Every summer at the Nauset Regional School here in Eastham, Massachusetts, the Cape Cod Institute hosts a number of important thought leaders in the fields of psychology and organizational development.
When I moved here seven years ago, I didn’t know that this exciting educational venue even existed, much less that it would turn out to be almost in my back yard, even closer than the beach!
The job of a good coach is to assist her client in reaching that place of “being at choice”, where each path can be seen as distinctly as possible.
This year I had the privilege of spending the first week in July at the Institute serving as class assistant to Joan Goldsmith.
Joan is a highly respected writer, organizational consultant and educator, and co-author of The Art of Waking People Up: Cultivating Awareness and Authenticity at Work with her husband, Ken Cloke.
This book, along with others they have written, carries forward the hard work of prying organizational thinking loose from its authoritarian, top-down structure, and showing how employees can become ”ubiquitous leaders” in an organization that values every voice and contribution.
In addition to all her other talents, Joan is a coach—my coach—as well as a mentor and friend. So it was particularly exciting for me to hear what she had to say about transformational coaching.
Because coaching has become one of those catch-all terms that means many different things (a search for “coaching” in Google yields 16 million hits!), I think it’s important to talk about the kind of genuine coaching experience that has the potential to be life changing.
The capacity not to rescue, to be substantively non-directive, is what separates transformational coaching from the cheerleaders and advice-givers who make up so many of the 16 million whose websites turn up on Google.
Real change is only possible for those who participate in a process that gives them full ownership of all their choices. Every other approach is superficial.
During one of her lectures, Joan spoke about her experience coaching a young woman who has a good job with a good company in the UK and is actively being recruited for a position in Los Angeles. At the same time that she is excited at the prospect of moving to a “hip city” in the United States, she is also apprehensive about disturbing the solid career track she has established in the UK.
In describing her role in working with this young woman, Joan observed that she does not care what her client ultimately decides, i.e., whether she stays in the UK or goes to LA. All that matters is that in making a decision, she is coming from a place of “being at choice”, where she is looking all her options without giving undue weight to any because of unconscious factors, such as fear, resistance to change, or unresolved incidents from her past.
The job of a good coach is to assist her client in reaching that place of “being at choice”, where each path can be seen as distinctly as possible. This requires:
- Posing in “bold relief” both sides of the argument, for and against a particular course of action
- Naming the “demons” that scream loudly within all of us when life presents us with new opportunities/risks
- Positioning the decision within the bigger picture of the client’s career history and life goals.
To guide this process, the coach must be solidly grounded enough in her own life to be able to bracket her feelings and preferences and stand with the client in their uncertainty without needing to impose a solution.
It’s very difficult for a coach to not have a clue what the client should do, especially when the client sees her as the “expert” and wants “answers”.
I’d like to share with you how transformational coaching has worked with one of my own clients who is in a situation similar to the one Joan described in her lecture. She has a secure and comfortable position and was recently presented with a totally unexpected and very exciting offer.
POST IN BOLD RELIEF
Before I discussed the offer with my client, I asked her to write down all she knew about it, and to record what was going on in her head.
I encouraged her to regard this phase of the process as one of information collection only, and to resist jumping ahead to a decision until all her options had been articulated and balanced—in other words, until she was “at choice”.
As it turned out, if she had jumped to a decision before getting all the information, she would have rejected the offer based on a long commute. I suggested that she find out if an alternative work arrangement was possible, and by asking the question she learned that she would have the option of opening up an office in the city where she lived. Thus a potentially deal-breaking issue was taken off the table early in the process.
Her investigations into both the positive and negative aspects of the offer became the framework for expanding the scope of our discussions.
We looked at how both staying in her current role and taking the new position would impact her professional goals for the future. We took a closer look at the people she would be reporting to and collaborating with in each role, and considered how they would affect her work life in terms of where she would be free to put her energy.
As we delved deeper, we discovered that things that had initially looked to her like negatives were actually positives.
On the “con” side of her analysis she had written that in the new position she would have less control over how she did her work. In her current role, she functioned extremely independently, with little direction. She was even writing her own performance reviews! Yet this was in many ways a burden to her. As she thought about it, she realized that she might actually prefer working under the guidance of a strong leader.
She had identified her current position as being very secure, while the new position, a start-up venture, had “way more risk”.
She asked herself the question, “What if it fails?”—to which I “posed in bold relief” the question, “What if it succeeds?”
When we opened up the possibility of success, rather than failure, she was able to see a glimpse of a long-term future with an organization whose mission was compatible with her strong desire to contribute to other’s lives.
NAME THE DEMONS
Joan Goldsmith calls them “petty tyrants”. I call them “demons”.
They are the voices inside us that say in countless ways that we don’t deserve to claim what is important to us and move forward in our lives.
They chant, sometimes loudly, sometimes in a debilitating murmur, that we are not good enough to write, paint, run the marathon, start our own business, head a non-profit agency, etc., etc.
Demons, petty tyrants, can be very persuasive, and we can become very susceptible to their incessant drone. To counter their influence, we need external voices that challenge them.
I heard my client’s demons speaking when she wrote down the phrase, “This is a big and demanding job” in her description of the new opportunity.
I agreed that in the new role she would serve as the “hub” of a large undertaking, and I reminded her that the responsibilities of the position matched her talents and experience.
I also asked her to separate out how much of her anxiety was related to the idea of change itself, and to her own drive to master a new role quickly.
By the time we finished talking about this issue, the phrase “big and demanding” had been reduced, both on the paper and in her thinking, to lowercase “big and demanding”, its rightful size.
POSITION THE DECISION WITHIN THE BIGGER PICTURE
An essential element of self-leadership is the capacity to look at a particular decision and determine its place within a bigger story, the narrative of what your career and life experiences have taught you about who you are and what you want to become, about what is important and what you want more of in your life.
To choose confidently what is best for you, the decision must be framed within the context of what you’ve learned from the past and what you envision for the future.
My client was very adept at seeing the bigger picture. She was able to recognize that her resistance to upsetting the balance she had created in her current work resulted from work transitions that had been disruptive in the past.
She was also able to observe that this new opportunity fit many of the criteria we had established for the next step in her professional growth. More importantly, she understood that she could draw from both her personal and professional life experiences, her proven capacity to “figure things out”, no matter how messy or difficult the challenge.
I have no idea if my client will accept the new offer, or if she will remain in her current position. I do know, however, that together she and I have worked a coaching process that assures that whatever decision she makes will be made on the solid ground of being “at choice”