Neuroleadership at Work

David Rock - Quiet-Leadership

Today’s show is all about the brain and the neuroscience of leadership in a field called neuroleadership. David Rock is our guest and the author of Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work. He’s also the founder and CEO of a coaching company called Results Coaching Systems.

At the 2007 ICF Conference in Long Beach, David gave a resounding and very popular talk. I missed it and it was one of those things where all my colleagues were telling me that I should have heard this guy, he was great; talking about the brain and talking about coaching and really giving some sound, practical coaching tools.

So I picked up his book and have been really enjoying working with that, using some of the concepts that David has in his book, Quiet Leadership. David Rock is one of the thought leaders in the Global Coaching profession. The coaching system he developed in the mid-90’s has been taught to over 10,000 professionals worldwide. He’s the founder of Results Coaching Systems which is helping global organizations such as EDS, AIG, and NASA build coaching cultures.

We’ll be asking about how he does that. He is the author of three books, I mentioned Quiet Leadership. His most recent book is Coaching With the Brain in Mind; we’ll get David to talk about that.

David is also the founder of the Neuroleadership Summit. That’s a global initiative bringing in neuroscientists and leadership experts to get together to build a new science of leadership development. He’s collaborating closely with several senior neuroscientists on research including brain research projects coaching in China. We are going to ask him more about that.

David also co-founded the Coaching Certificate Program at NYU and has taught these for 3 years. We are going to start off asking him some questions first about coaching and then we’ll get into some of the neuroscience applications, then talk about his book in neuroleadership.

David, welcome to the call.

David Rock: Thank you very much Relly, for having me here.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: So David, where are you today?

David Rock: I’m calling in from Sydney Australia, and I’m bi-hemispherical, which means I live across both hemispheres. I have a home in Sydney and New York and I travel between the two about five or six times a year. But, my work is global. I have clients in Asia, Europe, Scandinavia, Africa, the U.S., right across the world. Most of my clients actually have people that are doing work with us in about 100 different companies, so a lot of my work is very much about getting these ideas out to a truly global audience.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Well, it makes me smile, and I don’t know if that’s an neuroleadership issue or not, just to know that you are in a sunny place like Sydney.

David Rock: Actually, we’ve had the worst weather since 1956, sorry to bore you, but it’s a very, very average summer, but we are hoping for a late Indian summer, as they say. I’m calling in from Sydney but I’m back in New York in a couple of week.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: How did you first get interested in coaching?

David Rock: I was taking a sabbatical from doing a lot of training, years ago; I’ve been in coaching for 10 years. I was thinking about what I wanted to do next and kind of what would really be interesting and I realized there was a sort of dark secret to training which was very hit and miss and if you really wanted training to impact, you need to be much more tailored to the individual needs and you need to stay with people as well at the time, not just this one-off thing. I noticed that and I decided to really investigate that. I couldn’t find anything in the way of models or research or processes or science or anything in this whole realm of how do you help successful people get even more successful.

There were things happening but I couldn’t find anything 10 years ago and I decided to develop some thinking in that field. I spent five years really deeply immersed in the questions of what the most effective and efficient way to coach and that’s kind of the way it started.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Well that’s great to hear David, because I know coaching itself didn’t start until maybe the late 80’s, so you were on the cutting edge there. Thinking about coaching in general, who have been some of either your hero’s or teachers early on around coaching or just life in general?

David Rock: You know I have an unusual brain; everyone has an unusual brain. Everyone’s brain is fantastic, very individual. But I didn’t come through coach training school or program or anything like that. I had more of a scientific brain. I’ve always been fascinated by physics, by biology, by brain functioning; it’s been an interest for a long, long time, for over 20 years. Some of my hero’s like the late Richard Feynman, the late, great physicist who was always completely breaking the paradigm of how they thought about different aspects of science.

A lot of the people that I learned from are people that no one would have heard of. Just mentors who have something that I really respect, mentors who believe in me but they have a sort of quality that I’m looking to develop whether it’s more of sense of presence than mindfulness, or whether it’s an ability to really challenge my own thinking. I run into a tremendous number of people who are changing the world. I guess I do that because of the research that I’m doing on neuroleadership, but I run into an amazing number of scientist. I just interviewed 21 neuroscientists for my newest book. All of those people changed my life in some way or another. They are all doing incredibly inspiring work, probably if you asked 100 people on the street if they’ve heard of any of them, no one would have.

So there are a lot of very, very fantastic people out there that are not well know that I think are coming out with really important ideas. Someone recently called me a neurotransmitter. They said, David Rock, you’re a neurotransmitter.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: That’s a compliment.

David Rock: It was. I said, fantastic, I’ve never thought of it like that. It’s exactly what I do and the last 5 years I’ve been meeting with and connecting with these neuroscientists who actually translate and then share their important findings because they do really have some important things to say. I think there are amazing people out there that I meet with all of the time and have an impact on me.

Dr. Relly Nadler: I think you are making an incredible link and I like that neurotransmitter—so you are taking some of the neuroscience and then bringing it into leadership. We’ll talk some more about that as we move on here. What is the scope of your practice with Results Coaching and then we’ll get more into some of the neuroscience stuff.

David Rock: It’s been a really interesting journey and I’m still absolutely fascinated and captivated by the process. We’re 10 years old as an organization and now one of the largest coaching organizations worldwide. We have operations everywhere from the Middle East, Africa, India, the UK, the US, Australia, Asia, New Zealand, and opening up Latin America and Eastern Europe at the moment. So globally very widespread. It’s not an enormous company but we’ve had a big impact. We would have worked with over 10,000 individuals to teach them how to be better coaches. About 6,000 of those really, really deeply; intensive training and from every country.

So we’ve had some kind of impact in the states, but it’s been a really interesting journey. I started the business 10 years ago having done about a year and a half of coaching and just seeing that coaching was so useful and so beneficial and wanting to work out a way to provide it to more people, make it accessible to people. That was one of the original visions, is how do you make coaching much more accessible to many more people.

We started off by, and I’ll try to give you the short version, developing our thinking, the first five years, on what is great coaching. Running workshops and intensives and really collaborating with people to try and identify that the most effective and efficient ways to coach and surprisingly I found there is a pattern to coaching that was independent of who the coach was, who the client was and what the content was.

So the first five years was involved in that and it was a fascinating first five years of diving in and seeing that there was a pattern to coaching independent of the person even of the issue, and there literally was a way to coach that was just faster and easier and had a bigger impact than most of the common ways that people would do. It started that way in just a few countries and now has really emerged from there.

We ran a lot of workshops and worked with about 2,000 individuals, teaching them coaching. We worked out a pattern that seemed to be at the heart of coaching, which I may come back and talk about. But for the last 5 years it’s been very, very interesting. We have found that organizations were really hungry to develop coaching cultures and organizations were coming to us, especially large organizations, saying we’d like to develop coaching cultures; we want our managers to be coaches, we want to develop this culture.

So for the last five years we have been really focused on helping large organizations build these. One of our clients for example, EDS, had over 3,000 people learn to coach in the last few years. They have over 100 internal coaches striving with really deep coaching into the organization.

We work with systems, especially with conflict systems to plug in the ideas of coaching the skills of coaching, the processes, the methods to really instill into the culture. From the base, starting with this question of what is the most efficient way to coach and how do we share it, to now how do we scale this with large organizations, and working with HSBC, with Nokia, with a whole range of big name clients, to build this into the culture.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Let me ask you a couple of questions that are burning for me and I’m sure for our listeners, which is: What have you found from your work on the return on investment of coaching in organizations since you have been doing this now for quite a while and you have such an expanse of reach?

David Rock: It’s a great topic and it’s wonderful to see in the last 3 or 4 years a lot more research coming out on ROI. We are doing some of our own research which we are excited by. Obviously when a company does their own research it’s not considered, but we are using very, very, respected and solid, set in frameworks, and data clicks, and the company themselves do the data clicks with very, very conservative measures.

We are finding for example one project for every dollar they spend on coaching they return $39 that they could absolutely evidence and find. That was from only surveying one level out of a whole other level to go to. So 39:1 ROI, on an internal coaching project which is pretty incredible.

Another one 17:1 return on investment. Again that was just one level. These ROI studies take into account all costs, the costs of everything involved and then just looking at the financial, in fact that can be conservatively agreed upon, and just looking at the profit percentage of that as well, so not the revenue, and then taking all of that into account and still seeing very, very strong impacts.

We see that time and again. We’ve worked with over 100 organizations now on these wide scale programs and we find time and again that there is this big impact. Not that many companies want to do the full study and the full ROI study but when we get to do it the data is quite incredible.

In fact one client was looking for a specific ROI and we beat that ROI target by a factor of 100. One hundred times greater ROI than they were looking for to justify the project. In a way we had to scale it back and take all of these things out because we just think that they wouldn’t believe it.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Well that’s huge, because I know in some of this stuff, the Manchester Study, it was 6:1 ratio, so you are as high as 39:1; that’s huge.

David Rock. Yes. That was in a hospital environment too, which is was very interesting; it was in Memorial Sloane Kettering. We recently presented a case study at the conference board in New York City, the Executive Coaching Summit, and again, there was a lot more value to be found. We think that the actual ROI was significantly higher in financial terms with that program.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So let’s hit a couple of other things. One, I’d love to hear the pattern of coaching that you have found and then may tie into how you started integrating all of the neuroscience into your program.

David Rock: You know what, you very intuitive Relly, because they are very interlinked, those two questions.

What happened was, for the first five years I was interested in this question of what is the most efficient way to coach. I asked that question and tried to answer it in many ways. The best answer came from observing the same person having a challenge and having lots of people try to interact with that person for a few minutes. So you get person A and then you get person B, C, D & E who all try to coach person A on the same challenge for a few minutes. During that once was really interesting because you could say, well that works slightly better than that, and that works slightly better than that. But, it wasn’t that life changing. But during 100 times it life changing.

Doing that 100 times and getting data back was absolutely fascinating because you got to see some very, very interesting patterns. One pattern, first of all, was that most interactions don’t do a thing, less than 1 in 20, and yet if you ask the coaches if they thought they were helpful, they thought they helped for more than half the time.

So there is something right there. Most leaders think they are great coaches and in actual fact they are great coaches, well listen, 5% of the time. But they think they are more than half the time. That was probably the least interesting data. The other interesting data that came through was obviously the patterns of the 5%.

One of the big insights that I had early on was about this pattern that came from a happy accident. By the way there is a great book called, Eurekas and Euphorias, which is one of the most wonderful and also depressing books at the same time because it describes how many of the world’s scientific breakthroughs happen and the vast majority of them happen with completely happy accidents that wouldn’t happen anymore because of the stringent lab techniques; sort of people leaving things out overnight and almost exploding and coming back and discovering some great chemical.

There was this happy accident that happened. The accident was if you’ve got Person A putting in a challenge, you’ve got Person B trying to do some coaching, etc. Well, someone sort of came into that exercise late and joined and became Person C. Person A of the challenge was about to say let me just tell you the challenge and Person C, says don’t worry, let me just try something. Don’t tell me anything. The amazing thing is Person C had the biggest impact on the client. That’s really counterintuitive, in fact it’s completely not what any normal person would think is possible or realistic.

It started to point to something that there is something going on here. The more the coach kind of gets into the information and into the situation, it seem like the less helpful they are.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So what did Person C do in that situation?

David Rock: You know what they did is they didn’t try to think for the person. They didn’t try to get into to the issue. They didn’t get into the content. As a result they really allowed or helped the other person. Because they didn’t have any information, what they did instead was that they relied on the other person to see them, they tried to notice patterns in the other person’s thinking and help them with that and it resulted in insight.

One of the patterns that I noticed was that the more you get into the content, the less you seem to be able to really help people in coaching or just it takes longer. You might get there but it takes a lot longer. So that was one pattern.

Another pattern I saw that was very, very clear was that people love to talk about their problems and that as soon as you start talking about their problems it’s like the slippery slope and they get more and more engaged in their problems and they seem to get further and further away from solutions.

I realized that if you get 20 of these scenarios and observe them in one hit, you’ll find that most of those 20 scenarios involved—people end up talking about their problems. So I realized that there were these patterns and then I started to talk a lot to coaches and rethink about this.

What I saw was two fundamental patterns across every type of coaching model, scenario and situation. Everyone was saying the same thing; why is that? Of course there are going to be reasons for that, which brought me to the science. But the two patterns were firstly, letting people come to their own connections, rather than the coach making the connections for people. The second pattern was helping people focus on the solutions not the problems.

I’m sure I’m the millionth person to say that this week, it’s not new, but what was interesting was that these were universal patterns and they were universally difficult for people to do, and universally if you could get the people to just do those things and change how they react in those two levels, the coaching completely transforms.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: But David, wouldn’t you say that the reason for that is that if we look at the evolution of the brain, the brain is hardwired for hard times.

David Rock: That’s exactly what happened is that I got very curious about what is the reason for this and where does this come from and why is it so universal?


If you’d like to hear the rest of the interview, you can listen above without commercials.


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