Welcome to the second installment of my office hours articles, discussing real life leadership challenges. Leadership need not be a lonely or isolated pursuit. I’m a leadership coach and I’m here to support you and help your leadership shine bright.

Disclaimer: Coaching is a conversation; it is both active and collaborative, This article can be neither, so I construct an interpretation and hope it has enough truth to be useful and interesting. Ultimately it reveals more about me, as a coach and a human being, than it does our contributor.

Challenge #2 – Building Autonomy


I’m a delivery Director in a digital agency. I am developing a governance role for all of the projects and programmes in my client group, and working to do so in a way that is human-centred (rather than tech or finance).

I recently facilitated a retrospective for our largest programme. Key themes emerged; meeting management, relationships, feedback, and ownership. Some good actions were taken and I’m confident that if I keep a fire lit under the improvement work, things will improve.

My dilemma is that I feel that I am looked at as someone who has answers, but my intention is to help foster/create/nurture a safe working environment where people want to, and can shape their own destiny. My challenge then is how can I help the team help themselves. The session was good but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t inspiring and now I feel a little flat, a little ‘meh’. 

I have sent the attendees a structured feedback form. One goal is to get the feedback I need, and another is to encourage others to seek feedback on their work. In addition, I’m considering offering the programme leadership team half a day of my time to work on ‘how do we help the programme help itself?

J.D. (no their real name)


Whoa! There’s a lot going on here, right? A lot to pick our way through! Let’s acknowledge that our Director has a lot going on, clearly cares, and is living with the impact of this situation. JD seems to be sitting with frustration and disappointment, perhaps tiredness since this seems to be an ongoing situation.

If JD is feeling stuck in these feelings and reactions, unable to get past them, then this could be a place to start. The only way to know if this is what serves JD best is to ask!

I offer these observations to see if they resonate, to prompt deeper reflection, and find more clarity.

I could invite JD to spend a short while sitting with whatever feelings they are noticing as they talk through this challenging situation. Frustration?

Frustration like what? 

JD starts paying attention to their body, to what’s going on for them and how it impacts them, now, in this moment. JD is exercising some self awareness muscles.

Self management

There’s a lot to be curious about here, and I have to self manage. My interest and attention is on supporting JD, and not on solving their challenge.

So for the moment I push questions away, since I want JD to set the agenda.

  • (What is human centered?)
  • (What’s it like to keep the fire lit under the improvement work?)
  • (What’s important to you about the improvement work?)

What are we really talking about here?

Is this is a question about leading leaders,

is this is a question about self confidence,

is this is about modelling the behaviours you value,

is this is about building culture around well communicated and shared values,

is this a question about building a culture of autonomy?

All the while I’m listening deeply, three different ways at the same time.

Tool: 3 levels of listening…

Imagine you’re in a 1:1 conversation with a direct report, and listening as they relate a current project difficulty. Where is your attention? What are you listening to?

Level 1: You’re attention is on yourself. You’re thinking about how you’d solve the problem. You’re listening to the words that are being spoken, but you’re paying attention to your own thoughts, opinions, judgements. (Your report is likely in level 1).

Level 2: You’re attention is over there with your report. They will feel they are being listened to. You’ll hear what they are saying and you’ll see how they are being; where there are conflicts. Perhaps the words speak to excitement, but the body, posture and energy scream the opposite. You’ll learn about your direct report.

Level 3: Your attention brings in the rest of the world, and ties levels 1 and 2 together. Perhaps you realise you’re feeling anxious and this might be coming from your report. From level 3 listening you have access to your intuition. You will hear patterns.

Where is your listening?

Desired outcomes

For our coaching to be effective it’s important that JD is clear on their topic, and that we work initially to clarify what the desired outcomes are.

A well defined outcome will enable JD to forward their action toward that outcome, and at the same time, deepen their understanding of themselves and the topic.

One approach I might take in this conversation is to use the Problem-Remedy-Outcome model (Lawley and Tompkins, 2011) from the field of NLP. It may seem a little awkward at first, but try it; it’s very powerful.

Tool: P.R.O.

Using 3 very specific questions, and, importantly, JD’s own words exactly replayed, we can navigate through layers of noise to JD’s desired outcomes. Here’s one version of how this might sound with JD.

Coach: “What would you like to have happen?” 

Several iterations here are usually required. Answers are often problem statements, remedy statements, or eventually desirable outcomes.

JD: “I have to keep a fire lit under the improvement work” (this is a problem-statement, not a desired outcome)

Coach: “And when you have to keep a fire lit under the improvement work, what would you like to have happen”?

JD: “I want the teams to drive their own improvement work” (this is a remedy-statement, still not a desired outcome).

Coach: “And when the teams drive their own improvement work, then what happens?”

JD: “Then they deliver excellent client experiences.”

Coach: “So you want to deliver excellent client experiences? (This could be the desired outcome JD wants to achieve, so let’s ask. Maybe it’s this. Maybe JD wants something different).

Values and Beliefs

One thing I desire for JD is that they are fulfilled, by making choices that honour their values (this is where fulfilment is found).

In this challenge JD hints at values (e.g. ‘human-centred’). Other places to find values are where they are being trashed (e.g. ‘It drives me nuts when people are late to my meetings’).

Here I’ll stretch what I see a little. (Consider this an offer to you JD; only you can know if these are true, or close, or miss the mark).

Values: A person-centred approach to work (people are unique, not just ‘resources’); psychological safety in the workplace; autonomy (for self and others); flat organisational hierarchy (job titles should not be a boundary)

Beliefs: People want autonomy; want to self actualise; have good intent; want to be involved

Autonomy feels important, so let’s go with this, for the sake of exploration here. I’m curious about this, specifically what autonomy means to JD.

Autonomy like what?

Autonomy can mean different things to different people. Let’s dig deeper here to help JD name what else is here around autonomy.

I’m curious about Autonomy and how it plays into JD’s behaviours, values, beliefs, purpose and vision.

Building autonomous teams

As a people-centred leader, JD likely believes people seek self actualisation; they seek autonomy, mastery and purpose.

There are real implications here for JD’s organisation – recruitment, training, development, communication, culture, accountability, leadership.

Autonomy has 3 important elements; competence, shared understanding, and trust (see Ferguson, 2017).

Shared understanding and trust are interesting, since they are 2 way streets and thus speak to JD’s capabilities (as does competence). We could look at the creation and communication of a compelling vision, goal setting, and accountability as areas of potential personal development and a source of actions.

How do you see autonomy and rules?

Let’s run with this version of the conversation.

Our Director values autonomy, and believes that others are alike and seek self-actualisation. The vision JD holds is for the project teams to operate with autonomy, sharing best practices and to have the capabilities to meet their goals. But the organisation is not yet there, however, and JD feels the need to keep the fire lit, for now, driving the governance work. JD is modelling what they want for their direct reports.

Leading leaders

The challenge is about how to build autonomy within the teams; this is about how to lead leaders.

The dissonance JD feels may be around this value, and it not being demonstrably shared by the project leads.

I’m curious about the relationship between the JD’s value of autonomy, and their comfort in a highly-directive leadership style. (If you are free to choose the route, you must first be absolutely clear on the required destination).

What is accountability to you?

If autonomy is the freedom to choose how to execute, there needs to be accountability for meeting business goals. And I wonder what accountability looks like here; how and where is it discussed; what does it look like; how does it show up?


How does JD co-create the culture around these values, both how effectively they think they do it, and how effectively their reports think they do it. How does JD model these values for others, how and where are they talked about, how often?

I’d like JD to check their self-awareness. There are 2 aspects to this; JD’s awareness of themselves in the moment; and importantly, JD’s awareness of how they are perceived by others.

A useful way of testing this is through having both JD and some of their key stakeholders provide feedback. As a starting point, the Google re:Work blog provides a simple customisable Manager Feedback Survey. Note that an important part of this process is for the leader to share the feedback with their team.

If our Director values autonomy of their teams, then what is non-negotiable, a pre-condition? What does JD take a stand for? Perhaps qualities around the human-centred values (honesty, respect, trust); what behaviours are table-stakes to create psychological safety?

Leadership Styles

What is JD’s natural leadership style? We could look at one model, Situational Leadership, and discuss how this default preference fits the current and desired situation; maybe take some actions here, incorporating stakeholder feedback in the process.


What will JD commit to as we wrap up? What actions will JD have created? How will JD be accountable for that work?

I’d make the request that JD takes the manager feedback survey, and customises it; sits down with their stakeholders and presents the survey, making clear they will share and discuss the results and hold themselves accountable for change.

What would you offer JD to lighten the load of this leadership challenge? Please add to the comments. And also please share your feedback about this office hours leadership challenge.

Further Reading

If this article isn’t working for you, I do appreciate you trying. There’s plenty straight up ‘how-to’ advice out there. Here are some interesting and informative examples:

Ancona, D., Isaacs, K. (2019) How to Give Your Team The Right Amount of Autonomy (article). Harvard Business Review. Available from https://hbr.org/2019/07/how-to-give-your-team-the-right-amount-of-autonomy [Accessed: 10 September 2019]

Ferguson, J. (2017) The Art of Building Autonomous Teams (blog) John Ferguson Smart. Available from: https://johnfergusonsmart.com/art-building-autonomous-teams/ [Accessed: 12 September 2019].

Google (2019) Give feedback to managers (blog) Google re:Work. Available from: https://rework.withgoogle.com/guides/managers-give-feedback-to-managers/steps/introduction/ [Accessed 13 September, 2019].

Lawley, J., Tompkins, P. (2011) Symbolic Modelling : Emergent Change through Metaphor and Clean Language. Chapter 4 in Innovations in NLP: Innovations for Challenging Times. Crown House Publishing. 

Maimon, A. (2017) How Self-Managed Teams Can Resolve Conflict (article) Harvard Business Review. Available from https://hbr.org/2017/04/how-self-managed-teams-can-resolve-conflict [Accessed: 11 September 2019]