, maybe within an organization, maybe within a silo within an organization, and then expanding that out into cross-collaboration between organizations. Tell us about the choice of the title for your latest book, The Answer Is a Question. How do we incorporate good questions into better collaboration?

LA: Excellent question. Well, the first thing is, we've got to learn to stop telling people what to do. So, there was some debate in terms of the book and the name of the book. And the idea of The Answer Is a Question, and the name of The Answer Is a Question, is to really focus on the outcome that we want managers to consider, which is understanding that the best answer they can give in a situation is actually a question and a powerful question. And really learning how to craft questions for the benefit of other people. So many of us, when we think about questions and asking questions, we're data gathering. And again, I guess, technically, when you're in situations, you're trying to learn things for yourself, we're not talking about those sorts of questions. We're talking about questions to help the other person develop their insights and their thinking, and that is a completely different outcome. And in that outcome, you can generate fantastic collaboration.

MH: The idea is to bite your tongue, you're not here to solve the problem. You're here to give the people underneath you the tools necessary to understand that they can solve the problem.

LA: Absolutely. And building that confidence and that resilience and that ability to start exploring some of their own ideas and owning their own outcomes and their own ideas. But you talked about those working below you. Actually, this skill can work much more broadly than that. Yes, a hundred percent, it helps the people that are working directly for you. But equally, if you think about the cross-functional teams we're in, you talked about working across companies, the matrix management we're in and the multiple teams we're in these days. This skill equally helps you with your peer groups, with your customers, with any situation that's cross-collaborative across different partner organizations. It even helps you with your friends and your family. And I can tell you it definitely helps you with teenage children.

MH: Well, as the father of a 16-year-old, I feel your pain and the gain that comes from biting your tongue from time to time. Help me as a father and as any listener, as a manager or a collaborator, how do you ask the right questions?

LA: Well, we go into this in quite a lot of detail in the book, there's a couple of chapters. The concept, first of all, is the STAR model and is explained in quite a lot of detail. The STAR model stands for 'S' and is for stop, so we talked about biting your tongue. The first thing you have to do in order to answer a question is stop yourself from going in and firefighting and solving everyone's problems for them. 'T' is to think, in the STAR model, which is, is this a coachable moment? And there are a few situations where it might not be. If you're in an accident and emergency (A&E) situation, in a hospital, where you might just need to save a life. Then think about it retrospectively. What is the coaching question you could have asked after the event? Unless it's a health and safety situation, which it isn't very often, most of the time the answer is to ask the question. And then it's about learning to craft questions for the benefit of others. And 'R' is to get to the result.

If we take that 'A' for asking in more detail, the couple of chapters is really to help you think about the types and styles of questions you might ask that's really going to help the people you're talking to, to think differently and to help them develop their own insights. And then there's another much deeper chapter which is really looking at the art and science of asking questions that gives you a more detailed model, called question, that helps you really generate lots and lots of different questions. And maybe just to give you some examples, maybe to explain this a bit better. We've said that almost any question is better than telling. It's about building up that confidence in yourself just to start asking questions and testing things because you can't really get it wrong.

But some questions are more powerful than others, and this is something we explore in our programs. For example, I really like questions that help people to shift their perspective or maybe to challenge barriers they're facing. A shift perspective question might be something like what advice would you give to a colleague in your situation? Someone has come to you with an issue and instead of solving the issue, you're getting them to think about that issue from different perspectives. And often they will have an answer that they would give a colleague, which you can then explore with them. And these aren't long conversations.

Some of these conversations are really quick. A couple of questions, a couple of minutes at the most. These aren't long coaching conversations. Let's think about a challenge barrier conversation. Maybe something like what is it that makes you think that? You're actually unpicking what is this barrier that they think they've got to overcome, or they can't overcome? And often it's nothing. It could be that they don't think they're allowed to, it's not in their remit, but actually there's nothing to say it's not in their remit. And when you ask that question and they realize that, actually no one's told them they can't do that. It's just getting people to see the possibilities.

MH: So then how would you define the term collaborative leadership?

LA: Collaborative leadership is the outcome of what we've just been talking about. It is leaders who choose to take a collaborative approach rather than telling people what to do, rather than be a top-down leader. And if you think about the sort of power of questions, leaders who are using this inquiry-led approach as their day-to-day leadership style are going to be truly collaborative when they're working together in any team, because they'll be inviting others to help resolve issues, to come up with innovative ideas, innovative solutions to any problems they might be having. They'll be coming from a perspective of believing that everyone around that table, everyone in that room, everyone on the virtual conference call, can contribute to those ideas and solutions. For me, collaborative leadership are leaders who really have excellent questioning and listening skills.

MH: And you've worked on this issue with the London School of Economics?

LA: Well, the really exciting project we did with the London School of Economics was really on behalf of the UK Government, who were looking not just at collaboration but on how to drive UK productivity. And they went out to look for research projects that could actually drive and move the needle on UK productivity. And in the round we were involved in, with the London School of Economics, there were 189 research projects put forward, and they only actually invested in six projects, of which only one of them was on management capability and management behavior, which was our project. And the project was looking at whether operational coaching, using the STAR Manager Program, could drive UK productivity.

And within that, collaboration was one of the outcomes within the causal links between productivity, engagement, collaboration, innovation, and areas like that, and management capability. So that was kind of the context of the project we worked with, with the London School of Economics. It was a randomized control trial, which means they were evaluating this data from a blind perspective. When they were looking at the data, they didn't know which of the organizations or managers were on the program and which were the control group. This was a really advanced academic study.

MH: This sort of reminds me of the leadership meme illustration that has made the rounds from time to time, where there are two panels and it's done in almost an Egyptian hieroglyphic style where you've got a big stone block and three people pulling that stone block to the destination, and on top of the stone block is the boss with a whip, and that's labeled boss. But the next panel is not three people pulling a block, but four people. The one from up on top of the block is the one at the front guiding the three others as all four of them pull, and that one is titled leadership. Can we quantify the impact of collaborative leadership on pulling that block to its destination?

LA: Well, it's a good question. In terms of quantifying, there is a lot of data in the study, and we have simplified some of the stories in the book itself to make them a bit more accessible, more readable. But there is, for those that really love academic studies, it's all being published very shortly in a major academic study looking at the practice of management. The answer is we can quantify it. It's not just collaborative leadership, it's looking at operational coaching and the impact that has on productivity, but a hundred percent, collaborative leadership is right in the middle of that. What the study was showing is really exploring whether managers who develop this operational coaching capability, whether it would drive increased productivity, and the causal link I talked about is that operational coaching absolutely drives and increases collaboration, that increases engagement, which also increases productivity.

There's a causal link and there's a lot of research that's been done to show that causal link. Now, the study was conducted in 62 organizations across 14 sectors. This was a very sizable study. And the outcome was also, across all of the research projects, was the only one that had statistically significant evidence. And it was found, and this causal link with collaborative leadership is right in the middle of this, that managers that developed and had access to the STAR Manager and developed     these inquiry-led skills and learned to ask better questions, increased their capability across all nine management competitors that were measured. And they changed the time they spent on their average day to spend 70% more of their time coaching, and they spent significantly less time doing it. The productivity increases that came as an outcome of this study is, exactly what you've said, that guiding and enabling their team drove the productivity of everyone. And there were some unintended consequences of this. Retention almost disappeared in the organizations that were using this approach. 

MH: When you say retention disappeared, you mean losing employees?

LA: Yeah, they weren't losing people. So there is a massive retention issue globally at the moment in many sectors. The organizations that had the program reduced their retention by a factor of six and almost lost nobody during the six-month study period. Whereas the control group still had horrendous retention statistics, as an example. The people on the study had this massive shift between spending more time coaching and less time doing it. The control group went into crisis mode and did even more doing and even less coaching. And this did crossover with the pandemic, so we were in dire straits at that point. The growth was faster in the group that had the STAR Program. The control group's growth was much slower. There were all of these unintended consequences which looked at increased growth, better retention, better employment, but they didn't need more managers and more senior leaders to drive any of this. They just had more people because the managers were able to leverage the abilities and the potential of the employees to a much higher level.

MH: If collaboration increases engagement, increased engagement increases productivity because employees feel empowered to make decisions themselves because the person at the top has said, no, you can figure this out, you've got this. If collaboration born out of better communication empowers businesses from within. What about externally? What's the unexpected solution to partnerships among companies that may have been competitors in the past or may even also remain so in the present? I'm thinking about this as it relates to 5G, as we understand that we can't build out the benefits of 5G to its greatest potential without working with others outside of our own organization.

LA: It's really the same. All partnerships are improved by this change in capability and this change in skill, whether that's inside or outside of your organization. In any team, I mean it's not whole organizations normally working with whole organizations, there'll be project teams that are cross-collaborating across organizations. In any team, it's about finding that common goal and working together in all the multiple teams we're working with. Some of those teams are going to have partners in them, some of those teams are going to be cross-organizational, some of those teams are going to have competitors in them, but the purpose of that team isn't likely to be competitive, you will have a shared outcome, a shared project you're working on. And it's about focusing on the win-win and drawing the best contribution from every member of that team, whether they're competitive members or not, because the win-win is that team coming up with the best ideas, the best innovation, and that's driven by great collaboration.

MH: How do you build trust, though, within a team that includes former or even current competitors?

LA: Well, you build trust by asking questions and actively listening. I mean, if you're genuinely interested in the answers and ideas and the suggestions that the other people are making and you're demonstrating that with your body language, with your actions that you're taking, with how you're supporting them to develop those ideas and implement those ideas, then you're going to have trust automatically. And that's why have a political program in the UK where an audience can ask questions to our senior politicians and in our country. And the biggest, week in, week out, the biggest frustration from the audience is that they don't feel listened to. 'A' is for ask, it's about asking questions, but it's also about actively listening. And that skill and building that capability of properly actively listening is really important in building trust.

MH: And I can imagine that if a manager uses your STAR method, you're going to reduce the chances of them being burnt out and stressed to the gills. And it all comes down to just changing the way people communicate.

LA: Yeah. What is really fantastic, and I just love this, is that so many of the participants in the program, when they capture their successes and record their successes through their journey, they talk about getting time back. I mean, so much so that there's a whole chapter about it in the book. But people talk roughly about getting 20% of their time back when they start asking questions rather than telling. They start empowering and enabling their teams. And the people that work for them means that they are able to delegate more. They're intentionally enabling people to develop. They're taking work off of them. People don't come to them with problems all the time because they've built the capability and the confidence to solve those problems themselves. And it's not that you're not still important, but what happens is you literally get time back to do the higher-value work you're meant to be doing. And that massively reduces the stress and sense of being overwhelmed that so many managers and leaders are facing.

MH: Tell me about work, specifically the future of work. Is the future of work already here?

LA: Well, I think the genie is definitely out of the bottle post-pandemic, there's no question about that. I don't think we'll ever go back to how things were beforehand. And I think it's probably more important now than ever to develop the skills to be successful in the now, in the present, and into the future. And that has to be about really focusing on individuals. You can't just lump people together anymore. The one thing that the pandemic has unlocked is that people's values have really changed towards work, the work-life balance, the decision to want a hybrid or work-from-home model. All of the complexities we now face running organizations, and leaders and managers face every day, are so different. And we have to develop the skills that everybody feels included and we are talking to people at an individual level and that they feel listened to. So yeah, I think these skills have never been more critical.

MH: If there was one takeaway from this conversation for the listener, what would you like it to be?

LA: I think the one takeaway is that it's going to get more and more challenging, not less. Change is going to happen faster, and pressures are going to get really difficult. And I think if there was one thing you could do, if you knew that you could develop one superpower and it could transform your career, it could transform your relationships, then it would be crazy not to try and develop that skill. It's not difficult. It's a lot of fun, and it's really exciting when you see other people have all those light bulb moments. So yeah, the wonderful thing I'd say is, decide to become outstandingly great at asking powerful questions.

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