At a social gathering a little while back, upon learning that I’m a Career and Leadership Coach, a family friend remarked, “how can someone who is in the middle of their career expect to coach others around leadership?” It was less of a question, really, and more of a statement of opinion. I chose not to respond because it felt like I’d just be defending myself against uninformed criticism.
Nonetheless, his question niggled at me (as criticism is wont to do) – not because I doubt my capacity to coach leaders or that somehow I can’t add value at this stage in my life. Rather, it got me thinking about why I do love coaching and what it’s all about for me and my clients, and where I can see its tremendous value.
Fundamentally, coaching is about change. When career transition clients approach me, typically seeking clarity and direction for their way forward, it’s often because something is changing inside of them and they’re experiencing an uncomfortable tension and mismatch between their circumstances and who they are becoming. Maybe they’re no longer willing to take orders and keep their ideas to themselves; they want to be able to speak up, be heard and be recognized for their unique perspectives and experience. They want support as they integrate what’s changing inside of them so that they can be in a position to choose what comes next in a responsive, purposeful way. Of course, they don’t always express it like that at first. They often present with a wide-eyed, “get me out of this madness” kind of attitude, and understandably so.
Fundamentally, coaching is about change.
The leaders I coach face somewhat different challenges yet at the core it’s about change for them as well. They are often in a new position and struggling to find their way – and who they are and need to be – in their role. Or they want to be strategic about their teams and direction and need a sounding board for their thoughts and ideas, and to surface any limiting beliefs that may be holding them back. The most fun is when these leaders drop away from their focus on actions and words and start seeing the bigger opportunities for themselves to be fully present to whatever is happening, to accept reality without resisting, and to begin working with what is going on, becoming at peace with themselves in this process.
in order to support these people in the best way I can, I study change in all its forms. I study (and teach) coaching theory, I study and facilitate creativity, I study and facilitate mindfulness in response to constant change, I study myself in change so that I have a better chance of relating to others. I also study immunity to change, an enlightening concept put forth by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey in their book, “Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.” The premise for immunity to change is that the reason we can get stuck in our habits, unable to move forward in a different, better way, is because we have a hidden, underlying commitment to what our habitual behavior is providing us and we are unwilling to give that up.
For example, say you are stuck in your work. You’re no longer satisfied in the way you once were, you’re frustrated and chafing at the bit to have greater influence and impact on the way your company is moving forward, and to have a voice at the decision table. You know you have to speak up more, yet you don’t – or when you do, it’s in a less than ideal way. You know you should also be networking to learn about other opportunities, yet you can’t bring yourself to reach out and make those meetings happen. You berate yourself for being lazy, procrastinating, and weak. It becomes an endless cycle of doubt and eroding self-confidence.
Instead of thinking to yourself, “why am I not doing these things?” the question you need to be asking yourself, according to Kegan and Lahey, is, “how is staying stuck serving me? What am I more committed to than creating positive change in my work?” The answer will be different for everyone however it could be that by not speaking up or networking, you are more committed to keeping yourself safe and at less risk of being hurt by the possibility of rejection in either circumstance. Or you could have a belief that by moving ahead in your career your family and friends may become threatened by your success and so to avoid potential social ostracizing, you choose to keep yourself small.
Ask yourself: “How is staying stuck serving me?”
“What am I more committed to than creating positive change in my work?”
Becoming aware of these hidden beliefs and commitments – without judging them, or yourself for having them – is the first step towards seeing other possibilities and behaving in new ways. And it’s these kinds of conversations that I love having with career changers and leaders because we get to the bottom of what’s really going on together, and they have a real chance of moving forward in a new way.
While I don’t share the same skepticism as my family friend, I do respect the need to understand the true value of coaching, especially if you’re going to coach for a living or if you’re planning to hire a coach. Fundamentally, coaching is about change – change that’s happening inside and around you, and behavioral change that you want and need to make happen so that your work and life keep pace in reflecting the best of who you are and where you’re at now. Coaching requires knowledge and skill around the change process and how to support change in ourselves, and that is just the kind of learning that motivates me most.
For more on Kegan and Lahey’s theory, check out this insightful article that includes a free, downloadable immunity map worksheet.