Once upon a time there was a woman who worked for a British university in student support. Let’s call her Kate. However, this isn’t once upon an olden time, when dragons were slayed and princesses were endangered (and then rescued if they were pretty and good). It is once upon 2014.
The challenges Kate faces are both as old as the institutions we’ve created and as new as the next big thing in social media. Her role has evolved so that she divides her week equally between being a traditional support officer for students and developing the university’s online support offering too. Her office has become open-plan. She works from home sometimes. She has a new boss (let’s call her Carol) who is restructuring the department. She is studying part time for an MA. She has a significant disability which is not obvious so she repeatedly has to tell people about it (she is losing her sight). She has suffered a range of life events outside of work in recent years which have been difficult, and present some ongoing emotional circumstances to cope with. And, happily, she is currently also organising the purchase of her first house.
In short, like most people, she has a full and complex life. She loves her job but feels there is never enough time to complete projects to her satisfaction (or to do all the possible projects). She is excited by the potential to use new technologies in creative ways, but is aware that this could take up all of her time and energy. She feels as if she has very limited thinking time, and often has a sense of winging things (usually successfully). Her days sometimes feel fragmented and frustrating as she switches from one activity to another and it can be difficult to demonstrate – to herself or her colleagues – quite what she has achieved. On the whole she enjoys working with the people in her team but inevitably there are some stressful sides to office politics and dynamics from time to time.
As the weeks flash past, she feels as if she could be more effective. Perhaps it is possible to feel less overwhelmed and more strategic. No one has criticised her and there has not been a crisis. She could take the view that it isn’t broke so there’s nothing to fix. The job’s ok, in fact quite good most of the time. It pays the bills and she works with some nice people. Her student clients value her. What more can any of us ask for?
This is when I met her. She had asked Carol for some support which was readily given. Carol has experience of coaching and thought it might be helpful. A meeting was set up for the three of us. We discussed what each of us expected and hoped for from the coaching. We agreed the logistics of meetings and communication following coaching sessions between Kate and Carol. Coaching commenced.
What does that actually mean in practice? In this case, it meant the first two hour session was face to face (at the university). The subsequent four sessions were fortnightly, one hour long and carried out over Skype, both of us comfortably in our home offices. I don’t know about Kate, but I had my slippers on. It doesn’t matter.
What does matter is setting aside the dedicated, uninterrupted time to concentrate. For Kate to think, reflect and articulate what’s happening for her, and for me to listen, summarise, feedback and clarify. I have no vested interest in the situation. I only know what Kate chooses to tell me. I am not there to dispute her interpretation, or to get my agenda across as I might be if I were a colleague or manager. I am not there to sympathise or help or suggest ways forward or to tell her about my similar experiences or even to compete, which I might be if I were her friend or mother or sister.
I am, as far as anyone can be, neutral and independent. That said, as soon as the coaching starts, I start to hear a breadth and depth of experience that I inevitably respond to on an emotional level. I believe this sense of connection is a vital ingredient to any coaching relationship. It may take different forms depending on the people involved, but there is something in the relationship between coach and coachee that is a powerful force for change. It’s not simply about technique. I can honestly say I have never yet had a coaching client that I don’t like – even though I may not agree with or like all of their actions or behaviour. Getting beneath the first impressions to find the honest story beneath has always for me engendered a real sense of respect and liking that perhaps we wouldn’t expect at the outset. I often come away from coaching sessions with a sense of awe. People’s stories. They never cease to be fascinating and moving – whatever they consist of.
And so, yes, I like Kate. I am rooting for her. I find her story interesting and each time we connect I hear a little more, a different angle, a new layer. Sometimes these are insights or reflections that she hasn’t considered before, or at least not in so many words. I am there in the reflection, the time where she makes sense of her experience. I am not there when she’s having those experiences.
Whilst I do care what happens for her, it is not my role to get involved. I do not take responsibility for her. I do not chase clients who don’t show up for appointments (other than brief reminders). Coaching is not the same as befriending, or mothering, or managing.
The power of coaching, as I witness it in my clients, as well as my own experience when I am being coached, is in those instances of “I’ve never thought of it quite like that before”. These moments can’t be forced or hurried. The most we can do is to set up the environment to make this more likely. For me as coach, this means setting up the coaching agreement to be safe and clear. It means being as present as possible in the moment and to get out of the way of the client’s thinking as much as possible. I find I draw on deliberate mindfulness practice, and aim to listen far more than I speak. I can’t pretend I always manage all of this. But I try.
Over the weeks, Kate talked about her challenges, at work and in her personal life. She brought specific events and issues to explore in particular sessions. She captured her insights and thoughts and talked about them with Carol, on a weekly basis. I wasn’t party to those conversations. This was Kate taking complete charge of her learning and thinking. She had made time for herself to do this through coaching. It’s so much more powerful than close monitoring or direction by me, Carol or anyone else.
And now, after the coaching sessions have ended, Kate’s circumstances continue to shower her with the same heady mix of challenge and enjoyment as ever. The role, the university, the technology and her home life continue to evolve and change. There are still the same finite number of hours in the week as ever.
But the new perspectives gained are subtly adding to her energy and ability to prioritise. They are helping her to focus on what is within her control, and to accept or seek support where necessary for those things that are outside of her control. It’s all freed her up to get stuck into the job more, as well as take care of herself a little more too.
And what were some of those “I’ve never thought of it like that” moments? We both needed patience and focus to allow them to come forward. Kate captured them as they did and they included the following:
I accept the enormity of change and the impact it has.
I can relate the processes involved in my old job to the new role.
The concept of being an ‘expert’ is being challenged in all walks of life, including that of student support. I hadn’t realised how attached to that I have been. In my new role I am more like a ‘pioneer’ than an ‘expert’.
I cannot predict what is going to work with the new role. By definition it is always breaking new ground with the development of technology and its use. There is unlikely to be a map for this role. That’s ok.
When change happens you are not only dealing with your own anxiety but the anxiety of other people too.
Warm up activities are important to be able to study part time. Sharing the MA research at first and second draft lowers the stakes – it doesn’t have to be perfect.
Exploring and adventure are important to me personally but my confidence has been knocked by personal circumstances in recent years. The new role offers opportunity for such exploration within my job.
Kate’s post coaching reflections
When you have been doing the same role for a long time everything becomes second nature and you don’t even think about it anymore. It can become more like a process and a routine particularly when you are busy and under pressure. The transition of moving to something new has really reminded me of learning to drive. At first I just wanted to get in the car and drive straight off. This initial excitement then changed to feeling completely overwhelmed with everything you need to think about and there are many aspects of driving you are not in control of, but with lessons, practice, time and experience you can do it without thinking.
My initial excitement of taking on a new role soon changed to a feeling overwhelmed and threatened not only had my role changed but the whole department. I have had times where I have felt completely frozen and stuck. Having a dedicated time to work with a coach and reflect and discuss these changes has been incredibly valuable as I have been able to consider how to adapt my existing skills and unpick them and apply them in a different way. Whilst this approach works, I have learnt that this doesn’t always happen straight away and when you try to force the ideas they don’t come.
Coping with changes in my new role has highlighted the importance of accepting that you don’t always get it right straight away. Being willing to accept that some things work and some things don’t has at times felt uncomfortable, but that is what change does. Change makes you re-evaluate what you do and the coaching has allowed me to explore what I do, how I do it and think about what could potentially be more effective. The coaching has provided the opportunity to discuss obstacles and come to solutions in the moments of being stuck.
Change has also reminded me that when we are doing something new it takes more energy and will take longer, and that taking that into consideration is important when simple tasks take longer than expected. Coaching has helped me to identify the importance of building momentum and making time for this to happen.
Education and learning are constantly changing and my role is no different. The skills I have developed over the last 11 years are still incredibly valuable. Through coaching I have learnt how these can be re-applied in new ways and can be duplicated albeit in a different format. There is no map or structure to my new role it is constantly in development.
What the coaching process has done is to help me to re-establish my strengths, skills and identify the processes I used in my old role and enabled me to re-apply these to my new role. Communication was and is key both in my old job role and new role, but the delivery has changed.
Coaching has taught me is that you will need to accept that there will be rocky patches with change but if you take the time out to think this through and have a sincere motivation to make a difference or improve something you will find a way to make it work.
Carol’s post coaching reflections
I believe that Sarah’s coaching has helped us at a number of levels. As a newcomer to the institution and the directorate, I wanted to demonstrate early on my commitment to the team – as individuals and as a group. This matters to me and is part of my core belief in the value of servant leadership. Servant leaders are not ‘subservient’, but alongside providing vision and direction, they care about healing, empathy, community and the development and growth of others. This resonates with coaching approaches and having worked with Sarah before, including as a coachee, I felt sure that we could help Kate through her challenges.
As she has progressed through the coaching process, I have seen Kate gain confidence in her ability to properly accept and indeed to welcome the opportunities provided by the many changes. Her work and creativity have blossomed. She has always been an asset to the university, but I believe that her new recognition of herself as a ‘pioneer’ is the major difference. This has impacted on her identity, boosted her self-esteem and energised her and others around her. Higher Education is becoming more turbulent, and Kate’s learning is made even more valuable as it will transfer to future diverse and unknown situations.