Episode 140: The Coaching Cure, part 2: The Coachee

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. 

This time, the second of two shows looking at women and the coaching industry.

How does a client pick a good coach?

“Even if somebody has all the certifications they still might not be very good, or they might be great. They might not have any certifications and they might be brilliant.”

And once you have chosen someone, you want that investment to work out.

“If you are paying more money, for the most part people tend to take things more seriously. They tend to trust the advice more, and they also tend to be more likely to follow through on it.”

Which is all very well if the coach is effective and ethical.

And we follow up on a coachee’s first experience of being coached at work.

“Getting curious about my emotions at work has changed the way I experience work, because it’s helped me be less emotional and diffuse the emotion that can pile up if I don’t address it.”

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

 So last time you heard the first of a two-part show on the coaching industry, and that show focused on the coaches themselves. If you haven’t heard that episode I recommend you start there – this show will just make a bit more sense if you listen to that one first.

Now I said last time that I have had a lot of questions about the coaching industry. I’ve wondered why it’s been growing so fast, why so many women are involved both as coaches and clients, and frankly I’ve wondered if some of it isn’t just too good to be true – self-improvement jargon sold to people who want change in some aspect of their lives.  

That said I’m also genuinely curious about what coaching can potentially do.  

You first met Anne Libby in a show that came out at the beginning of last year called A Year For Women. And you heard me teasing her newsletter in a promotion on a recent show. Now Anne is a management expert and consultant on all things management. I had a feeling she would have noticed the growth of coaching as an occupation, and I was right. In fact, it turns out she’s trained as a coach herself, even if she doesn’t coach that often. She says when it comes to the growing numbers of coaches out there…

“There are no barriers to entry. You know, I mean you can get a WordPress website up and running or you know a Squarespace or whatever, in less than three hours. You know, buy a domain name, put your coaching website up there and you're open for business. Now that doesn't mean that you're gonna be able to run it as a business. And again, like why are more women doing this? Because I also think that the path to feeling certified at it, which would be the next step, to get some training and whatnot, is something that we are attracted to. We want to be the best at school. And it's a prescribed series of steps that you can take in order to theoretically be able to do something like this as part of your living, or as a living.”

Not to mention the desire to help other people using your own hard won experience.

Still she says when she started working in banking in the ‘80s, helping employees grow and reach their potential…it was a given. Something that happened on the job.

“Coaching was a thing that your manager did for you. It wasn't like there was a coaching engagement. It wasn't like there was a separate person who was going to coach you. I would say sometimes I probably got coaching from H.R. executives as well. Having a problem employee, how should I handle this? I've never had to deal with this before. How should I handle it? So you've got coaching from a variety of people in an organization…”

But these days…

“… because corporations have skinnied out their sort of cadre of middle managers and H.R. exacts for that matter, the kind of people who were functionally coaching and developing me…”

Are just not there in the same numbers. The journalism site Pro Publica has been looking at the numbers of people in their 50s being laid off and not being able to find another, permanent job in the US workforce. Anne works with young leaders in her consulting practice, but she suspects there are far fewer 50 and 60-somethings around today to provide the kind of on-site coaching she got as a young employee.    

“And yet this seasoning that you get between age 40 and age 55 both in life and beyond, in life and in your professional experience is a rich thing to bring to younger people and share with them. And the expectation back in the day was you would do that. And people did do that. People invested hundreds and thousands of hours in helping me to develop as a manager.”

“I have not really had that experience with managers in my career. There have been very few people who have coached me while I worked for them.”

That’s Danielle Sauve. She started working in the early 2000s. You met her at the end of the last show and in a few minutes we’ll hear what happened during her own coaching engagement. But to Anne’s point, Danielle says that kind of encouraging, open relationship with a manager isn’t anything she’s ever had.  

And the reason for that isn’t just down to the fact there are fewer middle managers than there used to be. You heard Terry Maltbia of Columbia University’s coaching program in the last show. He says the workplace has changed in many ways in the last few decades…

“As I observe what’s happening in the world of work, most recently 2008, but I noticed even from the early 80s when I started work to the 90s to the early 2000s that with each passing decade there were fewer and fewer resources and focus on development, people and human and organizational development.  A lot of that was being outsourced. There were fewer and fewer internal resources for developing managers, developing people therefore, and so I think what has happened, is, one of the things that makes coaching popular is it’s filling a void.” 

Perhaps especially for women. A few of you have brought this up with me. You’ve pointed out women traditionally haven’t had a lot of mentorship, or sponsorship. They haven’t had as many people looking out for them at work as their male colleagues. So no wonder we look to outside sources for support and advice.

And I’ll add to that and say I bet coaching is also meeting a need for independent workers like me. Huge numbers of people today are not traditionally employed…many of us are freelance or own our own businesses. We’re on our own. We don’t have a manager or a colleague to consult if we’re flailing around in our careers. In previous reporting I’ve done I spoke to a small business owner who swore by her coach. She said without that person to hold her to account and keep her on track, her business just would not be as successful.

But how do any of us who are paying for our own coach – how do we choose the right person? Conventional wisdom says you should check the coach has certifications. But Terry Maltbia of Columbia University told me none of the coaches who teach on his prestigious coaching program have certificates. They’ve been it as too long. Before there were many training programs out there. Plus, nowadays there are so many training programs, so many different certificates, it’s dizzying. Anne agrees.

“Even if somebody has all the certifications they still might not be very good, or they might be great. They might not have any certifications and they might be brilliant. I mean I think the most important thing is that if you are thinking about engaging with somebody who calls themself a coach they should be able to explain their process to you. They should be able to answer questions for you about what you are going to get out of it. The coach should be able to tell you how you will spend time together and what kind of work you will be doing during that time and what kind of work you'll be doing in the off hours, and in the case of people who are being coached through their workplaces, there should be a transparent and clear idea of how the different stakeholders will be involved in the entire process of coaching. That’s what I would say to anybody who is thinking about getting a coach who's cynical about it, because there are good coaches out there and you can have good results from it. But if you are discouraged from asking questions about how the coach plans for you to achieve those results and what those results will be and look like, then you probably should move on to the next one and you should probably be allowed to talk to people who’ve work with that coach as well, not just the reference on the website, but to actually talk with them.”

The International Coach Federation urges people to interview at least three coaches before you decide on one to work with. I will link you to their checklist under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

Christine Whelan is a clinical professor in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Among other things, she’s a longtime researcher on the self-help industry.

I got on the phone with her recently. She says coaching can be a great experience, but there are some caveats.  

“The danger with coaching that I think is also a danger of self-help in general is that after a certain point, you have done the work with the client that you know how to do. And then of course you want to keep working with them. Then you may overreach in terms of what your skill set allows you to do. So when a coach who does not have a psychotherapy background or a marriage and family therapy background oversteps into realms that they're really not qualified to talk about there could be some detrimental results. Now on the other hand think about the close friendships you have. Most of the time our best friends can often act as our coaches and we full well know that they have no official expertise in a lot of the things they're saying. But good advice from somebody who is simply listening and reflecting back to you is very valuable as well.”

Christine isn’t surprised that coaching has become such a part of workplace culture. 

“For centuries, and probably millennia, the most powerful and elite have always had coaches. If you think about elite athletes, if you think about successful business folks at the highest echelons, having somebody who can be your sounding board, having somebody who can offer you advice on your ascent to power is really very, very valuable. So I think two things happened in the last 15 or so years. There has been a democratization of that process to try to bring coaching to as many people as possible, to make it more affordable, to make it less and less of something that is only offered within the C suite and something that is more for everybody. And then there is also the element of a more potentially business socially acceptable approach to self-improvement. So yes, this is where it does intersect with self-help a bit. There are many men in particular who would not be caught dead reading a self-help book, but they would be happy to tell you that they're meeting with their coach.” 

And another thing that’s interesting about our relationship with a coach versus say, a self-help book…is the price difference, and how that affects our behavior.

“So in behavioral psychology we look at this as credible and costly commitments to behavior change. So if you are buying a ten dollar book that is a lower cost commitment to actually changing your behavior than if you are paying up to several thousand dollars for a one on one coaching session, and if you are paying more money, for the most part people tend to take things more seriously. They tend to trust the advice more. They also tend to be more likely to follow through on it because otherwise you're just throwing money down the drain.” 

She says this isn’t always true of course. Think of all the gym memberships that start in January and then it’s direct debit for months, often with little use. But on the whole she says if we pay for a seminar or hire a coach we’re gonna be much keener to incorporate what we learn into our lives.

And that’s great, IF the relationship is healthy and the coach sticks to ethical practices. But it’s not so good if a coachee is vulnerable and desperate for help and picks a coach who wants to make a sale - but doesn’t have their best interests at heart. And this does sometimes happen. Christine says any client should be wary of a coach who has a ‘my way or the highway’ approach. For anyone looking to invest in any type of self-help-related activity, she recommends checking out a site called Seek Safely – she’s on the board on the organization.

“So yes, it can absolutely prey on vulnerable people. All industries can. But if we have some of these guidelines to educate consumers, to help consumers ask and answer the questions about whether they are being kept safe emotionally and physically in the process, then I think we can really minimize a lot of the shysters out there and their effect on people.”

And there’s no indication that our interest in coaching is going away. Almost everyone wants to live a better life, be a better person at home and at work. And Christine says talking about that is more acceptable than it’s ever been.

“There are some fundamental assumptions that we have that are very different than those our great grandparents would have had, which is that everybody has problems and it's not bad to have problems but it's bad to not talk about them, that by acknowledging your problems you are a stronger, a better person and we should all really be open talk about our challenges and work toward improving them. Really this is part of the air we breathe now to the point where when I lay these before my students they say, well of course that's true. And so often I try to send them back to their oldest living relatives, to ask them whether that relative would indeed say, of course that's true. And they come back rather perplexed when they say, Well, my great grandmother said no, you shouldn't talk about your problems and you should always put on a face of competency and just go about your work and don't think too much about it. And they were just utterly perplexed that anybody would have such an idea.

So yes, we have had a real cultural change in terms of how we look at personal improvement. When I did my doctoral work on the self-help industry I showed in numeric terms that self-help books have doubled as a percentage of all books in print in the United States since 1970. There is a huge interest out there and coaching and all the, the rise of so many different kinds of coaches of all walks of life, that’s a product of that as well.”

Christine Whelan.  

In a minute we find out what happened when Danielle Sauvé took up her company’s offer of leadership coaching.  Stay tuned.  

When she was in her twenties Danielle Sauvé had been hoping for a life in theater – her job as an assistant in marketing, it was just that. A job. She definitely was not leaning in.  

“I haven’t been the kind of person to ever plan a quote-unquote career. For me working was for many years just a day job and then I realized I had to double down in one area of my life and not spread myself so thin, and so started to put more effort and commitment into my work…but I never planned any of those moves, I may have had ideas, and I may have said to the CEO in the elevator once, I’d love to work for you one day, and he took me up on that. But for me that’s not a plan, that’s an opportunistic move.”

So she’s beavering away at a good marketing job at a big company in the Midwest. And one day a senior woman she admires offers to fix her up with an executive coach. She’s starting a pilot program to coach promising women, and she thinks Danielle has a lot of potential. Danielle thinks, sure, why not?

AM-T: “Just one thing I want to check on…was this coaching, was it presented to you as we’re offering this in part to help you serve the company better? Like the new, improved you will be a better worker?” VOICE

“No, it was never about helping me serve the company better. That was made clear to me from the beginning and as part of the objectives of our pilot, the company recognized it was taking a risk specifically by developing women who were leaders, and giving them more tools or developing them as people to be better leaders, period. That to me is definitely very important. Another way they put it in the pitch, was that coaching is really aimed at women navigating all the stress they’re feeling when they’re in a workplace because they have so many more stresses typically with domestic duties and family responsibilities than men experience in the workplace, not to mention any type of discrimination or harassment they may be facing.”

So Danielle starts sessions with her coach, a woman called Annie. They have an hour call once every two weeks. And once she starts talking about work with her coach, her coach begins to challenge her on some of the ways she’s been thinking.   

“The best thing for me was identifying the inner critic which is that little voice in your head that tells you careful, your skirt might be too short, or did you forget to brush your teeth this morning? Anything that makes you feel less than up to the task of the day. Realizing, for me, that that little voice is something that I can turn off or ignore, and it’s not something that’s helping me so I should not listen to it, was really helpful in boosting my confidence and helping me feel like I was less emotionally susceptible to the things that happened to me at the office whether that was receiving feedback I didn’t want to get, or bad news, or extra work, or someone slighting me. By learning to quiet that voice, and remind myself of truths about my capabilities and my skills, that really was what changed the way I started to interact with my colleagues, and my boss, and even the people that reported to me.”

For example, she approached her boss one day and started asking about what might come next for her at the company. Something she’d never done in the past. 

“I simply got curious about what a next move might mean for me and I said so how does this work, do I need to wait to be tapped on the shoulder by you to say Danielle, we think there’s something else we think the business needs you to do that would be more valuable for the business? Or do I need to tell you I would like to do something new and here are some ideas I have, I’m not unhappy, I just need to know how this works. And I don’t think I would even have had this conversation if I had not gone through this coaching. Because I would have just waited for something to come to me. So to me that was a big change. And I’ll give you one more example. I think this coaching has made me much more aware of my feelings and helped me stop just pushing aside my feelings, my emotions, that I think many women are told to do at the office, just put your feelings aside, it’s not about how you feel…but instead by using the opposite approach of why do I feel these feelings, why do I feel so overwhelmed right now, what is bothering me, did someone say something to me, am I really upset about this thing? Getting curious about my emotions at work has changed the way I experience work, because it’s helped me be less emotional and diffuse the emotion that can pile up if I don’t address it. So I actually get way fewer headaches than I used to have, I used to get headaches every week. Which is a real benefit honestly for my quality of life. So that would be a big thing.”

She says as well helping to lower her stress levels, the coaching helped her become more honest with herself about what she wanted…and that led to becoming more honest with other people as well.

“As a mom of four it’s very easy to not think of myself as the main thing – like I have all these responsibilities and obligations, oh, the laundry’s not done, there are so many ways to fill my mind with things I should be doing, or things I should want, all these other people’s expectations. The idea that I need to pay attention to my emotions and be honest with people about how I’m feeling and what I do want. There have been managers in my past who have asked well, what do you want to do?”

And she never had a good answer for them. She just wasn’t used to focusing on…her.

But she’s getting used to it, and that played out recently in a big way. She was approached with an offer to take on a new role.  

“…and I wasn’t actually very excited about it and I really couldn’t hide it because it was all over my face. But because of the coaching I was able to reframe the conversation and help the person making me the offer to see my perspective and in the past I might have just said OK, I’ll take that role and I’ll do what you want me to do even though it could feel like a step back or like I might not be learning something or I might not be very happy. And instead I was honest with the person giving me this offer and said, I just don’t think I would really learn anything but what about these other two ideas. So I suggested a couple of things I thought I would really enjoy to do. And one of them was a really big move for me. And he didn’t like the one, but he did like the other, he liked the big move for me, and that’s what I’m doing. So now I’ll be a vice president, I’ll be on the executive team, I’ll be the first female business leader on the executive team, next to HR, and that’s a really, really big move for me, I’m moving from managing a team of a couple of people in strategy into real operational management for marketing, with  a team of close to 40 people…and it’s in another country!”

Danielle and her entire family – husband, 4 kids, the eldest is a teenager, they’re moving to Belgium this summer, where her new job will be based. And she’s not sure any of this would have happened without the confidence she gained during coaching.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. Thanks to Danielle Sauvé, Anne Libby, Terry Maltbia and Christine Whelan for being my guests on this show. Thanks also to Abby Heverin of the International Coach Federation for answering my endless questions via email.  

I will be posting show notes under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com because there’s actually some stuff about coaching we didn’t get to in these shows, believe it or not. And I’d love to hear about your experience of coaching. You can email me via the website or tweet me or post on the Facebook page.

Thanks again to all those of you who have contributed to this one-woman show. If you can afford to give 50 bucks I will send you the official Broad Experience T-shirt. Ladies cut. You can view that on the website.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.