“What did I leave unsaid?” Coaching reflections from the well of unease by Alan Robertson (guest)

Extracting learning from ‘vague’ cases

‘C’ was one of the coaching cases which left me with a vague sense of unease. I’ve come to realise that this can be a reliable indication of a lesson to be learned. But I also know that you have to subject that vague sense to some hard scrutiny to extract the learning from it. 

So what does some tough retrospection have to offer in this case?

I find myself reflecting on the question: 

  • What did I leave unsaid?

  • What did I not say to this coachee that I now wish I’d said?

Reading the clues and signals during contracting

Here are the bones of the story. ‘C’ is big and loud. His personality is as colourful as the shirts that he wears, a stab of individuality in the rather reserved corporate culture in which he was then working. At the time of our coaching work together he was in a sales role, distributing complex products across a diverse set of relatively small country markets in Europe and the Middle East. While he had a share of some administrative support, he was essentially a solo operator, expected to nurture and pursue opportunities to grow his fragmented but emerging market. It’s a lonely role, but he was an energetic individual and responded to the challenge by throwing his considerable energy at it.

His coaching was made at his own request. The HR Department agreed to it, and one of his immediate managers. (He has two in this matrix organisation.) After meetings with ‘C’ and this manager to explore the purpose of his coaching, I drafted three objectives, which they and HR approve. The aim was to build his internal brand, profile and reputation. More specifically, 

  • It was to develop his capabilities to influence without having positional power,

  • To win greater recognition from more senior stakeholders in the firm, and

  • To present his business plans in a highly professional way.

In retrospect it now seemed obvious that ‘C’ was an outlier in that organisation. 

He needs to learn how to present his proposals in a way that will secure acceptance in this culture,’ his manager says. This was a clue in itself. 

The fact that he was speaking of ‘C’ in the third person while he sat with us in the same room at the time is another. 

C’s lurid shirt is a third. 

Being comfortable with being an organisational outsider myself – I have worked as an independent for 25 years now – something that I used to know has drifted off into my peripheral awareness. In memory I know that one has to have network, connection and acceptability to be influential and effective in a corporate context. In practice I have lost sight of just how important this is.

I missed the clues in this case. 

Consequently I failed ‘C’. 

I failed to do one of the things which an experienced coach should expect to be doing: catching weak signals and amplifying them to bring them to the coachee’s attention and hold them there

This is not about telling the coachee what things mean. It’s about making sure that clues and their possible significance are made loud enough and clear enough and for long enough to receive the coachee’s consideration.

Following through on the ‘agreed’ coaching objectives

At one level it seems all too clear what ‘C’ needs to do to tackle his coaching objectives. 

Like many ‘sales’ people he over-relies on one voice. He advocates. He pushes his case. And he pushes it to a fault, not perhaps with external clients, but certainly internally, arguing for support and more resources to pursue the business opportunities that he sees in his territory. ‘It feels like everything is a battle right now,’ he tells me. But advocacy is a battling voice, so it’s not surprising if it makes discussions feel like battles.

I asked him what feedback he has been given in the past about himself. ‘I’ve been told that I need to become more neutral and listen more.’ So we work on developing these capabilities. We do it by,

  • Increasing his use of articulation,

  • Explanation through clear, factual exposition, and

  • His use of inquiry, asking questions to engage shareholders in his thinking by way of their own interests and concerns.

I wanted him to learn how to lead and participate in a process of joint opportunity-spotting and problem-solving rather than trying always to talk people into submission and agreement.

Testing the real value of coaching

‘C’ is characteristically energetic about learning and applying these new voices. He embarks on producing two major pieces of written work simultaneously. 

  • One is his business plan and the rationale behind it.

  • The other is an innovative paper on a new way of calculating client value and allocating resources.

The business plan eventually runs to well over a hundred pages. It takes him several months to research, consider and write. In the meantime he starts to trail a draft of his much shorter paper on how to value clients with a few selected individuals in his division. He is able to have some informal discussions with two or three senior people. His initiative and ideas are well received by them.

Unfortunately in the process he misses an important window in the annual business planning cycle. This, at least, is not because I have failed to say something. I’ve already reinforced his managers’ message that the business plan should be his priority. 

‘C’ however is insistent that he is not prepared to sacrifice quality for speed. He’s determined to produce the most rigorous, innovative and persuasive business plan his managers have ever seen. When it is finally complete, one of his colleagues describes it as the most impressive piece of work of its kind that he has ever seen. But C’s two managers are unimpressed and will not put it forward for further consideration. They tell him bluntly. ‘You’ve delivered it too late.’

This rejection is a defining moment for ‘C’. 

Piecing together the missing clues, retrospectively

During the interim review of our coaching the two of them talk at each other for half an hour, without either yielding ground on their points of view.  One of his managers – the one who took part in the pre-coaching conversation – concedes that there is good work in it. But he keeps returning to the point that ‘C’ has failed to meet the budgeting window. ‘C’ argues that a good plan takes time to research and should be considered when it’s ready, whenever that is.

Afterwards I asked ‘C’ if he realised what voice he has been using. ‘Advocating,’ he admits, ‘but…’ and promptly does more, as he proceeds to justify himself and his behaviour. It’s another moment when, as his coach, I need to be the amplifier of the signal. What I should have said is that he had gone well beyond advocacy into preaching and that he’d got the reaction and the resistance which was all he could reasonably expect from all that relentless pushing.

Instead I asked him how he proposed to speak to his other manager. ‘I’m going to ask him what he thinks of the content of my plan and for his answers to the questions I’ve put forward in it.’ This sounds more promising, but that meeting – when it comes – turns out no better. 

His manager refuses to read the document. 

Apparently he merely glanced at the Executive Summary, made no further reference to it and then proceeded to tell ‘C’ what his plan should be. ‘So then what did you do?’ I ask. ‘We ended up in an argument,’ ‘C’ replies, with evident frustration.  This is where I should have pointed out to ‘C’ just how strongly his dominant advocacy voice still had him in his grip.

For his own development he might perhaps have been better served by being confronted with that feedback than with help in thinking through alternative strategies for engaging this second manager. Because, as it turned out, the second manager can never be engaged. He remains fixed in a position in which he will not examine or discuss the very substantial analysis or logic behind C’s plan, while at the same time both rejecting its conclusions and saying that ‘C’ must decide what he does next. 

It is a powerful illustration of how quickly meetings become unproductive if the participants talk at each other rather than entering into a conversation.

In the meantime the first manager, the closest person ‘C’ had to a sponsor, abruptly left the firm. In so doing he left ‘C’ effectively isolated and after a further painful six months ‘C’ too left the business. It was an unhappy ending to the story.

Extracting my learnings after some tough retrospection

Of course, we’d like all our coaching assignments to end well. But it’s naïve to define coaching success simply in terms of meeting the objectives originally set, when the real issues to be tackled often only emerge during the process. Equally, it’s simplistic to expect success to take the form of propelling the coachee’s career onward and upward, however gratifying that might be for a coach’s self-regard. These are heroic fantasies with the coach playing the part of the white knight. 

In reality each of the stakeholders in the process has to be entitled to a personal view of whether, to what extent and in what ways a coaching intervention has succeeded or failed.

  • C’s first manager, in this case, actually declared himself satisfied with the coaching. ‘I can see that he’s developed. He’s using voices that he didn’t previously have. It’s a more mature way of presenting a case.

  • The second manager never gave a view. He was never invested in the coaching, perhaps – for whatever reason we can only speculate – never even committed to developing a working relationship with ‘C’.

  • ‘C’ himself was positively pleased with his coaching. ‘I’ve learned to value myself more.’ And he acted on that self-belief. He left to become self-employed and to pursue his own business.

But just as the coachee and the sponsors are entitled to judge the process and outcomes of coaching, so is the coach. And in this case I recognise now that I missed some moments and some clues that I could have caught and held up for all of us to think about more deeply at the time. 

Part of the coach’s distinctive role as a transitory partner is to say things that might not be said by others whose candour is potentially compromised, whether by the need to preserve an ongoing relationship or by vested interest or by the blindness born of familiarity.

So what, in hindsight, do I wish I’d said to ‘C’?

I wish I’d pointed out that working for yourself can be a hard context in which to apply insights about yourself. Self-employment certainly provides freedom of expression and action and a correspondingly broad vista of learning opportunities. But it is also a context in which it is all too easy to remain stuck in one’s existing tendencies, preferences and habits. I could have joined the dots connecting my observation of C’s tendency to fall back into advocacy, a voice centred in self, and his intention to move into a context centred in self-employment. There was a potentially valuable insight to be shared, if only I had noticed it at the time.

But months before that, during the time we were coaching together, I could have been saying, ‘Where’s your manager on this?’ ‘Why did he use that expression about learning to present your business case in a way that will secure acceptance in this culture?‘ ‘Where’s your other manager?’ ‘And where are they now?’ If I’d been more attentive to the need to keep asking those questions, I might have served ‘C’ sooner and better.

I take two particular learning points away from this case. 

The first is the value of repeatedly asking yourself, ‘What am I not saying here?’  
That’s an explicit question that I am now bringing into my practice, a question to keep in mind not only during the coaching session itself but also in reflecting between sessions. It’s a hard question. It needs thought. 

But it directs attention towards the second learning point, which is to keep puzzling over the story. That leads you where you need to keep going, back towards details that you might have overlooked, the fragments of information that didn’t fit into the model or mental framework that you were working with at the time, the weak signals that need to be amplified before they can be accurately heard, the clues that reveal the deeper problems.

It’s a reminder that good coaches direct inquiry and challenge not simply at their coaches but also at themselves.
To connect with Alan Robertson:

Alan Robertson, Chartered FCIPD and Member of the British Psychological Society, has an independent coaching practice, Alan Robertson Associates.

He is also Senior Visiting Teaching Fellow at Cranfield University and at the Cass Business School in London, Director of Business Cognition Ltd and the co-creator and developer of the VoicePrint personal development tool.