In a tale from 2029, coach ‘Roger’ reflects on his 25-year coaching career and how coaching has evolved and thrived since the cost cutting, ‘more with less’ era of the first 15 years of the 21st century.
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”Albert Einstein
“Thanks Roger. You’ve done it again. I can really see now where my assumptions were causing us to get stuck. Amazing.”
“You’re welcome Pete. Glad I could help. Have a good Christmas. Bye now.”
Smiling, I realise that in our 90 minutes of coaching, I only asked 5 questions. The rest of the time was taken by Pete exploring his own thinking and those assumptions. As I end the holo-call and push my chair back, the 3D image of Pete in his office 6,000 miles away fades from view.
I have half an hour until my important visitor arrives. I’ve reserved this time for reflection because today is a special day for two reasons, the first that it’s exactly 25 years since I completed my first ever coaching course. A course that changed my life.
Reflecting back over those 25 years to 2004, when it had seemed to me that my employer, Amesteo’s, focus on processes, compliance and cost reduction conflicted with their goal of increasing innovation. Process and regulations were discouraging independent thinking and putting more and more emphasis on “Doing more with less”. Some cynical people said that simply meant doing more for less pay.
Back then, my old boss Kate, with “her hair on fire”, had tried to fulfill roles that had previously been done by three people. Her punishing schedule of meetings and conference calls made it almost impossible to get anything done. People had no time to complete actions between calls. They rarely even listened on those calls, getting on with their email while speakers repeated and vigorously defended their pre-existing opinions. Original thinking wasn’t welcome.
Kate had suggested that I attend the course on coaching so that, together, we could raise leadership standards. That first course had been eye-opening as we practised coaching by exploring what really mattered to us. Afterwards, I had felt that I could change the world, one person at a time, by helping them to re-evaluate what success meant for them and asking powerful questions to identify their goals and ways to achieve them.
Bursting with enthusiasm, I had embarked on a campaign to convert the world to coaching. Kate and I created programmes to help Amesteo’s managers coach their team members, but few of them really ‘got’ it. Most saw it as being asked to do even more: when would they have the time? Coaching became remedial, a form of punishment. ‘Can I give you some coaching?’ meant ‘Can I tell you what you did wrong?’ Very few people used coaching to help the good become better.
As my experience grew, I noticed that some clients relied on me to ask the right, powerful question. I was setting the agenda. No longer was ‘the client the expert on their own life’. Whenever this happened, the likelihood of my client achieving their goals diminished. Somehow, my questions were starting the client on a path for which they were not ready. My questions were short-circuiting their learning journey.
The generative power of listening
And then came two moments of epiphany. In 2010, I nearly fell off my chair laughing at a story in Professor David Clutterbuck’s 2009 article, ‘The Liberated Coach’ in which he describes how the coach:
“…corralled the client into articulating a goal, then ploughed relentlessly on into the R of GROW until the client stopped the conversation, paused and said:
“Actually, my real issue is that I don’t feel I have a purpose in my life any more”. The coach nodded sympathetically.
“That’s really interesting. I wish we had time to explore that. But let’s park it and focus on the issue we started with…”
That jolt of self-recognition was a wake-up call. Was I trapped in coaching process?
My second clarion call had arrived in ‘Time to Think’ by Nancy Kline (1998). Her arguments for helping people to ‘think well’ resonated with my intuitive understanding. Whether it was called generative listening or attention or presence, what really made coaching transformational was the Coach’s ability to listen. Listening created space for clients to slow down and think for themselves.
At the Time to Think courses, I was embarrassed to find how hard it was to stop asking questions and offering suggestions. It was as if just listening diminished my value as a Coach. After all, anybody could ‘just listen’. And yet very few people did. People didn’t listen in meetings. They were either not present or interrupted each other constantly. Typically, they were far too busy rehearsing what they wanted to say to actually listen to what the speaker was saying.
As I practised being really present by listening without judgment, my clients achieved new levels of insight. Prompted by silence and by simple, gentle questions they became more aware of what their heart and body were telling them. Intuition and somatic awareness enriched their rational thinking. In meetings, once they had stopped interrupting and really listened to each other, they could let go of old patterns of thought. They collaborated and innovated.
By the end of 2011, impassioned by my new discoveries about how to really engage people’s thinking, I launched once again on my mission to change the world: A world that had become even more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, following the meltdown in the banking industry. Surely, in this climate, companies would want to unleash the full power of their peoples’ thinking?
Working with a few like-minded colleagues, it had been an uphill struggle. Scarcity thinking meant that fear and money were still used as the way to bully people to work even harder. But light was dawning. Late in 2013, the CIPD reported a peak in job-seeking, with 24% of staff actively seeking new jobs, while trust and confidence in senior managers had dipped to a two-year low. By the spring of 2014, only 35% of staff felt engaged at work. Newspaper articles claimed that ‘Work-related stress had soared by 40% and absentee rates by 25%’ and were costing business astronomical sums.
Post Industrial reality
Today (2029), in our post-industrial economy, we know that original thinking, purpose and autonomy are what really create value in successful companies.
For us, the turning point had arrived 14 years ago, early in 2015. We received an enquiry from Zared, a company concerned about their talent shortfall in the new economy, where knowledge and building relationships were what mattered. With Baby Boomers retiring and new entrants to the job market disillusioned, Zared needed to attract and engage graduates. With a background of gap years, graduates would only work for firms which gave them autonomy and with whom they shared purpose. They weren’t willing to be a cog in an industrial machine. Their decisions depended on the ‘Why?’ of an employer as much as the money. Social media let candidates check out the real culture and values of potential employers. Anodyne company statements and bold claims about espoused values were quickly unmasked and discredited. Zared became the first of many organisations we worked with who attracted talent by proving that they lived their values: that they listened. Even more importantly, they valued their people.
The shift became a flood in 2020, when a joint study by MIT and Oxford again showed the powerful correlation between valuing people and the value of a company. Reinforced by the growing evidence from neuroscience showing how fear and stress reduce thinking ability, market analysts and even the most conservative board members had insisted that people be treated better.
With growing awareness of the importance of giving people time and space to think better and collaborate more effectively, my colleagues and I had begun a period of prolonged success. Open sharing of new thinking led to new initiatives emerging from our coaching for teams who were working on complex, intractable, multi-stakeholder issues. Whether I was coaching a leader one-on-one, or facilitating a large group, I knew that being fully present, slowing things down and allowing silence for reflection helped them to create their own break-through solutions. Often, these solutions seemed to arise from their ability to connect to a ‘group consciousness’ as they let go of their habitual thinking and thought anew.
Meanwhile, Amesteo had ploughed on unchanged like an industrial express train, until, in 2024, they finally hit the buffers. Continual focus on cost-cutting had stalled their growth, but overstating their expected earnings had driven the final nail into the CEO’s coffin. My old boss, Kate, took over, and called to ask me to lead the change of culture that would show the world that Amesteo was different. She wanted every manager to coach by being present. She knew her company had to listen generatively: to its people, to its customers and to its stakeholders. She was determined to unleash the creativity and passion of everybody at Amesteo.
The last five years have been a challenging and exhilarating ride as together we have ridden the emotional roller-coaster of coaching Amesteo’s new board and facilitating company-wide discussions about Amesteo’s purpose. Being present, or listening without judgement, is at the core of everything we do. Small wonder then that I feel entitled to smile after my latest coaching session with Pete, Amesteo’s newly-promoted Finance VP.
And then my smile re-doubles, for running down the driveway is the second reason that today is important. My important visitor. My six-year old grand-daughter, Elysia, has arrived for Christmas, carrying the presents she has made at school. I turn off technology gratefully, with no concerns about what I might miss. 2014 seems like the bad old days.
Picking up her presents, I head downstairs to listen to my grand-daughter’s tales.
CIPD Employee Outlook (Autumn 2013)
CIPD Employee Outlook (Spring 2014) Clutterbuck, David. (2009). “The Liberated Coach.”, David Clutterbuck Partnership
Kline, Nancy (1998). “Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind”, Cassell Illustrated
Houdmont, J., Kerr, R., Addley, K. (2012). “Psychosocial factors and economic recession: the Stormont Study”, Journal of Occupational Medicine
Note: The companies and individuals referenced in this story are entirely fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to any organisation, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
I would like to thank Val Andrews for her support as critical friend during the writing of this story.
About the author
Dave Loewy spent most of his career in global IT and Communication companies. He now works with organisations to develop their people using a combination of executive coaching, facilitation and bespoke workshops. Dave helps leaders to create high performing and aligned teams, inspire change, and motivate people to achieve sustainable success.
Dave uses a range of approaches in his facilitation. He trained as a Lego Serious Play® facilitator and as a “Time to Think” coach and facilitator. He is a certified NLP Coach and Master Practitioner and a member of the Association for Coaches. You can contact Dave via E: email@example.com.