When I work with high-performing leaders, they often ask how they can accelerate their own leadership development curve, what they can do to improve. They have a strong desire to know the right approach, the best method, or the most effective way to accomplish more—ultimately so they can “win” by some metric.
On one hand, this attitude benefits their ambitions, but it can be a double-edged sword when the focus is solely on metric-based results or a single “right” approach. From an executive coach’s perspective, this is where working with high performers can start to become more complicated because there is so much more for the client to consider and understand. For instance, how have you shown up as a leader in similar situations? What’s your track record with driving change for yourself? How do you handle adversity? These are relevant questions for a coach to help you understand the adult development curve.
It also helps to work with the leader on what type of challenge he or she is facing. Is it a technical problem or adaptive challenge? And, most importantly, do you understand the difference?
Adaptive Challenge vs. Technical Problem
Technical problems have known solutions based on previous situations—it is just a matter of finding the data and learning the right approach. Adaptive challenges require new thinking, beliefs, approaches, and other considerations that basic technical solutions will not solve.
Adaptive challenges are more difficult to solve, and they often require you to challenge your own sense of how you view the world. Technical challenges might make you more competent in the way that you lead today, but they rarely push you outside your comfort zone. As a result, they rarely move you up any sort of leadership development curve. One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is trying to solve adaptive challenges with technical solutions. But they’re missing a major development opportunity right in front of their eyes.
Growth in the Journey
The inherent beauty that lies within an adaptive challenge is this: because there is no clear solution path, they are one of the best ways to accelerate leadership development. And, as a result, this process will be a longer, slower, more deliberate practice for leaders. While frustrating, the growth lies in the journey of solving the problem.
An adaptive challenge requires more of leaders; it requires you to think more broadly, looking for patterns and system trends that are not immediately obvious. The efficiency with which a “right” answer can be given to the question, “What should I do as a leader?” is fool’s gold at best.
Watching a leader work through an adaptive challenge is one of my very favorite things to do as a coach. It forces me to be more present with the leader through their ups, downs, frustrations, and celebrations. Value lies not in the answer I can give, but in the support and learning we can facilitate together through the challenge. This will allow you to emerge as a leader changed for the better, ready to look at additional adaptive challenges in a new way.
Ray Luther is the executive director of the Partnership for Coaching Excellence and Personal Leadership at the Kelley School of Business. To learn more about how you can achieve your leadership goals with coaching, please visit bit.ly/2ARMjhf.