Helping STEMM Leaders Flourish With Coaching

Ruby Campbell's picture Submitted by Ruby Campbell April 23, 2020 - 3:50pm
Helping STEMM Leaders Flourish With Coaching

Developing and coaching leaders from STEMM fields (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) to help them flourish within cognitively diverse leadership teams has never been more important.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4th IR) is unfolding before us and leaders everywhere are seeking to harness new and emerging technologies to reach higher levels of innovation, productivity and prosperity. On the other hand, leaders are also grappling with global risks resulting from unmitigated leaps in industrial development. Risks include the current Covid-19 pandemic, climate change disasters and technological instabilities, such as cyberattacks (WEF, 2019, 2020).

To deal with these increasingly complex issues, we need to harness the knowledge and skills from the STEMM fields by creating pathways to cognitively diverse senior leadership teams. Cognitively diverse teams are more effective by producing innovative solutions of higher quality and at faster pace. By helping STEMM leaders flourish with coaching, we can help build more effective leadership teams who will, in turn, drive better outcomes.

New skills for a new industrial revolution

We’re entering the 4th IR, a term first introduced by the founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, in 2016. Building on the wide availability of digital technologies of the 3rd Industrial Revolution (also known as the Digital Revolution), the 4th IR is driven by the convergence of digital, biological and physical innovations resulting in gigantic leaps in industrial development.

Many seemingly unthinkable technologies are changing our lives, for instance robotics, AI, 3D printing, quantum computing, and low-cost gene sequencing and CRISPR. These innovations have repositioned the importance of STEMM competencies in contributing to economic growth, productivity and quality of life in general.  

Not surprisingly, the UN identified the central role of STEMM in the collective achievement of the 17 sustainable development goals by 2030, to ensure that all individuals enjoy the benefits of innovation whilst mitigating global risks (UNESCO, 2015, 2018). These global goals involve all parts of society, including large organisations, academia, and governments.

As the 4th IR unfolds, business leaders across all industries and regions are being called upon to formulate a comprehensive workforce strategy ready to meet the challenges of this new era (WEF, 2018). In 2022, while proficiency in new technologies will be crucial, so will skills such as creativity, originality, initiative, critical thinking, analytical thinking, attention to detail, resilience, flexibility and complex problem-solving skills.

Whilst it is widely agreed that solutions to the challenges the world faces today require a new multidisciplinary scientific workforce equipped with new STEMM skills (Australian Government, 2016, 2017), there’s also growing recognition of need for interdisciplinary thinking to integrate multiple STEMM concepts to solve them (UNESCO, 2019).

Cognitive diversity for higher performance

We’re currently witnessing the far-reaching consequences of having (or not having, depending on the region, state or country) cognitively diverse teams dealing with the highly complex issues pertaining to the Covid-19 pandemic. Places like Australia and New Zealand, national leaders made policy decisions with STEMM experts from the outset in order to protect lives whilst managing the economic impact on all citizens.

Cognitively diverse teams have different thinking styles, knowledge, skills, values and beliefs represented around the decision-making table. Such teams generate the most innovative, faster and balanced solutions to achieve the best outcomes. A 2017 HBR paper summarised studies suggesting that higher cognitive diversity (i.e., higher knowledge processing capacity and broader perspectives) correlates with better performance.

In addition, having cognitively diverse teams can reduce the incidence of “groupthink” and other psychological biases that can lead to dysfunctional and even catastrophic decision-making.

Challenges faced by STEMM leaders

With so many compelling reasons for professionals to pursue STEMM careers and advance to senior leadership teams, it can be surprising to find that only 52% of STEMM university — trained professionals remain in the STEMM workforce (excluding medicine), according to the Pew Research Centre. There are several reasons for this, some linked to socioeconomic factors and education access, which are being addressed by governments around the world.

However, there are other systemic factors that have recently come to the surface through surveys by STEMM publications such as New Scientist. These surveys point to several types of discrimination within the STEMM fields, preventing the entry and/or advancement of certain groups of society. These include women and so-called minority ethnic groups, among others.

Perhaps less talked about, are the tacit biases against STEMM professionals as a result of changes in modern society favouring the extroverted and charismatic leader. The myriad and complex systemic factors hindering the potential of less extroverted personalities were brought to the surface of popular discourse by bestselling author Susan Cain, in her seminal book Quiet in 2012. Indeed, her keynote at the 2018 Coaching in Leadership and Healthcare Conference by the Institute of Coaching, McLean, Affiliate of Harvard Medical School was deeply inspirational as she encouraged coaches to be mindful of these complex factors when working with our clients.

Opportunities and helping STEMM leaders flourish

Coaches can play a pivotal role by helping STEMM leaders develop the necessary capabilities to lead in this new era and by helping “build bridges” between diverse thinking styles within teams and organisations.

As such, a multifaceted approach to coaching STEMM leaders was developed resulting in the evidence-based leadership coaching framework “SCIENCE”.  It draws from the coaching psychology INSIGHT model for transitional coaching, developed by coaching psychologists Sheila Panchal and Stephen Palmer, and it was endorsed by Professor Anthony Grant (Director of the Coaching Psychology Unit at The University of Sydney and member of the IOC Science Advisory Council).

The framework has been successfully applied since 2017 in coaching programs for STEMM leaders in Australasia, helping them flourish and advance to influential leadership roles. It is also at the heart of the national Australian program 'Towards Diverse Boards: Pathways to Directorship' developed in collaboration with the Cooperative Research Centres Association and the Governance Institute of Australia to “up-skill” 100 leaders over 5 years on the pathway to board positions.

The SCIENCE of leadership coaching framework

The SCIENCE framework consists of 7 umbrella modules, each one capturing evidence-based coaching and leadership development tools. Below is a summary of each module as presented to and in a “language” that resonates with the client (in this case, the STEMM leader).

Self-knowledge development – Gain self-insight and accept its value as basis for life and career decisions. Understand your personality and character strengths to maximise decision outcomes. Learn about your blind spots and establish feedback loops for ongoing growth.

Conceptualise mental complexity – View life transitions as an integral part of human development and career progression. Explore levels of mental complexity and links to leadership. Strive for higher levels by bolstering autonomy, mastery and relatedness.   

Investigate leadership style & capabilities – View leadership as a process whereby the leader influences others to achieve a goal. Explore leadership styles and identify capabilities needing development. Leverage scientific mind to challenge stereotypes and develop leader identity.

Emotional intelligence enhancement – Explore pivotal role played by emotional intelligence capacities in achieving positive outcomes. Apply innate curiosity, creativity and problem-solving qualities to enhance EQ. Augment communication skills for influential leadership.

Nurture resilience & wellbeing – Build positive strategies to deal with transition and any change challenges adaptively. Strengthen physical, emotional and mental strength, and meaning-making capacity to maintain. Establish restorative rituals to support high performance.

Consolidate transition process – Promote positive evaluations of the past, present and future. Achieve clearer self-concept, identity and coherence. Allow enough time and space to work through the process of transition by applying coaching science tools.

Enable sustainable change – Understand that change is not linear; it’s messy and it takes time. Set values-based, fully integrated goals, strategies and solutions. Develop action plans to replenish internal and external resources to stay on track.

Final comments

STEMM leaders possess essential skills to help us navigate the 4th IR. Coaches are in a rare position to help STEMM leaders develop the leadership capabilities needed for them to advance into influential roles and form integral parts of cognitively diverse leadership teams.

The SCIENCE of leadership coaching framework provides an accessible approach for coaches and STEMM clients to work together and overcome individual and organisational obstacles. In doing so, coaches can help STEMM leaders flourish, as well as their teams, their organisations and society at large.

References

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Australian Government Office of the Chief Scientist. (2016). Australia’s STEM Workforce: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (pp. 2-158). Canberra, Australia: Commonwealth of Australia.

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