Coaching Through Advocacy

Balaji Krishnamurthy

First, we hope that you had a restful holiday and a great start to a new year. Happy New Year.

This month's topic is motivated by some polarized political conversations underway in the US, although our topic itself is not political.

Even though many of our readers outside the US might have had little interest in US politics, they no doubt were aware of some of these conversations. Over the last few months in the US, we have seen polarized debates leading up to the presidential elections in November, stalemate conversations leading up to the fiscal cliff in December, and a horrific tragedy in Sandy Hook that has rekindled an ideological conversation on gun rights/control. What is common about these conversations is that many people have entrenched positions and they know they are right.

These conversations remind me of many business issues I have faced in my career where technically competent individuals have strongly held views about a major business issue at hand and the less technically competent executive or CEO has to make the call.

The technical nature of the issue might be understanding a piece of machinery that might need to be purchased, or familiarity with a vendor that might need to be selected, or a technology or financial issue that requires technical understanding. In many of these business issues there are entrenched positions with ardent supporters that advocate each of those positions. In most of those cases the CEO is technically least competent. Yet, the CEO has to make the call.

This month's topic is a tool, called Coaching through Advocacy, that the CEO (or the decision making executive) can use in these situations.

The idea of this tool is to force the ardent advocate to live in the other world. When they do, they will find that the other world is not as dark as they thought it to be. The CEO identifies an outspoken, articulate, ardent supporter from each of two polarized schools of thought. Let's call these individuals Alice and Bob. Alice is tasked with making a 10 minute speech, in front of a large audience, advocating Bob's position with gusto and fervor, and solely in favor of that position.

Likewise, Bob is tasked with making a 10-minute speech advocating Alice's position. The CEO convenes a somber and ceremonial meeting to which all concerned are invited. Ceremony demands that the CEO occupy a central seat flanked on either side by all the influencers of the decision. Make sure that the influencers are NOT physically partitioned by their respective position on the issue. All other invitees, including all of the people that are affected by the decision are asked to sit in the peanut-gallery as observers. The CEO then explains the tasks assigned to Alice and Bob, and lays out the ground rules of interaction:

• Alice and Bob speak for 10 minutes advocating the side assigned to each and during those 10 minutes no questions will be entertained

• At the end of the 20 minutes the panel of influencers flanking the CEO may ask questions of either Alice or Bob. During this period, Alice and Bob must continue to play the role assigned to them.

• At the end of the questioning, Alice and Bob will be relieved of their advocacy roles and may join the influencers in a collective conversation.

What are the advantages of this process?

First of all, Alice and Bob are forced to not only understand the other person's point of view, but are forced to communicate it to their cohorts who might be more willing to listen to them. During the question and answer period, the other influencers can force Alice and Bob to fill out the arguments that they might have conveniently omitted. All of this makes everybody more comfortable with imagining a world in which their feared choice ends up winning. They realize that that world is not so bad after all. In fact, they begin to appreciate some of the good things about that world. That feared world becomes more palatable. Most importantly, those that are more in the middle, who heretofore had abstained from taking sides, begin to form an opinion. Their voice is often the most reasoned voice for the CEO to hear.

The advantage of a business environment - compared to the political environment of Washington - is that in a business the CEO can make a unilateral decision.

However, the CEO needs to understand and appreciate the nuanced technical issues. Coaching through Advocacy provides a process to do just that. In a democratic environment like political conversations, this process might not work. But, even there, imagine if the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader - John Boehner and Harry Reid - had to each give a nationally televised speech for 10 minutes arguing the other side! That would certainly be a riot.

Food for Thought is our way of sharing interesting concepts on corporate leadership and management with others who might find it useful. The thoughts offered are intended to be controversial and thought provoking. They are intended to help our readers intentionally realize their potential, what we call Potentionality.


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