“Every time that something solid is put into doubt or dismantled, something else opens up and allows us to see further than we could before. Watching what appeared to be as solid as rock melt into air makes lighter, it seems to me, the transitory and bittersweet flowing of our lives.”  Carlo Rovelli, “Helgoland”.

How does great coaching create a shift in seeing, thinking, feeling and being?

I have been involved in a few discussions recently where people have assumed business or executive coaching is simply about shifting individual performance and development.  Businesses want to get more from people now and to grow their potential for future roles.  While this is often the presenting business need, I think it underplays the real nature and full value of executive coaching.

One thing at the heart of executive coaching is the nexus between how we see ourselves and the world and what this means for how we feel, what we say, how we act and who we are.  It is concerned with our understanding of:

  1. the world around us – including such things as the people we work with, the organisations we work in, and the wider business and planetary ecosystems in which these exist.
  2. who we are – what shaped us, what matters to us now and how we want to live and shape our future.

Understanding the world around us.
The business landscape is increasingly complex and fast changing, with greater uncertainty about the future.  Leaders need to stay aware of the complexity and be open to rapid changes, while offering enough clarity about purpose and intent, to guide the actions of others.  They also need to respond to a rich mosaic of stakeholders, with differing and often contradictory needs.  Some may be close to them, in their immediate teams and business.  Others may be scattered widely across the world in supply chains, customer groups and beyond.

The coaching process should expand a leader’s capacity to see and understand their world.  It should help them to be aware of the interdependencies, the systemic complexity in which they are working.  It helps leaders be wary of simple solutions, integrating other perspectives, thinking wider and longer term.  Often this means questioning or dismantling how people currently see the world, to open-up new possibilities and ways of thinking.  This is not an educative process but a mutual exploration between coach and leader, recognising connections, identifying gaps and staying open to the opportunities from uncertainty.

Understanding who we are.
The coach will help the leader deepen their self-awareness, insight, and knowledge. Often, this involves holding-up the mirror to help them see themselves better.  It means creating the reflective space to surface and explore their thoughts, reactions and feelings about people and situations.  What is triggering and energising them? Why?  What are the assumptions they hold about themselves and the way the world is?  Where have these come from and why do they seem important? How are these serving or disabling their capacity to see, understand and respond in the world?

Executive coaches will bring a combination of knowledge and expertise drawn from psychology, neuroscience and social systems theory, as well as business and organisational insight.  While this will inform their approach, it is essential they have a good professional practice, underpinned by quality training and accreditation in the craft of coaching.  Their role is to be alongside the leader, as they grapple with their opportunities and challenges, increasing their self-awareness and developing their capacity for reflexive thinking, so they can better make decisions and interact with others.

So, what is at the heart of coaching?

Shifting this relationship between the individual and their world is at the heart of executive coaching, but it is not all.   The quality of the relationship between the coach and leader is essential to widening their understanding of the world and deepening their understanding of themselves.  We often talk of leaders needing to unlearn to step into a different level of leadership.  This takes a willingness to let go of assumptions about who they are and how things work; “watching what appeared to be as solid as rock, melt into air.”  Sometimes these assumptions and beliefs may be deeply held.  Dismantling or shifting them can be hard and may leave leaders feeling vulnerable.  For this to happen, there needs to be a mutual trust in the relationship between the coach and the leader.  To stand alongside the leader in partnership, the coach must also be willing to be open and vulnerable.  They need to be willing to question themselves and their own assumptions.  The coach is not the expert, with all the answers but a fellow explorer, walking beside and supporting the leader.

This speaks to a different meaning of “heart”, which is about mutual care and respect.  I realised some years ago that to be effective as a coach I need to care about the person I am coaching and about what they are doing.  This is not about being friends.  The relationship is professional and focused, and it involves a level of intimacy which requires trust.  As a coach, I need to care about the leader as a fellow human being who is trying to make a meaningful difference in the world.  I also need to care about their purpose.  What it is they are working toward?  Then I can bring all that I might offer, to be alongside them, helping them to grow and develop as a person, through their work.  It is both a professional practice, with clear ethical and contractual boundaries and a relationship of mutual trust and respect, working in service of a shared purpose.  Of course, it’s also good to have some humour and humanity mixed in as well!

What flows from great coaching?

  1. A shift in levels of thinking. As Einstein suggested, in the famous quote, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” A shift in awareness about the world and how we see it can help to grow our capacity to think differently, framing things in a way that enables us to tackle them more successfully.
  2. A shift in how we are; our “being”. Deeper self-insight, understanding how we feel about things, what we value and why, can change how we respond to people and situations.  It helps us reframe, changing what we say and how we respond to the world.  It can expand our capacity to influence others and grow our own resilience and resourcefulness.
  3. A growth in ethical maturity. Recognising our own values and assumptions and what has informed them, together with a growing awareness of the complexities in the world, helps us to see ethical issues and changes how we might respond to them.  We can recognise how our values may conflict in certain situations. We will also see how others may have different, deeply held beliefs, assumptions and priorities.  It helps us to surface these in a way that enables us better to explore them together, with mutual respect.

As executive coaches we help leaders expand their self-awareness and awareness of the world so that they can better see how their current perspective both serves and limits them.  In working with a business leader through time, the executive coach will help them to address current opportunities and issues successfully, which is often the immediate business goal.  The process should also expand the leader’s capacity to recognise the complexities of the world, and their capacities for empathy and for reflexive self-awareness.  This is more than just improving their performance or even developing them for future roles.  At the heart of executive coaching is a trusted, caring relationship that enables a leader to grow some more, as a human being.  At the least, this will enhance how they go about their work, now and in the future.  Sometimes, it may have profound implications for how they see their existing business and its expectations of them and may also have a wider impact in their lives.