This blog post is the opening words of the new book which I am writing this year. The book explores key coaching themes and reflections from my coaching practise…
It had begun as a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach, the sense that it would take just one simple little irritant to push me over the edge so that I would flip and scream at whoever happened to be in front of me at the time. My body was flushed with adrenalin and all of the associated chemicals as a result of a day when things that I had hoped would work didn’t, and I was being blamed for things where I had no influence over the outcome. The chemicals in my body, throwbacks from the animal needs of early man, were wanting me to fight, freeze or take flight. In a modern office block, none of those was an option.
This state was something that overwhelmed me at regular points in my life. And I guess it’s not just me! Many of us experience burnt-out or heavy stress levels as the different aspects of our lives flood over us and leave us feeling out of control.
At different points in my own career, I have looked for support to help with challenges that everyday life throws at us. Sometimes that help came from the boss, or a work colleague who was prepared to listen. Often times it didn’t!
In my twenties I figured out that finding a mentor was a good way to find someone with the time, the experience and the integrity to listen and advise without having a vested interest. Then, later in my career I was offered my first opportunity to have some coaching. As often happens, this wasn’t exactly coming from a positive space. It was not coaching for me to develop and build my career. No, it was coaching that was offered because the organisation I was working in was being abolished and everyone (above a certain grade!) had access to coaching as part of the transition. Put positively, this was a generous opportunity to explore my options and avoid unemployment. More sceptically put, it was the employer being seen to be doing something, and looking at ways to minimise redundancy costs. Either way, in my eyes it was a great opportunity to dig myself out of a hole. I took it up enthusiastically and arranged to meet Tony for my first session. Tony was a senior coach for a consultancy based in London. He was offering coaching to a group of us in one-to-one sessions. To maximise efficiency, I met him in a hotel just off a Motorway in the North West of England.
A small meeting room in a modern, with slightly tired decorating, hotel on the outskirts of Warrington. Tony was waiting for me and had a tray with coffee and biscuits on it. This was my first experience of coaching. It was 2002. I had met with mentors before that, but had a niggling feeling that working with someone who is offering “wise counsel” is not exactly empowering. In fact, one of those mentors used to spend most of the hour reflecting on his successes since we had last met. I wasn’t sure at times who was supposed to be mentoring who. Other mentors had been incredibly helpful at helping me to network, find new jobs, and solve problems.
Tony brought a very different approach to his sessions with me. He brought questions, not solutions. The answers were left for me to work out. He also challenged a lot of the assumptions I had about the world and the reality that I experienced. Tony was one of five different coaches that I have worked with throughout my career. They have all taken different approaches, but the description I have just given would be one common theme that typifies what coaching is.
Since 2005 I have been working as a coach and developing my own skills. This book sets out the key topics that I particularly enjoy working with and feel that I have some strengths in as a result of my own experiences, and also some of the themes that recur in coaching practise.
There are two big issues in many descriptions of coaching which are worth emphasising. Much of the literature about coaching emphasises that the coach doesn’t need to be highly skilled in the work of the client. Coaching practise in leadership and the workplace builds on the early practise in sports coaching. Many people stress that the top class athlete is not trained and coached by someone who is better than them. Rather, the focus is on finding someone to coach who can bring objectivity and a questioning challenge to how we work. That is the gold dust of coaching. So, we don’t necessarily need direct experience to be able to coach someone in their context. Tony had little or no understanding of the world of research management that I was working in. But he did understand career transitions, how to apply skills to a job change, and how to navigate difficult organisational change. That was the space where he was particularly helpful. So, the coach doesn’t necessarily bring subject specific expertise – in fact sometimes that expertise can get in the way of the coach being objective and challenging the things we take for granted. I have often found myself needing to sit back and avoid leaping in with a solution for a client because I think I understand their situation. I don’t! Only they have the detailed knowledge and understanding that will help them to find their own solution.
The second issue, which I often need to stress when I meet a new client, is the need for an eclectic approach. Many coaches identify a specific coaching perspective or training approach and define that as their own particular brand or technique. Thus, if you search for coaches you will find NLP coaches, Behaviourist coaches, Gestalt coaches, Strengths Based coaches. And so on. There are many different approaches. A skilled coach will realise that they need to acquire a diverse mix of approaches and be prepared to draw on them according to the challenges that the client brings to the coaching session. The danger of only having one approach is that the coaching session becomes like the man prowling the house with a hammer – everything begins to look like a nail in need of a hammering into the wall. If you try to hammer a screw into the wall, it won’t work!