Back to the Future: Connecting to Core Underpinning Themes of my Practice going forwards

1. Introduction

As a new year begins I feel I am on an important threshold - endings and beginnings.

It feels a good time to take stock.

What is the direction for my practice going forwards?

I'm going to look backwards to identify key patterns and trends that I aim to use to continuously sharpen and focus on my practice.

1.1 The wider external contexts versus the more immediate contexts

It has been a tumultuous year across the globe - climate change related events, political turmoil, a war-torn Middle East, refugee crisis, Brexit, US elections win by Trump. Massive levels of uncertainty create a difficult time for all organizations whether they be public, private or voluntary.

The consequences of these wider events have their impact on what coaching has to work with in all the different contexts coaching works in:

  • one to one with external or internal specialist coach,

  • peer coaching groups, as part of leadership approach, or

  • relationship management in a range of professional contexts e.g. Professional adviser, healthcare worker.

I currently work in a diverse range of contexts with the core theme of enhancing personal leadership capabilities within an organisational context. 

1.2 The immediate context of my experience, and shape my Practice has formed

To do this review I had to first review the story of my career, re-connecting to key events and influences along the way. I intuitively identified what appeared to me to be underpinning themes of my practice, that I share here.

Finally I review what I am taking forward. 

2. The Underpinning themes

I have found shape to my practice through reviewing a number of important themes that I draw from in my Practice.

I identify the themes as they work for me, giving some examples of how they are important in my work.

The core themes are:

2.1. An avid interest in how different organisations work in different sectors
2.2. Harnessing PersonalMotivation: The Power of high levels of individual attention
2.3. Connecting People and their learning to the Business/Organisation context and business strategy
2.4. Creating a safe environment for learning
2.5. Working realistically and openly with the dynamics of Power
2.6. Enhanced self awareness as a pre-requisite to both enhanced leadership skills and effectiveness as a Coach
2.7. The real value of collaborative relationships
2.8. Understanding the nature of learning from our experience

2.1. An avid interest in how different organisations work in different sectors

Profound initial Experience of employment: My first 8 years with ICI Paints Division gave me a first class experience and insight to the realities of how organizations work – or at least a premium blue-chip complex international business with a strong Brand value.

Continuing highlights from self-employment: In my early self-employed history, I developed a depth of understanding of the typical patterns in the development of young businesses and typical challenges and crises, as they evolve.          

a) Founders/Authority: the greatest resource in any young enterprise is the commitment and greatest strengths of its founder(s)/owner(s). The nature of these and associated limitations will be the biggest ‘shapers’ in the development of that business. I took this away as a key area of learning.

b) The first crisis of growth is bringing in additional people. Can it maintain the strengths of the culture and upgrade its processes and systems to support the business as it grows. Can the founder(s) release sufficient control to enable others to provide their best contribution to the overall. 

c) Stages: Another major area of learning I have absorbed along the way is becoming familiar with the typically different stages organizations go through and their impact on the kinds of leadership contribution required at different stages.

d) Culture: Also the particular flavour of this will vary according to the organisation culture and set of values that are an implicit underpinning of day to day ways of working. For example leadership development priorities in the context of a young entrepreneurial SME will be very different to a government department, that will be different to an international hi-tech aerospace business... and so on.

I have found that these core themes carry through to all forms of organizations.

In my time I have worked with a wide range of clients. This diversity of organisational sector experience helps me quickly tune in to the contexts my clients operate in and helps me establish my credibility sooner in the client relationship.

2.2. Harnessing Personal Motivation: The Power of high levels of individual attention

From early stages in my career I learned the value of having people more personally involved and connected to what I wanted to achieve.

I have always enjoyed working with different people and striking effective working relationships where I learned that if I understood more about their role and context I would be better able to help them help me! Equally important was for them to get a sense that I recognised and valued their unique contribution.

I started working as an Associate of a management development consultancy of which I went on to become a Director. Quality of individual attention figured highly in our programme design approach. For example we always had what we called ‘telephone 1 to 1’s’ prior to a development programme, to find out more about out about their development interests and needs. In hindsight this was coaching in that it started building rapport and helped people focus on how they could make best use of the programme in relation to their individual development and business priorities.

Although we made use of theories/models, we preferred to use those that managers could readily relate to, with the emphasis being on things they could take away and start working with Monday morning.

I can see clearly now how much a ‘coaching approach’ i.e. a high quality of attention to individuals, figured in my development work, long before I formally described myself as a coach

2.3. Connecting People and their learning to the Business/Organisation context and business strategy

A major learning point for me through my career is that what seems obvious to me is not always so obvious to others!

Connecting people to overall organisational priorities has always come naturally to me. “What real difference is this intervention aimed at? How does it fit in with the overall direction this organisation is aiming to go in?” In all my consulting and development work I have been seeking this connection.

This draws out probably one of the biggest influences on the nature of my practice, and abiding passion and core area of interest. I retain a strong sense of business strategy with the recognition that, unless the people are fully on board with that, the best formed strategies are going to fall down on implementation.

In coaching managers, part of my questioning is often around the bigger context and influences for their particular role. It is the perspectives that this adds to clients’ awareness that adds clarity to their thinking about their priorities, particularly for the longer term.

An associated frequent area of focus is the thinking clients give to how they are enabling their team to ‘step up’ in terms of their bigger organisational awareness, and how this influences their thinking about priorities, individually and collectively

 2.4.  Creating a safe environment for learning

Organisations, when under pressure, or with ineffective leadership, can quickly become “unsafe” places. People can then easily revert to highly political behaviours, keeping their heads down, being competitive or holding back on information that they feel won’t go down well with those in authority.

Of course coaching is the ultimate ‘safe space’ where individuals can be helped to explore and find their way forward for themselves. Looking back, creating an environment where people feel they can disclose, explore and be supported has figured in my work, long before I called it coaching.

In training work, we created a non-judgmental, open conversational atmosphere, where colleagues from diverse geographic and expertise backgrounds learned a great deal by exchanging different perspectives. We provided pressurised managers with the ‘space’ to open themselves up to fresh perspectives and experiences. The challenge came from having to work with others on a range of exercises and business simulations, and giving and receiving feedback. Models and frameworks were selectively used to stimulate fresh insights and perspectives in the group.

Creation of a safe environment is particularly critical in team coaching, where there is the perceived risk of personal conflict with resulting damage to day to day working relationships. I always aim to build in to the design individual coaching time, preferably prior to any collective team coaching session. This enables individuals to more openly fully express perceptions, thinking and concerns, which I find helps individuals give of their best in the team meeting.

In conversations with both individuals and the team collectively I am aware of the particular role I play in creating a safe ‘holding’ space where, with light touch commentary, I ‘normalise’ the tensions I know that some will be holding. I am always amazed at the quality of self disclosure that can follow, leading to some high quality discussion that gets to some real priorities the team needs to address if they are going to achieve their objectives.

2.5. Working realistically and openly with the dynamics of Power

Over all of this is the overlay of where Power lies and how it gets used, both explicitly and implicitly – an important aspect of organisational culture that any intervention needs to work with, and one that organisational leaders have to work with. It is often the Big Unspoken... Defensiveness is the enemy of learning and ultimately organisational learning and change.

A major discovery on my MSc was in the area of group dynamics where are definite tensions and anxieties that play out for real – transference and counter-transference in action.

Particularly over the last 10 years or so I have worked more directly in my coaching, both with teams, and individuals, with issues around conflict and managing tensions in the workplace.

The focus is always on helping the individual get out of their defensive mindset, exploring different perspectives, seeing for themselves more clearly how they might be contributing, and explore how they might change their mindset/behaviour – or expectations of the situation.

The real edge with any people development intervention is does it help people work more explicitly and openly with those issues that are in the “too difficult” box to even want to talk about. In organizations, even today, there can be a huge reluctance to challenge upwards.

In team coaching, the ability to have this open conversation with the Team Leader is critical to achieving a quality of result. On any team development day the Team Leader will pay a major role in the tone they set right at the start, as well as with their behaviour throughout the day.

2.6 Enhanced self awareness as a pre-requisite to both enhanced leadership skills and effectiveness as a Coach

What makes people successful is not focusing on their weaknesses, but rather making best use of their strengths; learning to mitigate or manage areas of relative weakness. The most talented people in business, and organizations generally, do not agonise about their weaknesses, but rather are fully connected to and make best use of their strengths.

Following my introduction to Myers Briggs I have retained a strong inclination to want to include some kinds of psychometrics / inventories in my development work and as part of my coaching toolkit.

As part of my early consulting portfolio I did some search and recruitment work and, as part of this, did comprehensive career diagnosis and personality assessment, as part of getting the best ‘match’.

Working with different styles in working relationships has figured in my development work right from early days in my work as a coach and developer.

For me, high levels of self awareness has to be one of the most important attributes of an effective Coach. Unless you are aware of your own personal biases and triggers, how can you possibly be of service to the individual client’s needs?

The second area of awareness I would say I’ve really most honed over the past 10 years is my ability to notice my clients’ subtle behaviours and my responses more explicitly, and be better able to judge my interventions in the moment.

2.7.  The real value of collaborative relationships

I have always been inclined to want to part of something bigger, working to a clear purpose in collaboration with others.

After I left ICI I struggled with the openness and lack of structure I had got used to early on in my career experience. I also missed the easy rapport and shared sense of identity with a team of bright and engaged colleagues. Yet it was a time of adventure and learning. My relationship building skills introduced me to all sorts of opportunities.

  • My role in the formation and development of a young consultancy business was a particularly rich period of learning around the management of client contracts and co-facilitating with a range of colleagues, all of who had their particular style strengths and preferences. Certainly the nature of the client work itself was hugely stimulating, including working as a contract management team in a partnering relationship with the client.

  • I also had the experience of working as a Board Team member and the invaluable learning around juggling Director level responsibilities and accountabilities, with client delivery and management. A valuable learning point for me was the deep value to be found in having the more personal, direct conversations required to make the step up in achievements.

The value of teams has continued as a strong theme for me. I have worked, both leading and as a team member of client teams, and have always found it to be a rewarding process. Professionally, I have enjoyed working as a voluntary team member on a number of projects. These always add to my awareness and thinking about what creates the conditions for collaboration – right back to that quality of attention to individuals!

In my coaching developing more effective collaborative relationships is becoming an increasingly popular theme, either as part of team coaching, or with individuals, as a perceived priority in achieving their leadership goals.

2.8. Understanding the nature of learning from our experience

A turning point for me in my career was being invited to be part of a small team of 3 consultants to bid for a “Self Development Management Programme” for the middle managers of one of the ‘Big Four’ (then Five) consultancies. We won the contract. The contract Director had chosen to withdraw summarily after some internal disagreement so I had stepped in to take over the client liaison and contract management lead on behalf of the consultancy business.

I see now retrospectively this as the real start of my coaching career – where the main programme aim was to enable people to become more self managing continuous learners.

After about 10 years of design and delivery leadership development programmes, I took time to stand back, and do formal study (Academic Masters Degree).  My dissertation was on the factors that most affect self directed learning of managers in a public sector organisation.

  • It was at this time that I first came across the theoretical field of Adult Learning – a set of key principles and features that very much inform coaching (see Adult Learning – the real leading edge of Coaching by Sue Young). This was a further powerful affirmation of some key principles I intuitively worked to.

  • I studied the theories and research around learning, including transformational learning, where people make shifts in their perceptions, sense making and underlying frame of reference.

I see theories as having their place, but only as additional lenses under which to place and critically review our experience. What additional perspectives might this idea bring, and what are the gaps?

I also have had the good fortune to have worked as part of a coach/ facilitator team on a Transformational Leadership programme for the past 6 years where the golden thread of the 2 year programme is the development goals individual managers set for themselves at the start of the programme. Individual learning is supported through a range of applied learning processes, and being tasked with an organisational project.

I’ve come to a place where I see my business as being about helping experienced professionals to stretch their personal frontiers, learning to trust and truly draw on their full experience, as they lead themselves and others forwards into their future.

  • Ultimately, what messages am I picking up from my thoughts and feelings, and additionally in conversation with others?

  • What and how am I learning?

Ultimately, if my clients go away with an enhanced ability to reflect on their experience and extend and deepen their thinking, then I see my job is done.

3. Conclusions

I have really valued this opportunity to consider my Practice – in the way ‘the good coach’ invites.

Even though I hold a lot in my head, quite intuitively, I rarely have taken such a chance to stand back, take such an overview, and see it take such clear shape and form.

This helps me considerably in my confidence, as well as renewing my energy to make sure I really do hold to what I believe is important in the way I work going forward.

My attention now feels it will be even more focused on the detail of each moment as I work; as well as enabling a focus on the bigger picture of where I want to take it going forwards.

I am especially aware that each of the themes I have referred to are still open to further work, for them to become something that is more fully understood. There is still plenty more to learn in each of them!

Question:  What are the themes that really stimulate and drive you in what you do? And can we find common areas of interest, even though we might talk about them slightly differently?

To connect with Sue Young

With particular thanks to Jeremy Ridge for his blogitorial support - particularly when I get too close to my subject he is able to help me find some light structure that draws out more clearly the key points I am trying to get across!