Service - helping others. There, I’ve said it. After much reflection and rummaging in my memory I’d sum up my approach to coaching with that one word. Jeremy Bentham wrote, “Create all the happiness you are able to create. Remove all the misery you are able to remove.” And coaching is a powerful way of doing that.
I now realise that my view is deeply rooted in a powerful filter I have towards others, and no doubt that has very deep roots itself.
My view has been reinforced by two events in my life. Many years ago I had the privilege of going to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in the UK for a week as an introduction to the British Army, at the start of my short career as a Cadet Force Officer (the school where I taught had a cadet unit). The RMA’s motto is “Serve to Lead”. Amid the drill, weapon handling and night exercise, the idea that a young officer leads his men by looking after them was a constant refrain, as far as I can remember. I saw this put into effect on several occasions when regular army officers and NCOs joined my cadet unit on exercises.
I encountered the same idea in an entirely different context many years later. In conversation with a great mentor I had who, upon hearing my Sandhurst story from me, immediately shared his story; he had been introduced to the idea of the “Servant Leader” when he had been promoted into a senior leadership position, using an example founded in the Christian faith, using the Epistle of Jude. This had struck a very deep chord in him.
These two very different experiences reinforced my belief in the idea of “servant leaders”, which, I now realise, underpins my approach to coaching. I am here to support and help by understanding what each of my people a) can do and b) what they need and must do. So, as a manager, any supervision or work review is done from that perspective. Success here depends upon me communicating my intent to my people. This cannot be me “telling them”; I must “show them” that this is so by the way I behave. My behaviour is crucial; careful and effective listening, curiosity about them as people and their work and, on occasions, straight talking when their work or behaviour fail to meet the expected standards. Only once that understanding has been created can I proceed to coach them.
That coaching follows the normal methods I use when coaching outside the reach of my management span, with the critical exception that the issue to be addressed is generally generated from my observations of their work and behaviours. Otherwise, there will be open questions and active listening aimed at encouraging the individual to produce their own solution aimed at getting them to be more effective by developing themselves.
My journey to coaching started from a powerful one-off coaching session
I discovered coaching late in my career, but as my coaching experience grew, I came to recognise that my coaching style had another deep and unexpected root. During my first career as a secondary school teacher I used a key coaching skill; asking questions. I had stumbled upon the technique teaching A-level (pre-university) courses to 16/17 year olds during revision lessons. I had set a worksheet to the class then worked my way around to speak to every student individually, seeing who needed any remedial help with the topic. When I came across someone who did, I would go back with them through the material until we reached a point that they said they understood, build upon that by asking questions to allow them come up with their own answers and then discuss their thought processes that led them to their answer. This proved effective because their understanding grew, but it was very time intensive. I experimented with using the same technique with larger groups. I found the resulting group discussions were helpful in raising the class’s general level of understanding.
That experience lay dormant for some 18 years. I changed my career and became a civil servant in the UK’s tax department, working in the field of compliance as a Tax Inspector. As an inspector of some 20 years’ experience I volunteered to mentor an undergraduate in a scheme designed to help ethnic minority students. My very first mentee wanted to improve his confidence. Faced with this request my first gut reaction was to take him back to a point in his past when he had felt confident. When we first met he had described his route to university, so I felt confident that his past would help him with his present issue. The result was remarkable. Taking him back awakened him to his former confidence and helped him realise that his current state could well be temporary. Over the course of our mentoring relationship, we felt our way in greater detail through the causes of his current lack of confidence. I asked lots of questions and let him do the talking; adding material from my experience where I thought it was relevant to widen his point of view. His end-of-programme feedback was glowing. He felt I had addressed his issue fully, he felt much more confident, especially in the specific situations where he felt least confident. What I later realised was that, far from acting as a mentor, my behaviour here had been much more like that of a coach.
On the value of listening, I knew its immense power but had not connected what I did in my job with listening as a skill. As I was becoming more aware of “listening skills” I started to deploy them more deliberately. I can remember one occasion where this happened, during a period of intense collaboration with an industry sector to bring a specialist part of the tax code up to date with modern practice. I was not an expert on the particular industry practices but I was responsible for that legislation and had an idea of how it could be brought up to date effectively. My industry counterparts were experts in that industry’s practices. I explained what I required and did a lot of listening and questioning to ensure I understood them so that I could incorporate a deeper understanding into the new legislation. This worked extremely well, in part because I had listened. Looking back my listening skills improved and allowed me to have great confidence that my originating idea, suitably modified would make the legislation work in the modern context.
Coaching as a manager presents a real dilemma - as coaches we usually contract with a willing individual to address a known concern. As a manager I have responsibility to deliver results and the authority to do things to achieve them. The people I manage have no choice in that matter and it would be easy to create a climate of distrust by overt use of that authority (“command & control” style of leadership/management).
However, I think I will have more to write on this subject at a later date as my new team are providing me with plenty of food for thought.
‘Epimetheus’ has had a varied career in teaching and the UK Civil Service, as a technical specialist and as a manager. He is also a volunteer mentor with undergraduate students.
He discovered coaching late in his career and is bringing coaching practice into his management, as well as being a more formal coach in his department’s coaching programme. He is bringing his experience as a teacher, a technician, a mentor and a manager to bear to inform and improve his coaching practice. He is working towards formal accreditation as a coach.