Coaching can be used in a wide range of working environments, even in the field of science. In the international project presented here, a mixed approach was used for both knowledge transfer as well as coach-led reflection. The aim was to provide individualised support for participating doctoral candidates and also to develop the interdisciplinary and culturally diverse team. What was achieved? What recommendations can be derived for future projects?
This article looks at an international EU project and how it succeeded in supporting the participants individually and as a team, thereby connecting ten different cultures. It was important for this project, which was supported by a coach, to achieve effective integration of stakeholders and participants and to create a win-win situation for everyone involved. What value and long-term impact did the collaboration with a coach have for this EU project and what recommendations are relevant for future (EU) projects?
The WiBEC project
The “Wireless-in-Body-Environment” (WiBEC) project was sponsored by the European Commission between 2016 and 2019, and was led by Prof. Dr. Ilangko Balasingham with a budget of 3.957 million euros. WiBEC is an innovative training network for 16 young international researchers, who are recruited, coordinated and trained by scientific institutions, industrial enterprises and hospitals. The main goal of WiBEC is to provide high-quality and innovative doctoral education. The focus is on the development of wireless technologies for innovative implantable devices that contribute to improving the quality and efficacy of healthcare. Two main medical areas were selected: the heart and the gastrointestinal tract. The doctoral candidates were divided into two groups accordingly. The value of the programme is the training of junior researchers in biomedical technology and various other engineering specialisations in the context of this multinational, cross-sector and interdisciplinary project. The WiBEC consortium is comprised of three major universities, two hospitals and three companies in different European countries.
A particular feature of the project is that every doctoral candidate took part in several secondments during the project. This involved the students leaving the main site of their consortium partner for which they were recruited and working on parts of the project for several weeks or months at the premises of a different consortium member, together with the student based there. Thanks to this way of working, new developments can be worked on across sectors and disciplines, even across national borders, and the doctoral training can become more multi-faceted. WiBEC is aware of gender inequality, especially in the field of engineering, and therefore one quarter of the young researchers recruited were females.
Requirements of the client
Due to the great importance and visibility of the results of the WiBEC project, tailored coaching interventions were requested to contribute to an accelerated learning and team development process. The team coaching interventions described following were not planned from the outset, but were developed during the project in a special session for females in engineering. During this meeting, a member of the supervisory board came up with the idea of integrating a coach who is engaged in research on females and meets the requirements of science and industry. The internationally active coach also needed to have a science-based qualification and many years of experience in project management, leadership and team coaching.
Challenges from the perspective of the supervisory board member
The supervisory board member mentioned above saw a range of challenges to be overcome, especially in the areas of hierarchy, trust, persuasion and team development. The international group of doctoral candidates collaborating on this project did not know each other and were employed across a range of disciplines. However, right from the start they needed to consider themselves as a unit, relate to a group (heart or gastrointestinal tract) and act as a team. They also needed to get to grips with their new role as doctoral candidates. This proved to be a challenge in the first consortium meetings. The coach broke the ice with the first team coaching intervention, encouraging the students to get to know each other in a playful way.
The various interventions included a psychometric personality test and the resulting understanding of the different behaviours and value systems of the doctoral candidates. The team was also asked to apply the characteristics of a group of oak trees (connected underground by their roots; strengthen each other when one tree needs nutrients; in stormy times, the entire group of trees stands together and can rely on the strength of the community) as a metaphor for an intercultural, interdisciplinary team, and to put in place measures in which these characteristics of the oak trees would be visible in their team spirit. Another exercise saw the team members coming up with a way to attract positive attention from their stakeholders.
They realised that they were all pursuing the same goal of finishing their PhD within the four years of the project. This brought them together as a team and encouraged them to work together during the secondments.
The young supervisory board member, who belonged to the board together with her supervisor and was supported by the coach, initially struggled to make herself heard on a hierarchical level. She became aware that the members of the supervisory board were all of different nationalities and hierarchical levels, and that she had to deal with these aspects. The coach provided her with targeted support through reflecting her position and showing her how she could create value and win-win situations. The focus was on the individually increased visibility of a female leader in a male-dominated environment and the successful contribution and implementation of innovative ideas and approaches that the supervisory board member was convinced would add value. This included the supervisory board member’s conviction that a second workshop should be held, owing to the success of the first. To achieve this, on advice of the coach, she sought support from the students, who were asked to report on the value of the workshop to the other supervisory board members. She succeeded in getting the project coordinator on her side relatively quickly and convinced him of the merits of the team coaching interventions, but this was not sufficient to allow a second workshop. Both the supervisory board member and the coach were aware that some members of the board were not yet convinced of the value of coaching and that team coaching for the doctoral candidates’ mentors would be useful from the start of the project. Nevertheless, the doctoral candidates were able to convince the supervisory board members to approve a second team coaching workshop.
The personal goal of the supervisory board member was to gain recognition and respect – both personally and also for her company, which was a new project partner in an international environment. She achieved this through creating the win-win situations described here, which she established with the assistance of the coach.
Challenges from the perspective of the coach
The coach decided to adopt a team coaching approach that would increase the students’ awareness of complex and strategic interrelationships and thus trigger specific changes. This made sense, because the junior researchers will be the next generation of leaders and thus should be familiar with Leadership 4.0 and Gender Diversity – topics that were included in the workshop.
The aim of the coaching approach was to support the doctoral candidates, supervisory board members and stakeholders in the successful implementation of the individual and overall goals of the project. If this were to be achieved with the limited resources available, interaction at various levels would be required in order to create value for the participants. The initial position proved to be challenging, as only one workshop had been approved for the project. The coach’s goal, therefore, was to hold a very successful first workshop to increase the chances of having another approved. The positive feedback from doctoral candidates after the first workshop and repeated requests by participants to the supervisory board for further support meant that a second workshop was approved, as outlined above.
A high degree of transparency in the methods and results was extremely important for all those involved in this project. This took place in various ways, including regular communication with doctoral candidates and supervisory board members, which ensured an iterative learning process. In addition, a total of two workshops were held, supported by teleconferences, e-mails and face-to-face meetings. The expectations of the participants were gathered prior to the first workshop and the coach gave a brief presentation.
The team coaching initiative
The team coaching initiative was made up of three main components: leadership training, strategic career development and team development. A team building workshop was held at the start of the initiative, with another workshop at the end focusing on Leadership 4.0, strategic win-win situations, reflection and lessons learned. The doctoral candidates were instructed to organise and conduct two teleconferences with two executives (CEO and vice president) from different industries.
The workshops included the presentation and discussion of strategies for successfully climbing a career ladder and proving oneself in the respective position. Years of experience as a coach and the results of the coach’s dissertation on strategic career development of female and male leaders within the context of female quotas provided the participating doctoral candidates with comprehensive resources on basic principles of power, strategies for career development, influencing stakeholders and visibility in the company. Another important aspect was team development, which was strengthened through activities such as brainstorming and targeted intercultural tasks.
The workshops involved a mixed approach of knowledge input and coach-led reflection. The coach gave insights into power-, leadership- and gender-specific theories and challenged the doctoral candidates to translate these into practical approaches. The following topics were discussed in detail and some were included in the reflection:
- Development of leadership qualities and abilities
- Development of strategic skills
- Becoming familiar with power games
- Discovery and fostering of personal strengths
- Learning as an international, multicultural team to combine personal strengths
- Gender diversity
- Tips on self- and time management skills
- Planning ahead: Next steps after the European project
- Obstacles for females on the path to leadership positions, how to overcome these and become successful
Results and feedback
The two workshops as part of the coaching initiative were held in 2018, the first in February in Paris and the second in November in Trondheim. The goals were achieved through a combination of individual and team coaching. The close collaboration with one supervisory board member supported the alignment of the overall strategy. This person was a qualified member and acted as liaison between the doctoral candidates, coach and other supervisory board members. This approach empowered both the team and the individual team members:
- The success stories shared by the doctoral candidates contributed to a positive and constructive atmosphere, and had a positive effect on mastering new challenges and issues.
- Better decision-making through agile planning, design and immediate implementation
- Improved reflection skills on what is required to turn challenges into success stories
- Knowledge of stakeholder management and the importance of networking
- Improved communication and leadership skills
- Better handling of conflicts
- Strategic action to achieve goals
The doctoral candidates were given various tasks to boost their leadership skills. The doctoral candidates improved their conflict and communication skills in the team coaching sessions and worked on their leadership qualities with the advice from their peers. The feedback that they received from the coach and their colleagues supported them in training their solution-oriented thinking. Transferring the concepts from theory to practical application and the associated reflection trigged a paradigm shift for several students.
All the findings were reviewed at the end of the second workshop in a “lessons learned” session and were summarised on the board; examples included “Stay hungry! Never give up! Deliver what you were asked for! Be ready to learn! Be adaptable! Leave your comfort zone. Stay calm! Always have a Plan B. Always have a time buffer. Be grateful.”
“It was completely different to the technical training that we are used to,” commented a participant from Italy. “We became more familiar with our potential both as individuals and as a group. The first course focused in particular on the awareness of each ESR (early stage researcher) as an individual. I realised the importance of personality heterogeneity in groups to achieve a common goal. We experienced a different coaching approach in the second course. That course focused on us as a group, especially as an international team. I learned how important it is to be aware of the cultural background of the individual in the working environment. These introspective courses helped to strengthen the personal and professional relationships between the ESRs, which also contributed to the success of the WiBEC project. I also learned how important mentoring is for improving my future career, and I now feel less hesitant to seek personal advice.”
Recommendations for international projects, companies and coaches
Coaching is an effective tool for improving performance, achieving results and optimising personal effectiveness. If future European projects want to become benchmark models for other international projects, it would be advisable to document the iterative learning progress and integrate the different perspectives of each stakeholder to promote increased sustainability. The process included coaching, presentation and visibility, as well as challenging activities that proved to be essential for the iterative learning process of the doctoral candidates. The challenge for the coach was to create space for learning and development, while simultaneously managing team and performance dynamics. The team coaching events were well received by the doctoral candidates. The team coaching approach enabled the doctoral candidates to make connections on both personal and professional levels.
Despite the satisfaction of the participants and stakeholders, the goals of the coaching initiatives and team development were only partially achieved. The synergies could only be partially consolidated in terms of a uniform approach as a cohesive team. This is mainly due to the limitation of just two workshops during the project. The coaching process would have benefited from individual and team coaching sessions at the start of the project, as well as active involvement of stakeholders. In retrospect, there are a number of things that could form a holistic basis for further projects:
- Kick-off meeting with the supervisory board members to become familiar with expectations
- Additional team coaching workshops at the start of the project
- Team coaching for the supervisory board
- Four coaching meetings per doctoral candidate
- Close collaboration between the coach and a supervisory board member
- Regular communication between coach and supervisory board
In summary, it is clear that the coaching process integrated into this EU project was of great benefit to participants and stakeholders. Adjusting the duration and scope of coaching helped to accelerate goals and deepen reflection with accompanying lessons learned and practical transfer.