Feeling for the Edges and finding insights in unexpected places by Alan Robertson


I’m making myself revisit old coaching assignments in the belief that this will improve my current and future practice. It’s an interesting form of self-discipline, because it doesn’t have any rules other than to articulate something in writing about each case. Other than that, it’s simply a matter of:

  • Revisit an assignment which is formally over;

  • Re-read the notes that I made at the time and notice how I now think and feel about the case with the benefit of distance, hindsight and whatever I’ve taken from experience since;

  • Err on the side of self-criticism rather than self-congratulation.

It’s certainly a form of reflective learning, because the passage of time offers fresh perspectives to open-mindedness. I also think it’s a form of action learning, especially when the product is presented as a blog and opened up to additional observations and feedback from independent peers. 

I’m sure the architect of action-learning, the late Reg Revans, would have approved of it as a way in which we ‘can suddenly begin to see, with the help of such comrades, the immense, unused – indeed unknown – assets that are our own lived experiences.’ [1] It is a form of self-supervision or even self-coaching, if there is such a thing.

Objectively learning from a completed assignment

The coaching that I did with ‘O’ seemed to have gone well. She had been pleased with it. So had her sponsoring manager. On the face of it the case was straightforward. However, returning to it after a gap of 18 months, I am left wondering whether it’s actually telling me that it’s good practice to look for learning where you least expect to find it.

The coaching contract

‘O’ was a subject matter expert in a large commercial organisation. Her coaching was at the instigation of her manager, not because ‘O’ was regarded as difficult, problematic or in need of remedial work (as so often seems to be the case when people are put forward for coaching), but because she was well-regarded. Her boss felt ‘O’ had further potential and wanted her to get professional help to be able to achieve it.
Three objectives were agreed for her coaching. (Three seems to be a good number when setting objectives. Is that because it prompts you to think more broadly rather than too narrowly about the purpose of the coaching?).

  1. To use the challenges that she would face in her work over the next 12 months as opportunities to develop her personal brand, resilience and confidence;

  2. To develop and extend the quality of her relationships with her stakeholders;

  3. To clarify her career ambitions and develop the awareness and capabilities to take the next steps in pursuing them.

Diagnosing and assessing the readiness of the client

In one respect ‘O’ was very easy to coach. She was attentive, eager to learn and prompt at trying things out in practice between coaching sessions. In another respect ‘O’ was very difficult to coach, if you take the view – as I do – that coaching is not so much about advising people how to do things as about encouraging them to think for themselves and extending their capability to do so. ‘O’ was very open-minded and actively sought advice. She found it more difficult either to articulate her own thinking processes or to stretch them in new and unfamiliar ways.

In retrospect there was a clue that this might turn out to be a difficulty. ‘O’ completed a number of psychometrics when we began to work together. We both agreed that this would be a useful way of obtaining some initial insights about her styles, interests, motivations and self-awareness. And so it was. ‘O’ was a team player. She was optimistic about people in general, liked working with others and was sensitive to their feelings. She was inclined to be flexible rather than rigid, at least in the sense that she was energetic and willing to put herself out to do what she understood needed to be done. She was hard-working and conscientious. Crucially, and this was the clue, she was grounded and task-focused rather than idea-oriented, unorthodox or imaginative. [2]

My approach to coaching

When I coach, I’m always looking for the edge of the individual’s comfort zone. I see my role as being to encourage and enable the coachee to put at least one foot outside that comfort zone, to test their footing in that unfamiliar space and to learn to step beyond their previous limits. 

When I use psychometrics to assist this process, I regard a personality profile as a picture of the individual’s personal resourcefulness and I’m looking for where among the patterns there is, as it were, a knot which might constrain that resourcefulness, if only in particular situations.

In O’s case the ‘knot’ was her belief that she ought already to have the answers, literally that she should have the answers ‘all ready.’ Her VoicePrint profile revealed a strong tendency to admonish, especially when she felt under pressure, and our exploration of this result quickly confirmed that this directive voice took the form of self-talk, aimed at herself rather than others.

  • ‘I should know that. I should be responding to that question.’

  • ‘I should have the answers. After all, I’m supposed to be the subject matter expert.’

  • ‘I can let go, when I have 100% confidence in the other person to do the job.’

  • ‘I’m worried that I’m going to sound like a muppet, when I don’t know what I’m talking about.’

  • ‘I don’t do well in conversations, when I’m suddenly put on the spot.’

This self-limiting belief (and the internal monologue that kept it alive) was compromising the quality of O’s performance in a number of areas:

  • Delegation of tasks to her team;

  • Handling disagreements and potential conflicts;

  • Contributing to more open-ended discussions about strategy;

  • Feeling confident and speaking up in the presence of senior management.

Extracting my learnings: reflecting on the expectations and realities of delivering coaching

So how did we tackle these issues? By introducing ‘O’ to a variety of models and frameworks  which she had not previously encountered. Specifically, these were Hersey & Blanchard’s ‘Situational Leadership’ [3], Thomas & Kilmann’s ‘Conflict Handling Styles’ [4] – both of which are widely used – and Robert Keidel’s much less well-known ‘Triarchic Theory’ [5], which I admire very much for its powerful insight into the deep forces perpetually at work (and in tension) in organisational life.

What I was hoping was that ‘O’ would learn to use these frameworks as organisers for her own thinking. I wanted them to give her criteria and dimensions to think about as she tackled specific challenges. What I always say to my coaches is not to expect these models to give them answers, but to explore them, play with them, not treat them with too much respect but test them out, ‘test them to destruction’ so that you can learn when and to what extent they are and are not useful.

What actually happened is that ‘O’ used them more like algorithms than heuristics. She used them very carefully and very diligently, as someone with her sense of responsibility and concern for others is always likely to do. But she never, at least during the time that we were coaching together, became comfortable with using them in a looser or more creative way to provoke her own thinking or develop the independent-mindedness that is such an important ingredient in more senior roles.

The extent of how far we got with my ‘frameworks-for-thinking’ strategy was exposed by the limited progress that we made on the third coaching objective. ‘O’ came into coaching unclear about her future career ambitions and, I regret to say, she left in the same state. Neither my inviting her to ‘have any career wish you like – what would it be?’, nor our exploration of her earlier life interests, nor my observations about the sorts of careers that tended to be pursued by others with similar personality profiles took us any closer to defining where she wanted to go with her own career. She, I and her sponsoring manager alike, although all satisfied that ‘O’ had made visible progress on coaching objectives 1 and 2, were all equally agreed that we hadn’t made any progress on number 3.

And yet, in retrospect, I now think that we had got somewhere without realising it. We certainly had not defined her future career ambitions or how to reach them. But we had established that she was someone who found it very difficult to think about the question. And I think also we had uncovered something about why. ‘O’ was someone, at least at that stage in her development, who needed problems and opportunities to be presented to her. Given a challenge, she would assiduously get stuck into tackling it. But she needed the challenges to be supplied.

Finding insights in unexpected places

I’m left with two final wonderings, having reflected on this case. They both expand my sense that ‘feeling for the edges’ is an important part of what a coach should be doing.

My first wondering is about where we set our level of expectation upon ourselves as coaches and upon our coachees. We’re an idealistic lot, we people developers. But I wonder whether it would be more realistic to expect that most of our coaching assignments are going to be only partially successful. As ‘transitional objects’ ourselves, accompanying our coaches through a relatively short period in their working lives, we should perhaps take the leaf about ‘good enough parenting’ out of Donald Winnicott’s book.[6] Perhaps the good coach is actually the good-enough coach.

The second thought is, as so often, related to the first. I wonder if one of the coach’s goals, or even responsibilities, in any assignment should be to find out – and comment explicitly on – where the boundary of the coachee’s readiness for further development currently appears to be. (And now I’m nodding an acknowledgement in the direction of Lev Vygotsky and his concept of the ‘zone of proximal development’ [7]). Certainly in the past I have hesitated to voice my sense of where that boundary might be for fear of limiting or damaging a coachee’s prospects, fuelling self-doubt or even setting up a self-fulfilling label. I’m now asking myself whether it might better serve coachees and their sponsors, as well as illuminating the coaching task in hand, if I were to contract to offer a considered opinion about the individual’s current level of readiness for further development at the point at which my own involvement as that person’s coach comes to an end.

With special thanks to Sue Young for a very stimulating, thought-provoking and enriching discussion, when I first outlined my thoughts about this case to her. 

To connect with Alan:

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.

email: alan@businesscognition.co.uk
URL: https://letstalk.voiceprint.global

[1]    Revans, R.W., Action Learning: Back to Square One, in The Sequence of Managerial Achievement, MCB University Press (1984)
[2]    Blanchard, K. et al, Situational Leadership II: The Integrating Concept in Leadership at a Higher Level, FT Prentice Hall (2007)
[3]    Thomas, K.W. & Kilmann, R.H., Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, CPP Inc. (2007) [4]    Keidel, R.W.,  Seeing Organizational Patterns: a new theory & language of organizational design, Berrett-Koehler (1995)
[5]    The psychometrics used were the LaunchPad assessment battery,  Percept Resource Management Ltd, http://www.launchpadpsychometrics.com/  and VoicePrint  https://letstalk.voiceprint.global
[6]    Winnicott, D.W., The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship, The International Journal of Psychodynamics (1960), 41, 585-595
[7]    Vygotsky, L.V., Mind in Society: the development of higher psychological processes, Harvard University Press (1978)