What a year of coaching taught me about my leadership journey

I couldn’t possibly take two hours out of my extremely busy day to attend a coaching session. I was busy. Couldn’t people see that? And I was bound to get at least 20 emails whilst I was sitting there pontificating about my career. That was time I’d never get back. And really, what was the point? I didn’t need a therapist, I needed five more hours in every day and a magic wand to solve my recruitment issues on my team. Plus a helicopter to make sure I didn’t miss nursery pick-up.

If that train of irritated thought sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. I think coaching can get a bad rap. It can be misunderstood (people think it’s therapy, or mentoring, or someone that just tells you what you want to hear). And it can be badly applied and implemented, thanks to the proliferation of life coaches out there who practise without a clear theoretical grounding because they think it sounds like a cool and glamorous career.

However, it’s no exaggeration to say that receiving executive coaching changed the way I think about my life and my career. And like most life-changing activities, it wasn’t easy and it came with a side order of painful reflection.

I started with a coach as a complementary activity to my year long studies on the NHS Leadership Academy Nye Bevan scheme, which aims to develop healthcare leaders of the future. I’ve written before about the power of self-reflection in terms of leadership development and having completed this programme and my period of being coached, I’m now a vocal advocate for this approach. But blimey, is it hard work.

A good coach makes you lean into the issues you may be facing, and challenges you to do the hard thinking about potential solutions. You don’t sit back and listen to them tell you the answers. You lean forward in your seat and start working it through, and you don’t get a pass if you feel like being lazy.

Here are the top five things I learned about my leadership approach as a result of working with a coach:

  1. That it’s ok to be your authentic self at work. But bring the best of that authentic self to the table. If you know that one of your challenges is lack of patience, no-one should expect you to develop a Buddha-like calm overnight. That would be unrealistic and you’d be straining at the leash every day. BUT, your colleagues do have every right to expect that you develop strategies to manage the collective pace most effectively as a leader, so that successful outcomes can be reached. And that means using your natural sense of pace to bring others along for the benefit of a project, as well as, crucially, recognising when you need to adapt to a more measured rhythm. After years of being told I had to fundamentally change who I was to fit in at work, this was a revelation.
  2. That equally, you cannot fundamentally change other people. And you will die trying. Enough said.
  3. That compromise isn’t a dirty word in business. As a fairly typical INFJ, I have a tendency to see the world as I want it to be. I can be an idealist and that is a brilliant thing to bring into the workplace, as it spurs you and others to greater things. But it can also be a blocker. It can stop me taking smaller steps along the path if I need to, due to the demands or circumstances of the business at that time. Sometimes, compromise is just another word for “making something happen despite difficult circumstances” and I try and reframe it like that if I find myself getting frustrated.
  4. That I am more of a coach than a manager. And that’s ok. A tricky one, this. I spent years as a manager wondering why I found it so stressful. It was only when I had some time and space to think through my approach to working with others, that I got the breakthrough I needed. My natural style is much more suited to coaching, to helping people on my team unblock and unlock things so they can move forward, than it is to micro-managing every piece of their working existence. Ironically, I spent many years earlier in my career micro-managing (sorry guys!) as I thought was the only way to achieve the standards I wanted for others. But this was a form of control and was much more about what I wanted to achieve. By letting go and focusing on the bigger picture, it is much easier to achieve collective success. This approach is also helpful when considering taking on a broader portfolio as a leader, as you cannot possibly have an iron-clad grasp on everything. But you can coach others to achieve their best in their area of expertise, so that successful outcomes are achieved.
  5. That leadership takes many forms. It’s not always the job title, or the places at the top of the organisational hierachy chart that marks out the true leaders. Informal authority and engagement can be extremely powerful tools for advocacy and improvement. Most NHS organisations know that change comes from the people, not from the few, and have designed brilliant approaches to creating the future of healthcare with the people that use it, and that practise it. This was a helpful piece of insight on the Nye Bevan programme and through my coaching sessions, I was able to think more laterally about how I could tap informal sources of authority in order to develop my own leadership journey and practice.

No-one is ever a finished article. But this article is finished.

For more on the benefits of coaching, check out the IoD page.