“The future always comes too fast and in the wrong order”
“The future always comes too fast and in the wrong order” according to Alvin Toffler, an author and futurist. This is one of David Peterson’s favorite quotes, and he wants leaders and coaches to adapt. Peterson is the director of leadership and coaching at Google, a speaker and an author. He is a senior advisor to Contemporaryleadership.com, which is focused on equipping leaders to deal with disruption, complexity and change. He is also a senior advisor to 7pathsforward.com which helps executive coaches prepare for the changing competitive landscape.
I caught up with Peterson a few weeks ago. “Over the last 20 years I’ve been focused on how coaches go from novice to good to expert,” Peterson said. “That personal journey is important to me. It’s easy to be a good coach; it’s very hard to be a great coach. How do we get better has always been a part of my work. Peterson’s love of mastery and learning showed up early in his life. As a kid he wanted to be a rock star: “I had a love of the creative process, a love of words and a sense of fun,” he said. He took every class his high school offered and later did two majors in grad school.
Peterson was also somewhat of an iconoclast. “Not feeling like I had to fit in made things easier,” he said. “Early on I learned to do things without much consideration for what other people thought.” Peterson describes himself as on a mission to make learning faster, better, and more rewarding for people and organizations. Peterson is focused in particular on the DNA of the VUCA world. His version of “DNA” stands for “diverse, novel and adverse” and these are the conditions we all face now in a world which is VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
Although technology is certainly a major part of this alchemy, he called out three trends that are not technology related.
1) Leaders are getting better at self-directed development. They are more reflective, trying things more, asking for feedback more naturally. Leaders are doing for themselves a lot of what coaches used to do for them.
2) Coaching is being embedded throughout organizations – peers, managers, HR business partner all are learning the leadership and coaching skills. There are many sources of “everyday coaching” that exist in the environments of leaders today.
3) The nature of organizations is changing and the pace of change is growing exponentially. What leaders need to do is changing. “Some coaches are still focused on listening skills and finding your purpose skills,” Peterson said. “That’s not where the action is.”
Those three trends add up to an environment where coaches have to offer more. “Excellent coaches will think about how they help leaders solve their toughest, most complicated new and different problems.” Peterson articulated some areas that, in light of those trends, need more attention from coaches. For example, information overload is a significant problem. Leaders get hundreds of emails a day. They need to efficiently sort through what they should be paying attention to and how much attention to give. Not enough coaches are helping leaders with this, according to Peterson.
Peterson is also a contrarian on multi-tasking. Many “experts” think that people can’t multi-task. “I believe that multi-tasking is a critical skill for today and tomorrow,” Peterson said. “Leaders need to be intentional about how they direct their attention to focus on the most important and appropriate things.” He added: “When your direct report is trying to talk to you and you’re reading your email, you are not multi-tasking. You are doing one task when you should be doing another.”
In this environment where leaders have to increase their ability to filter their attention, coaches have to help leaders tune out the noise and tune in to what’s important. One way to do that is to help leaders build more habits in reflection and curiosity. One tool he suggests for leaders to develop this skill is to consciously turn their attention to the environment. When leaders enter a room prior to a meeting, for example, they can turn their attention for a few minutes to the set up of the room. Where are people sitting? Are some people looking down at their phones and focused on email while some are interacting with each other? What causes them to do that? Doing this for a few moments simply helps leaders practice reflecting and noticing. Building that habit helps them remember to focus their attention where and when they need to. Reflection is a critically important skill because it helps us make sense of the world, which is increasingly complex, paradoxical and changing.
Another topic Peterson is passionate about is for leaders to challenge themselves. “The way to challenge yourself is to lean into the places you don’t understand or feel comfortable. It’s like a muscle you have to develop.” Peterson shared his own strategy for doing that. “When I’m onstage at a panel at a conference, and somebody asks a question that I don’t know an answer, I have a commitment to just start talking; I just jump in. Doing that helps me put myself out there. I get better at thinking on my feet. It also gives others on the panel time to think and my ability to start the conversation most often provokes a thought in someone else.”
“Make conscious choices,” Peterson said. “The way to navigate in the world we are confronting now is to reflect on what you want and find your community that will help support you.”