The motivation for this series of articles is to share my personal journey as a “performance” coach for software project managers since 2006. These days, one sees a number of professionals in their late career starting out as coaches – former CEOs, senior HR professionals, operations executives and so on. I hope that this series would be of use to them in understanding and preparing for what lies ahead.
Firstly, let me share reasons as to why I myself chose coaching as a professional pursuit.
1. After working in software delivery for over 25 years, I was getting a sense of déjà vu in leadership roles – “more of the same” syndrome regardless of the companies I worked for. I simply grew tired of it and wanted to try something different, yet connected to my experience.
2. I was also reaching a stage in life & career where I wanted to do something more “meaningful”. I figured that being of assistance to others is a very meaningful activity – in this case, assisting young professionals in meeting the demands of their managerial roles.
3. Thirdly, I observed that in many organizations, developing the potential of employees was a lofty goal – but only on paper with little to show for it as a formal practice. But there seemed to be a crying need of managers to get contextual help in their jobs that was largely unmet by people practices in their organizations. So, there was indeed a business opportunity for performance coaching.
With the above, I felt I had strong enough reasons – in terms of my experience, inclination and opportunity. Those of you contemplating a similar move need to identify your own set of reasons for doing it. It is important since developing oneself as a coach is long haul with many twists & turns – your personal reasons & commitment are ones that would sustain you.
Preparing for it
So, how did I prepare for the new role of a coach? Did I get myself a coach to coach me to become a coach? No, I did not and probably could not. But I had the good fortune to work with friends & colleagues from whom I could learn virtually every day. I noticed how with one of my friends (not a coach by profession!), very many people came to seek advice and wondered about the reasons for it. It dawned on me that he had a way with people. Very simply,
– He made quality time for people who sought his advice
– He listened with empathy & without passing judgment on what they said / did
– He was genuinely interested in helping them – but he helped by enabling them to find their own answers
So, the lessons for me were that one needs a composite of skills, beliefs and attitudes – not just past experience in the domain, of which I had plenty.
I found that skills are relatively the easier part. As a coach, you need to be able to listen extremely well. You need to empathize (which was not difficult for me since most coachee situations were not dissimilar to what I had gone through over the years). However, some skills were not that easy. After a long time being in “command & control” positions in organizations, it was not easy to resist “telling” coachees what to do based on my own experience. Although I understood the “power of questions” at an intellectual level, I had to consciously practice it to make it a natural style of interaction with coachees. I am still learning on the job…
Changing my well-entrenched beliefs was/is the next higher hurdle. All my life, I had been recognized & rewarded for my quick judgement of people and how best to leverage their current ability for the good of the project and the organization. Now, I had to think differently – start believing in the potential of people. The often-cited example is that everyone is like an acorn – tiny for now but could become a giant oak tree. Ok, ok, not everyone is that tiny to start with or will grow that big! But almost everyone does have the potential to grow far beyond what they currently demonstrate on their job. Consciously taking off my “judgement” hat on what someone can or cannot achieve has been perhaps the most difficult.
In terms of attitudes, there are big changes in mindset needed to succeed as a coach and face frustrations which are bound to be there. In my experience, some of the major ones are as follows:
– The success or failure of coaching is not absolute and not defined by the coach – it is defined by the coachee
– Having said that, as a coach, one needs self-check periodically whether all possible approaches are being tried (not giving up easily and going the “extra mile” for the coachee)
– Learning & being effective as a coach is a continuous journey and there may be some coachee situations beyond the coach’s ability to help
– Before professing self-awareness to others, the coach needs to become more self-aware oneself – introspect on actions, thoughts & feelings (setting aside quiet time late at night or at the crack of dawn)
So, my approach to preparing myself was studying people I knew who were very good with people. I did focus on key skills mentioned above. I also read quite a bit on the subject (I was greatly influenced by Sir John Whitmore’s book on “Coaching for Performance” – more on that in a later article; refer http://www.performanceconsultants.com/sir-john-whitmore). But ultimately, I learnt by jumping in and doing it! Actual coaching improved my confidence over time. It also gave me much food for thought – to introspect and improve.
A friend of mine once told me that unlike in chess where you find child prodigies, in the game of bridge, you do not. You just have to keep playing the game over years to reach high levels of success with your partner. So, it is with coaching. With experience, you get better with facing diverse coaching situations. With some partners (coachees), you will together achieve a certain degree of “success”. With others, may be more or less. It is a life-long learning about people and what makes them tick. It is also learning about your own self on an ongoing basis! More to come – watch this space…