By the time she reached her thirty-fifth birthday, Clare had established a strong reputation as a lawyer with a top flight London law firm. Married to someone she had met via her firm, she had laid the foundations for her home life. Her friends thought she had it all.
Soon after her birthday, two things happened that sent Clare into something of a spin. She was asked by her firm to take on the management of a team of lawyers. The request came to her just two days after she discovered she was pregnant for the first time.
Even without the pregnancy, the prospect of taking on a leadership role raised plenty of questions for Clare. She was good at what she did and felt anxious about taking on a leadership role and about the possibility she might fail to deliver. As she looked around her for role models, she realised she was struggling to find leadership role models she could relate to – over the years she and her friends had had bruising experiences in the hands of their managers and she didn’t want to follow these managers’ examples. At the same time, she didn’t know what she might do differently and with what consequences for her career… she was not confident that her firm was ready for a different approach.
Then there was the pregnancy. Clare knew she would be asked to decide about the job in a matter of days. She was under no obligation to tell her firm that she was pregnant but feared some backlash if she took on the role and then revealed in a few weeks’ time that she was pregnant. She faced personal questions, too – did she want to handle two challenging transitions simultaneously? And if she said no to this leadership role, how long would she have to wait until the opportunity might come again? She wondered whether she should discuss her situation with her firm and at the same time feared that she would be seen differently as a result of her changing situation.
Two common ways of handling dilemmas… and why they don’t work
Clare talked with her husband and close friends about her situation.
As a colleague in the firm, her husband was also concerned about the firm’s reputation of handling everything by the book (they were lawyers, right?) and at the same time gently and subtly side-lining women mothers. At the same time, he faced his own dilemma… he wanted to protect his own career and also to know that his child would receive the care he or she needed. He was torn between meeting his own needs and giving advice that would support his wife. This new situation threw up a new level of challenge in their relationship and communication.
Clare’s friends were passionately supportive of her. One friend told her that she had every right to enjoy both a new role and motherhood and that, to guard against any possible discrimination, she should keep quiet about her pregnancy until the question of her potential new role was settled. Another friend told her that times were changing and she should speak openly with her colleagues as a way of establishing a relationship of openness and trust. Another friend told her that taking on her new role and becoming a mother was just too much.
Clare felt she had to choose between handling decisions all by herself or doing what other people told her but neither of these options was working for her. Listening to friends she became increasingly confused and uncomfortable. On her own, Clare found her thoughts going round and round in circles. She couldn’t get her friends’ contradictory arguments out of her head and found it increasingly challenging to connect with her own deepest desires.
In thinking in this way, Clare was making a classic mistake: used to giving advice in her role as a lawyer, she thought that seeking help means taking others’ advice.
Coaching: a third way
One of my favourite books on leadership is Sir Clive Woodward’s Winning! in which he tells how, as coach to the England rugby team, he led the team to victory in the 2003 World Cup. As an example of what leadership involves, I find it full of useful information. It’s striking for example, how Woodward knew that it would take total commitment to translate a vision of success into World Cup glory. I was also struck by his attention to the tiniest of details, including commissioning the redesign of the team’s rugby shirts to make it harder for opposing teams to impede team members’ progress by grabbing their shirts.
Even if you are not a follower of sports, it’s possible that your concept of coaching reflects some knowledge of the sporting world. Perhaps you think of the coach as the person who has all the answers, who barks out instructions and who provides the motivation, discipline and accountability for his or her players.
Outside the sporting world, coaching is seen differently.
At the time of writing, for example, the International Coach Federation (ICF) describes coaching in the following way:
ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential. Coaches honour the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful and whole.
Coaching has the potential to help Clare and others like her precisely because it focuses on helping clients to discover what is most important to them and to find ways to move towards their desired outcomes.
How does coaching work?
Coaching can take any number of forms. In my own business, for example, I offer face-to-face coaching in client’s organisations and at my Sunday coaching clinic in Harley Street. I also coach clients by phone. Most of my coaching is with individuals though some is with groups or teams. (You can find out more about this by visiting my website).
With so much diversity, you may be wondering what these different kinds of coaching have in common. Here are just a few things to look out for:
- A coach works with clients based on a clear agreement: even when an organisation sponsors coaching for an employee, for example, my client is the individual employee;
- A coaching agreement identifies the client, focuses on their desired outcomes and on how coach and client will work together: a key aspect of coaching is the focus on clients’ desired outcomes – helping the client to clarify his, her or their desired outcomes and agreeing how coach and client will work together to support the client in making progress;
- The coach helps clients to find their own answers: Coaching is about helping clients to generate new insights and self-awareness and this, in turn, opens up the possibility for the client to identify his or her strategies, solutions and next steps;
- The coach helps to create a safe space in which to explore: Whether the coach is working with an individual or a group, he or she plays a major role in creating a space within which clients feel safe and can, as a result, raise and explore issues, thoughts or feelings that might otherwise be overlooked;
- The coach helps clients to be responsible and accountable for their own progress: The coaching process is designed to help clients to focus on what they can take responsibility for and to follow through to make things happen.
Clients report a high level of satisfaction with coaching which helps them to develop the confidence and behavioural capability needed to achieve their goals. This in turn has a significant impact on “hard” measures of work performance. Latest research from the ICF suggests that 99% of clients report positively about their experience of coaching.
Like many clients, Clare’s experience of coaching was transformational. Coaching helped her to identify and prioritise the key questions she was facing and then to work through them one by one. On close inspection, what started out as an apparently simple question (“shall I accept this job?”) proved to be a series of questions which related to deeply-held values of which Clare had not been aware. Her coach helped Clare to clarify her values and then to use them as the basis for addressing each question as it arose.
Clare was astounded by the results of her coaching. Much clearer about what she wanted from her life as a whole, she was able to consider her job offer as one part of a larger whole and also to clarify the kind of relationship she wanted with her current and any future employer. This gave her confidence to talk to her employer openly and without fear of the consequences – she knew that if she didn’t have her employer’s support, it would be time to think again about her forward career path.
Clare’s coach also helped her to get clear on her aspirations for her relationship with her husband and on the need to discuss with him the implications of becoming parents. Her coach supported her as she thought about what she wanted to say to her husband and how she wanted to say it and this, in turn, led to a deepening in their relationship.
Coaching helped Clare to deal with the immediate issues she faced, yes. Far more than this, it opened up new learning that Clare could apply in a wide range of new and as yet unforeseen situations.