A Framework for Change – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

A Framework for Change: Support and Challenge Model

Culture does not change because we desire to change it. Culture changes when the organization is transformed; the culture reflects the realities of people working together every day”
 – Frances Hesselbein

Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts, USA, became one of the most renown leaders of recent times. She believed that above all, people craved respect. And to show proper respect, a leader had to live her/his values.

One important element Frances learned throughout her career as a leader was to ask the right questions to clarify people’s thoughts and actions to ensure they were headed in the right direction. When she assumed leadership of the Girl Scouts USA, she relied heavily on the principles of Peter Drucker, a well-known management guru, called the Five Fundamental Questions:

  • What is our mission?
  • Who is our customer?
  • What does the customer value?
  • What are our results?
  • What is your plan?

As a result, the Girl Scouts grew to 2.25 million people with a workforce of over 780,000. Frances accomplished this at a time when the organization struggled to attract volunteers and membership was on a steep decline.

But how do we develop leaders who understand basic skills well enough to “coach” people into making change? How do we ask the right questions? How do we use the power of three here?

For instance, these three “how do we” questions are often used in coaching situations: How can we move from where we are today to where we want to be? How might we use our strengths peering into in the future to create positive outcomes? How do we teach leaders to support others?

Through the years, I’ve established a coaching framework that transforms weak, ineffective leaders into change management agents. This technique is known as the Coaches framework. The framework is a coaching modality aimed at leaders facing multiple challenges, crisis management, developing soft skills, and clarifying decision making, to name a few, to help them guide their organizations through the process of change – changing organizations, changing attitudes and changing themselves.

The framework is based on the work of Dr. Robert Hicks, the Director, Organizational Behavior and Executive Coaching, at the University of Texas at Dallas. Dr. Hicks is the author of Coaching as a Leadership Style (Routledge, 2014)and The Process of Highly Effective Coaching (Routledge, 2017). These two books dig deep into his Four-Square Framework philosophy, providing readers with a roadmap to the right questions to both support and challenge thoughts and actions. In fact, many of these powerful questions are commonly used in after action reviews. In the ones I’ve led, common questions are:

1. What do we want to keep doing?

2. What do we want to stop doing?  

3.  What are we doing now that that we need to start doing?   

Dr. Hicks mentions similar questions in his first book, Coaching as a Leadership Style. He calls them the “Three Magic Questions” because when people are asked these questions, they think of the many facets of solutions that can be tried or in undertaken order to make the change they want happen. The questions are a path forward, with all eyes on the future, not the past. And this approach is the critical difference between psychotherapy and professional coaching; while therapy focuses on the client’s past, coaching is future focused, like the difference between studying history and planning for space travel.

Dr. Hicks’ Four-Square Framework, which incorporates the work of many well-known psychologists and leadership theorists, in addition to Dr. Hicks’ approach, promotes methods of self-inquiry, self-actualization and self-awareness. These concepts are easily adapted by today’s leadership development experts. Using simple, but powerful questions, changing organizational culture becomes less of a struggle and more of an organizational revolution; a leader transforms his/her behaving from acting like an oligarch to modeling an organization’s values; an individual gains the confidence and clarity needed to change careers or seek that ever-elusive promotion.

So how do you get people to change and like it at the same time?

The idea is to develop people’s confidence in the leader and get them to take action in the direction you need the organization to go. For instance, public health. If leaders are modeling behavior, they wish people to follow, it brings more confidence to the change that is needed. If we want people to stop smoking, role models such as athletes, TV personalities and other celebrities are shown not smoking. In fact, for many years, cigarette smoking was not shown on TV or in the movies. By banning smoking from being portrayed as acceptable behavior on TV and in the movies, the entertainment industry demonstrated their commitment to public health and alignment with science. The moguls understood their millions of audience members were the prime targets that health officials needed to reach. Using on-screen stars from every demographic, the industry helped alter smoking behavior among great masses of people, by the millions. Cigarette advertising was and still is banned from TV commercials.

Seat belts are another good example. If we want people to wear seat belts, we gain credibility by role models who take the reins and exhibit the desired behavior. Wearing seat belts is another area where the entertainment industry has supported public health and safety. Even the bad guys are buckling up on TV and in the movies. Additionally, if we want kids to use seatbelts, parents, babysitters, Grandma and Grandpa need to buckle up as well. 

Both of these instances clearly demonstrate how by building confidence among the public, radical change is possible.

The Four-Square framework has two major principles:

Support and Challenge. These address the two ways people are most likely to embrace change: Thought and Action. Leaders support, in many ways, the action they want others to take: effective communication, modeling, reinforcement and reward. For instance – you’ll get ticketed driving without a seatbelt and will be banned from public places with a lit tobacco product. Leaders drive the change by helping people figure out the change being promoted is good and is necessary.

The tricky part is the challenge. For people to be challenged, their basic mindset must be put in question.

During the 2020 pandemic crisis, mixed messages coming from the very top leaders seem counterproductive. If we want to slow down a virus, a behavioral change (such as wearing a mask) was needed, but some leaders appeared in public without masks. And now we have the COVID-19 vaccine “resisters”, a whole new group of people stuck in erroneous thinking.

Maybe these folks need a bigger incentive or reinforcement, and some states are offering really incredible incentives to people who take the vaccine. Like cigarette smoking and seat belt wearing, there are consequences for not becoming vaccinated during to wind down a pandemic– more people will get sick and die. Somehow that message fails to resonate with a large part of the population in the post-pandemic time frame. What is the reason for the lack of challenge for thought? The mindset has begun to be questioned, but the idea or thought of the need for not taking the vaccine didn’t start off being properly modeled.

What we saw, instead, was a lack of effectively promulgating widespread positive communication, modeling, reinforcement, and reward.  Questions need to be asked in order for the public’s behavior to change, from dangerous to safe. Journalists, concerned citizens, and influential legislators all have a responsibility to question unsafe behavior, regardless of the source, when it affects the public good, safety and health.

Without this framework of inquiry, change in the public’s mindset and behavior is unlikely. Leaders in organizations dealing with similar issues around change and change management deal with the same problems. The status quo may no longer be working. We can’t be comfortable doing things the same way we’ve done them for years. Change happens whether we want it or not.

Think of the invention of the automobile. The transition from the horse and carriage impacted entire industries, including horse breeders, blacksmiths, and buggy whip makers. Now, buggy whips are not mass produced because there is not a high demand for them, and only “the horsey set” need blacksmiths, horse breeders and crops. Think of what stalls organizational change – inertia. If a change is introduced, like a “learning culture,” and no infrastructure is provided, how does the “learning culture” materialize? How do employees embrace learning without access to courses, mentors, tuition reimbursement, and in-house training?  

The same is true at any level for any kind of change.

The Negative Leader

A client of mine who was a senior leader from a major company is a good example of responding to challenge for thought and action. He presented as surly, disruptive, insulting, and harsh. His peers and direct reports avoided him. His performance review from HR was scathing because so many people had complained about his rudeness and abrupt manner. He knew he needed to make a change, or he’d be looking for another job soon.

After several months of coaching, it became clear that he had no idea how to use his assumed power as a leader; he had to change this negative behavior in order to survive. During one session, he described an uncomfortable meeting. As he walked through the details. It became clear immediately, that he was completely clueless about his poor leadership behavior. His body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and language used were examples of bullying behavior, but he had no idea of the impact on others

What he described as his own conduct clearly emerged as authoritarian and intimidating – standing up, hovering over the seated group, a boorish style of communication, demeaning in tone and word choice, the anger and disgust on his face as he told the story. It was clear to me that he needed a challenge to foster his awareness of his bad behavior. I challenged how he used his power as a leader.

“What did you hope to accomplish with your employees?” was the question.

It appeared that he used the power he had as a leader in an adverse way, and he was under the mistaken impression that this behavior motivated people. The challenge question elicited shock and disbelief.  He was incredulous.

 We walked through the whole meeting once again, parsing out all his actions and words. I then gave him another challenge question. “What would it be like for you if your boss used his power with you the same way?”

That simple question became his AH-HA moment. He had never thought of his bad behavior as his employees had, that he used his power negatively.

That was the moment he knew he had to make a change. Once this breakthrough happened, we shifted to support; the next question, “What small behaviors could you start tomorrow to make a difference?” supported his readiness for change and his ability to make a commitment to change. And he was eager to learn what he actions he needed to take to become a better leader.  

Another support question was “Who do you know who is liked as a leader?”

He admitted, a good leader has to have willing followers, and in order to have willing followers, he had to use his power as a leader in a positive manner. He made the list of positive actions for himself and began to follow his own plan back in the office. He learned to stay out of meetings where he had no key role. He began to reward co-workers and direct reports with gift cards for a job well done. He even learned to use common courtesy, good manners and simple etiquette as in saying, “Good morning!” and showing gratitude by thanking people with handwritten notes. And he stopped stressing over work 24/7.

Just a few simple, yet powerful questions launched a major behavior change and salvaged a career as a leader.

The People Pleaser

Another client, the head of an IT department, sought relief from overwork and stress. He never said “no” – his personality as a people pleaser always overtook any good decision-making process he had. He was determined to keep everyone at his workplace and at home happy, so he regularly worked late into the night on numerous projects. He also took responsibility for grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and childcare as his wife often traveled.

Eventually, he could not stay abreast of everything and was becoming stressed to the breaking point. After weeks of coaching, he continued to deny that there was any solution to his problem and even began to argue about it. Finally, his thoughts and actions had to be challenged.

 I asked “What do you want in the endgame? What is your goal?”

After some thought and further discussion, he finally admitted that all he wanted was to be happy. He experienced a glimmer of an “AH-HA” moment. Only then were we able to discuss achieving his goal through offering support for action.

The support question was: “What do you do now that makes you happy?”

He began to wistfully talk about some personal hobbies, like bee keeping and woodworking. Then I asked, “How can you do more of these things?”

He began to struggle as he placed himself into his imagined future, almost fearful to even think about his own happiness. He could not imagine a world where he was not taking care of every little detail. Instead, his need to please convinced him to take on more and more work, and his hobbies went neglected. His hives swarmed, and the bees all flew away, analogous to his idea of achieving his own happiness. It was challenging for him to realize that as a leader in the workplace or in the family, he could not spread himself so thinly.

He refused to give up any responsibilities. He worried about not getting things done perfectly. After three months of coaching, he admitted that he wanted to be happy, but he just could not reconcile his drive for perfection with his own self-care: relaxation, mental health, well-being, and happiness. He knew what happiness looked like, he just could not put himself in that mindset, regardless of how it was framed. He could imagine happiness; he could not take the needed action to create it. He stayed in what I like to call “the default future”; that is the future you get if you just do nothing differently. No decision to act is the decision.

The Four-Square Framework model developed by Dr. Hicks and accepted by many professional business coaches today, including myself, asks us to put ourselves through the proven process of change theory: Change your mind, change your actions. As Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest or most intelligent who will survive, but those who can best manage change.”

What Happens, then, When Senior Leaders Fail?

One of the most egregious examples of failure of leadership was painfully demonstrated by the Catholic leaders in Boston, with the whole child sex abuse scandal exposed during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Under Cardinal Bernard Law, abuse of children by priests was reported and documented, and the Church knew very well about these ongoing crimes against children. However, Cardinal Law did not defrock these pedophile priests, instead, he rotated them throughout the Dioceses of Boston over and over again. Under Cardinal Law, predator priests kept their priestly status, and moved freely about the Dioceses, only to abuse more child victims to unknowing parishioners. This heinous practice of moving priests from parish to parish perpetuated the crimes of these priests, only to come to light once the Boston Globe launched an investigation. Through its Pulitzer Prize reporting, the public came to learn that the Cardinal’s grievous practice had a long history, dating back many, many decades, and included his predecessors.

            We’ll never know Cardinal Law’s reasoning for reassigning these predator priests, but we now know his actions are classic examples of a massive failure of leadership. According to Globe reports, complaints about many priests were reported to the Cardinal in the decades before the Globe’s “Spotlight” investigation took place in the mid-1980s. Yet rather than protect his flock from harm, he protected those that harmed the flock.

At the time of the Globe’s exposé, predator priest cases were considered rare and isolated. The Globe’s extensive reporting revealed the ongoing criminal offenses, both in Boston and other areas of the United States and the world.

Cardinal Law ignored the facts, ignored the truth, and like many other Church leaders, ignored his duty to the faithful. The actions of Cardinal Law, who was “recalled” to Rome by Pope John Paul II, demonstrate the oligarchy of the Church and the impenetrable walls around it. In this case, only the press rose up to challenge the thoughts and actions of Cardinal Law and the Catholic clerical hierarchy.

After Cardinal Law’s departure, no prelate was left in Boston to manage the profoundly needed change in leadership. In his wisdom, Pope John Paul II appointed Cardinal Archbishop Sean O’Malley who came onto the scene in 2003. These were challenging times for O’Malley since Cardinal Law’s resignation was stoked by howls of protest from the victims and their families. Cardinal O’Malley’s successful track record with swift action against abusers, brought a whole new sense of ethics to the Church’s conduct in the Boston sexual abuse matter, supported the victims, and challenged the Boston Church’s status quo in handling abuse cases.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, as Bishop of Fall River, Mass, and in Palm Beach, Fla, O’Malley dealt with huge sexual abuse scandals and quickly moved to rectify the matter both with victims and in punishing the abusers. O’Malley changed the tone in Boston immediately by inviting abuse victims to his installation ceremony, many of which attended. He also moved to settle numerous lawsuits against the Church, rather than stonewall the victims.

In his installation speech, he acknowledged the pain of the victims and begged their forgiveness, a stark contrast to Cardinal Law, who was forced to face the reality which cost him his prestigious position as a “Prince of the Church” in Boston. And it appears that the Church never really took Law’s sins seriously, as he was reassigned to a high-ranking prelate’s position in Rome which he held until his death.

The lesson here is that any objectionable behavior that goes ignored by leadership – those at the top who know better- is a strong signal that good leadership is imperiled. Those “leaders” are in world of denial and delusion.

“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.” – Peter Drucker

Taken from Mary’s new book: The Leader You Don’t Want to Be: Transform Your Leadership Style from “Command and Control” to Visionary Leader.

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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

Buy My Book– coming soon

“The Field Guide” to The Leader You Don’t Want to Be