The challenge of coaching in crisis years

What roles can coaching play in the middle of a financial crisis and how ?

On October 11th, I went to a meeting in the presence of a panel of senior bankers and an audience ofexecutive coaches who have experience of working in the City.

The theme was: “Where were all the coaches when the banks went down?”

This is the title of a recently published book by John Bakley and Ian Day. The meeting was organized by Jennifer Spalding, independent HR/OD Consultant and Executive Coach. It took place in Canary Wharf, London, at Barclays on 30th floor, with a magnificent view on glass buildings and the river.
John Bakley and Ian Day very interestingly presented their book; this was followed by a passionate and constructive debate starting with the question: in this crisis period, is coaching still the best way of intervention, on what conditions, can it influence the world at large?
The following are the main points which stood out for me from John and Ian’s conference, and from the debate between the bankers and the coaches.

About ten years ago, in the boom years, coaching appeared as “mainstream” in large international firms.

At that time, and to make it short, the approach to coaching was globally non directive, focused on the coachee’s agenda and built on a strong relationship between the coach and the coachee. Globally, coaching sessions were an easy activity, sometimes small talk, with low tension, and mainly supportive to the coachee.

IN THE CRISIS YEARS we are going through, this traditional approach has proved to be limited, mostly because focusing on the coachee’s agenda offers narrow perspectives and also the risk of self obsession.
To-day in the crisis years, the roles of the coach are different.

1) It makes it a lot easier when the coach has a knowledge of the professional context of the coachee and his/her organization, in this case a good understanding of the banking language, landscape, kind of leadership, the complexity, the amount of bureaucracy, etc.

Being myself a coach and an economist specialized in monetary, banking and financial matters at International and European level is a great advantage when coaching bankers.

2) Coaching is no longer so much a two-way process between coach and coachee, with a light participation of the “prescriber” at the beginning and at the end of the process.
It is becoming more and more a multi-way process involving many stakeholders, for instance coachee and coach as usual, and also line manager, HRD, etc. They are the persons in the firm who have an interest in the success of the coaching process, and therefore should be held accountable for its results, for reaching its goals.

3) It seems that to-day more than ever, the point for the coach is to find a fair balance between supporting and challenging the coachee.
For the coachee, being over-supported leads to a risk of cosy and comfortable talk; being under- challenged may lead to inertia; being over-challenged conveys a risk of high stress and tension, of damaging the relationship.

4) Giving the coachee challenging feedbacks not only develops his/her self-awareness, but is also an example for the coachee when he has to announce bad news.

5) The coach must accept tensions in the relationship when he confronts the coachee, and resist the temptation of rescuing the coachee when it feels uncomfortable. What is at stake is to pass from a “zone of comfortable debate” to a “zone of uncomfortable debate”, to get to “the heart of the matter”.

6) Broadening the coachee’s outlook is the most important to me. John and Ian call it “Systems thinking”. Everything is interconnected to everything else (cf the butterfly effect). We have to know the possible effects of what we do; in particular, the coachee has to be aware of the impact of his actions on his near and further environment, in the short term as well as in a longer run. So the coach should ask non judgment inducing questions: what are the possible effects of your actions on your line manager, on your team, on the organization, on your family, on the economy of your country, on the functioning of the world … So that the coachee gets a bigger picture.

Is it the coach’s job in large international firms to influence the environment?

The question remains open, although in my opinion, when ethics and strategy are at stake, the answer is yes: it’s certainly their role to develop the coachee’s (and other stakeholders) self awareness, and to help him/her/them address ethics and strategy.

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