Jennifer Joyce, co-founder of LeadershipSmarts, is this week’s guest blogger.
Coaching is often a pivotal step in a person’s career. It represents a large investment of time, money, and personal work. So how does one get the most out of such an important venture?
During my 15 years as a coach, I have found three keys to creating a successful engagement:
- A clearly articulated coaching goal
- Specific examples or stories from work, and
- A willingness to look at self.
A Clearly Articulated Coaching Goal
A clearly articulated over-arching coaching goal is often referred to as “the big A agenda.” It is usually a longer term goal such as learning how to improve business results or improving one’s ability to manage a team or creating a successful relationship with the boss. Once we know our goal we can define what success will look like. Knowing our goal and our success measures will keep the coaching sessions on a steady track.
For example, my client Susan is a smart young project manager in the high-tech industry. She has a natural ability to see the interlocking pieces of a complex project.
Nonetheless, she felt that her colleagues did not listen to her when she pointed out barriers to the success of projects they worked on. As a result, critical project issues did not get addressed until much later. The delay caused financial hardship to the company and its clients. They ended up with unnecessary project setbacks and increased budgets.
Susan established her “big A agenda” as “gaining the confidence to effectively stand her ground and make sure she is heard when bringing up important project issues.” She set up two success measures:
- Colleagues and leaders in her organization would consistently listen to her opinions and seriously include them in early analysis of project milestones.
- Her projects would be on time and on budget.
As you can imagine, her coaching goal would not be achieved overnight.
Specific Examples From Work
Once the long-term coaching goal is established, the direction for coaching is set. Now we can work with our coach to figure out the particulars of what has kept us from that goal in the first place. If we discuss the goal in a general fashion, we won’t get traction on figuring out why the same problem keeps popping up.
Susan can’t lament only about how others don’t listen to her. She must figure out what happens that causes others not to hear her. Only by exploring specific examples of when our particular problem manifests will we gain understanding about how that dynamic works.
These specific examples are called “little a agendas.” They give us a picture of all the microcosms of our lives that add up to keep us from our “big A agenda.” By exploring the “little a agendas” we begin to identify the patterns of behavior that are getting us what we don’t want. More importantly, they give us the opportunity to explore the patterns of thinking and assumptions that drive our behaviors.
The issues we bring to our coaching sessions are historically intractable so there is something deeper to uncover than just a change of behavior. After all, if it were an easy thing to change, we would have already changed it. We can’t see the origin of the issue because the assumptions that drive our behaviors are so automatic we can’t see them. Yet those assumptions are directing our lives.
The bottom line is not to change only our behaviors. The real work is to uncover and challenge those automatic assumptions that are driving our behaviors.
Let’s go back to Susan’s issue – not being heard on important matters. What was it about Susan’s behavior that continually led to the problem with her colleagues not listening to her concerns? As we explored one specific example (little a agenda) when Susan did not get her point across, we recognized that she expressed her concerns in a general and deflected manner.
We worked to uncover the thoughts she had just before speaking up, which Susan identified as a fear of speaking her mind. She had an automatic assumption that said if she spoke up, people would get angry and yell at her. She knew how important expressing her opinion was but when she did, her point was so watered down that nobody got it.
By role-playing the scenario, Susan was able to test her assumption that speaking up would cause problems in her organization. She began taking baby steps to more clearly state her concerns with her colleagues and achieved good results. In that way she began to shift her internal assumption about the danger of speaking her truth. As her ability to clearly state her opinion improved, so did her project results.
A Willingness to Look at Self
This article focuses only on the work of the client, not on the people or the situation surrounding the client, because coaching is always about helping us find our power to create the results we want in life. If we think that power lies outside ourselves, with other people or situations, then there is nothing we can do.
As we learn in Matt’s story in Chapter 1 of Reframing Change, once we learn to “consciously use ourselves to bring about change,” we no longer “feel powerless to make a difference.” By exploring our internal thought process that leads to our behaviors that lead to our results, we find the root of our power to change our circumstances.
Susan came to coaching ready and willing to look at what was happening within her. She was willing to explore the possibility that it was her behavior that led to the results she didn’t want. As she surfaced and challenged the assumptions she was making about speaking up, she calmed the fear that kept her communication ineffective. She is now listed as an important high-potential employee whom her colleagues value.
Jennifer Joyce, cofounder of LeadershipSmarts.com, is a leadership development consultant and coach. She specializes in diversity, continuous quality improvement, team effectiveness, change leadership, strategic planning, meeting design and facilitation, leadership development, and executive coaching. For more information, see www.leadershipsmarts.com
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