Wednesday, 7 December 2016

What do coaches know?

As I work on this in my study, I can see three men taking down some 60 foot Leylandii in a neighbour’s garden. They are working with great skill, organisation and care. A good thing really: one is operating a chain-saw while hanging by a rope and the others are making sure they are in the right place when sections of tree come crashing down. They know what they are doing.
As coaches, we seem diffident about our wisdom. We brandish the credentials, training and experience with which we hope our future clients will identify. We talk about how we work but rarely what we know.
Now that is understandable, it’s a core tenet of coaching that we need to be curious and non-judgemental. I hold firmly to that.  It means staying value - neutral, seeking to understand the client's world view, leaving ours at the door.
But as we coach we learn. We learn technique and powerful questions. And we spot the beliefs, attitudes and assumptions that frequently limit our clients, and the patterns of behaviour that defeat their intentions.

This is hard - won wisdom that informs our insight and our intuition. How do we use it and still hold to our non-judgemental, non-directive credo? We can try to deny or repress it. But I believe that our learning, our intuition, our wisdom will turn up anyway - implicit and unchecked if denied, rather than open and scrutinised if accepted. So we need to know what we know, and hold our wisdom with lightness and clarity. What do I think I know?

First: the last thing anyone knows about themselves is their effect. What you intend or feel is not necessarily what people see or experience of you. This means I often reflect back what I see, what I notice about the client, or as my coach Aboodi puts it “how the client happens to me.”

A second pattern I have noticed is that we all tend to operate from our strengths: we often take them for granted, and don't see their limitations. It is big learning when we embrace and really enjoy our strengths, and equally significant when we become more aware of their downside. I stepped up as a presenter when a colleague told me how they (positively) experienced my presence and impact. And learning about the limitations of my analytical ability was a pivotal moment in my life:  I realised that being right (if indeed I was ) was often not enough to persuade another to my view. So I look to shine the light on my client’s strengths.

Another rich seam of learning was the realisation that others could operate or see the world differently to me without being mad, bad or stupid. Just different. Powerful collaboration becomes possible when you embrace difference and start to work with it. And that's why two - chair work is often so powerful in coaching.

A fourth contention is at the heart of my coaching: every person's behaviour makes perfect sense to them. They are meeting their needs and fulfilling their goals perfectly. So when a client says that they want to change some aspect of their behaviour I am curious. I explore how the behaviour a client wishes to change serves them and what the cost might be to them of letting it go.

Finally, I am struck by how few of us draw on our full range: the ability to be creative and cautious, slow and fast, intuitive and evidence-based, planned and emergent, exuberant and subdued, big and small. Indeed we often don't know what our range is. The world of work tends to draw on and re-inforce limited ways of being and doing. So we may not realise what our full potential could be. But it will be evident somewhere. So I want to know what my clients choose to do when they are not working because there is often gold dust there.

All of these 'truths ' reflect my learning from my life experience and my experience as a coach. They guide my intuition (and they may well affect who I attract to work with me.) Not providing answers but certainly provoking questions. They are useful short - cuts that need to be used with care: if I treat them as universally important or give them preference, then I prioritise my take on what matters over that of my client. But if I ignore them I close off my experience and could miss an opportunity to serve my clients well.

Knowing what I believe I know means that sometimes I explain the source of a question or a hunch to my clients. They are then able to judge what my question or hunch holds for them. It might provoke insights or awareness that enhances their ability to impact the world. How could I serve them better?

Do you agree with these ‘truths’? What are yours? Or should coaches be 'wisdom-free'? Let me know:

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Coaching Ugly

Image result for coaching ugly

I have just been re-reading Brad Gilbert’s book, “Winning Ugly” (the second best book I know on tennis performance*). He talks about setting your mental compass for a match by clearly answering two questions:
  •  What do I want to make happen?

  • What do I want to prevent from happening?

This seems highly relevant to my coaching clients who are often looking to change their behaviour. These questions aim to pin down an intention. And that’s essential because behaviour change involves aligning behaviour with a new intention.

But it’s not only a matter of clarity. The intention also needs to capture a new mind-set, a new dominant thought which supports a change. It requires my client to start to tell, and believe, a new story about their self.

This is important. The more I coach leaders and rising talent, the more I find I am working with people who need to improve their impact, widen their repertoire of influencing strategies, and broaden their understanding of what success looks like. The archetype has achieved a lot through drive, practical problem-solving ability or intellect. But that’s not enough if they are to become a leader in the top echelons of an organisation. 

Like me on the tennis court, would-be leaders need to recognise the limits of their leadership game. If I think of my tennis performance, I have been successful against ok players. But beating better players requires a shift at many levels, not just improving my shots and strokes. I am an effective defensive, counter-punching player who can run down shots that others would give up on. All that’s useful, but not enough against a player who really goes for it and can put away winners.

My intention has to change. 

Three things that enable that stand out.
  1. Having a focused but open attitude: welcome the contest, seek out players who may well beat me, value every small victory I have against them, be curious about how they play and what I might do about it.
  2. Finding an intent that I can control: look to express my best self, play the shots that I have been practising and be patient. I can’t control whether I win – that depends, in part, on the other guy – but I can control how I play.
  3. Maintaining high energy but low agitation: this involves calm concentration and embodying “readiness” – that sense of balance that I feel when I am at my best. Practice is important in building that sense of readiness – developing it when there is no pressure to perform so that it’s available when it’s needed. (And thanks to my coach, Sam, for showing me the power of distraction - focusing on one simple do-able thing - as a way of achieving this). 

Similarly, leaders who are looking to change need to welcome the challenge that will bring and recognise that there will be discomfort.  They need to focus on what they can control and accept that success will not be instantaneous or complete. And they need to allow themselves to perform, finding balance and relaxation as they try to do something different.

Now that is not easy. But two things are helpful here.

First, focusing on one change at a time. For all the thinking about attitude, intent and energy, there is a limit to what they can take on to the ‘court’ without weighing themselves down with intention. So one thing at a time: parking, for the moment, all the other things they’d like to do or do better. 

Secondly, finding a simple, new story about themselves at work. No longer the forensic intellectual, but the insightful relationship builder. No longer the driven solo performer, but a high energy curator of team strengths. No longer the hands-on fixer, but an engineer of others’ success. 

And my new story about who I am when I am on the court? I find picturing some of my heroes helps me tell this story: a mix of Roger Federer, for movement and effortless style; BB King, for his cool, and showing that it’s not what you play but how you play it; and Grouch Marx, for his playfulness and improvisation.

And would you follow a leader who was a mixture of Roger Federer, BB King and Groucho Marx? I know I would.

*By the way, the best book on tennis performance , in my view, is The Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Gallwey

Monday, 31 October 2016

What jazz teaches us about coaching

Image result for jazz music
At the Club Inegales recently, down in a basement on North Gower Street, I found myself watching members of the house band, Notes Inegales, during their joint set with their guests - Uzbek musicians Abbos Kosimov and Sardor Mirzakhojaev. Nothing unusual about that? Except, most of them were not playing at the time. I had been drawn to their listening.

Abbos was showing his remarkable talent and expressiveness on the Doira – an Uzbek instrument, somewhere between a tambourine and a folk drum. The others were mostly listening. Each had their own style: some totally still but absolutely focused; others in motion, quietly showing their appreciation, enjoyment, and engagement.  And as I looked around I thought: that’s what good listening looks like.

This clearly matters for coaches, and anyone for whom listening is a core professional skill. The questions we ask are important and they help our clients to open up, be articulate and show themselves. But more than that, our clients notice how we listen to them when we are silent. Our physical response, the quality of our attention, helps them speak. 

Now I doubt that Abbos’s playing is affected by how his fellow musicians listen to him – he was brimming with confidence and playfulness. But I know that when I play music – with a far from professional level of skill - my playing is boosted if I notice my band-mates appreciating my efforts. I observe how I am being heard.

At Club Inegales, the format includes three sets: Notes Inegales, then the guest(s), and then the two combined. For the latter, they do some brief but intense rehearsal. The club is about fusion, about dialogue between different styles, cultures and forms of musical expression. It is also about improvisation. So, if my experience is anything to go by, the rehearsal creates the framework for the fusion so that the improvisation can take place. 

This too echoes the dance of coaching: as we meet our clients and work with them, two worlds come together, and we listen in order to understand and start to make progress, to make music with them. Like musicians, we have studied and refined out technique. We have mastered our instrument – ourselves – so that we can perform and enable the other to perform.

As we left the gig, one of my friends commented on the discipline of the playing. I had noticed the freedom. Both were evident. The first gave structure, the second fueled improvisation. As in coaching, our discipline enables us to hold the space and guide the process; our self-expression and creativity help us do what seems right in the moment. Like musicians, we bring all our investment in learning technique in service of spontaneity.

At its best, our dialogue becomes a duet. I saw this when the violinist Max Baillie took the lead with Abbos. They started with call and response and then they built. They moved from attention and reaction to anticipation and unison until their collaboration brought wry smiles to both their faces. Rehearsed or improvised? I don’t know but the energy and enjoyment I saw suggested that they were creating then and there.

I did not go to the gig looking to learn, or even think, about coaching. But it does seem that many areas of human endeavour have similarities and cross-overs, particularly when consummate performance is involved. That offers an intriguing prospect: next time you think about your future development as a coach, consider: where could I see some really good jazz?

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Contradictions of Coaching

Image result for complexityOne of the questions about coaching that continues to fascinate me is “what is excellent coaching?”

I have written elsewhere on the route to coaching mastery.*

But what do great coaches actually do?
As I talk to top coaches, and as I reflect on what I do at my best, it seems that one of the core abilities of the excellent coach is the ability to work with and within the tensions inherent in coaching. The top coach navigates the contradictions of coaching.

Here are seven contradictions that I have noticed.  

1.       Being professional and authentic

As coaches, we combine what we have learnt with who we are. Clients respond to who we are and that helps build a relationship. And we have a role and a responsibility as professional coaches to choose what of ourselves we bring so we can serve them: being ourselves and being what they need.

2.       Having a signature presence and the flexibility to be what the client needs

How we are professional and authentic is one way we express our signature presence. That will be individual for each of us. But clients need different things of us and we need to flex and draw on our repertoire, including those aspects of ourselves where we are less comfortable.

3.       Following the client’s interest and using insight and intuition to spark their awareness.

This is the challenge at the heart of our commitment to being non-directive. Clients can be in the dark or blinded by the glare of their everyday experience. Our experience informs the questions and observations that help them shine the light. But what they do with what they then see must be their call.

4.       Being alongside the client and separate from them

Getting drawn too far into the client’s story is one of the pitfalls of the curious and empathetic coach.  Walking beside them, we can appreciate what they see. But if they are walking in the weeds or lost in the forest, we need to take the helicopter view so we can help them see more and further. Similarly, we need to care and not care. We can then serve them rather than please them.

5.       Attending to process while allowing issues and insights to emerge

A key role of the coach is to manage the process. I’m a great fan of inviting the client to do ‘experiments’ during coaching. Often they agree and the outcome is powerful. Occasionally they decline and that’s fine – something else will emerge. I always know where the client and I are in terms of the ‘stages’ of our exploration and sometimes we are lost for a while. That can be a vital ‘stage’.

6.       Feeling empathy while remaining curious about the singular experience of the client.

This is the paradox of shared humanity: I am just like you and I cannot be because we have lived different lives. So we must hold our empathy lightly.

7.       Having a beginner’s mind and an expert mind

It seems that so much of managing all these contradictions amounts to bringing all we can in service of the client at the same time as knowing that we know nothing. Curiosity and insight. Openness and intuition. Awe and recognition. Newness and wisdom. 

A lot more could usefully be said about these and other contradictions. But they can’t be resolved by ever finer analysis. For the great coach, they are not contradictions. They bring no tension. They bring life, energy and creativity. They are resolved in practice. By working with them, the top coach holds the space in which the work gets done, they hold themselves, and they hold the client, elegantly creating simplicity out of seeming complexity.

   Tell me what you think. Do you recognise any of these contradictions in your own practice? 
                       What have I missed? Email me at

*”The Mystery of Mastery” via

Monday, 18 July 2016

Scouting for Coaches

Image result for knots“What do you do to get into the ‘zone’?” asked my friend and colleague Mark when we worked together last week.

We were delivering workshops to an exec MBA group on Executive Presence. I explained that I did three types of preparation to get into the ‘zone’:

First, I get absolutely comfortable and clear about my content, the context and my audience. This is so I know what I am saying, can relate to my group and manage the process with authority. But it’s also so that I can relax and release myself to be my best and focus on the needs of the group. A design or agenda is, after all, only a framework. The needs of the people in the room are paramount and if I am anxious about the content I won’t focus on them. 

How much detailed preparation I do depends on the subject matter. For coaching and familiar workshops, it’s a brief reminder and re-read my reflections from last time. With new workshops, it’s the hard graft of fully absorbing the agenda, the logic and flow. And it’s important not to over-do it: excess preparation leads to tightness by imbuing the detail with a significance it does not have. I aim to do enough to enable myself to perform and trust myself that I will. The aim of all this preparation is to look effortless.

My second type of preparation is a personal check in with my readiness to do the work. That involves FOE – three questions that I ask myself:

      1.     How focused am I?
      2.     How open am I?
      3.      How is my energy?

Focus is about clearing my head, quietening the noise of other concerns, ensuring that any residual anxiety becomes anticipation, being fully present.

Openness is about getting rid of assumptions – about what might be easy or difficult, what the client(s) will bring, what it will be like working with them.

Energy has two dimensions: quantity and quality. I need sufficiently high energy to bring pace, confidence and lightness to my work. And I need calmness – not a frenetic energy but relaxed concentration.

In response to each of my three questions I give a mark out of 10. I aim for a 9 or better. If I am below that, being aware is often enough: I shift my focus, I move my attention outward to work with what is rather than what I assume, and I either draw on my reserve tank or breathe deeply to find the level and type of energy I need.

And my final check, and last piece of preparation, to is to adopt the pose: I know how I naturally sit or stand when I am properly ready. This is personal – there are commonalities but each person has to find their own pose.

I find that the issue of preparation comes up often with my clients. They want to perform well in a situation that matters. They want to show their best self. They want to have a strong, positive impact. I point out that feeling some anxiety is normal: so long as it does not tip into panic, it’s the fuel for the hard graft of preparation. Tension and release is a natural rhythm. And my approach seems to help: attend to the detail until you are relaxed enough, apply FOE and adopt the pose.

And remember the scout motto: Be Prepared