Case Studies

DIALOGUE: A financial services company on the verge of a breakdown.

A financial services company recognised it needed to take urgent action to avoid becoming the subject of a take-over bid. The company had been under-performing for some time, the share price was falling, and high performers were choosing to leave the organisation.

There were many lenses through which to view the situation. Through a ‘dialogic’ lens we noticed that people weren’t communicating effectively. Everyone in head office talked about the importance of ‘communication’ but it was clear that communication in this context meant people at the top of the organisation issuing directives to the rest of the organisation. People at the top of the organisation were becoming frustrated that their directions weren’t being acted on, and were becoming frustrated with each other because different functions were communicating different messages and different priorities. The top team wasn’t cohesive and people across the organisation blamed each other whenever anything went wrong.

We decided to start at head office, bringing the leaders of each function together in a forum for dialogue. Between us (the program sponsors and PeopleTalking) we initially chose people who we believed would commit time to the process; too many of the senior executive team were sceptical at the onset. The CEO attended the first session and outlined his hopes for the organisation in turning around its performance, linking the performance agenda to the capacity of leadership to engage in effective dialogue.

The programme began with some ‘teach’ around dialogue, its significance as the medium for change, and the challenges involved in engaging in true, authentic dialogue. The initial programme ran for four months over the course of which participants not only learned new skills, but also engaged in dialogue with each other as to how they could play a leading role in effecting change across the whole organisational system. The new skills they learned included different ways of listening, courageous voicing and emotional management.

At the end of six months, the group was ready to move into another phase. Two of the group were promoted into more senior roles, vacancies created as another aspect of the overall programme. The group continued to work with each other across functions, establishing similar expectations for others in the organisation. They also identified other places in the organisation where effective dialogue would be required to bring people together. Within twelve months, the organisation was working much more effectively as evidenced by an increase in share price, improvements in staff morale and an obvious improvement in cross-functional collaboration.


Isaacs, W. (1999) Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. New York: Double Day
Lawrence, P. (2014) Leading Change: how successful leaders approach change management. Kogan Page, UK
Werkman, R. (2010) Reinventing Organization Development: How a Sensemaking Perspective Can Enrich OD Theories and Interventions. Journal of Change Management, 10(4), pp. 421-438

LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT: A national distribution company supporting the development of high-potentials.

A national distribution company had recently spent several hundred thousand dollars on a leadership programme for senior executives, the results of which were disappointing. Leaders enjoyed the workshops, but little visible change was observed in their behaviours. We suggested they adopt a different approach to working with high potentials.

We began by holding a series of focus groups, inviting people from different locations and divisions. We sought to get the ‘whole system in the room’ at each group, inviting leaders from the target population, and people at the next levels up and down. At the focus groups, we engaged the ‘whole system’ in dialogue as to the kinds of challenges high potentials were facing, and the skills they needed to further develop. From the dialogue between leaders, direct reports and senior leaders emerged some new perspectives around which to design the programme.

Participants were invited to attend a series of one day workshops after completing a 360 multi-rater survey. We worked with a maximum of 12 people in each cohort, limiting the numbers so each group was at the right size for engaging in meaningful dialogue. In the first two workshops, participants shared the results of their 360 surveys and talked about their reactions to the feedback and the meaning they attached to what others said about them. The PeopleTalking coaches worked with each participant individually before the first workshop in order to create a space in which people felt safe sharing personal insights. Participants raved about their experiences of these first two workshops, reporting that they built stronger relationships with people they hadn’t met before in just two days, than they enjoyed with some colleagues with whom they had been working for years.

In subsequent sessions, the coaches brought some theory into each session based on themes identified in the initial needs analysis. Each workshop comprised theory, practice and reflection. Participants were also taught how to support each other in between sessions in putting new skills into practice. They were encouraged to decide on a few specific behavioural changes they could work on in between sessions, and taught how to elicit meaningful feedback from colleagues.

At the same time, we conducted a series of short virtual sessions with participant’s line managers. The purpose of these sessions was to ensure that managers knew what their direct reports were learning and had an opportunity to discuss with their peers how to best create an environment in which their people could best learn.

We designed an ongoing evaluation programme to run parallel. In the ongoing evaluation programme, we interviewed a sample of participants, some of their line managers and direct reports. By interviewing the same sample group at regular intervals, we were able to understand the broader impact of the programme and to make changes as we went to ensure the programme was successful. We reported our findings to a ‘governance committee’ of senior executives who not only decided on changes to the programme itself, but who were able to intervene at a more holistic level to ensure the organisational system supported group learning.


Boyatzis, R.E. (2008). Leadership Development from a Complexity Perspective. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 60(4), pp. 298–313
Higgs, M. & Rowland, d. (2011). What Does It Take to Implement Change Successfully? A Study of the Behaviors of Successful Change Leaders. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 47(3), pp. 309-335
Rowland, D. (2016). Why Leadership Development Isn’t Developing Leaders. Harvard Business Review, October 2016

COACHING: A retailer using coaching to drive change at the organisational level.

A retailer introduced a new coaching strategy built around the needs of the organisation as a whole. Whereas before, anyone in the business was able to hire a coach to address the needs of individual direct reports, a new external coaching panel was set up that demanded of coaches that they be prepared to engage in ongoing dialogue with the organisation. Coaches who didn’t want to engage with anyone other than their coachees were not invited onto the panel, nor were coaches who wanted to charge fees for talking to the organisation.

With the new panel in place, the impact of coaching was evidently enhanced. Through better understanding changes happening within the organisation’s environment (commercial, political, social, technological) coaches were able to demonstrate improved understanding of their coachee’s needs. Furthermore, the organisation developed a better understanding of its own system through listening to coaches talk about some of the themes they were encountering in their work. All of this was achieved without betraying confidentiality.

The organisation chose to work with coaches who were keen to draw other stakeholders into their coaching assignment. Three-way meetings with coach, coachee, and line manager became the norm. These meetings represented an opportunity not only for all parties to align around objectives and discuss progress, but also to work together to create environments that supported the coachee’s efforts to implement new learnings. Some coaches also used the sessions to work with the coachee and line manager together, helping them to reflect upon the dynamics of their interactions and relationships. Over time leaders across the organisation became more adept at thinking systemically and managing relationships between individuals and teams.

Leaders also got better at giving each other feedback, encouraged by their coaches to seek feedback directly from those with whom they needed to work and those who they needed to influence. While the organization continued to use 360 multi-rater instruments, the organisation placed at least equal emphasis on the importance of engaging in regular ongoing feedback. In the right circumstances coach and coachees stopped using multi-rater instruments and worked instead to bring feedback directly into the coaching relationship through three-way meetings with multiple stakeholders.

Over time, the organisation used group coaching more frequently, bringing leaders together from different parts of the organisation to learn together. They used team coaching with intact teams, helping them to become more effective. They built coaching skills programmes that were clearly positioned with reference to strategic objectives and that were attended by the senior executive. The organisation grew better and better at using coaching effectively, as evidenced by its ongoing evaluation programme that measured outcomes against the originally expressed purpose of coaching as defined by key stakeholders, including the senior executive team.


Cavanagh, M. (2006). Coaching from a systematic perspective: A complex adaptive conversation. In D. R. Stober & A. M. Grant (Eds.), Evidence based Coaching Handbook: putting best practices to work for your clients (pp. 313-354). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons

Grant, A.M. (2016). What constitutes evidence-based coaching? A two-by-two framework for distinguishing strong from weak evidence for coaching. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring 14(1), pp. 74-85

Lawrence, P. & Whyte, A. (2014) Return on investment in executive coaching: a practical model for measuring ROI in organisations. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 7(1), pp. 4-17

TEAM COACHING A State government organisation building team capabilities.

A State government organisation identified a major barrier to its efforts to turn around performance and tackle longstanding cultural issues. It had previously been focused on attempting to build new leadership capabilities by putting individual leaders through leadership programmes, and by rolling out an annual program of 360 multi-rater surveys.

The results were disappointing. Employee engagement surveys suggested that many leaders in the organisation didn’t feel their views were listened to, and regarded their teams as dysfunctional. The senior executive team were quietly regarded as ineffective. Members of the executive tended to focus on the performance of their own areas and didn’t work well together. This ‘silo’ effect was mirrored across the rest of the organisation.

A new CEO was appointed. She chose to shift the focus onto the performance of teams rather than the performance of individuals. We worked closely with the CEO to identify those teams whose performance was most critical to the success of the organisation as a whole, starting with the top team. Our coach interviewed each member of the top team individually in order to understand how different people experienced the team in operation. Over the course of the interviews themes emerged. It became apparent that:
Some members of the team felt excluded from key decision making.
Team members tended not to communicate with each directly. This method of communication was being inadvertently co-created by the CEO, who readily agreed to mediate between other executives.

The team was unclear on its mandate from outside and team members weren’t aligned with the stated purpose of the organisation. Executives were not getting along with each other and individuals blamed each other for poor relationships.

The coach played back the results of the interviews to the team without disclosing what individuals said. The team agreed upon a course of action, which included reconvening around a conversation on purpose and objectives while at the same time learning how to improve the way members of the team worked together.

The coach introduced the team to Structural Dynamics, a methodology that allows team members to notice and talk about intra-team dynamics in a morally neutral way. Team members came to understand that the tensions they were experiencing could be attributed to personal differences rather than personality flaws in others. They learned to appreciate each other’s differences and to leverage those differences in service of enhanced performance. More of our coaches started working with teams below the senior executive helping them to become similarly effective, and helping teams to communicate more effectively with each other.


Hawkins, P. (2011). Leadership team coaching: Developing collective transformational leadership. Philadelphia: Kogan Page.
Kantor, D. (2012). Reading the Room. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Lawrence, P. (2017). What do experienced team coaches do? Current practice in Australia and New Zealand. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring (in press)

TEAM COACHING: An executive team releases capability through collaborative conversations.

PeopleTalking was engaged to partner with an executive team to establish a model for team effectiveness. The organisation in question manages and operates an electricity transmission network in a rapidly changing environment. The project’s executive sponsor leads approximately 700 people with large infrastructure and budget responsibilities.

Executives were struggling to connect, not having the right conversations and there was unresolved conflict with low levels of trust. The right people were in the team but were stuck with some fracture points. The team designed a Structural Dynamics intervention approach with the purpose to enhance collaboration and team effectiveness in this complex environment. When the Structural Dynamics model is used effectively, untapped resources and unhelpful patterns can be quickly addressed. For this team, we discovered communication was at the heart of both its problems and opportunities. There was a real opportunity to harness the collective wisdom of the team which was vital if the team was to be operating at the required level for the increased business challenges ahead.

The approach is an example of ‘the how’ of Google’s team effectiveness research including Psychological Safety as a key dynamic for a successful team. As Kieran White, CEO, PeopleTalking shares: “We work with and know how to implement Google’s research findings to help organisations make it real for them.”
“This project involved a combination of one-on-one and group sessions, incorporating the Structural Dynamics methodology. It emphasised the importance of quality of the dialogue in creating a safe and trusting environment. From Google’s perspective, which helps validate our PeopleTalking systemic approach, Psychological Safety is the most critical scaffold that helps set up high performance teams.”.

Early results have shown a more empowered team with increased trust and confidence. When speaking with one of the executives recently, Kieran learnt that Psychological Safety levels had increased and that the confidence and quality of conversations had dramatically improved. He heard: “People are listening more, raising things earlier and are more confident in the conversations that they’re having. By tabling issues earlier, they are resolved more quickly. The Structural Dynamics approach has helped team members to understand each other’s styles and then acknowledge, tolerate and respect these.” 

When Kieran was asked about the key to PeopleTalking’s quick impact on the organisational system, he says: “We focus on releasing capacity versus building capacity. Changing the system of how a team is operating, is far faster than building individual capacity. When you change the system conditions, individuals release their capability. By changing the conditions in which members meet each other, dialogue and communication can be improved really quickly.” 

PeopleTalking worked with the team for a few months and focused on embedding their work into the system. Kieran continues, “The changes must continue when we’re not in the room to embed the change, our aim is to be less and less needed by the system until we’re ultimately not needed”. PeopleTalking is assuming ongoing consultation with the client to see what’s next and conduct a broader evaluation into business impact of the initiative.