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In our post-Covid world, coaching is a powerful tool

by Jon Foster-Pedley: Dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.
Coaching, the practice of helping people get the best out of their professional and personal lives, has perhaps never been more important than it is today.

The disruptions of the Covid-19 lockdown have left people disrupted and unsure; some are scared of their own shadows – others are brave to the point of foolhardiness. Most of us just cope as well as we can; just making it up and making a plan, trying to survive every day.

It’s no surprise that the demand for coaching is up in a time like this. Britain’s Financial Times reported in July this year that the number of coaches registered with the International Coaching Federation has jumped from 33,594 in 2019 to 56,076. Over and above that, there’s been an “Uberisation” of executive coaching as coaches look for cheaper and virtual coaching sessions on demand.

There hasn’t been a playbook for Covid-19 and there certainly wasn’t one for coming out of the pandemic into the “new normal” of hybrid work and high inflation, as the FT describes it. Coaching helps managers and business leaders feel connected when they have increasingly felt the opposite for so long.

But people have fundamentally changed too because of the disruptions spawned by the pandemic; there have been seismic changes in values wrought by working from home and burnout. The professional intrudes upon the personal and vice versa in an increasingly seamless mess – or just occasionally, a dance of beauty.

In a world which remains obtusely intolerant of mental health issues, not least of their effects in senior echelons and on high-performance teams, coaches are seen as a vital and more acceptable option than therapists. It’s easier to couch problems in terms of “building resilience” than it is to face the demons head-on. Adaptation rather than prevention. At a time when it seems we’ve never needed coaching more, coaching is too often dead. D.E.A.D.

DEAD coaching becomes directive-based, digitalised and detached to the needs of the business – and to what the CEO wants and needs. Worst of all, it creates dependencies. There are plenty of examples where coaches have been allowed to stray out of their lanes and start giving opinions that they have no right to give. The results are invariably catastrophic for the business.

Rasputin was perhaps the worst example of a rogue “Svengali” coach, if we look at what happened to the Tsar and his family. Many questions were asked of our own Sir Laurens van der Post’s influence on King Charles III when he was still a much younger Prince of Wales.

Too often we see coaching that is evidence-light, it’s evasive and fixated on small “e” empathy of the individual’s needs rather than the greater good of the company. It’s easy in its practice by unqualified amateurs because there are few barriers to entry. We need to remember that just because it looks easy, it doesn’t mean that it is – and it certainly doesn’t mean that anyone can do it, any more than watching a couple of episodes of Grey’s Anatomy should allow you to scrub in at an operating theatre.

Some “coaches” become arrogant and induce anxiety to feed dependency. They are atheoretical and rely on algorithms. In some cases, if algorithms are all you want, you’d be better off answering a personality quiz on Facebook. In the end this kind of coaching produces something that is downright damaging because it’s so disingenuous.

We have to change this, and we do this by ensuring the practice stays alive: A.L.I.V.E.

A. We do that by developing coaches who are activists first and foremost – who are systemic and nuanced in their approaches. We need a cadre of coaches who are aware and conscious of the disciplines of coaching practice. We need coaches who have acumen in the business. Most of all we need coaches to be agents of change.

L. These coaches will have a love for the process, not the profit in what they can do. They will be preoccupied by how life can flow through and grow their coachees. They will be located within the context of what they are trying to help their subjects achieve within their companies and organisations.

These coaches understand leading indicators to such an extent that they can withstand the lure of facile solutions. These coaches will be literate and learned. They’ll have taken the trouble to be licensed, which is the least you can expect when you consider what they are being asked to do and the risks for everyone if they get it wrong.

I. This new coach movement is intuitive, integrated, interpretative, innovative and imaginative. They’ll know how to stimulate productive vision through imagination and avoid vapid fantasy.

V. They will be value-focused, understanding the breadth of creating value rather than a narrow performance focus. And of course, they must be vital and able to work virtually.

E. Their practice will be focused on big “E” empathy – whole-system empathy – because we don’t act alone nor have effects and impact alone.

Their practice will be grounded in expertise and ethically guided. And they must dive in with commitment to environmental consciousness and outcomes. That tsunami is unavoidable and about to crash on us all. Above all they have to stimulate epiphanies in those they are coaching because it’s the subjects who have to run the businesses, not the coaches.

But let’s see if we can resurrect the “living dead”. We can do it by reframing D.E.A.D. to create a dynamic cohort of coaches, engaged with the business; people who are authentic and activist, diverse and disruptive.

Coaching has never been more important, not just for the leaders, managers – us – making sense of their lives now, but for the future too. Middle management is no longer just about doing, leadership has devolved, and middle managers have to lead in the new normal. There’s also the next generation of C-suite leaders to develop; coaching will be vital for that too.

Identifying the problem and reframing it, like this exercise, is one thing, but that doesn’t solve the problem. If we want activist, systemic and engaged coaches, then it can’t happen without coachees willing to be shown up, who will be aware of the whole system, be a part of the process; dynamic, engaged, activist and disruptive too in their own way.

D.E.A.D. or A.L.I.V.E.? The cycle of life and death, renewal, destruction, rolls on endlessly. It’s more powerful to accept and work with that, to make it work for our businesses and the world. It’s tough and needs courage – but that’s where vitality and progress come from. Isn’t it?

Originally published by Daily Maverick

Useful resources:
Henley Business School
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future.
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