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2 November 2020


What you learn in life shapes you.

This month I am looking at how my career influences my coaching. 

To start with, my professional journey has been quite varied. I started working for Unilever in their animal feeds business, creating high protein vegetable alternatives to replace animal proteins to counter 'mad cow disease'. From there I went onto manufacturing shampoos and toothpaste and then onto consulting, publishing, providing services for people with disabilities, offering business advice, IT outsourcing, drug and alcohol services and, most recently, suicide prevention.

Where you might ask was the common thread in this journey? It is a question I have asked myself, but through all the roles, managing business change has been the common theme in what I have done. On the whole, the above were all great jobs, working with some great organisations. The variety of sectors, industries and causes was fascinating and provided great learning experiences in themselves.

When I think back on the key challenges that the variety of roles had in common, they were actually the same, irrelevant of sector or product/service. In all the roles, I worked on strategy development and business planning with the challenge of achieving business plans through the appropriate project and programme management. 

The need to work collaboratively and in partnership to achieve desired outcomes was also a common theme in my work, as was the importance of trust to ensure collaboration delivered win/win outcomes. The need for great facilitation to guide teams towards their objectives, recognition of the benefits that diversity brings to our thinking, design and enjoyment, and finally, how delivering all this with a can-do, friendly attitude was vital in making the difference in how people choose to engage with you.

There is also a theme, which ran through all my roles and to some extent goes hand in hand with each changing sector, product and service, which is that for a period of time you have no idea what is going on, who anybody is, how anything works and no subject matter expertise regarding the organisation involved. It is quite an unnerving and scary position to be in and I would often feel out of depth and that I might get caught out at any time. 

Early on I realised that to counter this feeling you need to learn fast, ask questions, listen, build relationships quickly and be able to recognise that it is OK not to be the subject matter expert regarding the product/service if your role is to get the subject matter experts to better see the future, make joined-up plans, work collaboratively and track progress.

Coaching involves the same principles. 

I am not the subject matter expert on the client’s objectives, they are. My role is to build the relationship and trust quickly, so through questions and listening, I can facilitate the client to see the future concerning their realistic objectives, make plans, work collaboratively with others to achieve them and then track progress.

One of the benefits of such an approach in coaching is that the client is responsible for doing the thinking, developing awareness around a topic, and identifying a way forward. In doing this for themselves, rather than being told 'the answer', the client can develop much greater responsibility for seeing the solution through. This is one of the reasons so many organisations today are seeing the value in developing coaching skills in their managers and leaders, a shift from a directing management style to a supporting/facilitating one.

In a similar vein, not being a subject matter expert on a product or service means you get to ask the questions that might seem too simple or feel daft, can use plain English rather than the local jargon and generally simplify things to a common level of understanding and wider engagement.

I have always found that this coaching style (though I did not realise it at the time!) generally built trust and openness, whether with individuals or teams and created fertile soil in which new thinking could grow.

More and more today we hear the world is described as VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous), even more so against the Covid-19 backdrop. So, in many ways, my career has prepared me for coaching clients in unnerving, challenging and unfamiliar environments. 

So, perhaps there was a rationale to my professional journey all along.

From the author:

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