Author Archives: Jenny Rogers

Theresa May and the Perils of Introversion

When you ask people how they define introversion, the most probable reply is that an introvert is a neurotically shy person terrified of other people and at an enormous disadvantage compared with the audacious swagger of the natural extrovert. If you are familiar with the Jungian approach to personality, as exemplified for instance in the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)*, you get a very different interpretation. Introversion/Extraversion is about where and how you draw energy: needing privacy to think and reflect versus connecting with people and doing your thinking out loud. The writer Susan Cain made a good case for us Introverts in her book Quiet, celebrating the many strengths of an introverted world, for instance the ability to think in depth, to listen carefully, to make deep, loyal relationships with a few people rather than superficial ones with the many.

You can be a bold Introvert who enjoys the limelight or a shy Extravert who ducks it. You can be a successful politician or actor as an Introvert. These are preferences rather than predicting behaviours which will box you in. In the Jungian world both preferences are of equal value and both have disadvantages depending on your levels of self-awareness and maturity.

In the aftermath of the British General Election, we see very clearly how a preference for Introversion, if not very well managed, can be a fatal handicap.  As Prime Minister, Theresa May made a typical Introvert mistake. She appointed two Joint Chiefs of Staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, people she has known and trusted for a long time. Let’s call them Nick’N’Fi and let’s guess that their preferences are also for Introversion. All decisions, all communication, had to pass through Nick’N’Fi. Others, including senior members of her Cabinet were kept at bay.

Decisions were made mostly by consulting Nick’N’Fi, one of which was, it seems, the wildly miscalculated decision to call a General Election in the mistaken belief that a then-20 point lead meant that you would win a landslide victory. The Manifesto was written with Nick’N’Fi. Then when some parts of it provoked perfectly predictable howls of rage, the U-turn was also plotted with Nick’N’Fi.

Nick’N’Fi’s advice was to be Presidential in how the campaign was conducted so they recommended avoiding TV debates and then making carefully controlled appearances in front of tiny groups of supporters where the same pointless and now widely mocked mantra about ‘strong and stable government’ was robotically repeated. This could have been wise advice as we Introverts are not always terribly good at improv and thinking on our feet but in fact it was poor advice because it looked as if Mrs May was afraid of the kinds of questions she might get if exposed to Brenda from Bristol and other uncontrollable questioners who might challenge the way an austerity budget unfairly penalised them.

In this way, Mrs May carefully sealed off all information, including from well-meaning colleagues, that could have challenged her own views.

It’s a generalization, but let’s propose that the British electorate has some well known dislikes. It does not like the insolent sense of entitlement of wealthy people who find their way to the top of politics. It does not like being taken for granted. It does not like not being heard. When this happens, the urge to punish is overwhelming. We punished David Cameron for his casual assumption that we all wanted to stay in the EU. Now we have punished Theresa May for assuming that we all admired her for being a self-described ‘bloody difficult woman’, that her quickly dubbed ‘dementia tax’ would be seen as ‘only fair’, that a ‘Hard Brexit’ was desirable, that a tough austerity budget which would be felt most harshly by the most vulnerable was OK. Those who voted ‘Remain’ probably punished her for her own seemingly cynical and self-serving change of mind from half-hearted Remainer to Leaver, failing to understand the passionate commitment to being European that we Remainers feel. 

Nick’N’Fi probably told Mrs May that none of this mattered. Inside their own little bubble of introverted certainty, it didn’t. But to the electorate it did. Interestingly, we also ignored the hysterical pleading from the right wing press which instructed us to vote for Theresa. This is despite the fact that the Leader of the main opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, is not temperamentally a leader at all but a lifelong contrarian who has not been able to command the loyalty of his own party and probably never will.

Senior British politicians rarely ask for coaching help, unlike many of their American counterparts. They are more likely to see the MBTI as a silly parlour game than as the seriously heavyweight psychometric tool that it is. So Mrs May is unlikely ever to take the questionnaire. But my own guess is that her preferences are ISTJ. At their best ISTJs are efficient respecters of tradition, loyal, serious, hard working, meticulous about detail and conscientious. Their weaknesses can be their short term thinking, their stubbornness, their dislike of change, their humourlessness, reluctance to network and their failure to understand that a system cannot ever manage the vagaries of human nature.  Each individual ISTJ will have their own place on the spectrum of effectiveness/ineffectiveness where these behaviours are concerned. Mrs May has over-relied on her own judgement and has become inflexible. Instead of strong and stable she looks weak and rigid. Now she has had to fire her Joint Chiefs of Staff as the first of the many sacrifices she needs to make to keep going in government. .

Soon we will have to have yet another election and there will be a different Tory leader. Behind the scenes I am sure that a certain well known ENTP, Boris Johnson, will be preparing his pitch. And that will be a different game again.

*My book ‘Sixteen Personality Types at Work in Organisations’ gives one page profiles of each Type. To buy, email info@JennyRogersCoaching.com

‘Coaching With Personality Type: What Works’ was published last week by McGraw Hill/Open University Press. Contact as above.

Can coaches ‘make’ clients change?

When I opened the email – and I had certainly never heard of the sender – I saw that it promised me something amazing. If I signed up to a particular training course, I could learn ten questions which would guarantee that my clients would change! Really, truly, they would not be able to help themselves!

If only. The human approach to change is not so simple.

Here is one example. Some years ago I observed a session given by a coach who was just finishing his training. This young man was a coaching natural: he created easy rapport, he knew how to set goals, he asked good questions and could subtly balance support with challenge; he created an energizing and friendly climate. His client was a well-paid manager of about his own age facing a tricky job interview where he would be facing a selection panel none of whom knew him.

This was the third two-hour coaching session in a series of four. How to get through the interview successfully was its goal and the session was set up so that chunks of answering practice questions were, at the client’s eagerly-made request, interspersed with feedback.

The coach offered positive reinforcement on the crispness of the client’s answers to sample questions, on his enthusiasm for his work and on the convincing way he was able to describe his skills. The coach also – bravely, warmly and very skilfully – offered some more negative points and these were all on sensitive subjects. He pointed out that the client was wearing a suit and shirt – the ones that he proposed wearing for the interview – that were clearly well past their best, that he had dandruff on his collar and that his hair needed cutting. There was a discussion about the way the client frowned when he was thinking, and about how this could convey the impression that he was scowling. Even more bravely, the coach was able to say that, like many Londoners who had grown up in a disadvantaged environment, the client was confusing ‘think’ with ‘thing’, pronouncing common words such as ‘something’ as ‘somethink’.

Of course none of this should matter because it is all superficial but in practice it matters a lot. Someone whose appearance is dishevelled might raise the possibility that they have a dishevelled attitude to their work and may lack self-awareness in general. Someone who cannot do ‘received pronunciation’ may unwittingly convey a sense that they are uneducated or unintelligent. To get a job you need to look and sound the part. All of this was thoroughly explored in the coaching conversation.

The client thanked the coach profusely and left looking exhilarated. After he had gone, the coach and I discussed what had happened and I congratulated him on how well he had handled what could have proved very difficult.

What was the outcome? The client returned for his final session. He was wearing the same shabby suit, still had dandruff, his hair was even longer and he was still doing a lot of frowning. He was still saying ‘somethink’. He had not got the job and was feeling bitterly disappointed.

If I had not seen this session for myself I might have assumed that this talented trainee coach could have made a number of familiar mistakes – for instance, giving the more negative feedback too abruptly, too harshly or too vaguely. Or that he had only concentrated on the negative, thus raising the client’s resistance. In my own view, none of this was the case.

This client might have failed the interview for any number of reasons, but the chances are that his poor self-presentation was a serious bar to success. When gently asked what had got in the way of replacing the suit and the haircut, the client’s reply was, ‘too busy’.

I remind myself of this coach and client when training and supervising other coaches or in my own work. We cannot make clients do anything. Sometimes, despite our most heroic and skilled efforts, and despite what they say, the client is simply not ready or able to change – even when the stakes are high.

 

Dieting doesn’t work: here’s what does

At this time of year, the windows of my local bookshop are crowded with the latest books guaranteeing magical ways to lose weight. These books will have been written by an alleged ‘celebrity’ who is young, toned, slim and pretty, male or female. They will all claim that what they offer is not a ‘diet’ – oh no, it is a new way of eating. They assure you that their method is ‘easy’.

How is it that we continue to fall for these promises? For a few years I offered weight loss coaching as a kind of side bar to my mainstream coaching practice and I came to understand the lure of the ‘magic’ diet. My clients were desperate. Most of them were fully familiar with a wide range of diets and most of them had tried many, always with the same result: rapid initial weight loss had been followed invariably by regaining and in some cases adding to their original weight. They all believed that whatever the new wonder diet, this time it would work. (There is some cynical fun to be had in seeing that quite a few of the past authors of such books have themselves become a little porky, having failed to stick to their own advice.)

The core problem with diets – and no diet book will ever own up to this – is that it merely replaces one kind of disordered eating with another. So if you follow Lighter Life, you spend your first sixteen weeks eating packeted substitutes for normal food. If you follow the 5/2, you starve for two days out of five. If you follow calorie counting, you become obsessive about the calorie content of everything you eat.

This is not sustainable. We are a herd species and eating together is part of what makes us tick. We like to be included and being included means eating in the same way as everyone around you. When you are on a diet you have to fiddle around with special little meals just for you. You may weigh everything you cook or consume. You are constantly having to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, this is one of my fast days’, or ‘I don’t eat carbs’ or ‘I can’t eat broad beans because they are too high on the GI Index’. This gets tedious – for you and everyone else. The sense of deprivation becomes overwhelming. Sooner or later it is all too difficult and the miracle diet is stealthily abandoned.

Although all these systems contain advice on how to ease back into everyday eating, in effect by offering this advice they reveal the intrinsic difficulty: a ‘diet’ is consciously or unconsciously seen as a temporary measure before normal service can be resumed and of course this is exactly what happens.

What works

What works is to concentrate far more on how you eat than on what you eat. Yes it is important to make plant-based food the majority of what you eat and to give fruit and veg the starring role with moderate amounts of lean protein. But the real secret is to focus on HOW:

  • Are you really hungry? People with eating disorders and this includes over-eaters, have lost the connection between food and hunger. If you imagine a ‘hunger thermometer’ with a ten point scale, the ideal place to be is at 5. If it’s only 3, don’t eat. If it’s 7 or 8, you’ve left it too long
  • It’s fine to leave food on your plate when you have had enough. Your mother’s view no longer counts
  • Never eat in front of any kind of screen – it will tempt you to gobble down the food and gobbling means that your brain does not have time to understand that you really have had enough food – this process takes roughly 20 minutes
  • Cook from scratch, then you know exactly what is in what you are eating. There is plenty of wonderful food that can be cooked quickly in little more time than it takes to open a packet or bottle
  • Never eat food straight from a box or packet
  • Don’t eat anything that has to be queued for, or that is brought by a delivery man on a bike
  • Don’t eat standing up or while travelling on the Tube/metro, walking or sitting at a desk
  • Avoid eating alone if you can. Conversation slows eating down and discussion of the food can increase your sense of relish
  • Eat slowly. Put your cutlery down between mouthfuls
  • Food that you eat with your hands is designed to be gulped down, see above, so avoid it. Set a table, arrange the food attractively on a real plate; use cutlery and a napkin.

If you do all this, and stick to it – will you lose weight and then keep it off? I think most likely you will, though very very slowly. Slow and steady is better than fast and dramatic.

My weight loss clients saw food as their enemy. They were afraid of food. Despite, in some cases, more than a decade of overeating, they did not enjoy food; they were eating at superfast speed without really tasting it. The real secret of weight control is to see food as your friend, to savour it. But this is too simple and maybe too counter-intuitive for the publishers of diet books and their authors. There is money to be made out of the phoney promises and complicated systems with accompanying recipes and that is what keeps the whole dishonest business going.

Coach panic: ‘Don’t Know What To Say!’

My good friend and colleague Jane Cook of Linden Learning (www.lindenlearning.org) raises the question of how to prepare inexperienced and trainee coaches for life after our courses. She reminds me that on the courses we run together, one of the most frequent dreads expressed by our participants is of being struck dumb with their real life clients: ‘Can’t think what to say!’

I remember it well, that horrible feeling that the client can see into your brain and that they are thinking, ‘Thought he/she was an expert! What an idiot, can’t even ask a question …’

Many of these inexperienced coaches have learnt during our course that what they have previously thought to be ‘coaching’ is no such thing because it has almost always involved either advice-giving or just making vaguely supportive noises. They now understand that intensely self-aware questioning is at the heart of good coaching: focussed, brief, warm. They know now that coaching blends high support with high challenge and that this is hardly ever what we experience from friends, family and colleagues. They understand that this is what makes a coaching conversation so special. They have discovered that asking the perfect question is nothing like as simple as it seems. You can ask a good question too soon or too late, or maybe ask a well-intentioned question which is so wrapped up in complex sentences that the client has no idea what you mean, let alone how to answer.

What is the solution for these beginner coaches, desperate to improve? Is it to offer them one of those whole books of coaching questions? Is it to spend more of our limited time on these courses teaching further questions, for instance, questions that will work when it’s a relationship problem, or a career problem, or a performance problem?

My own instinct is that this is a false trail. The context matters and it is important to use your listening and summarizing skills to show the client that you are paying attention to it. But the best coaching questions are context-free. They will work anywhere. Learning an apparently simple framework like GROW or our own favourite, OSCAR*, (Outcome, Situation, Choices and Consequences, Action and Review) each of its stages with its own subset of useful questions, is a huge challenge in itself – and in my view, plenty to be going on with.

Where the inexperienced coach goes wrong is usually in getting so self-preoccupied, so paralyzed with performance anxiety that they don’t listen carefully enough to what the client is actually saying, then, consumed by yet more anxiety, they don’t pay attention to nuances of language. Then they leave out whole chunks of OSCAR. Most commonly this means never setting the goal (Outcome) or omitting the ‘S’ stage, Situation, which includes the vital questions, ‘What have you already tried?’ and ‘What might your own contribution to this problem be?’  I have heard many sample coaching conversations which go a bit like this:

Coach asks, What’s the problem?

[Coach then accepts that the problem is exactly as the client has stated it rather than reframing it as a goal or asking, ‘What help do you need from me on this?’]

Coach then jumps straight to

‘So what could you do?’

No wonder the client is baffled. If they already knew what to do they would not be asking for coaching.

In her email, Jane says, ‘It does seem that getting to grips with using real questions in real situations is one of the most common blocks to trainee coaches or managers wanting to use coaching approaches. If they don’t have the OSCAR prompt in front of them (and sometimes even then) they just can’t think what to say, or if they’re managers, they duck the opportunity.’

Almost all of these inexperienced coaches have been highly successful in their earlier careers. They are used to achievement. If they have had a coach themselves, and many of them have, that coach may have made it all look fluid and graceful with apparently minimal effort. But this is the art that conceals art.

It is dismaying to learn that coaching is not easy and that it takes many hundreds of hours of practice before you begin to grow well-grounded confidence. The new coach wants to leap from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence immediately, something that I believe is impossible. You just must pass through that pain barrier of delivering some coaching that goes horribly wrong and of making clunking mistakes (which, by the way, will always happen however experienced you are).  You need to record your sessions then play them for joint discussion with a tough and merciful supervisor, looking hard what was successful and what wasn’t. If this doesn’t happen, the temptation to revert to previous habits can be overwhelming. Then of course, the coaching doesn’t work and at this point the tyro coach is tempted to give up.

Here is my advice:

Trust the process. Learn the OSCAR framework and customise those questions so that they sound like you and you can say them with confidence

Listen hard

When you watch demos of an expert coach at work, scribble down any unfamiliar questions that seem especially powerful and add them to your repertoire, giving them a try and seeing how useful you find them yourself

Keep it simple

Keep practising

Get feedback

Keep learning, especially about the psychology of human change.

That’s it.

*There is a full account of how to use OSCAR in the new 4th edition of my book: Coaching Skills, The Definitive Guide to Being a Coach

The Two Rules of Persuasion Every Coach knows but Remain didn’t

Sometimes we humans are remarkably simple-minded. It should be the easiest-peasiest thing in the world for politicians and media and evil-minded individuals to influence us, as well as the virtuous and high-minded who want us to change behaviour for our own good. When you work as a coach you draw on these principles every day.

Yet somehow what is known to so many coaches does not seem to be known to the highly paid strategists and politicians whose failure to access convincing arguments for staying in the EU has created the constitutional mess we now find ourselves in.

The first rule is that if you want to change people’s behaviour you need to understand that threats alone do not work. If you want people to give up the nasty habit of smoking or of gambling away their life savings or of getting fat, it’s no good just frightening them. There is a mass of evidence to show that it fails. It’s too unpleasant to take in, we block it off, we stick our fingers in our ears and pretend we haven’t heard.

What you do instead is deploy this formula: credible threat + credible solution = behaviour change.

This is what the Leave side did. They buffed up resentment at East Europeans who were willing to do the jobs that British people scorn. They propagated the lie that £350m a week that could go to the NHS was going to the EU. Then they said, the solution is simple: vote Leave. Vote Leave and we will get control of our borders and have lots of money to spend on our beloved NHS.

Remain believed that it was enough to frighten people with the prospect of recession and of every household losing £4,200 a year if we left the EU. Mr Osborne took it further with his threat of an Austerity Budget if the vote was to leave. This seemed bullying. It was like your doctor saying, ‘You will die at 40 if you go on smoking’.

The second rule is that emotion has far greater appeal than logic. Remain, unfortunately had not taken Psychology 101 when they went to Strategy School. Instead they took the Finance Module followed by the Logical Reasoning Module. Remain, fatally, decided to add Logic to their already mistaken strategy of making threats without offering solutions (other than keeping the status quo). Remain never made the emotional case for staying in Europe: that we are Europeans to our core; that thanks to the EU we have had 70 years of peace after centuries of devastating conflict; that our economy has thrived and could do so even more; that we should celebrate our membership and look to improve the ways the governance happens rather than feebly opting out. They avoided the words loaded with emotion, skilfully deployed by their opponents (country, patriot, history, control, pride, heritage, great) and went instead for the dull lifelessness of pound, exchange rate, productivity, single market.

Now we have to live with the result. It is unlikely that we can ‘get control of our borders’ or ‘get our country back’ in  the draconian way that the most furious, hurt and left-behind Leave voters imagined would happen, the silliest of them thinking that it would take place tomorrow as in the reported conversation from a young Hungarian friend, educated here, pays taxes here, has lived in the UK for 15 years, who told me that one of her neighbours had said on June 24th, ‘Are you sad now that you’ll be going home?’ These Leave voters are going to be upset and probably angrier than ever when they realize that their naïve hopes have been subtly rubbed away by protracted negotiations and the compromises of a Tory party that knows how much its biggest donors want and need the free movement of people.

As a coach working with the vagaries, splendours and absurdities of human psychology for so many years, I am still puzzled about why our most senior politicians don’t know stuff that any experienced coach could have told them.

Six Ways To Wreck your Career Move

Now that the recession really does seem to be over, there are more people on the move again. Previous reasons for staying stuck (fear, fear and fear essentially) have evaporated. But I work with many clients who have made moves for the wrong reasons, and often they have made all of these mistakes at once.

1. Running away

Something happens: a boss makes an ill-considered remark, you don’t get the bonus you wanted and some pesky colleague gets more; there is a cut to your budget, a Big Birthday approaches. Result: panic. When your motivation is all about what you want to leave and there is no strong pull to an attractive alternative, beware. The chances are that this will not be the right move. Ideally the push-pull factors should be in balance and you should experience genuine regret at the thought of leaving. Moving to run away more often than not turns out to be a mistake

2. Giving in to the lure of money

A client with a strong commitment to the public sector had been annoyed and disappointed when he had failed to win the top job in his organization. The head-hunter who had worked with him and who had seen his talent at close quarters then cunningly circled, offering him a job as… a head-hunter in the head-hunter’s own firm. The salary was double what he was then earning and attractive prospects were dangled of bonuses and promotions. He took the job. But the salary and the bonuses were dependent on reaching tough targets and these depended on an aggressive style of selling. At the point where he came to me he was in despair, imagining that his public sector career was irretrievable (it wasn’t) and bitterly regretting his hasty decision, which had been made, as he said, in the spirit of ‘flouncing off’.

3. Not doing due diligence

In the pressing wish to make a change, any change, many people fail to research the company or the job. They don’t interrogate the balance sheet, they don’t use their browser to see what disgruntled former employees might have to say about the company; they don’t ask how their performance will be judged. A client in the financial services sector and who had leapt from a job she hated to one that it turned out she hated even more, had never asked what her fancy title actually meant nor what her objectives would be for her first six months. She had failed to take notice of the visceral feelings of dislike she had felt about the potential boss at the selection stage. Result: a spectacularly wrong decision.

4. Being unclear about your motivators

When you are thinking about changing jobs, the most important single question to ask is what truly motivates you. When work has been going really well, what has been happening? What is it about work that is satisfying? A client who had a senior job in a respected boutique ad agency fell out with his boss. Things were said that it was difficult and embarrassing to retract when tempers had cooled. The client was approached by a much bigger rival agency and took the job. This client had never thought through what his core needs and motivators were. When he came to me we quickly uncovered that it was critically important to him to be at the centre of company decision-making, close to the ‘creatives’ and with high levels of autonomy. None of these was a feature of the new job, instantly explaining his misery.

5. Being unrealistic about your skills

There are plenty of research projects showing that human beings tend to believe that we are at the 80th percentile in terms of our performance. Statistically this is unlikely: human performance of any kind will show the normal bell curve with most of us clustering in the middle. The kinds of events that lead to sudden exits are often associated with a less than glowing appraisal. Juliana was one such client. She had stayed in one organization for 12 years and had been carried, as she put it, ‘on the job escalator’ to a senior post. A new boss decided to restructure and as part of the process people had to apply for jobs by going through an assessment centre. Juliana did not do well and was not appointed. A lot of our work together was in taking a cool look at what her skills actually were and then, at what this said about her market value. Juliana concluded that she had most probably been over-promoted. She had not refreshed or extended her skills and her market value was a lot lower than she had believed.

6. Failing to have a Plan B

However happy you are in your current role, you should always have an exit plan. See each job as a discrete project which will have a beginning a middle and an end. And the end may come more suddenly than you think. Keep your networks alive, commit to broadening your scope, for instance through taking on a non-exec director role, appraising your options, discussing it with your family, keeping your CV up to date, staying loosely in touch with head-hunters. A role that seemed like a perfect fit in your thirties may no longer be right in your forties or fifties. Human beings grow and develop – and thank goodness we do. 

Two of my books may help:

Job Interview Success http://tinyurl.com/za2wzmt 

Facing Redundancy: Surviving and Thriving http://tinyurl.com/j2ax7gd

 

7 Things to Avoid Saying on your CV/Resume

Many of my career-coaching clients have never written a CV/Resume, or if they have it was many years ago. They are CV Virgins. And now they are being thrust into a world where the CV is their passport to a new role. The hiring organization or agency makes it worse by using clichéd phrases in their advertising copy, but this does not mean you should use them in your CV. Some people have looked at on-line CV sites where there are sample CVs. While many are helpful, many are not. If you want to increase the impact of your CV, here are some phrases never to use, with suggested alternatives

A professional [whatever]

No: if you are not professional then you have no business competing for the job. Everyone claims this about themselves, including people who are not ‘professional’. In any case what does this label mean?

Instead: Describe yourself by your job identity plus your years of experience, for instance, ‘Computer Software Engineer, MCSE qualified, 5 years’ experience

Liking people

Does anyone ever say on their CV that they dislike people? Of course not, even if they do. ‘Liking people’ is intended as shorthand for being warm, cosy, smiley and it sounds coy.  Even worse: claiming that you have ‘high EQ’ – this is not for you to say, and is another meaningless piece of alienating jargon

Instead: say how you have specifically used your people-skills in your current or last job.

Team player

No: it would be rare for any hiring company to say that what they want is a narcissistic solo operator who cannot work with others. Some ability to work flexibly and comfortably with other people, however annoying they are, is essential for most jobs.

Instead: describe the role you typically play in a team and how this has added value for your current or last employer

Self starter

No: few companies have roles for people who need to be wound up like a mechanical toy in order to get their jobs done. Employers take it for granted that you can do this.

Instead: give examples of how you have initiated change and worked autonomously to meet the company’s objectives.

Safe pair of hands

No: it sounds so dull and suggests mediocrity. Employers do not hire for safe pairs of hands unless they are desperate and have to compromise. They hire for actual expertise and sound judgement

Instead: describe the way your expertise is special, distinguishing you from others in the same field

Strategic thinker

No: strategy is a meaningless word. It’s often code for ‘I’m higher up the hierarchy than you might think’. Few organizations are silly enough to leave all the strategic thinking to one person. Strategy emerges from a lot of people doing a lot of hard thinking in order to make hard choices.

Instead: describe how you have contributed to the above process and say what the hard choices were, describing the results

I like reading, walking, going to the cinema and seeing friends

No: so does everyone. This does nothing to differentiate you – one of the main purposes of a CV

Instead: say what kind of books you like reading, where you like walking and for how long, what kinds of films delight you.

Saying Sorry is Not the Hardest Thing To Do

Before this client has even stepped over the threshold she is apologising.

‘Sorry for being late’, she says.

She has actually arrived two minutes after the appointed time so she is only ‘late’ by some super-high standard to which no one is ever held in a social engagement.

As I take her coat she does it again.

‘Sorry’, she says, ‘The coat’s a bit heavy but it’s so cold outside’.

I always offer clients tea, coffee or water. ‘Sorry to be a nuisance’ she says, ‘but have you got peppermint or something decaffeinated?’

The sorry word continues in our session where the theme is coaching to get a job she badly wants. Her language as she talks about her impressive experience is peppered with qualifiers and modifiers. She is ‘quite’ proud of having steered her department through a challenging transition; she is ‘rather’ good at managing budgets. When we do a first run of answering the predictable questions about strengths and weaknesses, she starts her answer about strengths with the disclaimer, ‘I don’t want to seem boastful but…’

To see a hilarious and wholly cringemaking example only very slightly exaggerated of how we women over-apologize, watch Amy Schumer’s skit of a conference panel whose subject is women’s achievement where all the participants, as well as women in the audience, constantly apologize. http://videos.nymag.com/video/Inside-Amy-Schumer-I-m-Sorry

In the session with my client I find that this apologizing habit is catching. I find myself interrupting her with ‘Sorry to interrupt but…’

I know that the intention behind female apologizing is positive. We want to imply the confidence to convey humility, we want to show the other person that we see ourselves as their equal not as their superior. But, oh dear, how damaging it is. We begin our contributions at meetings with a question, seeking permission to speak, ‘Is it OK to make a point here?’ We begin emails with phrases like, ‘I hope it’s all right to raise this, but…’ or ‘I’m sorry to disagree…’

My client is deeply unaware of her compulsive apologizing. She finds it amazing when she realizes how embedded it is in her language and how undermining it is to her ambitions because even while she is bidding for a very senior job for which her credentials are excellent, she is implying by her words that she does not believe herself worthy of it. We make a joint commitment to spotting and eliminating the pesky sorry word from our discussions. This takes some doing. ‘I think I ought to have some nice little pot and put a pound coin in it every time I say it’, she says wryly. She also confesses that the word was like a protective mantra to her when growing up with a harshly critical mother where apologizing in advance for some sin which you had not actually committed was a way of keeping her mother’s abusive behaviour at bay.

The good news is that you can learn quickly how to stop saying sorry. My client did. She not only got the job, she also did something which very few women do: she negotiated for a better salary when the job was offered to her. Some research suggests that fewer than 10% of women ever negotiate at this stage whereas more than 50% of men do. This client achieved a 15% increase on the salary that was initially offered plus flexible working which allowed her to work from home one day a week.

Is she sorry? She is not.

  

Sometimes the simplest coaching techniques are the best

The client is sitting in front of me looking hunched and miserable. She and I are at Smart Works (www.smartworks.org.uk) the wonderful charity where I do occasional volunteer shifts. Women who have been unemployed for some time and who now at last have a job interview come for two things that are normally only affordable by the prosperous and well informed. First they get a new outfit for the interview, skilfully chosen with and for them by professional stylists, who, like me, are volunteers. The high quality clothing is generously donated by the brands concerned or from the lightly-used wardrobes of other working women. Then they get an hour’s interview coaching with someone like me.

Let’s call my client Fatima, not her real name. Having greeted me with a warm if slightly shy smile, her eyes are now downcast, her arms folded tightly across her chest, shoulders hunched. For admin. reasons she has not yet had her ‘dressing’ session so she’s still in her normal clothing: tidy, clean and to be honest, a little dull. We don’t know and we don’t ask about the backstory, but these women are often single mothers who have come out of difficult relationships and all have little money. Often their confidence has been severely damaged by the struggle to keep their kids happy and to find enough money to keep going. It is really important to them to get back into paid work.

Fatima and I have spent a few moments exchanging pleasantries and I have established that what she wants from our session, like so many of the clients I see in my normal coaching practice, is hints on how to manage ‘nerves’. Just talking about it has been enough to send her into a spin.

‘Got a smartphone?’ I ask

Fatima looks a little surprised. ‘Yes’.

‘OK, now give me the phone and freeze!’

I quickly snap a few pictures of the hunched and miserable Fatima.

‘Now show me what you’re like when you’re relaxed and confident’.

She gives me a giggle. Of course she knows what the relaxed and confident Fatima is like. She sits up, her shoulders open, her chest expands, her legs uncross, she is suddenly occupying a lot more space. She looks powerful. I quickly take some more pics.

I show her the results. ‘Which Fatima would you give the job to?

Now we are both laughing.

Fatima already knows how to answer most of the obvious interview questions. Like many of the women I see at Smart Works she is grossly overqualified for the job she is going for, but these jobs are first steps back on to the employment ladder and these women are not too proud to see why this is a good move. But Fatima, again just like so many of the senior women clients I see weekly, is unaware of how she has got into the habit of making herself look small, unobtrusive and apologetic. So most of our session is about how to maintain the confident Fatima’s look and sound.

Recently I heard Amy Cuddy speak about her new book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self To Your Biggest Challenges.  Amy’s TED talk is the second most often viewed on the TED site (https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are?language=en ) Amy is an advocate of the Power Pose – standing like Wonderwoman, arms on your hips, legs astride, gazing boldly ahead. She is so right. The chances are that your body language affects your state of mind, releasing helpful hormones that increase confidence.

Later that morning, after working with another client, I drop in on Fatima’s dressing session. Who would know it was the same woman? She is clad in a flattering super-smart dark suit and vivid lemon yellow silk shirt, bright lipstick and a new, gauzy hijab.

‘Mmm, ‘I say, standing with her to look into the mirror. ‘Would you give this woman a job?’

She grins. ‘Yes!’

Of course she got the job. Who wouldn’t want someone like her on their staff: charming, courteous, clever, confident, pretty.

Sometimes I think we over-complicate coaching. Often the simplest ‘techniques’ are the best.

 

How long does it take to become a competent coach?

No wonder coaching is notoriously a revolving door profession. So many people are lured into it because it looks easy, especially if you have been the client of a very good coach yourself. The barriers to entry are low. The training may have promised, falsely, that after a few short days you are fully equipped to become a coach. Yet a year later many of those coaches have given up. What looked easy has become hard. Clients don’t behave in the obliging ways that characterised your fellow participants on the training course. The promise that there was an unlimited pool of potential clients seems to have been misleading.

What makes for an effective coach? I will not waste your time with the endless competency lists prepared so dutifully by the worthy folk who run coaching associations and accrediting bodies. You can look them up for yourself and in any case I am sceptical about the way these lists atomise and try to pin down what cannot be atomised and pinned down with words. Instead I will say that a competent coach has built a successful practice based on word of mouth recommendation and is confident that they can coach more or less anyone who comes their way – and who also knows when to say no to taking on a client.

The figure of 10,000 hours of practice has been suggested (by me and others) as representing that coaching peak. This is because, allegedly, that it what it takes to become reasonably proficient in learning a musical instrument or a language. I also think that real chronological time needs to pass while you ponder and learn from what has gone well and what has not gone so well: probably around three years’ worth. If coaching is the genuine profession we claim that it is, then this level of practice and learning is no different from standards in other fields, in fact, if anything it is a little lightweight.

Speeding things up

Here are 7 things you can do to speed up the process of becoming competent:

1. Take on pro-bono clients. This is especially helpful if you are a beginner. Put it about that you are looking for clients and that to develop your business and gain experience you will work pro bono or for a very low fee. Don’t fuss about whether you know the field in which these clients work. This is a good way of finding out that it doesn’t matter whether you know their sector or industry. If that’s what they want they need a mentor not a coach.

2. Record your sessions. If you acquired a coaching qualification then a rigorous course will have asked you to do this anyway. Get into the habit of recording everything, with the client’s permission, stressing that no one but you will have access to it. Listen carefully. What do you notice? Do you have some verbal tics which could be getting in the way for your client? Are you allowing the client to maunder on while you just make sympathetic noises in the background? Are there questions which you avoid? Do all your sessions have a rather samey feel? Who is doing most of the work in the session? If it’s you, beware. Ask yourself what is going on that might explain it.

3. Make sure you are balancing support with challenge. It comes easily to many coaches to create rapport and many coaches will also find it hard to challenge. Successful coaching is a blend of high challenge and high support. Typically a struggling coach avoids the questions which challenge and confront the client, for instance, that never ask versions of that super-powerful question: what’s your own contribution to this problem?

4. Keep going. Most coaches hit a plateau in the development of their businesses. This is usually for two parallel reasons. First, they have exhausted the goodwill of their previous organizations and have not devoted time to business development. Coaching is just like every other small business: it needs a sales pipeline and this does not happen by accident. The second reason is that the coach has begun to forget the lessons they learnt on their course and defaults to previous bad habits such as advice-giving or forgetting that coaching deals with emotion as well as rationality.

5. Find a supervisor. This may seem like a luxury, especially if you are not yet at the point where you are earning decent money from your coaching. But supervision is not a luxury. It is an essential extension of your training and an investment in your continuing growth as a coach. Take some recordings to your supervisor. Ask them to explore with you which clients you are finding it tricky to work with and look the reasons in the eye.

6. Ask your clients for feedback. By this I mean really ask. Don’t say ‘Was that all right?’ This is a closed question which implies that you don’t want to hear about anything that was not all right. Ask instead, ‘How has this session been for you?’ Then when you hear a politely non-committal reply, press for specifics. ’What worked well for you? What didn’t work so well?’ As soon as the client has left, write down their comments and add them to a reflective journal – one of the best ways of continuing to develop as a coach.

7. Read, read, read, do more courses, meet new peopleGo beyond coaching books and conferences, so many of which are recycling the same old material and where the speakers have been saying much the same thing to each other for many years. Read some therapy books, or dip into the massive field of systems thinking, leadership and organization behaviour. Here are three books which I think all coaches could read, enjoy and profit from:

Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux

Getting More by Stuart Diamond

The Leader on the Couch by Manfred Kets de Vries.

 

 

 

 

Coaches! Put away that Toolbox!

In training and supervising hundreds of new coaches I notice how many are preoccupied by what we might call Toolbox Syndrome.  At coaching conferences, where as a rule beginners predominate, I guarantee that you will find that the workshops which offer new wonder-techniques are the ones that fill up first. I’m quite sure that when I was a beginner coach I was just the same. A new technique? A new psychometric? Bring it on!

Listening recently to the recordings of two brand new coaches, both with a lot of natural aptitude, I found that both had deployed a complex technique in the very first meeting with their client. It would not be unusual to find that a newly trained coach was using several such techniques in every session. I define such a tool as anything that needs a diagram, a form, a change of seating, or a lengthy theoretical explanation.

 How does it feel as a client to have a plethora of Tools/Techniques used in your session? I sometimes inherit clients after what they will describe as ‘failed’ coaching assignments. When I discreetly enquire about what has gone wrong, the client will invariably tell me that the coach seemed to be obsessed by ‘techniques’. Don’t ever fool yourself that clients will not notice: they do. So there was the coach who always imposed 10 minutes of mindfulness on his client, there was the one who loved visualisations, another who insisted on ‘anchoring’, yet another who reduced every problem to Robert Dilts’ Logical Levels pyramid. There is nothing wrong with such techniques. It is wonderful to be familiar with them and to know how to use them, but not if every session comes to be about which technique you can use. Preoccupation with the Technique can easily mean that you misread what the client wants, or fail to explore the meaning that is below the obvious surface of what they are saying.

 When I listen to the recordings of coaches who have fallen prey to Toolbox Syndrome, there is a common pattern. In every case the coach has failed to establish or clarify the client’s goals for the session. Very soon the session begins to have a round and round feel. The coach gets desperate. What can I ask? To regain some sense of control, the coach reaches into the toolkit: bingo!

 What does it do for a coach to use tools such as the Meta Mirror or the MBTI? The answer is that as a new and inexperienced coach you don’t quite trust the power of questioning alone. You feel you always have to have something up your sleeve if some awful silence descends.  It boosts fragile confidence. It gives you some control. It’s why so many coaches feel a lot more confident about the first session than the second because in the first there is an essential set of rituals to be gone through: the what-is-coaching conversation, contracting, quite often looking at 360 feedback or action plans from a course. But then what?

 I think those of us who run training courses and write books about coaching must take some responsibility here. Naturally we want to show people how these useful tools work. I recently read a charming book on coaching where every chapter has an extensive list of such tools all helpfully cross referenced at the end: many dozens in total. Somehow I think we are giving the impression that every coaching session should have its little tool embedded. I think the truth is the opposite: using these tools should be the exception. You deploy them only when nothing else will do.

 Here is my challenge. Close the toolbox. Spend the first five minutes reconnecting, encouraging the client to unburden, telling you what has happened since you last met. Spend the next five minutes getting clear what their goals are for the session. Then ask coaching questions. Trust the process. And see what happens.

O Lord please save us from coaching gobbledeygook

I suppose that when you think about it, it’s a good thing that we now have so many rival theories about coaching.

But I have to confess to a visceral response which is somewhere between incredulity and intense dislike of the Gobbledygook School. There is a Ms, Mr or Dr Gobbledygook performing at most coaching conferences.

The Gobbledygook sees themselves as an evangelist for their ideas and indeed they would be perfectly at home in a 19th century tent preaching away about their recipe for a path to heaven or maybe with John, Paul, George and Ringo in India in 1963.

Except that in the 21st century they are preaching to coaches about: well, what exactly? That’s my problem. It’s something to do with spirituality, I know that. There may be some chanting, some lying on the floor, some holding of stomachs and breath, maybe daintily eating a minute portion of a beautiful apple or a baby carrot for those who can’t stand apples, and for certain there will be a little dose of Mindfulness.

When describing their conference sessions or workshops, the Gobbledygook presents their ideas like this

This session will bring you the deep insights of Theory Z consciousness to support profound holistic relational fluidity in your leadership coaching. You will work with bodily awareness of generational spirituality and collective intelligence reaching far back into morphic resonance.

Or maybe like this: perm any words, essentially

Your coaching will achieve holistic awareness through spiritual consciousness, morphic resonance, work with leaders and bodily intelligence. You will be introduced to Theory Z which combines age-old wisdom with generational and relational fluidity.

Gobbledygooks no longer do any actual coaching, if they ever did. Mostly they are like a travelling salesperson, teaching Gobbeldynamics, sometimes known as Gobbeldyology to coaches.

When the G. does a coaching demo, their demo client usually avers that they have achieved a massive breakthrough with whatever their problem was. When I saw one such demo a few years ago it reminded me strongly of seeing a ‘cold reading’ session that I once watched at a spiritualist church, where like all mediums, the very skilled operator at the front started with safe generalities: ‘I’m seeing an older gentleman who might be called John – anyone here lost someone of that name recently?’ and working it from there with the sadly desperate and vulnerable person who came forward. In the social psychology trade I think this is what they call confirmation bias.

How refreshing it was decades ago when a certain NLP guru, an early exponent of coaching gobbledygook, got called to account by a group of obnoxiously cocky BBC producers. They ruthlessly interrupted and then brought to a swift end his v e r y  s l o w l y delivered set of precepts with, ‘Why are you telling us this? It’s bleedin’ obvious and anyway, we do it for a living!’

What a powerful story ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ is. Coaches: don’t be afraid to be that little child who calls it like it is.