Keeping Your Coaching Muscles Flexed

This year I have strived to improve my health and fitness, with some overall good results. Last week though I came down with a cold, and I haven’t been to the gym in a few days; this has made me a little anxious that all my hard work might be lost! When I was thinking about this it also reminded me of a conversation I often have with fellow coaches, which is, ‘How do you keep your coaching muscles flexed in times when you aren’t doing that much coaching?’

I don’t know about you, but my work seems to go in ebbs and flows, sometimes it feels that I spend most of each week coaching, whether that’s one to one or in teams. Then I look back and feel I haven’t done much coaching in a while; my time has been taken up delivering training workshops and ILM programmes. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, but like missing the gym it starts to make me a little anxious; how will I cope when the coaching ramps up again? At the moment it feels that I’m coming to the end of a few coaching relationships, I’m saying goodbye to a number of coachees who’ve reached the end of their contracted programmes. So what will I do to keep those coaching skills fresh and ready in case the next work doesn’t start for a few weeks? The chances are it won’t with Christmas on the doorstep!

Some of the things I make an effort to focus on when I’m doing less coaching are:

  • Embracing the chance to get up to date on reading; what new coaching books are out? What does the latest edition of Coaching at Work have to say?
  • Arrange pro bono coaching sessions; I offer my services pro bono to NHS staff during the year, to support the work I do for them on ILM Coaching programmes. I only have limited capacity for this but I do find it fulfilling, when I can fit it in! I often have to turn people away but when it’s quieter I make extra effort to fit them in.
  • Make sure I have some peer coaching and / or supervision. Last week I met with my peer coach Karen Chamberlain for another great session which allowed us to think about how we develop our respective businesses.
  • Do coaching practice with trainee coaches on the ILM coaching programmes I do; this is a great way to keep those muscles flexed and ensure I am challenging myself to be the best coach I can be. They are after all a challenging audience who I know will ask me why I asked question xxx or why I didn’t intervene about topic yyy!
  • Embrace every opportunity to coach; with my children for example, who are always and will no doubt remain, my biggest coaching challenge!

I’d love to hear more about what you do to keep your coaching muscles flexed when you aren’t coaching a lot. Do you find that in those times you coach your team more? Or do you look for opportunities to receive coaching yourself?


What have you forgotten that you know?

question mark

My coaching activities give me the opportunity to see many people develop through their career, some I have worked with at different stages as they have progressed (and as I have been coaching for longer!) and others I meet with at a specific point in their career. Often this is when people have experienced change – change into a new role, new organisation or new context; perhaps their team has been moved into another area, they have a new manager or new demands are being placed on them.

My activities also give me a unique insight into how people cope which such changes at a personal level; are the changes stressful for them? Invigorating? Energising or simply scary? Either way, coaching definitely helps them to view the changes more objectively and to manage them better.

One common theme that I have observed across all these situations is that after change, some people forget some of the skills that have got them to where they are now – perhaps because the demands of the role are significantly different or because their expectations of themselves have changed. It’s a difficult problem to identify – how can the coach know what someone has forgotten if they aren’t aware of it themselves?

For me, it has emerged in a variety of ways; some key questions, such as ‘what else do you know that could help in this situation?’ can uncover a range of skills that someone is not using. Or ‘what would you have done in your former role / life / organisation?’ changes someone’s perspective and helps them identify those learnings that they’ve used in the past but hadn’t thought of as being relevant to their current role.

I’ve seen two great yet similar examples of this with clients in the last couple of years. Both had been promoted from customer facing roles to more senior internal roles, where they needed to influence a range of internal people, who were doing a range of different jobs, spread across the globe.

My clients were grappling with trying to make things happen in a matrix structure; one in which they would be judged on the outcomes of projects but where they had no hierarchical authority over those they were influencing to make the projects happen – they couldn’t simply resort to a ‘just get on and do it’ approach. In both cases I asked just one question ‘how would you have positioned this if you were trying to influence a customer / prospect to get this done?’ Out poured a broad range of effective sales and marketing strategies that they could use to not only influence the outcomes of the projects but to make people engage willingly and positively – strategies which meant that there was no need to be authoritative, simply to treat the internal contacts as internal customers.

This is just one example I have encountered where people have forgotten, possibly even neglected skills that were once so crucial to their success. So, what have you forgotten that you know? And how could those skills help you be even more effective at the job you’re doing now?


Coaching boundaries: workplace versus life coaching

A regular question that comes up in the coaching training I run and the coaching supervision groups that I work with is ‘What is the difference between work and life coaching?’ and more specifically, ‘At what point does workplace coaching stray into the realms of life coaching / something else, and what should I do about this?’

Whilst grappling with this in a recent supervision session, we developed what I think is a clear model which can help to answer these questions. It highlights the difference between the two coaching practices and also helps to define when to refer a workplace coaching client to another professional, perhaps a life coach, therapist, counselor etc., all depending on the presenting issue. The model is outlined here:

Workplace versus life coaching boundaries Feb 17

Clearly, when we are coaching we are always dealing with the full person. However, in a workplace context coaches are typically engaged to help improve performance or effectiveness in the workplace, often sponsored (and paid) by the employer. In such cases there needs to be clarity for the coach about what topics to coach and what not to coach and this is what was raised in the supervision.

The model above shows that a workplace coach still works with the person but that the focus is on the person in work. However, work topics are not immune to personal pressures; this can range from being regularly late for work due to caring responsibilities or finding work stressful because the hours a job demands eats into personal / home life considerably. The question remains though, when does a workplace coach refer?

The conclusion using the model above is that there is always a grey area (work / life boundary) which I would argue is very much part of workplace coaching, but that if the topic of the coaching has strayed out of that dotted area altogether it is no longer the realm of the business / workplace coach but should be referred to a life coach or other appropriate support professional. This has certainly helped me when supporting both workplace coaching clients and those I supervise, to more easily see when it’s time to refer!


There’s always a choice!

“If you can’t accept it, change it. If you can’t change it, leave it.” Anthony Gucciardi

I recently came across the above quote and it summarised something that I have observed in my now 6 years as a freelance coach, coach trainer and supervisor.

Coaches often find themselves working with people who are unhappy or dissatisfied with the ‘status quo’ in their life. These people can be stuck in a rut, psychologically or for some other reason, perhaps they feel they are caught in a trap financially or stuck in a job they hate because it accommodates their personal life. What this quote highlighted to me that anyone in such a situation has three choices, and even if they stick with the status quo, they can do so having explored the other two choices, meaning that the status quo becomes an informed choice rather than a stuck position. So, what do these choices look like?

1. Change it
Change isn’t always easy but changing small things can be very powerful; having a mature conversation with the ‘difficult’ colleague about what you find hard in working with them (I had a colleague who insisted on drumming the desk next to me all day with his fingers and it turned out he didn’t realise he did it!) and discussing how you could both work together differently, could turn a sour relationship into a productive one. Looking for people who like the tasks you hate and may willingly take them on, can be a simple way to change the things that are causing you to be dissatisfied.

2. Leave it
If work really is that bad what is stopping you looking for another job? Coaching can help people to overcome the barriers that are stopping them and allow them to have the confidence to move to a totally new environment, maybe pursuing a long-held dream.

3. Accept it
You may find it hard working with a particular colleague or there may be aspects of your job that you’ve come to hate but in many cases there is truth in the phrase ‘better the devil you know’. So how can people learn to accept it? There are a range of options:
a. Explore the pros as well as the cons of the situation
b. Explore why someone chose to be there in the first place and what the other options are. This often results in people remembering what is good about their situation.

So what will you do? Change it, accept it or leave it? Could some coaching help you work through what are essentially three choices? Once these are broken down into three choices, the obvious choice can be easy to see.


Implementing a real coaching culture

In many organisations coaching is more than just a standalone activity to support the development of individuals. For good reason, it is often adopted as a means of encouraging development of an empowering or open culture. With the idea of questioning and listening at coaching’s core and with a belief that everyone has the potential within themselves to achieve, it is an obvious line for organisations to take to develop in this way.

However, despite good intentions I have seen that this approach often falls at the first hurdle or fails to develop beyond a pocket of good coaching practice, even where there is a strategic desire for coaching to take hold. My experience of working with a wide range of organisations and the research that I have carried out, has led me to conclude that this is often down to the fact that not all the necessary activities have been carried out to ensure that coaching is holistically embedded in the organisation.

For coaching to be a truly successful activity, four key cornerstones of action have to be implemented, as shown in the model below, the Coaching Culture Kite (CCK).

CCK Diagram

These cornerstones of a successful coaching culture are often implemented in isolation, sometimes two or three of them are used, but without all four it can be very difficult to create the truly ‘safe space’ which is an essential ingredient of a coaching culture. If any of these aspects are missing the coaching jigsaw will never be complete:

  • Without a clear strategic reason for introducing a coaching culture, there will be a disconnect between current and future strategic planning and a lack of impetus to introduce coaching conversations into the everyday dialog of an organisation. A board level sponsor to back up the strategic thinking about coaching provides someone to support the necessary time and financial commitments that introducing and maintaining coaching requires, as well as having someone to ensure that coaching remains wedded to the strategic vision of the board.
  • A willingness to invest time and / or money is essential because a coaching culture does not happen without people giving up time from the day job to carry out formal coaching or changing day to day behaviours to listen properly and ask the searching questions necessary for a coaching culture (as well as going through the initial pain of watching people learn for themselves). In order for behaviours to change people need training on how to do this, another cost of either time (if carried out with internal resources) or money (if outside resources are needed).
  • For coaching to become embedded through an organisation, people have to see that it is working. This is best done through the sharing of good practice and successes at the coal face of the organisation. This approach helps to ensure that coaching is seen as something for everyone and not just another top down or HR led intervention.
  • Even the most informal coaching cultures need a framework to define the boundaries and purpose of coaching in the organisation and the ethics surrounding this. Responsibility for these factors and the day to day management of coaching resources (people and collateral) needs to rest with someone (often but not always HR or Learning and Development) to ensure that good practice is carried forward day in, day out and year in, year out.

Only with a balance of these four cornerstones can the ‘safe space’ for a truly successful coaching culture come about.


The Spectrum of Dialogue

A number of times in my coaching practice I have worked with clients who are nervous about speaking out, perhaps through lack of confidence, a concern that their views won’t be taken seriously or sometimes due to their behaviour preferences – they are simply happy to take a quieter role in the team. However, most modern working environments are ones where the loudest and most vocal are the ones who get noticed, so this reticence to speak out can be a genuine hindrance for people who want to move on in their careers.

Such clients in senior roles often get feedback that they need to speak their opinions more clearly and to push back more – in fact this can be the sole reason for their coaching. When exploring this with clients, it often transpires that they have been taught that speaking up is on a par with being rude or disrespectful; these people are often used to playing the listener role in their teams. So how can they develop their thinking to enable them to push back to peers and even managers to help them move on?

Working with such a client recently, we identified that he considered anything other than acceptance of the other person’s opinion as a possible confrontation; that by putting forward an alternative view he may be seen as difficult. This seemed a strong view so we unpicked it further and as a result identified the Spectrum of Dialogue, a definition that there can be many ways of communicating viewpoints, most of which are far from confrontational.

The Spectrum of Dialogue starts off with a simple response; for example, I acknowledge your view and agree with it. It then moves to stating your point; for example, I acknowledge your view but my view is different, it is …. The next is to ask questions to understand the other person’s view; for example, please can you explain why your view is the right one? What evidence do you have to support this view? Such questions allow you to understand the other person’s view, so they can genuinely convince you. Without this how can you change your mind? And how can they change theirs?

Sometimes though there is a need to be more firm. So, the final stage of the spectrum is challenge; where you stand your ground and make a statement that your view is the one to be followed; good leadership sometimes calls for firm decisions by the person who is in the position of authority, so challenge and firmness can often be fully justified.

Spectrum of Dialogue

Defining the client’s conversations and discussions in this way, empowers them to see that they can have an opinion without being seen as difficult. By stating their case or asking questions to better understand the other person’s viewpoint they are simply being professional and inquisitive.

I’m delighted to say that not only has the client put this in to practice but he’s recently been promoted to a more senior management role! This was a small part of the excellent work that he does but certainly helped him to push back and stand his ground, as was expected of him.

So how can the Spectrum of Dialogue help you to be clearer in your communication to get what you want? Could it help you to justify why you are due for a promotion or ready to take on new work? Don’t forget, you will be asking in the nicest possible way!


ASCCSS: A model for coaching evaluation

I recently ran a workshop at the East of England Local Government Association (EELGA), sharing the results of research I carried out last year, into the impact of coaching at North Hertfordshire District Council. I have an article going in to next month’s Coaching at Work magazine on the results of this, so will share more when the article is published.

However, an unexpected outcome of carrying out this research, was that I have identified a simple and clear model for evaluating the impact of coaching in an organisation, with little additional cost and a which takes only a limited amount of time. The model, abbreviated to ASCCSS (All staff, coaches, coachees and stakeholders survey), can be summarised as follows:

1) Feedback from ALL STAFF, by putting pertinent questions into the annual staff survey

2) Feedback from those who have trained and operate as internal coaches, through a short survey on a free online survey tool (I used Survey Monkey)

3) Feedback from those who have received coaching, through a separate but similar online survey

4) Thirty minute face to face interviews for detailed feedback from the main coaching stakeholders (in this case 5 staff)

In total this took around 4 hours to carry out and another 2 hours to evaluate the results. What it resulted in was a really detailed picture into the organisational awareness of coaching (including to what extent people had bought in to the concept), an understanding of how coaching had benefited those people who were involved in the delivery of coaching services, how coachees had developed as a result of coaching and to what extent it is embedded. It also help signpost the next steps needed for ongoing development of coaching in the organisation.

If anyone would like to understand more about how this works in practice, let me know!


What is the Coaching Contract?

On the coaching training courses that I run, a large portion of our time is spent exploring the coaching contract, but it’s not always clear exactly what that is!

Rarely is the contract a formal legal document, other than when the coach is contracting to supply a coaching service to another organisation. In this case, the contract includes the nuts and bolts of how the relationship will work (i.e. money to be paid, time to be spent, outcomes to be achieved) but these are not really at the heart of contracting in coaching, so what is?

Peter Hill states that contracting is ‘an explicit operating agreement that provides structure, guidance and alignment for both parties for the duration of the partnership’ (Hill, 2004). In essence, the coaching contract is designed to make sure that things ‘work’ – that expectations between all parties involved (the client, the coach and third party stakeholders) are clear and can be met. Having such clarity also allows for these expectations to be revisited if one party feels that the coaching is going off track. Contracting should also allow (amongst other things) for the relationship to end, immediately and without prejudice, if it’s not working for any of the parties involved. So how does contracting happen?

Contracting can be managed in a variety of ways and I have described three different approaches below; these are often used alongside one another.

1) Formal contracting:
In the case of formal contracting, a written document should be provided, setting out what the coaching is for (and also what it isn’t for, for example that it is not therapy), the basis on which the coach and client will meet (frequency, location, length of sessions, any time allowed between sessions) and how they will cancel sessions and / or the whole relationship. It may also include any intended outcomes / goals of the coaching and relevant procedural issues (e.g. what will be paid). This document can be signed by both parties or merely shared. Most importantly it should be discussed in the initial coaching meeting, to ensure that all parties are happy with it.

2) Informal, verbal contracting:
Agreeing the nature of the coaching to be carried out, be it one session or a number of sessions does not necessarily have to happen in writing. A good example of when this may happen is when coaching takes place on the spur of the moment to address a current issue, or when a manager uses a coaching style to support a staff member. In such instances, an approach which I have found really useful is the STOKeRS© model, which enables the contract to be established through an informal conversation, in just a couple of minutes. A good example of how this is done can be seen in this video provided by Claire Pedrick of 3D Coaching.

3) On the spot/reactive contracting:
Sometimes it is necessary to contact ‘on the spot’ during a coaching conversation. Perhaps it is unclear where the conversation is going, or how the topic at hand links to the intended goal / topic for the coaching session and the coach (or client) needs to check where things stand. This recontracting can be done with a simple question, some examples of such questions include:
“Is this helping you towards your goal? If not, what else should we be doing?”
“How would you like to proceed?”

These are simple questions, that allow both parties to check in that things are on track. There are many more that would be just as effective!

So, there are a range of ways to ‘contract’ in order ensure that all parties are in agreement with the coaching purpose and progress, throughout the relationship. In creating a trusted coaching relationship contracting can sometimes be skimmed over or overlooked altogether, but I would argue that there are a number of ways to do it and without this important factor of the coaching arrangement, difficulties in the coaching arrangement can become very challenging for the coach (and client) to manage.

Reference: Hill, P. (2004). Concepts of Coaching. London: ILM.
STOKeRS © 3D Coaching Limited