If this last year has shown us anything it is that people really are the most valuable asset any organisation has, whether it’s on the frontline of care, delivery or supermarkets or managing and delivering across the whole range of public services. Senior officers across the civil society and government sector are feeling more isolated (quite literally) and exhausted than ever before. The pandemic hasn’t created this, but it has exacerbated it.
Never has the phrase ‘up close and personal’ meant so much – not only in how we work but also in how we support each other, even if the medium is now the laptop rather than the meeting room.
In such times, coaching can be an invaluable intervention.
I had my first coaching session at the age of 40. At the time I wasn’t looking for a coach. In fact, I turned up to the meeting hoping to just have a coffee and a catch up with a friend and colleague. That one-hour ‘coaching conversation’ changed my life. Turns out that I may not have wanted a coach, but I certainly needed one.
So why do more people not consider coaching? I often think back to that pivotal moment in my life. I remember I had hit a T junction in my career and didn’t know which direction to take but asking for help was never an option. Why was I not more alive to seeking guidance at the time? On reflection it was partly to do with my own personal prejudices and upbringing. As the only son of immigrant parents, under the hardships they had to endure to make sure I received a decent education and a fair chance at making it in life, the word ‘failure’ was removed from my vocabulary and replaced with resilience, commitment, effort, hard work and an injunction never to give up. Showing vulnerability was a sign of weakness, and ultimately failure.
I have come to realise that I am not alone in feeling this and moreover, this isn’t limited to people from diverse backgrounds. All of us will at some stage need help and guidance and even at that point of self-awareness, when we know that we are not quite getting things right, we struggle to call for help because let’s face it, showing our vulnerability can be scary.
If it wasn’t for my friend Paul Snell’s intervention, and his ability to provide me with a safe space to talk about my frustrations and worries I may never have taken the next step on my professional journey. Paul, an experienced executive coach and mentor to senior managers in the public, private and voluntary sectors, explained: ‘One of the things that a coach does is to hold up a mirror to ourselves. But how often do we take that long hard look in the mirror unprompted? Coaching is a guided journey starting with that look in the mirror.’
What stops us? Are we brave enough to look in the mirror or happier to lock away our own personal Picture of Dorian Gray in the attic?
There is also a cost element – both time and money to invest in ourselves. Finally, we need to know where to go. Despite the age of social media and increased communication it transpires that finding a coach is not like going to the GP or a dentist. So, you either stumble across one or the search needs a bit of provocation.
We also know it’s not right for everybody. But despite that I’ve lost count of the number of people who have approached me and asked me to help them find a coach.
Paul says: ‘Mentoring is great. It can be really helpful. But it’s not coaching. It’s not the guided journey from where you are now to who you want to be in the future.’
Some organisations will support managers to use a more facilitative, inclusive and coaching style of management – a shift away from the more presidential, directive and ‘heroic’ leadership to one which is more distributed, and more collaborative.
They may also have an internal coaching scheme, like some of the big consultancy firms. If they don’t, they could facilitate an external coach. If they can’t do that, they could support you if you were to find your own coach.
If the answer is ‘none of the above’ then you might want to ask yourself whether this is an organisation that is going to give you the tools you need to grow and develop.
Paul and I have written about coaching before and the need to work more closely with our clients and candidates in helping them to develop. In fact, any executive headhunter worth half their salt will integrate elements of coaching into their day-to-day work.
Is this the time for a greater collective effort on this? If we can help, advise, guide and coach more openly and easily we have a greater chance of coming out of this stronger, healthier and happier.
Dawar Hashmi is Partner, Civil Society and Government at Green Park Interim & Executive Limited
• Paul Snell is an experienced executive coach and mentor to senior managers in the public, private and voluntary sectors – special thanks to Paul who assisted with this article