What makes coaching successful ?

Coaching is a simple concept but infinitely varied in how it can be applied.  It can combine simple exercises with profound insights into how an individual sees themselves in the world and how they can change their perceptions and behaviours.  It is too broad to have a codified set of rules – but these principles will help define what needs to be considered in a successful coaching engagement.

The relationship is key. For coaching to be effective both parties must trust each other and be able to talk openly about the issue at hand.  This may take time to develop and may be restricted to the context of the coaching engagement, but unless the coachee feels that the coach understands them and their issue and is able to see the world from their perspective, it will be difficult for them to really share what is on their minds.

Both coach and coachee are involved. Both parties have to believe that the coaching can be effective and be willing to commit wholeheartedly to exploring and creating a solution.  The coachee has to be open to change and self-learning, but so does the coach who needs to check for their own assumptions and judgements.  Zen Buddhism has a concept called “beginners mind” which refers to an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions – this applies to the coach as much as the coachee.

There needs to be an outcome. This may need to be redefined and enhanced – or even changed – during the process, but coaching is intended to produce a tangible change in understanding and behaviour, not just be a nice chat.  The coach’s role is to hold the space and manage the overall coaching process and needs to ensure that there is a general direction for the dialogue which can be translated into specific actions.  The coachee needs to suggest these actions and be committed to seeing them realised.

Life goes on. Coaching happens in the middle of other activities, family and work events, and changes in the broader context.  There may be other immediate concerns or family issues outside of the scope of the coaching – but of concern to the coachee which will have an impact on their focus.  The situation may change significantly during the coaching process which may require the required outcomes to be re-evaluated.  Both the coach and coachee must be aware of the wider context in which the coachee exists and be sensitive to how this is impacting on the engagement.

Its not about techniques. There are many different coaching tools and techniques, but they are often interchangeable depending on the situation and personal preference.  What is important is that the coach is flexible about what approach is brought to each element of a session – and understands why it is relevant in that instance.   The observation that “to a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail” applies to coaching as well.

Change takes time. We are so used to everything happening fast that we often underestimate how long it takes to change ourselves. Personal change happens in biological time rather than electronic time.  Coaching session are often set up over an extended period with perhaps a month between them, to allow for reflection and the ability to create new habits.  Much of the real change work takes place outside of the sessions – and its important to allow for time to do this –perhaps including structured exercises to allow the coachee to observe and reflect on what their perceptions and reactions are.

Leadership – Self Awareness

Leadership can be simply defined as “motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal”.   What this means in practice, and what it takes to be a “good” leader has been a topic of discussion for thousands of years.

As a leader – whether as a CEO or someone captaining the school football team – a good place to start is within.   As ever, Drucker has a helpful quote:

self-assessment is the first action requirement of leadership, the constant re-sharpening and refocussing and never being really satisfied

The requires a good understanding of your own innate strengths and weaknesses and how you can best use your strengths to achieve your overall purpose.  But it also requires that you have really thought about what that purpose is – and the extent to which it is something you have chosen and own the outcome. As Drucker says, by going back and revisiting our purpose (why) and ensuring we are focussed on achieving this (how and what),  rather than sitting back and allowing it to happen – is a key requirement of a leader.

Self-awareness is more than this though.  In order to provide a useful assessment of ones’ own performance it needs to be put in a context.   Self-awareness does this by looking at oneself from multiple perspectives – looking inwards as well as outwards.  It can be thought of as developing an external image of how the people with whom the leader is interacting see him, but also by realising how the leader sees other people.

Often without recognising it we make  judgements about people – and these colour our conversations and actions.  We attribute behaviour to perceived personality traits or to our understanding of a situation – often jumping to conclusions, with a bias for or against –  depending on whether or not we “like” the person.

A good leader must understand people – but must also be aware of their own internal biases and assumptions.   What are the underlying assumptions that the leader has about the group in general –  and about specific people?   Are these assumptions really based on the group or individuals – or are they internal to the leader that he has carried over from previous roles, or as part of the way he sees the world?

Thinking about how one reacts to others at a subconscious level, and what the underlying concerns are, may give some insight into how this will come across in verbal and physical communication.  Most people have an instinctive reaction to aspects of others, but have never really thought about what these criteria are.

As an exercise, try writing down the 3 or 4 criteria that you use when you first meet someone.   What does this tell you about yourself?   How could this impact the way that you react to different people?   As a leader – does this change anything about your style – or the way you assess yourself?


The Three “C”s of Leadership

The British Army has been providing courses on leadership development at Sandhurst since 1812 when it was recognised that leading men into battle required more than an aristocratic background. I was at a leadership seminar there recently where the commandant was reflecting on what they saw as the criteria for leadership.
He summarised them as the three “C” s – Courage, Capability and Character. It is interesting to reflect on how well these map directly onto leadership in a business context.

Although not generally asked to put their lives on the line – being a leader requires courage. It can be difficult to hold the line on an unpopular initiative, or to move well outside a comfort zone to take on new challenges. One definition of courage is “to act in accordance with one’s beliefs, especially in the face of strong opposition” and this is critical for a leader to ensure that they can remain consistent and keep an activity – and a team – focussed on the overall objective. Sometimes, a leader may have to maintain a distance from colleagues – this can be very lonely and takes courage to live with the realities of leadership challenges without the ability to share the load.

To be credible as a leader, the nature of the task being undertaken must be understood and the leader be seen to be adding real value – either directly based on their experience in that field – or indirectly through their ability to motivate and aspire the team. Intelligence, communication skills and creativity are all factors which contribute to the ability of the leader to add value – and to be seen to be doing so by the team and other stakeholders.

This is perhaps the broadest and most interesting topic. At Sandhurst, there is a very thorough selection school which tests courage and capability but which is particularly focussed on character. There are several aspects to this including openness, self-confidence, self-awareness and resilience – but perhaps the most important is integrity. I’ll come back to this in a later post.

An exercise: how well does this model map onto how you assess people for leadership roles? What would be the aspects of character that you would look for – and which are the most important?