I would like to share what I think is an increasingly important experience which demonstrates how best to get coaching to work. Our abilities to turn up in a way that works for the client, rather than how it works for 'the profession’.
I have become increasingly concerned about the way that coaching (a wide and general term without a formal definition) is creating confusion and sometimes very inappropriate interventions for people. The description which I use, and more importantly which resonates with my clients’ requirements, is:
“Executive or business coaching tends to involve working with people who can be more assertive about whether something works for them.”
A recent case – the scenario
I work with a team of colleagues who often come from diverse backgrounds and skills, according to the client’s requirement. In this case, we were called because a previous intervention had failed.
The general scenario: We were working with a large senior management group who were working collectively towards merging and integrating two large organisations. The people involved were highly experienced in matters of leadership and management. These were robust organisations looking for some help due to the scale of topics, and because of their desire to get on top of the transition and getting it to work smoothly.
A previous intervention had failed
The client started by outlining what they did not want which was nothing that was too psychologically-based because there were already many psychologists in their pool. In addition, they had recently spent a week with a well-known organisation that has the reputation of representing ‘the profession’. That programme had involved intensive immersion work, every day over five days.
Our clients felt that they needed an intervention to manage the gaps they were experiencing as they went through the merger. They had received “coaching”, and that word was said a lot. At the end of the programme, a number of the team members reported feeling more confused than they were when they had arrived, “We didn’t understand what they were doing, or get an inkling of where they were going. At the end of the program we left more confused than we were at the start. Please, no more.”
The intervention was inappropriate. It was more like a training programme for a generic challenge. It did not directly deal with the specific issues they were facing as a team. “It was too psychological”.
Listen to the clients
When we went to meet with the clients, they were wary in terms of jargon words and anything to do with coaching. They were quite clear about what they didn’t want. They said:
“We are merging. We know we need guidance on certain things. Just tell us what to do in this situation. There are certain things that we are going to need to do. For example, we’re going to have to create new job descriptions. Some of our people are going to be moving. There is a lot of uncertainty around the people who are staying. We have new directors who have never been directors before. All of a sudden, they need to look confident in front of people. How are they going to do that when they themselves don’t know where their job is going to be in six months time? That’s what we want. Thank you very much.”
These were valid questions. The client wanted to know but had stated that, “We don’t really know what we need, but we know how we feel, we have valuable specialists and we need to be heard.” And, “How do we manage our team so that we are saying the same thing to our employees, rather than one person or organisation answering it one way and another person answering in another way!”
This was the environment we walked into. We were deeply honoured to be trusted so quickly with direct feedback, and we did not waste time. These valid propositions allowed us, as a team of coaches, to have that conversation. In fact, as is typical, there were a series of conversations with their people sharing what needed to be shared. The client had in their words developed “antibodies” to the label ‘coaching’, and to words specific to the field of psychology (or jargon). Therefore we worked with them in ways that left out coaching words. There was no ‘reflecting’ or use of lullaby voice, as a way of showing empathy. We supported them by fully utilising other approaches. The point being that a good coach can usually work in a way that is still psychologically-based, while minimising those cues from the client experience.
Delivering coaching in a way that works for the clients
When we came to meeting the clients, we called ourselves “organizational role consultants”. This signalled that we were not saying that we work exclusively with executives. For example, we would work with non-executive directors, or others who are not executives within the company such as consultants to the company.
An organizational role consultant begins by being many of the things that a coach is. They listen, observes and more. It is not uncommon in coaching, when dealing with people who are very, very clever, to find that they find intolerable the notion that anybody is coming along to coach them. For some, the word ‘coach’ still carries connotations that make it intolerable (contrary to the profession’s assertions). As a result, you have to be alive to a client’s sensitivities in terms of language, and mannerisms. A good coach can confidently describe their work, utilising words other than ‘coach’, particularly when there is sensitivity with the client. In this case we made no reference to psychological terms, nor did we utilise psychodynamics in any form.
But what is also worth looking at, and the clue is in the name ‘organizational role consultant’, is:
- The name
- The person’s role – their formal role/job descriptive role
- Then look at what it is they have to do that is explicit in the job description role, which is really the juice of what the person and team are doing.
The formal and the informal roles: One of the objectives the CEO mentioned was, “I want my senior management team to behave like senior directors because that is what I have employed them to do.” I found that the directors spent a significant amount of their time fire-fighting. The directors are all incredibly clever, but also extremely overworked. I do not know anybody at that level of seniority who is not overworked, so it was no surprise to find fire-fighting. In truth, the moment a director created a bit of space, as so perceived by the organization or others in their group, a bit more work was pushed in their direction. The question was: when would the directors find the time to stand back and consider the wider view in order to be the senior director that the CEO complained they were not being?
Working with the individual client (a typical case)
One of the directors, hitherto highly able, was more recently disabled by overwork and now at high risk of burning out because, in his words, he was not bringing his “best self to work”. We talked about his formal role, which was always morphing because the context was changing around him due to it being driven by the markets. Sadly, this is the story in many organisations.
We had a look at his current formal role, and visualised what might be happening over the next six months.
We then took a look at what his informal role entailed. These were items that were not in his job description; they were vital to job implementation but never the sorts of topics recognised, not to mention discussed during his appraisal. Yet these items took up significant amounts of his time and energy on a daily basis.
After four meetings, we contracted again. We mapped both of his roles onto a pie chart to sketch out what the allocation demands for him looked like.
The first session was a catharsis for the fellow because previously there had been no one to simply talk to and sound things out with. By the second and third meetings the director was confirming for himself many thoughts and instincts he had had but, without a sounding partner, he had not had the space to think things through, never mind articulate them. I invited him to “consider this time to be your oasis where you just come and talk.”
He was hugely relieved to become aware that there is such a thing as an informal role that is separate from the formal role. Moreover, it was something to recognise and acknowledge, even if others had not. He would take this back to work and acknowledge the informal work his teams were putting in, which he had had no name for. This was important for him because apart from the potential increase in team cohesion and productivity, he had direct experience of chiding himself for “not keeping on top of it.” His ability to now articulate his experience in a clear and structured way had made a huge difference to his own functionality.
The director is now delegating more, and deepening the succession benches by training up. He has given himself permission to step back. His second objective was to find a way of getting useful feedback. As his job had become more complex, he needed feedback about whether he was on the right track and doing a good job, particularly from the Chief Executive. Stepping back enabled him to seek this. He also found an area of work on which to focus more of his time on, because it was more meaningful for him.
What amazes me is how easy it is to give attention to the day-to-day detail, and the ramifications that has on the wider picture. Starting with adapting to the clients’ sensitivities about being coached to the many jewels that came about for the client. Being a sounding board and investigating what it means when a factor that drives us is the fear that what we do might not be good enough. We also discussed the fear of not being accepted by peers. Both of these fears were neither good nor bad.
By paying attention to them, the client had a sense that the fears lit a fire under them, which avoided complacency. They were happy to keep striving. At the same time though, focusing too much on the fears could backfire. The senior management team took what they needed from us as they headed into the new landscape with their merger. Their message to us was clear – we need first to get our own life jacket, and secondly, in service of the team and the organization, step back and be senior directors.
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