Elizabeth McGuirk on how teasing out some underlying problems helped a development manager to 'bite the bullet' and involve her team in change plans
L is head of a team that provides an organisational development service to some 4,000 staff in an NHS trust. She has vast experience, strong customer focus and is passionate about good practice and standards. Her department has recently been under a lot of pressure, with recruitment frozen and people on sick leave, leaving the team reliant on temporary staff.
At our initial conversation I asked questions about the structure and focus of her department, to gain an understanding of the context in which she was working.
A lot of time was spent on identifying the most important issue for L. The first one she raised was that the time had come for her to broaden her experience. However, she was concerned that her future prospects would be limited by her lack of formal qualifications and wanted to explore how to address this, particularly as she was about to apply for another position.
She explained that she had attained a qualification equivalent to a Masters. I then asked if there was anything else in this area that she felt was important. She shared her uncertainty about how she would deal with an unsuccessful application, but whether she got the job or not, she felt she would have to help her team with the pressures they were now under.
I asked her to tell me more about this. She described a small team failing to meet much of the required standard. There was a need for her to provide supervision. She also felt guilty about the environment the team had to work in, and the lack of talent development.
By listening, probing and asking "anything else?" at the end of each point, I raised a few more issues.
I then recounted and clarified the different issues and asked which one was of the most interest to her at that time. L said that improving her team's performance was foremost in her mind. What she wanted from the coaching session was to talk about the team and its development.
This part of the process shows how crucial it is to identify the issue causing most concern to the person being coached - and it may not be the topic he or she raises first.
Having established the topic, L's goal was to put structures in place that would improve the effectiveness of the team. I asked what the problems were with the current structures, and found the following:
"The layout of the department gives an appearance of chaos and does not promote the customer focus and the training service for which it is responsible. This department should be 'hassle-free' and be seen to have good standards."
"I am not the best at delegating, and have not made best use of the team, which is a concern as I feel strongly about staff development."
Of these aims, L wanted to focus in this session on the physical environment, as she felt improvements there would make a big difference quickly. I asked her what she thought she could do to effect change. She described how the office could be revamped by use of screening to isolate noisy functions, and by having a front-facing discrete area. She explained how it would look and the technical alterations required.
I pointed out that she seemed to have already given a lot of thought to these changes and asked what had prevented her from carrying out her plans in the past. L explained that she was not good with complex upheaval and was worried that the new layout might not "fit".
I persevered in questioning what she could do now to get over this hurdle. Initially she felt that she just needed to "bite the bullet" and overcome her nervousness.
Asking "anything else you could do that would help?" produced ideas about actions that would involve the staff more, such as seeking technical advice and planning the work to fit with the flow of departmental activity. She also felt that one of the administrative staff could be tasked with the office changes as a project. L believed all these actions were necessary and agreed to put them in place within two weeks.
At our follow-up session, L had implemented all the actions, and her team had reacted well, and enjoyed the involvement. She feels more positive and is optimistic about further change and development. At the end of our sessions, I felt L would condense her learning and be less wary about taking on opportunities.
L's perspective was: "Entering a coaching relationship enabled me to voice my concerns and, importantly, my resolutions.
"Having an unbiased ear to reflect back to me what I was saying gave me the concentration to really overcome some blockages and devise a plan of action.
"The coaching hasn't necessarily solved anything, but it has changed my perspective and approach to the problems I face."
If you would like to take part in the coaching series, email firstname.lastname@example.org .