‘Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.’
–All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr, 2014
However carefully work at your craft as a leader, the chances are that, at times, you feel overwhelmed by the demands on you. You may have an underlying feeling that you could do aspects of the job much better if you could freeze time for a couple of days and just catch up. Linked to this is the need for thinking space – to reflect on the overall aims of your leadership, your values, and the people for whom you are responsible.
You may may ask yourself questions, such as:
- Am I using my time in the best possible way?
- Could some tasks be streamlined, delegated, or even discarded to make things run more smoothly?
- Have I become a highly-paid administrator, rather than the mover and shaker I set out to be?
- Why do people delegate upwards to me, rather than solving challenges for themselves?
Coaching does not offer patent formulae, magic tricks or special insights. These may weave themselves through the work, but they are not its starting point. So, what is coaching for, and about? Well, coaching is about you, the coachee. In solution-focused brief therapy, the therapeutic process is sometimes likened to curling, a game on ice which originated in Scotland. In curling, the player’s role is to coax the stone across the ice using a broom. If the player starts sweeping on the other side of the ice from the curling stone, nothing will change. The player has to be alongside it to help it to stay on track, and to reach the goal more quickly.
This is an effective metaphor for coaching, which involves coming alongside leaders as travelling and thinking companions. Any coaching interaction starts with an assessment process, in which the coachee tells his or her story of leading. Listening is central at this stage. It is the fundament of good coaching, as well as effective leading. The coach will also ask clarifying questions, summarise to test understanding and suggest possible interpretations of issues raised. Everything is tentative at this stage and open to redefinition in the light of further exploration.
As a coach, when I listen to a coachee’s story, a picture begins to build in my mind. On the one hand, at a concrete level, I begin to understand how the coachee functions in his or her organisational context. At another level, a sense develops of where the obstacles may lie. This leads to drawing of a map which spans the growth areas, the leader and the larger, organisational picture. In coaching, we also focus on the personal factors brought by the coachee to the situation. Do they avoid certain situations because they feel they can’t handle conflict? Do they struggle with a sense of not being heard by key people? Do they feel a sense of shame because there are tasks they haven’t been able to complete? These insights shape the coaching encounter. One of the most creative aspects of the encounter is co-authoring a plan for the coaching journey. Typically, this consists of goals and themes to be covered. The plan is dynamic, and we adjust it according to changing needs as we go through the process.
The frame for the coaching is provided by the coachee’s organisation. It supplies much of the material for coaching sessions, and the intervention is located within the overall aims of the organisation. Insights gained through coaching need to be reality-tested in the workplace. This is achieved by setting up ‘experiments’ to be carried out between sessions, and then reported on. Some coachees find a 360 ̊ survey helpful in gathering authentic feedback from key stakeholders. Others ask the coach to observe them in action in meetings. MBTI, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, can provide a constructive focus on the coachee’s strengths, as well as the areas for development.
Coaching consists of a series of regular meetings between two people who both understand the daily maelstrom facing leaders in a busy organisation. It provides a refuge from that field of constant activity, but it is not a rest. Talking openly and honestly is work. It requires both the coach and the coachee to be fully present throughout the interaction. Planning and commitment on both sides are needed to ensure that growth can take place. As a coach, I spend many hours preparing for sessions and writing the session report after the meeting. The reports are shared with the coachee and provide a building account of the work which has taken place. The coachee needs to allocate time on a weekly basis to test out agreed strategies and to record the results. When all of these conditions are met, though, there are few things more rewarding and invigorating than a successful coaching encounter.
Jenny Lanyon, September 2016
Jenny Lanyon is an experienced executive coach and organisational consultant. She brings to her practice thirteen years of corporate experience, as well as twenty years as a counsellor. Are you interested in trying executive coaching? If so, please contact me to arrange an introductory Skype or face-to-face session.