This story starts and ends with an extraordinary organisation called OnPurpose, which develops future leaders for social enterprises and other organisations with a strong social and environmental purpose. I have been involved in their coaching programme for a few years now, and last Friday found myself in London talking to their newest group of Associates about my own experience of acting as a coach for the organisation.
A few days later, I received a challenge from one of the attendees, Alexandra Pilavachi:
"I see that you founded Mile One more than 10 years ago - am really keen to know more about your experience building this and was wondering whether you have ever written any reflections on your journey so far (as a blog post or article or something) that I could read? I would love to gain more insight on how things have unfolded for you."
I regularly do work on timelines, past and future stories, with my coaching clients and it’s always an illuminating exercise. There was something about Alexandra’s challenge that excited me so, rather than push this to the “future to do list,” I found the idea taking shape over the coming days. Here I am, less than a week later, telling exactly that story.
What brought me to coaching? I always quote Apple’s former marketing guru, Guy Kawasaki, who gives good advice about listening to what others consistently tell us: “When three people tell you that you're drunk, it's time to take a taxi.”
I hadn’t seen myself as a coach but had always been told that I had a “coaching style” in the way I managed the people who worked with me on IT and supply chain projects. Chris, a software developer and one of my first ever reports, commented that when he came to me with a problem, I would ask a few open questions and he would realise that he already knew the answer, sometimes before he had even finished asking the question! Ian, an animal-loving colleague at The Body Shop who was wrestling with the “right” management style, said that a discussion we had in which he imagined himself as a highly effective (and lovable) sheepdog, rather than attempting to be a rottweiler, had a lasting impact on him.
I continued to get similar feedback through the two leadership programmes that I attended during my time working internationally for The Body Shop, and kept getting thrown at assignments where change needed to happen through influence, discussion and trust, rather than compulsion. The then Head of Talent, Lucy, asked me to become involved in coaching some junior colleagues as part of their management development. With help from Valerie, my amazingly talented and experienced external coach, I planned a transition into a portfolio career, with professional coaching as a central component, for around my 50th birthday – then a safe 5 years away. In the event, and as Valerie intuited would happen, the move began much sooner - at 46!
An opportunity arose for me to exit The Body Shop after fourteen years with a generous support package. Kathryn, the Head of HR, organised generous outplacement support and encouraged me to use this for the training and accreditation that I would need to be credible. Lucy and Valerie provided practical advice, and based on their advice I was able to take part in an in house coaching development course at Ashridge, as well as accreditations in Myers-Briggs (MBTI), Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP), 360 degree feedback and, later, Belbin Team Roles. Lasting relationships formed with people I met during the training. I also came across writers and thinkers like Susan Scott(“Fierce Conversations”) whose thinking have had a profound impact on my professional practice, and beyond.
My plan was for this to be about executive coaching – very much focused on people’s performance and development in the work environment. Since then, I have also journeyed into career coaching and team coaching (but not "life coaching" in any conscious way – the boundary of staying in the work context seems to be important for me). I discovered that, while coaching isn’t therapy, sometimes it can become transformational and therapeutic. Carol Kauffman of Harvard Medical School put this really well:
“The difference is that in therapy you follow the trail of tears with a goal of healing. As a side effect, people’s level of functioning and job satisfaction go up. In coaching you follow the trail of dreams with the goal of igniting the people to be their best. As a side effect some kind of healing can happen”
Nearly all the coaches that I have met are either coaching part-time or, like me, involved in portfolio work. That means that, alongside our cherished coaching work, we have other projects and activities going on. Some are indeed therapists. Some have part-time jobs. In my case, portfolio working has meant being involved in consulting projects for clients as varied as Disney Store and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), as well as for national and international training organisations such as Hemsley Fraser, Demos Group and Learning Tree. Sometimes I get to buddy with fellow coaches, who ask me to work alongside them with their client organisations, which is how I continue to work with Lucy and now work with another former colleague from The Body Shop, Liz.
For the past eight years, my portfolio has included regular teaching and MSc supervision at Brighton Business School – and sometimes this too can feel like coaching, something I have been reflecting on as I prepare my submission this year for the HEA Teaching Fellowship.
In the course of working with all these clients, organisations and individuals, further and lasting relationships have formed. Coaching and portfolio work, I find, seems to be about connections and collaboration, rather than competition.
In the eleven years that I have now been coaching, there have been a fair few landmarks. Early on in my coaching career, I realised that I was meeting a lot of other people doing similar work, and that we could learn from each other. So I started hosting regular get-togethers in London and Sussex, which we called The Extra Mile. When the business climate became tough after 2008, the people I met through The Extra Mile, and in my other activities, became a core group to deliver a career coaching and training programme that I was asked to set up for the UK retail industry charity, Retail Trust.
In the summer of 2010 I had a call from Anton, a consultant who had worked with The Body Shop on a number of projects. He was now living in the US and had noticed that I was accredited in Belbin Team Roles. We met when he next came to London and thus began a productive journey into the world of team development and team coaching (he and his colleague Max call their approach “team acceleration”). Further lasting relationships have formed around this work.
My earlier career experience with supply chains and outsourced partnerships led me to understand that a great deal of the work that Anton and Max do around collaboration, and attention to interaction, also applies to collaboration between teams and organisations. Different parts of my portfolio of work have started to connect together in useful ways. One direction this led into is a partnership with a group called Adaptive Intelligence, focused on organisational culture, and to accreditation in the Denison organisational culture tool (DOCS) – all around the broader domains of culture and values.
In parallel with all these things, a former colleague from The Body Shop (a different Lucy) asked me if I could join her in some work with Morrisons supermarket, who at that time were setting up their in-house training academy. They had formed a three-way partnership with a training company called WDR and Leeds Metropolitan University, bringing sports coaching models developed by the inspirational Professor Pat Duffy into the world of business. This was part of a wider programme of cultural change within Morrisons, called Coaching for Performance.
Over the next few years, I helped WDR to build a development framework for every department at Morrisons head office in Bradford, linked to the coaching culture. I also coached and trained hard-nosed buyers, analysts and managers to become better coaches themselves. I became a regular at the Holiday Inn Express next to Bradford Interchange Station. More lasting working relationships formed. A few years after, I worked again with WDR to translate the approaches from Morrisons Academy into the creation of a similar in-house business school for the professional services firm, Grant Thornton.
Last year I had another landmark when Paul, one of the coaches who I first met on my NLP practitioner training at the start of my coaching career, called me about a virtual coaching programme that he was establishing for an international pharmaceutical firm. They were moving to a global shared service model for their support services – finance, facilities, information systems and so on – and needed to sharpen their business partnering skills. It seemed a good fit for my international business background, and my experience around internal and external collaboration, but I was sceptical about how much could be achieved in a short, virtual programme where the participants were scattered across umpteen different countries and we would never meet face to face. I was mistaken. That programme, NBS Partners, is now in its second year and fourth cohort. Last year, it received an international award for the innovative use of learning technology.
The experience with NBS Partners reminded me that the heart of coaching is simply two people talking together, with a purpose, in order to make better things happen. It doesn’t matter if those two people are in the same room, or from the same culture, or are from completely different countries at either end of a Skype call. If the intent is there, and the conversation is real, then change can happen.
This story starts and ends with OnPurpose. Because, in my experience, coaching is all about purpose and identity - taking learning from the story of the past and creating the story of the future in a purposeful way. It has been about all of these things for me, and will continue to be, and OnPurpose does these things extraordinarily well. My work for OnPurpose is, and always has been, pro bono and it’s the work that I am most proud of.
My coaching for OnPurpose also reminds me that as coaches, we are in a two-way process of improvement. We also learn from our clients and we take inspiration from them. My interaction with brilliant people at OnPurpose has increased my own resolve to do more work for a strong social purpose, and brought me back to the reasons I came to coaching in the first place. Appropriately, today, one week after the talk that led to Alexandra’s challenge, I met for the first time with one of the new OnPurpose associates, to start coaching together. One cycle completes and a new story begins. That’s how it seems to be with coaching.