News and Comment

What’s so good about coaching … for the coach?

Wednesday 7 December 2011


Coaching is good for you. There’s increasing evidence that coaching has benefits for coachees and their organisations. I’m also seeing a diminishing sense of coaching as an expensive luxury, given its power in getting to the heart of the issues and building individual leadership capability that connects strongly with organisational priorities. More and more public service organisations are creating their own in-house coaching cadres often with the aim of creating a dramatic shift in the day-to-day ways they ‘do leadership and management’.

But what’s in it for those doing the coaching?

I’ve been a coach for many years now and have coached lots of public service managers at senior and middle levels. Moving from development work with groups on leadership and management programmes into working one-to-one felt daunting at first. With 12 or more intelligent people in a room there’s a good chance you can get a purposeful conversation going.

But what happens if the other person doesn’t engage if there are only two of you? With a development workshop there’s also likely to be some agreement in advance about at least some of the agenda and a degree of preparation, providing a springboard for exploring useful tangents. But, when you have little, or often no, prior knowledge of the agenda how do you make a two-hour coaching conversation productive?

I needn’t have worried – most people, given the confidentiality, safety and opportunity of a coaching relationship have plenty to say about the successes and challenges of their leadership roles. And I’ve found that detailed ‘content’ preparation pales into insignificance next to the importance of being prepared to engage in a meaningful conversation that helps the coachee use their strengths to work out the best way of moving forward for them. In any case, I find that the more attention I pay to the conversation and what’s going on in the room, the more likely it is that relevant ‘content’ from my wider experience will spring to mind.

What do I get out of coaching?

I suppose at a fundamental level I get a kick out of helping others. And it’s the specifics of that somewhat ‘soft and fuzzy’ general statement that are really important to me. When I couple strong constructive challenge with a supportive, appreciative process, I see coachees gain insights before my very eyes. There’s a great deal of personal satisfaction from helping to shape a conversation that enables a coachee to have a ‘light-bulb moment’ and for them to conclude, for example, they need to change their leadership behaviour – and have worked out how to do it.

I also find it very stimulating to work with a vast range of individuals in a variety of different public service settings on a myriad of leadership challenges. I like the challenge of getting to know enough about a coachee’s particular circumstances quickly so we can work together on how they can fulfil their personal and organisational responsibilities even better.

Once again, ‘content’, i.e. a detailed understanding, on my part, of the coachee’s situation is less important than my capacity to listen attentively and notice how the coachee acts. Doing this well unearths the relevant and powerful questions I need to ask that will test assumptions, challenge current thinking and expand horizons.

Not just problem-solving

Popular thinking about coaching is that it is largely problem-solving albeit in a more intensive form … and it is an important feature of coaching. But coaching can also focus leaders’ successes and enable them to find the learning that can be transferred to other challenges. Behind the ‘presenting issue’ there are often deeper aspects that can be hidden at first within the interplay of how we think, feel and act on a particular topic, and the personal values we bring to our work.

While it’s true that coaching exposes me to a variety of interesting people and contexts, it’s also true that there are discernible themes across my coaching conversations. These include sustaining productive working relationships with others, meeting organisational requirements and taking a systemic view of the roles played by leaders.

Alongside working effectively with an individual I am also committed to making a difference for the coachee’s organisation (they are investing time and money into the activity after all) and what at OPM we call ‘social results’ or the ultimate outcomes for citizens. Not surprisingly, currently a recurring theme in my coaching conversations is resilience – building and sustaining personal leadership resilience as well as collectively within the organisation.

Public service leaders are under immense pressure at the moment given the prevailing economic climate. Helping them determine their best route through these pressures while keeping up their own and others’ motivation and positivity is particularly challenging and rewarding in my coaching.

I find working collaboratively on the intricacies of how a coachees’ actions can impact the wider system fascinating. My engagement with leaders as coachees adds to my own understanding of leadership and organisational development, enhancing the experience and resources I can bring to other coachees. And, of course, as I continue to add to my many hours of coaching, still meeting new challenges, I continue to learn about and expand my practice.

Crucially, this is supported and tested in our peer and external supervision processes at OPM – essential to my continuing professional development as a coach. I’ve learnt a lot about myself in the process and realised a long time ago that I need to draw on all of my personal resources to develop my own style as a coach. In my case this includes finding ways to use creative methods such as sketching and visual thinking productively and appropriately with coachees.

In the end it’s you and the coachee in the room – having the fearless compassion to use what happens in the room as ‘live’ information is what makes coaching such an exhilarating experience for me.

ILM programme

If you have considered becoming a coach or improving your skills in this area, OPM offers an ILM level 7 accredited executive coaching and leadership mentoring programme for senior leaders and managers. It will be seven-day programme running in 2012. The module dates are 22 February, 21 March, 25 April, 16 May, 21 June, 25 July and 5 September. See the flyer for more information.