For the love of coaching

This weekend I had a new experience, and one that I found intensely rewarding. I have been a runner for several years now – or a reasonably competent jogger at the very least. I have run quite a few races now including a number of half marathons, and found that my competitive instinct when it comes to running is limited purely to competing with myself. For me, this means that if I am racing, I like to run alone. I don’t need someone next to me to push my pace, in fact I can find it demotivating when my head isn’t in the right place.

But I recognise that this isn’t the case for everyone. So, when my best friend told me at Christmas that she had entered the London Marathon ballot, hadn’t got in, but wanted to train for a challenging running event, I jumped at the chance to help. She was pretty fit anyway, but at that point hadn’t run more than about 3 miles, and you cannot under-estimate how tough it is to get both your legs and your head to the point where 13 miles is runnable. We both entered Stratford half marathon giving her until May to work her distance up. I offered support when it was needed from my experience – whether on distance, footwear, nutrition or whether we should have a gin & tonic the night before the race.

We ran together just twice before the event, and on Sunday we ran Stratford half marathon together in glorious sunshine, and she was an absolute superstar every step of the way. Given my love of running alone I was worried that I would feel frustrated by running at less than my normal pace but actually it gave me the space to take a step back and observe the journey she had taken to get to this point. It also gave me some observations on coaching and relationships:

  • Building up a relationship is important. Not only did my long-standing relationship mean that I had a good instinct of what she needed and when, but it also meant that she was comfortable giving feedback to me if I was pushing her too hard – and, on the day, sometimes I was. This level of confidence in each other, and comfort in communicating openly, in a coaching relationship is key. Easy in this case with someone I have known for 25 years, but need more conscious focus to build up quickly in a formal coaching context.
  • The intensity of coaching interventions needs to be targeted to individual need – someone who is truly self-motivated may only need light touch coaching. My friend needed very little – she was so committed to the challenge. She shared her decisions with me – the app she was using to train, the footwear she had chosen, what breakfast worked for her before a long run. She knew she could ask advice when it was needed, and beyond that we just had the occasional check in so she could share her progress – and how much she was enjoying it! Its easy to fall into a trap where the parameters of coaching interventions are process or time-driven – an hour a week may be too much for some, but not enough for others. Part of the coaching relationship should be to identify together what is going to work.
  • Don’t under-estimate the impact that coaching can have on the coach. There is an inherent assumption that coaching is all about the coachee but actually it’s much more balanced than that. Don’t forget to reflect on your own growth as a coach to develop your arsenal of coaching tools. After all, why shouldn’t you get something from the experience aswell, something that gives you even more to offer in the future.
  • And, yes, it’s ok to have a gin & tonic the night before a race.


Tribal instinct and engagement

Change fascinates me – partly because there are so many variables, and partly because there is so much psychology at play.

There is much out there to read on the subject – from bite-size ‘how to’ guides to full blown psychological research papers. There are reams and reams of theory – most having merit in their own right. And there is a consistency across all of the information out there, and it isn’t rocket science. It is simply that, regardless of whether you are implementing a scheme to reduce office waste or completing a global transformation programme, you need to take the affected people with you.

We already know that for change to be successful we must engage – it’s obvious, isn’t it? But, for me, there is a more compelling reason why this advice pops up so frequently. Not only is it a fundamental truth, but it is something that we – whether that ‘we’ is individuals or organisations – are inherently poor at.

Why is this? Is there something in play here about organisations, projects, or individuals that leads us to underplay the importance of something essential to bringing about effective change. What is the psychology behind lack of engagement?

You could of course apply some common sense here and come up with a few answers – ‘we don’t have time to engage with everyone affected’, ‘we’re the management team and we know best’, ‘people just want to be told what to do’. There are strong elements of power play at work here both in relation to affected employees and trade unions/ consultative bodies – ‘we aren’t going to give you the opportunity to undermine what we’re planning to do by telling you about it’. And from the employee point of view – ‘we like the comfort of being able to complain that we aren’t being engaged’, ‘if I tell you what I think you’ll only ignore it and do what you want’. And so on….

I came across an article recently (link below) on a site which describes itself as ‘hosting the conversations on faith’. Sitting somewhere on the continuum between atheist and agnostic it’s an unusual source for me – but it wasn’t an article about religion as such. It focussed on understanding how human nature can hinder discussions about faith. Much of it struck a chord with me in relation to change and engagement.

The title of the article (link below – the list below in italics is taken from this article) is ‘6 reasons why we don’t engage in dialogue’ and the reasons listed translate perfectly to workplace dynamics and engagement at the individual and organisational level:

  1. Attacking those outside our ‘tribe’ reinforces in-group feelings
  2. Conflict is a stronger motivator than consensus
  3. Dialogue requires us to be ok with a lack of resolution
  4. It requires us to listen at least as much as we talk
  5. We have to reject the zero-sum game of persuasion – open dialogue gives the potential for there to be no winners of a debate
  6. We don’t think it’s our responsibility – we shy away from having difficult or confrontational conversations.

The items that draw me in here are the interplay between our tribal instinct, and the idea of conflict as a motivator. The above list can be read as being negative, and certainly would start to explain why few organisations are really great at facilitating dialogue and engagement. However all of these elements can be flipped to give a positive outcome given recognition of their existence and a conscious focus on resolution.  We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about something fundamental to our shared human nature and so strongly connected with our natural tribal heritage. Our own unique and individual set of tribes are important – whether religious, familial, political, social or organisational. We do however need to recognise tribalism as a potential barrier to change, see how tribes give us an excuse to choose to be blinkered and respect their impact when planning organisational change.

It would be too simplistic, and too idealistic, to assume that engagement to bring everyone together and break down those tribal lines would automatically lead to a positive outcome – whether those tribes are hierarchical, functional or social. That smacks of wanting everyone to think the same, never a strong driver of progress. Indeed, the second point above gives an intrinsic reason not to – conflict enhances motivation, and therefore, by definition, enhances achievement.

Purely from an evolutionary point of view, human development is driven by need, conflict and competition – these are precisely the factors that have taken us well beyond simply sitting at the top of the food chain, so why rail against it? Could the key to change engagement be to harness that innate interplay between tribes and conflict – through a change agent who understands the risks and opportunities that human nature gives us, and facilitates a culture where competition and debate is safe and encouraged, and thereby leverages the motivation and learning offered by tribal conflict to achieve sustainable change.

Its all too easy to pay lip service to change engagement by implementing a process which theoretically allows people to have their say, but doesn’t actually engage them to do so, and then wondering why they aren’t bought in, and even blaming our people for not being engaged. Rather than the process shaping the people, and feeding the opportunity not to engage, we should be leveraging human nature and enabling people to shape the process. Lets make engagement engaging.

If you’ve read this far then please do humour me…. Engage – tell me what you think. Disagree if you like – it will serve to motivate me!

Ramblings on qualifications and credibility……

I have, inevitably, updated my cv recently. I am able to talk about some pretty complex and exceptional experiences – as well as choosing to leave a few out which are best covered in conversation. However, what struck me is that it is a really long time since I added to my list of qualifications. I completed my CIPD qualification in 2002 and upgraded to MCIPD soon after. I followed it up with a Certificate in Training Practice in 2005 which was, back then, a corporate requirement for those delivering training. If I’m honest I’m not sure the course added much value to my ability to design and deliver learning and development.

There is however a clear link between formal qualifications and credibility. When a recruiter, or an organisation looks at you, it is a quick win to be able to evidence learning (in most cases, as opposed to experience) through qualifications. It is a simple and objective approach to shortlisting and I get that.

So, am I in danger of missing out on opportunities because my strength lies more in my experience, and should I be considering formalising that development through qualifications?

It’s tempting. Since learning I would be leaving my stable job, I have looked at a number of options. I have coached managers for years, I’ve delivered management development training to managers to enable them to coach others. But I am not a qualified coach. I have led workstreams on a number of key projects, varying from a nod to PRINCE 2 to use of full blown methodology. But I am not a PRINCE 2 practitioner. Until recently I had not thought of myself as an OD person, but when you look at the content of OD roles and OD qualifications I clearly am, but without ever having used that badge.

Does this actually matter? This is a genuine question and one I’m not sure I know the answer to. Qualifications are in the eye of the beholder – in this case the recruiter or organisation who may be looking to fill a role quickly or may be searching for something specific on Linked In profiles before making an approach.

Of course the value of formal training goes well beyond the need to establish credibility. I can, and do, keep up to date through reading, research, short courses and the like. But I know how much I get from interacting with others and so the prospect of completing qualifications through online learning would absolutely not be for me. My resounding memories from completing my CIPD are not the theories on workplace dynamics, or the details of employment law, but the value gained from sharing others experiences, recognising there was a whole wide world outside my local authority experience, and that the application of HR goes so much further than owning and policing policies. I built up relationships on that course which have lasted through all these years and will continue to last for years to come.

So where do I go from here? For now I think the answer is not to leap into anything, to find my feet as a consultant/ interim first and take it from there, making sure I am focussing on my genuine interests and passions, as opposed to simply getting a badge to open doors. The qualifications that really interest me require a significant commitment, of both time and money, and I need to be sure that they will give me what I need from a personal development point of view and add to my value as a consultant, with an eye on future-proofing my proposition in a changing world.