Steve Onyett and colleagues explain how to use solution focused coaching to increase leadership capacity

The underpinning of change in the NHS now includes subsidiarity: the practice of making sure the right people make decisions at the right level, and ideally as close to patients as possible.

This means finding new ways to bring out the leadership capacity of a wider range of staff. Too often people feel they have to keep their heads down and work on the assumption that the real authority to bring about change lies elsewhere - usually above them.

If subsidiarity is to become a reality we need to develop ways of helping managers support their staff in learning to thrive with their problems

Coaching can support people to develop their leadership capacity, wherever they sit in their local systems and whatever their sources of authority. Coaching among peers can further unlock this potential.

Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership Trust commissioned the Centre for Solutions Focus at Work to introduce a cohort of managers to a solution focused way of thinking and working with others that could roll out through the organisation through a process of peer coaching.

After a two day workshop, senior staff from the trust began using coaching in their roles. They also received six months of support including external coaching and regular supervision sessions.

The managers reported that they spent less time on problems and why “it’s not fair”, a decrease in anxiety and an increase in ability and action. They also noted a “ripple effect on peers and colleagues”.

A notable example was the way staff no longer took on the colleagues’ problems. We all experience the “monkey on our back” at work. The danger is the strong temptation to solve problems as they are delivered rather than investing the little extra time and technique to help others develop the capacity to tackle the issue themselves.

One example is staff ringing the on-call manager wanting them to deal with an “urgent” situation. A coaching response is to help those whose problem it is to think through the situation and respond, rather than instantly seeking external advice.

If subsidiarity is to become a reality we need to develop ways of helping managers support their staff in learning to thrive with their problems. Learning not to take other people’s monkeys is also a key element of effective leadership - and effective coaching.

A solution focused approach brings a clear focus on what is working rather than what is wrong. It is a refreshing change from the dispiriting and ultimately unproductive analysis paralysis associated with unpicking causes.

Being solution focused is about finding a “better” direction to move in and small doable steps rather than huge and unachievable action plans. Working with small steps is particularly valuable in times of turbulence and limited resources.

The power of helping everyone to nudge things along and ride the waves of change was seen by staff as a refreshing alternative to more deficit based approaches to improvement. At Avon and Wiltshire it enabled managers to harness the power of seeing things in a more positive light. The issues stay where they belong but they are so much easier to live with.


Tips for unlocking leadership capacity

  • Get good at “not taking the monkey” off people’s backs and support people without taking their responsibilities
  • Develop your skills in noticing when people have done a good job and make sure they know you have noticed
  • Help people look for “useful change” in the right direction and build on it
  • Recognise the value of small steps - in living systems they can often have a big effect
  • Trust people to do a great job - unless and until experience tells you otherwise


Tips for dealing with your own issues rather than relying on your boss to resolve them

  • Remember why you ever wanted to do this job in the first place. Tell people, including your boss
  • Be clear about what you are trying to achieve - and the first small signs of progress
  • Consider what you know works well for you in similar situations. What are the best strengths that you can bring into play?
  • Take a small step, try things out and make sure the learning is captured, whatever happens.
  • Be prepared to ask for input from your manager and others - they may have helpful know-how for you to use (rather than them doing it for you)
  • Negotiate a level of authority that is commensurate with your responsibilities