It was summer in Madrid. And the 2011 ICF European conference was discussing the economic, social and environmental crises facing us. Things clearly need to change, and quickly. One question shared by many as they left was; “OK, I get it. But what can I do?”
So this is the first of a series of articles exploring ‘what can we do?’ as professionals and as a profession. This time we hear from people who are ‘actively making good things happen in the world’. We choose to define this as people whose actions were benefiting at least two out of three of sustainability expert John Elkington’s “triple bottom line” – people-profit-planet. Future articles will share the perspectives of coaches and mentors working with these people, and the role the professional bodies see themselves as having.
In bringing this series together, we spoke to many people. Much of what we heard has reinforced what we know to be true about coaching and its positive impacts. But we’ve also heard tough, gritty stories and experiences. Some of these challenge us if we are to truly help the people at the cutting edge.
The light side: Case studies reinforcing what we know to be true
Finding the right thing
Lizzie (surname provided) is head of education planning in pan of the NHS. She wants to help make a difference to the quality of nursing.
“Getting coaching was one of the best things I ever did. It made me realise my meaningful journey. I know I’m doing the right thing and I have the confidence to do it.”
Someone to listen and ask the right questions
Hermione Taylor set up TheDoNatIon.org.uk for people to pledge actions, not money.
She has had mixed experience with mentors: “The first talked at me and gave solutions. By contrast, my current mentor even proofread our business plan and gave us feedback, so she got us from the outset. What helps is to have someone to listen and ask questions. I mainly come up with the answers – or at least I feel I do – she’s probably very skilfully asked me the right questions!”
Creating another world
Phil Stebbing is a film producer, director and cameraman. From his teens he has been asking himself “What other world can we create?” After making films about gay rights, racism and pirate fishing, he setup an organisation on the theme of Lifeline.
Three film groups would spend a year recording examples of good things people are up to. He got huge support.
“The coaching really grounded me,” he recalls. “Every time I put the phone down I felt I’d grown up. I was clearer about the project and what I needed to do. It’s not about getting advice – it’s a chance to sound out.”
Getting good advice, but not too much
Sometimes advice is exactly what people are seeking.
Jane Burma is founder of award-winning Carbon Retirement It would be easy to say she ‘knows is all’, but she has two mentors.
One is a ‘wise friend’. They meet and talk strategy every two months. “It helps me see the wider perspective. And they are very good at challenging, at asking tough questions.”
She also has a pro-bono mentor from a large corporation. They were matched by Business in the Community, and they focus on marketing and communications.
“When you’re running something on your own you’re unlikely to be expert in all things,” she comments sagely.
But care is required: “Know what works. You can get too much advice and have too many people to keep onboard.”
Clients learning coaching techniques
Georgie Burr is a Bike It officer for Sustrans, helping to increase cycling at 12 schools. Her mission is “to remove the barriers that prevent people from cycling”. Apparently, 49 percent of children want to cycle to school but only 2 percent do. The main challenge is dealing with people’s fears, such as traffic, bike theft, flat tyres and finding a route.
Experiencing coaching has had an effect “I’ve found the best way is to ask lots of questions. And listen.”
The Light Side
We know coaching and mentoring helps people:
- Connect with what’s really important to them – a big help for meaning, purpose, direction, attracting support and resilience
- Find advice and answers as they step into their unknown
- Deal with the loneliness at the edge – listening itself is transformative
- Learn coaching and mentoring tools they can use themselves
- Address the whole of their life and work and legacy – and the world around them and future generations – as one system
The Dark Side
Coaching and mentoring has to learn to help people:
- Recognise that the outer journey is matched by the inner journey – the bigger the dream, the bigger the inner challenges that will arise
- Realise that existing systems and paradigms are strong – tackling them can be very bruising
- Learn that part of the shift they are helping to make happen is from over-simplicity to embracing complexity – it can be overwhelming, frustrating and may give a sense of inadequacy
- Understand that it can be genuinely risky, and the desire to do good (and the encouragement received while doing it) can twist the ego and blind them to what’s required to look after themselves
The shadow side: What aren’t we addressing?
Do we bring our agenda to the conversation?
Julie Hill is a board member of a large regulatory agency and of the Eden Project, author of The Secret Life of Stuff and adviser to the Green Alliance.
Should we bring clients’ attention to what we are about?
She has no doubt: “Responsible coaching includes asking where you sit as an individual in relation to the bigger social and environmental picture. The time for wilfully ignoring this has passed.”
- Should we bring the(our?)wider agenda into the conversation?
- If so, how might we do this?
• Changing the world can seem overwhelming
Julie sees a great role for coaching by helping individuals and organisations work out how to tackle the big issues.
“Many people feel responsibility towards the common good, but the problems are complex. It can feel isolating, frustrating, crushing. Coaching can help – discerning where I can best play my part, and how to cope with the rest”
- Amid this complexity, do we prefer our clients to deal with bite-sized problems that can be solved in a session?
- Can we act with integrity? What are we doing ourselves to embrace and experience the challenges and play our part?
Bigger inner conflicts
One theme emerging in all our interviews was the inner journey that is matching the outer journey.
For people at the cutting edge, changing thinking and demonstrating new ways of thinking, doing and being the challenges can be very pronounced.
Jon Alexander works for the UK National Trust. His projects include a feature-length film about human beings’ separation from nature and MyFarm, where people make decisions about managing a farm.
Jon sees a deep conflict between the desire to increase the pace of change and realising that the important change is slowing down.
- How comfortable ore we with paradoxes and ambiguity?
- Do we have an agenda we’re blind to? For example, does ‘better’ mean achieve more, go faster, gather more, higher performance and continuous growth – given the truth of a finite world?
As Lizzie identifies: “Big changes create big difficulties.”
Jon confides: “Coaching can help deal with some of the ‘internal bruising’ that happens when individuals take on these complex and controversial challenges.”
Julie adds: “A coach can develop a subtle understanding of how you are made up and then help you work out how to play your role in complex situations and organisations while staying true to yourself.”
- Do our beliefs around ‘bruising experiences’ best serve the client? For example, are such experiences to be avoided or an inescapable part of a meaningful life?
It can be risky
Phil’s project had three teams who were ready to travel the world. Then the financial crisis really hit. The funding dried up and the project collapsed, leaving debt – and a sobering experience to reflect on.
But these things can happen. Many of those we interviewed had gone through periods of great anxiety, exhaustion, scarcity, fear.
- How well are we inviting people to explore: ‘What could go wrong?
The ego in doing good
Phil highlights another potentially dangerous side of doing good.
“People support you, pat you on the back, say good things. It feels good. The ambition to do good can give us meaning. But the ‘It’ can become us. As it raises our self-esteem we can find this is more about the ego.”
- How do we keep our egos out of the way, and help clients recognise when theirs may be leading them to problems?
Are we afraid of the dark?
As a profession, positivity can become almost obsessive. Was Phil’s period in the dark something to fear? It left him with many enlightening realisations. Perhaps being in the media has honed his ability for quotable quotes. In the interview they spilled out:
“You have to meet failure in the face. It’s a great teacher.”
“You don’t need to achieve great things. But you do need to have good intentions.”
“Sometimes you have to let go of something you care about before it drags you down.”
For Phil, this journey through darkness became an awakening.
“It was a rediscovery of Who am I? What’s it all about? An awareness of being able to judge when ‘meaning’ is not inflating the ego. Of being sustainable myself.”
And at no point giving energy he does not have. “Your first responsibility is to yourself. Only then can you look after others.”
- What is our role when our client is in a dark part of their journey?
- How well are you looking after yourself?
For people doing good in the world, coaching and mentoring have a hugely supportive role- in the activity of getting things done, and in the personal resilience and growth from the journey.
Lizzie believes that “corporate training is ineffective compared to coaching. Coaching cuts through to what really matters.”
As Burr says: “Coaching and mentoring clearly maximise change in business. We should be using them to maximise social change.”
It’s clear that this is about more than just ‘doing good’. For the people making good things happen, this journey often involves exploring the deepest questions of life itself. As coaches and mentors we have a powerful, poignant and privileged place of service.
All rights reserved. © This article originally appeared in Coaching at Work, Vol 7, Issue 1, 2012
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