Herb Stevenson
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The Slinky Effect

Herb Stevenson, CEO
June, 2013

The rapidity of change within business has created a Slinky Effect for many executives. The Slinky Effect occurs when accelerated change exceeds integrated learning. Stretched to the limit in terms of using what is known and has worked in the past, the executive finds him or her self unable to meet the growing demands of more responsibility and/or strategic initiatives. The executive is stretched to the limit and either makes mistakes in judgments, crashing forward when these decisions are implemented, or is pulled backwards to clean up mistakes and errors that were not fully understood. In a worst case scenario, the entire change initiative crashes because it stretched the individual or organization beyond it's capacity to change.

Executive Coaching creates an up-close and personal learning container that supports the individual to expand the possibilities to meet the daily challenges. In addressing the Slinky Effect, the coach should be aware that the slinky effect directly impacts the client as well as the direct reports surrounding him or her. As such, we will look at two levels of system to fully explain the concept.

The Slinky Effect

The Slinky Effect evolved from my teaching at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland as well as working with C-Suite Executives for the last 30 years. As described above, the Slinky Effect is like a large coil spring that is stretched to its limit. In such situations, there are only three resolutions. First, once fully stretched, the base side of the spring catapults forward, crashing into the leading edge. Children’s cartoons often depicted this event as a canine or feline chasing another animal down a set of stairs. Unbeknownst to the chasing animal, its tail hooks onto the carpet at the top of the stairs. Just as the canine or feline reaches out to nab the bone or tweety bird, the tail breaks free and the animal crashes down the steps into a heap of crumpled bones. Second, the alternative is its polarity where, once fully stretched, the leading edge is forced backward into a heap of crumpled bones, just as success is within reach. And third, using the Slinky toy as the metaphor, the stretch is beyond the capability of the spring and it snaps in half. Often, to the surprise of the child (or adult playing with the slinky), the spring pinches the individual or crashes into the arms of the child as a broken toy.

In the following pages, I will apply the Slinky Effect to executive development as a process that the coach can observe and manage. Because all executive development is within a larger system, I will then indicate how the Slinky Effect impacts the coachee’s success in relationship to his or her direct reports and peers.

Baseline Development

When we are coaching executives, we generally are seeking to enhance the client’s capacity and/or competency. Typically, if it is a skill that needs to be developed, we are looking for their baseline capacity to learn and therefore to increase their overall leadership competency. Quite often the baseline capacity of the individual and the surrounding system to learn a new way of being creates the Slinky Effect. Articles often refer to it as resistance. I find the slinky more informative as it focuses on the tensions that naturally occur when stretching capacity beyond its present form. In terms of the client, the Slinky Effect is the tension within the individual to either move forward faster than they are capable or to move faster than the team is capable without greater support. Interestingly, the tension for the client is often the opposite for the team. If the individual is unable to stretch forward into a new capability the team will crash forward onto the leader. If the leader is able to stretch forward further than the team can sustain, it will crash backward, pulling the leader with them.

Leader Stuck, Team Crash Forward

The Slinky Effect occurs when the client attempts to reach beyond his or her capability to make the changes (leader stuck). It typically occurs when the client has a strict time frame from which to make drastic improvements in his or her leadership behaviors. The hints that something has shifted to the detriment is that the individual is completely focused on the changes, is able to talk the talk about the changes to be made, and suddenly has no idea how to apply the new behaviors. Regressive behaviors continue to permeate daily interactions, sometimes, with little awareness of the client.

As the coach, it is a decision point to either slow down the process or realize that the individual may not have the capability to make the changes. In such cases, it may require a change to a different position or a change of employers. Some would say that the Peter principle occurred and the individual was promoted beyond his or her capability...into incompetence.

Team Slinky

The team Slinky Effect is symptomatic that a problem exists. It generally can occur when the competency of the team is high and the capability of the leader is low. For example, one client was promoted from a high performance hands-on individual to the leader of the same group. He was charged with increasing performance of the entire unit. As a doer, he had no idea of how to support the team to be more effective. Coaching was provided and he struggled with understanding how to get work done through other people instead of by himself (and others). As the coaching evolved, he talked a good game about trying to support the team into greater performance. However, under pressure he would act out in unprofessional ways. Using force, he tried to pull the team into a higher level of performance. In time, the team quit following his guidance and they allowed the department performance to crash around him.

Coaching the Potential Crash Forward

In this case, the individual was not able to let go of his comfort with doing. He left the organization and went back to being a super sales person. However, in another situation, we were able to have a breakthrough experience that turned the situation around. Specifically, the client realized that he was in over his head, that he had no idea what to do to change the situation, that he had lost credibility with his team as evidenced by the 360 feedback, and that he did not want to fail or lose his job. With some coaching, we held a team meeting. He acknowledged that the feedback had opened his eyes to the need for change. A dialogue was set up around what could the team do to support his changing as well as what he needed to do to make the changes. In the next six months, ongoing communications focused on team capability as well as his leadership processes. Instead of what was not working, the team focused on what was working and what could be improved. The client had become a leader that got work done through people. The team formed around the leader into a interdependent unit of high performance.

Leader forward, Crash Backward

An opposite dynamic can occur when the leader fully embraces the coaching at an accelerated pace and nothing is done to enhance the capability of the team. It is as if the client has moved into a state of hyper-learning, where he or she absorbs technique and theory like drinking water. Articles, books, and executive education become a watershed of idealistic ways to enhance the organization. Direct applications are clear and concise for the client, and absolutely beyond the capability of the team to follow. Hence, while the client is moving directly into a leader’s behavior, there is no recognition that the team is unable to make the changes as quickly as being asked. The impact is that, while the client seems crystal clear in what needs to be done and how to influence the team to accomplish it, there is no direct connection to the team to effectuate the desired results. The team drags the client backwards just as it seems the goal is at hand, when in reality the gap between the leaders vision and the team’s capability was insurmountable.

For example, one CEO struggled with the gap between his idealistic dreams from reading a variety of the how to go from good to better to best books and his team’s ability to try to apply the dreams to their day to day reality. This played out in a periodic all hands inspirational speech that would be followed within 3-6 months with a raging criticism of the team pulling him backwards into the day-to-day doldrums of getting work done. It never occurred to the CEO that he would need to provide adequate support to understand his vision, resources to roll-out the vision, and time to enact it. In short, he did not know how to support the team or organization to put his visions into practice. Coaching was to no avail. He retired when the board went to market for a leader instead of a dreamer.

In another example, the client realized that he needed to support his team simultaneously while he was getting coached. As a result, he worked with his direct reports to create a talent management process for themselves. Executive training for each member of the team was expected at least once per year. Books and articles were shared and discussed in meetings for interest and application to the team or organization. The team was transformed into a learning organization. New ideas were encouraged and clearly stimulated the conversations throughout the organization. The client became an excellent leader of a high performance organization that tripled profits.

Implosive Crash

Occasionally, the tension between the client/leader and the capability of the team to deliver the necessary results is so taut that a complete breakdown occurs. The recent leadership and technology breakdown at RMS/Blackberry nearly destroyed the company. The board forced out the founding leaders and installed a down-to-earth, roll-up the sleeves CEO to build a critical mass sufficiently to save the company. Not likely to return to its smart phone industry leader position, it is starting to show signs of life.

As a coach, the implosive crash occurs when leadership does not have the capacity to see or know what needs to be done to move the organization into the correct direction. There is a skewed perception of what is real versus what is not real. There can be a sense within the coach that something is totally out of sync. In this case, the coach needs to do a complete assessment of the client and all peers and direct reports to determine are the right people on the bus and in the right seats. If not, then much of the focus will be on how to create the talent needed to save the organization. In addition, it will be a very direct coaching process to support the client to stay fully grounded in determining the next steps of how to move towards recovery.

For example, in my earlier years, I was a turnaround specialist for the banking industry. Much of the initial process was to determine the level of management capability. Succinctly, the question was were the right people inside the bank that could complete the turnaround. If so, then an accelerated process was implemented to shore-up their capabilities and competencies to complete the turnaround. Once this was completed, an assessment of the existing gaps in capability and competency along with required remedial training or hiring was completed down to the janitor.

Once the staffing requirements were remedied, the focus became on how to create the needed level of interdependence between all employees to create a critical mass resulting in the turnaround. As the coach, it is a multi-level systems approach to coaching leaders and managers into clearly developed and applied processes towards success.

Conclusion

In sharing the Slinky Effect, my hope is that it supports executive coaches to see the surrounding dynamic tension that occurs in every coaching relationship. All coaching will ripple throughout the organization especially when working with the C-Suite. Knowing and working with this tension supports greater effectiveness of the coach and the client.

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